The church in Quebec finds itself in unprecedented times. For those readers who are unaware, as of December 26, churches have been mandated by the Quebec government to screen visitors of our worship gatherings for proof of Covid-19 vaccination. That means without a “vaccine passport” and photo ID, you are not allowed in. Needless to say, this has become a figurative rogue wave that has rocked the Evangelical boat in the province.
I’ve heard from quite a few pastors and church leaders, and sadly it seems that responses to this mandate are falling all over the spectrum. Some churches have made the call to follow suit with the passport system, others are refusing (most quietly, but some loudly), most churches seem divided on the issue, at both membership and leadership levels, and are thus turning to live-streaming as the only feasible and agreeable option. This lack of unity is lamentable. Scratch that — It’s heartbreaking. Particularly grievous is the division within local churches, and I’ve heard the pain from pastors trying to lead in those circumstances. I want to be clear then that I do not want to be another condemning voice to brothers and sisters trying to navigate this issue in a conflict heavy church. My hope in the article that follows is that as we come to the Word of God, our disagreements over the mandate will fall away leading to a greater sense of unity and co-operation moving forward. Ultimately though, we should be understanding for those churches that have to seek new ways of organizing their worship gatherings in the face of internal conflict, and I do believe that such compromises are possible without forfeiting the unity of the church that these mandates are essentially demanding.
The Situation on the Ground
I’ll place my cards on the table and say that I oppose this mandate, this dividing of the church along the lines of vaccination status. I see this as a clear violation of scripture, which is the final authority for followers of Christ. What I find so lamentable in the mixed response from Evangelicals in Quebec is that it speaks to a very different understanding of what the church is called to be, and thus we as the Church in Quebec, cannot present a unified vision of God’s kingdom community in this broken world that is torn by fear and division.
I believe the lack of unity is also the reason why I’ve heard barely a whisper about this issue from the Christian community here in Quebec. At the time of writing I know one brother who is hard at work preparing an article that I am eagerly awaiting. Other than him, we only have to thank Philip Cotnoir for his two articles denouncing this move. Evangelicals in Quebec are a miniscule bunch, especially once we start splitting up. My hope and prayer is that where numbers lack, God will fill our hearts with courage to stand for His design and purpose for the church. So here is my attempt to say something about why I think the church needs to oppose these measures.
We first need to be honest about one thing, and I have to again thank Cotnoir for making this plain in his second article. By and large a person’s stance on the vaccine passport mandate for churches rests on their view of the whole Covid-19 issue. How much of a risk Covid is, and how well the is government responding are two questions that are dominating this discussion. But as important as these questions are, I don’t think they should influence this particular issue.
Good Division, Bad Division
Division within the church is an issue of paramount importance. We see warnings against people who cause division in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. The letter to the Romans, and first letter to the Corinthians speak out directly against division within their churches. I think most explicit of all is how Paul lists division (hairesis) as a work of the flesh in Galatians 5:20. Not only that he lists two other words that convey division among the church dichostasia (dissension/division) and eritheia (rivalry/selfish ambition). Thus when we talk about dividing the church, we need to tread with fear and trembling for we venture into direct disobedience to God.
But is there ever an appropriate time for division within the church? I know someone at this point will step in to give examples of separating from others in order to obey God. The Bible certainly does speak of instances in which division is not only appropriate but necessary. The common theme of these instances is protecting the call of the Gospel in the world. I explore that issue in the article, When is Division Okay? I want to be clear, this is not one of these instances whereby the continued fellowship of one group will in some way prevent the truth of God’s salvation from being understood, taught, and realized in the world.
Dividing What God United in Christ
The biggest division we see in the Bible is between Jews and Gentiles. While it had its purpose under the Mosaic Covenant, this division was nullified in the death of Jesus on the cross, and throughout the Biblical story of the early church we see how our ancient brothers and sisters painfully wrestled to honour this unification God had ordained. While this issue is significant in Acts, Romans, and Ephesians, it is most prominent in the letter to the Galatians where one faction of the early church was teaching that Gentiles had to adopt Jewish laws (circumcision, & dietary restrictions) to be full members of the church and gain the fullness of salvation. This was a powerful group of people.
In chapter 2 Paul recounts a story of how they even pressured Peter and Barnabas to separate from the Gentile believers while eating, in obedience to the dietary restrictions. The supper table was of utmost significance in the ancient world, and when you shared a meal with someone it spoke volumes about the social relationship you shared with the other. In the early church, where people from all walks of life were coming together, sharing meals was essential to the experience of Christian unity. Here, in Galatians we see this blatantly attacked. It’s no surprise that Paul’s famous verse comes in this letter: “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (Gal 3:28). One in Christ, no distinction of culture, ethnicity, status, or sex that would exclude some from experiencing the full bond of brotherhood and sisterhood of the church in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Another passage that has been brought up is found in the letter from James. In James 2:1-9 he addresses the issue of favouritism being directed at wealthy church members over those who were poor. James’ example in verse 3 is that some were giving preferential seating to the rich, and thus were making distinctions among the church body. This distinction over wealth and status also brings to mind the very divisive Corinthian church, which when celebrating the Lord’s Supper had an opulent feast for the rich and scraps for the poor, (1 Cor 11:17-22).
Can you imagine a church today that would exclude people from its celebrations and ceremonies based on ethnicity, culture, or wealth? It’s in our sinful nature to hold up these distinctions and lift ourselves over one another. Thankfully the church with the power of the Spirit and the Word has continually fought to keep these divisions out. While there have been periods of catastrophic failure, the influence of the church has brought unimaginable unity. I fear though that this new source of distinction is being missed.
In James’ letter the poor were told to sit at the back, or as in 1st Corinthians celebrate a paltry Lord’s Supper. Today, the unvaxxed can worship from home. What exactly is the difference? Refusing access to worship God among the fellowship of believers to the unvaccinated (Recall as well that we are told to frequently come together for fellowship and worship as per Hebrews 10:25), is not the same thing as telling someone who is sick to stay home and come back when they are better. That has been a non-issue every flu season. This mandate excludes people who are perfectly healthy, nor has any end date even been given.
Ultimately this is a human created distinction made in a climate of fear and pressure, and sadly even the church has begun to accept it.
My prayer is that as a Christian community we can find our own sense of unity over this issue, no matter our perspectives on Covid and the many restrictions we’ve endured. If Christ died to unite us all together in Him, how can any gathering of His people that excludes those He united please Him? Division in the church is an offense to God, and this is what this government mandate is calling us to do. May we speak together with one voice, and be a witness to our province and country against the new division that has been growing over the past year. Furthermore, may people see our commitment to God and His design for humanity, and may they then recognize Him and have their hearts changed.
Image: Bruegel’s painting “The Sermon of Saint John”