Pastoral Guidelines and Reflection, Updated October 7, 2021
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge around the world, the deadly virus which started in 2020 keeps infecting and killing millions of people. When the COVID-19 vaccines came out in 2021, Christian responses were diverse. Some are against the vaccines, others favor the vaccines, and there are those who are somewhere in between. The various justifications for these views range from ethical, medical, political, to theological reasons.
On one side of the debate are pro-COVID vaccine Christians. Many believers see the COVID-19 vaccines as a blessing from God amidst this global pandemic crisis. Because science is a God-given enterprise that seeks to understand the order and complexity of God’s creation, Christians can rejoice in the fact that a solution to a widespread disease was investigated by scientists.
For these believers, to get vaccinated is to live in Christ-like servanthood to our communities. Loving our neighbors involves seeking their good. Pro-COVID vaccine Christians understand that no vaccine is 100% safe. However, if getting vaccinated means we can protect others from illness, then we have an obligation, given our Lord’s command to love our neighbors, to be vaccinated. Vaccinations not only protect you but also protect other vulnerable members of society.
On the other side of the debate are the anti-COVID vaccine Christians. These believers have apprehensions over the formulation, safety, and side effects of vaccines. They see good stewardship of the body God has given them to include being careful of what they inject into their bodies. They would rather wait until vaccines are 100% effective or when there’s more information about the possible side effects and complications. They are persuaded that the risks of taking the vaccine outweigh the benefits. For these believers, loving their families and those in their areas of influence means taking the potential health risks of the vaccine seriously. For them, there are many other ways to show love to our neighbors other than getting the vaccine, e.g., by strictly following safety protocols, by helping those who get the virus, etc.
A sub-group among the anti-COVID vaccine Christians are even convinced that the COVID-19 vaccines are satanic or are part of government plot in a complex scheme that will lead to worldwide control by the antichrist.
Sadly, both sides tend to espouse anger, hate, enmity, and antagonism toward those who disagree with their group’s beliefs and convictions. What must Christians do? How should Christians respond to this divisive issue?
We Need Conversations that Generate More Light Than Heat
In light of these two polarizing views within the Christian family, questions abound and continue to spark disagreements among followers of Christ.
Should Christians be opposed to vaccination? Do we have a Christian obligation to get a COVID-19 vaccine? How should followers of Jesus think about the COVID-19 vaccine?
These questions deserve conversations and dialogue that hopefully generate more light than heat, and lead to more clarity than confusion. While we may have a right to our own opinions, we do not have a right to our own facts.
Here are some guidelines that can help us navigate through the ongoing debates between anti-vaccine Christians and pro-vaccine Christians.
1) Sustain Unity in Diversity
Since the beginning of Christianity, believers have disagreed on many issues. They include questions about eating meat, drinking wine, worship style, fashion preference, secular music, women in leadership, bible translations, views on eschatology, mode of baptism, and so on. Some Christians refer to these matters as “conscience disputes” (Romans 14:1-15:7; 1 Corinthians 10:23-33) because these are non-essential topics of debate that allow for freedom of conscience and healthy disagreements among believers.
Today, we can include the debate about COVID-19 vaccines in this list of conscience disputes.
“Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.” (Romans 14:1, The Message)
When Christians disagree, it is also helpful that we distinguish between opinion, persuasion, and conviction.
Opinion includes matters ‘worth discussing about’ but are not worth dividing for. These are the personal desires or preferences of the individual. We must recognize that these opinions are not true for everyone. Christians need to accept the differences and not impose one’s opinions or preferences over others.
Persuasion is about topics ‘worth debating on’ but are not worth dividing for. They may be important truths but they are not essential to Christian salvation. A believer can have full persuasion about a certain belief or value without judging others. Here, we can maintain unity on the essentials and allow freedom of conscience on the non-essentials.
Conviction consists of issues that are ‘worth dividing for’ because they include truths essential to a correct theology of salvation (distinct from heretical teachings). These disputes may require public confrontation and the breaking of fellowship over the purity of the Gospel.
Disagreements about COVID-19 vaccines fall under opinion and persuasion, but definitely not under conviction. This should not cause division among believers. We can love one another in Christ, and practice unity even when we disagree.
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” (Rupertus Meldenius)
While we have our differences and diversity of beliefs ethically, culturally, theologically, politically, medically, etc. we must still follow the way of Christ. As His followers, we are called to unity—not uniformity. Yet there is always a call for all Christians to maintain spiritual unity.
2) Speak with Love and Wisdom
A healthy church would allow space for members to hold a range of views, advocate for those views, and still feel loved in Christ. It would be great if many of our churches display this kind of intellectual humility and integrity. We need to stop shaming or demonizing fellow believers who do not agree with our opinions ––whether it is in politics, theology, health (e.g., Ivermectin), or vaccination.
A maturing and flourishing community of faith that can provide respect for different views would be an incredible witness to the outside world. Christians must learn how to do dialogue and have honest conversations without people getting angry, to ask questions of the other side without becoming defensive. Disagreement tends to devolve into anger and frustration instead of a healthy dispute. These are real problems. We see them on social media, over family dinners, and church group meetings.
“Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone.” (Colossians 4:5-6, NLT)
“Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.” (1 John 4:11-12, NLT)
Imagine if churches and Christians can love one another well, and the bond we have as brothers and sisters in Christ goes far deeper than any other point of contention, then perhaps we will be able to make genuine space for disagreeing dialogue. We do not have to agree on all issues, but we need to stay one in Christ.
3) Seek Truth while Maintaining Humility
It is very important that amidst the fiery debates about disputed matters such as the COVID-19 vaccination, we must practice due diligence in separating facts from fiction.
We ought to be conscientious as we do our best to acquire truth. This means that we must do our research, learn to be sensitive to evidence, and avoid unreliable sources of belief. In other words, a conscientious believer is a reasonable, reflective, responsible person who carefully ensures that she achieves rational beliefs.
Although we value the search for truth, we must also practice intellectual humility –– to recognize that we may not have the final say in all matters of dispute.
Intellectual humility is simply the recognition that the things you believe in might in fact be wrong, it is being open to learning from the experience of others. Intellectual humility is about being actively curious about your blind spots. It’s essentially asking: What am I missing here?
Intellectually humble persons are more open to hearing opposing views. They more readily seek out information that conflicts with their opinion. They pay more attention to evidence and have a stronger self-awareness when they answer a question incorrectly. Most important of all, the intellectually humble are more likely to admit it when they are wrong. When we admit we’re wrong, we can grow closer to the truth.
This means that we must realize that we are limited beings and that we do not always get it right. Even the Apostle Paul speaks about the limits of human knowledge. He described that the human attempt to grasping reality is partial, vague, and imperfect like we are “seeing through a dim glass” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The human lenses we use in perceiving the world are dim, blurry, unclear, and fragile. But even if our attempts to know are imperfect, given enough time and experience, our ability to grasp truth as humans will eventually become better. We grow in knowledge by learning together from our mistakes, our sharing of insights, exchange of ideas, conscientious reflection, dialogue, debate, and deliberation.
4) Stay Faithful to Christ yet Be Open for Dialogue
In our world that’s not yet the perfect Kingdom of God, where everything is definitely not yet all made right, where God does not yet rule in that kind of perfection, our main call is to be faithful and live out the great commandments to love God and to love our neighbor.
Like everything in our fallen world, governments, medicine, science, politics, and all efforts to stop the COVID-19 pandemic are broken, imperfect, and incomplete.
Debates will continue to rage, and faithful Christians from all perspectives will get caught in the crossfire. It is crucial that the Church be understood as a diverse family of believers that finds its commonness in Christ. The nature of how we disagree with each other is an aspect of our discipleship. By working together across different opinions, we can seek unity in Christ as we share the gospel message with a broken world.
5) Set our Hope in God and Communicate that Hope to Others
The COVID pandemic has brought a lot of fear, worry, and anxiety to many people. But as the people of God, the Lord calls us to be people of hope and bearers of hope (Romans 15:13). In fact, we are called to always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15 NIV).
As Christians, we should not put our ultimate hope in the vaccines, not in Ivermectin or other meds, not even in our own efforts to avoid getting infected or to build a healthy immune system.
We are to put our hope in God who is the ultimate source of healing & deliverance both for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. He is our Sovereign Lord who rules and reigns over all. And He will bring into completion His purpose according to His perfect time and ways.
Instead of living in fear, let us walk by faith. Let us also share that hope with others who are trapped in the cycle of worry, fear, and anxiety.
So, as we make our decisions with regards to this matter, let us do so with prayerful discernment, for the good of others, and for the glory of the God we serve.