It is often disheartening to see differences of application within the Church. I’m not only talking about the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations either, no, even those within the Orthodox tradition see things vastly different at times.
A few weeks ago, and adding to my consternation over the past weeks, which included an estrangement from a close friend, another trusted friend caught in his double life, as well as my continuing wait for Charlotte, still indefinite due to Covid restrictions, impending neck surgery, and other painful physical ailments, I had reached out to Fr. Anthony for council.
Now, I have suspected (but do not know and do not need to know) based on hints, that Fr. Anthony’s politics are a little different from mine. So when I shared about my own struggles with relationships within the parish family he shared a bit of his own. It turns out that his diocese is
pushing vaccines (oops) and, evidently, he is in full support. My own bishop, by contrast, and fortunately for me, has issued a don’t ask don’t tell policy and basically forbade it from being an issue.
The thing is, I would never argue with Fr. Anthony over something like this, he is a wise and humble man, I have nothing but respect for him. Still, that doesn’t change my own opinion, my own hesitancy is not without good reason and I’m certainly not comfortable with this kind of medical decision being imposed on anyone. So there is a bit of cognitive dissonance while contemplating this difference in perspective. Can I have it both ways?
This was on the back burner until the other day, when a good friend, asked me to parse this:
I’m assuming you’re aware of the sentiment running around right now that Christians are supposed to be compassionate and care for their community. Therefore they should gladly submit to the vaccinations. Assume the vax is as effective as they think it is. What is the CORE philosophical/theological/moral flaw in that thinking?
I never actually answered the question. I honestly don’t know how to answer. But I suppose caring can cut many different ways and including being compassionate with those concerned about the risks of vaccines. My mind immediately went to that email exchange with Fr. Anthony where I had wanted to reconcile the opposite positions on vaccines, within Orthodoxy, and didn’t have the mental energy at the time.
My own rough position was that the whole debate, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, was a secondary issue and there were others of primary importance.
Early on, last year, aware of the disease, still uncertain about the deadliness, I had stayed home a couple of Sundays because of my feeling sick and wondered about the wisdom of partaking from the Chalice. I’m not ignorant of virology and everyone being served from the same cup seemed to be a potential super spreader event in the making. Despite some saying otherwise, that we can’t get sick, I’m not completely convinced that disease can’t be communicated in this manner.
However, at some point, I decided that life or death, partaking of the body of Christ is more important than my own understanding of the spread of contagious disease. Besides that, my own risk of dying was relatively low, so why give up the practice of my faith on the basis of this risk? To live is Christ, to die is gain, right?
So, here’s the thing, if my parish did require me to vaccinate in order to partake, again, why worry? If faith means not being afraid of disease, then doesn’t it also mean not being fearful of vaccine side effects? New virus or new vaccine, we should not fear death.
But still, how do we reconcile one group using conscience as a reason why we should not even ask others about the vaccine status, while another uses it as a reason why all should vaccinate?
Why can’t Christians agree on this simple matter of application?
Christian Conscience and Meat Offered to Idols
Sometimes it is best to take a step back to gain some perspective. It is very easy to prioritize our own reasoning (and self-righteous indignation) above relationships and should remember what the Christian life is truly about. Is it about winning debates? Having our own way? Can we be technically right, as far as our own position, and wrong in spirit?
Looking back to St Paul, as far as how to handle the vaccine debate or other hot-button issues, I do believe that the answer is clear. In his first letter to the Corinthians he speaks to one of these issues of disagreement, pay attention to how he starts, what he priorities:
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “Lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.(1 Corinthians 8:1-13 NIV)
We have many knowledgeable (and proud) in the church today, they studied theology, they have all the answers and will use “freedom in Christ” to exempt themselves from anything they don’t like. They have their “rights” and don’t you dare tell them otherwise. But they seem to have completely missed on the love part.
St Paul picks up on the meat theme again and drives home the point:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.(1 Corinthians 10:23-10 NIV)
Those who went to the discount rack, who bought the meat offered to idols, had logic and reason on their side. Meat is meat, right? Why not save a little? So it was offered to some false god and the proceeds go to pagans, what difference does it make? He even gives Psalm 24 as a proof text of this position.
However, he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that we should respect the conscience of those who do have a problem with the cheap meat and therefore abstain when the origin of the meat is known. In other words, our own personal freedom is secondary to the good of others, and even when our own position is more rational, or even Scripturally correct, than those of a more sensitive conscience.
He never says to argue our side or condemn their lack of knowledge. It’s not even something considered. His focus is on being respectful to others where we agree with them or not. Live or die, we yield in love, as St Paul writes in Romans:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt?
For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:
“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’ ”
So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.(Romans 14:1-23 NIV)
The ‘meat’ of St Paul’s point is that the other person’s conscience must be honored over our own, so that we do not create a “stumbling block” through our exercise of freedom. Even though he believes that there’s nothing unclean, in Christ, he strongly argues that we respect the conscience of others. In fact, he says it is sin for those who have a conscience against eating, and therefore we would be causing others to sin through our inconsiderate exercise of freedom.
To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate?
We no longer have controversies over meat offered to idols. But we have had some intense debate over vaccines and there are reasonable points made on both sides of the argument.
Generally speaking, vaccines have saved lives. We have, for the most part, eradicated some debilitating and deadly diseases through traditional vaccines and, therefore, we could offer protection to those most vulnerable by being first in line. It could be an act of Christian service to get vaccinated.
However, for some, the idea of using a vaccine derived from aborted fetal cells is completely reprehensible, a terrible evil. Would it be Christian to force these people to comply with our own understanding of science and violate their own conscience?
Is it ever right to tell another person to take on the risk of a medical intervention against their will?
My own position on the new Covid vaccines is that the risks outweigh the rewards and especially for those who already have antibodies through infection. According to some estimates, at least a third of Americans have natural immunity to the virus, and therefore the new vaccines (with the serious side-effects some suffer) are an unnecessary risk for these people. Why would we ever require these people to put their own health at risk for sake of our own conscience? Let people choose for themselves.
At the same time, are the moral objections we have to the vaccines actually as important as we make them. I mean, so some of the vaccines (not all) were tested on a cell line called PER.C6, would we ask as many questions about donated organs or if we should inject blood from another person? Do we raise the same ruckus when shopping for an iPhone, refusing to buy so much as a T-shirt if it may have been manufactured by sweatshop labor? Do we apply the same level of scrutiny to other products that enter our bodies?
Is it actually conscience or is it selective outrage, finding any excuse to be defiant, to stand on the ‘principle’ of our position because we need to win the debate, that keeps us from cooperating on vaccines?
This can cut both ways. One could say that we should never let a bad substance enter us, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and yet Jesus, in Matthew 15, says very clearly that what enters our bodies cannot defile us. Furthermore, in Mark 16 we read an assurance of what is possible with faith, “when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” So should we really be so fixated on accounting for every molecule that enters our body? Are we not going to die eventually regardless? If you weren’t afraid of Covid, why be so terrified of a relatively safe vaccine?
Why do you oppose St. Paul when he says to put the other person’s conscience above your own?
The “You’re Not the Boss of Me” Attitude
If you’re an independent American, who wants to always do things your own way, then you probably won’t like my answer.
Nobody wants to be told what to do and especially not by those whom we do not believe are up to the task of leadership. It is not unusual, amongst siblings, for a child being ordered around by another, for the phrase “you’re not the boss of me” to rise in protest. And, it is true, in most circumstances it is not the role of one child to tell another what to do.
That attitude carries into adulthood, We don’t want to be told what to do. How many times have we heard “this is a free country” and people declaring their rights, as Americans, especially over the past few years?
Early in the pandemic, a security guard was murdered for his enforcement of a state mask policy in Detroit by a man who would not have his girlfriend suffer the “disrespect” by being told what to do. It was one of two shootings that I know, another in Denver, where a simple request, in a private business, was treated as if it was an unpardonable offense and a reason to murder.
Now, to be clear, I do not believe that government officials have authority over the law. It seems that many have a misconception about the structure of our government and seem to believe that Presidents or state governors are the equivalents of kings. They are not, this country is supposed to be one where rule of law trumps any official in government. There is nothing ungodly or rebellious about challenging illegal use of power in the courts. St. Paul himself took Roman jailers to task for their abuse of his rights as a citizen.
However, the Church is not a democracy, like it or not, and is ruled by a benevolent dictator with His ordained ministers. It is simply astounding to me that so many people take their understanding of American civics and apply this to the Church. The Church is (and always has been) patriarchal with Christ as the head. And just as a parent may give an elder child the authority to act on their behalf, as a stand-in, the same is true in the Church as well. No, this doesn’t mean that these ministers can rule in a manner different from their Lord. Indeed, they will give a greater account. Still, we are to obey those who are given charge over us:
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.(Hebrews 13:17 NIV)
When Peter spoke, and the Jerusalem council decided, that was what the Church did. They overruled those who were trying to apply Jewish law to converts and, unless you want to throw out this part of New Testament canon, the book of Acts, then this was within their authority to do. This is what Jesus was talking about, in the Gospel of Matthew, as far as giving the Apostles “the keys to the kingdom” and authority to bind and loose. It is the role of the Church, the collective body, led by those ordained by Christ, to help guide us. Many individualize the work of the Holy Spirit and I do believe that it does lead individuals, yet Jesus said where two or three are gathered I am in their midst.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.(Ephesians 5:21 NIV)
It is not submission if we only go along with what already agrees with us or goes along with our own conscience.
Church shopping to find one that suits you is not obedience.
Ultimately, I’m okay with contrary positions on vaccines from diocese to diocese. For those concerned only about the kingdom, this should amount to little more than a toilet seat up or down type of preference. It should be spiritual death that is our concern, prioritizing those things on a higher plane and not being so caught up in having our own way that we can never submit to those of a different conscience.
Christian love solves the paradox. It doesn’t actually matter vaccinate or unvaccinated. What matters is that we respect each other, that we submit to the conscience of others even when we do not agree. For some this means we love by not imposing a newly developed pharmaceutical product against their objections, for others it means obeying those who are given the responsibility to decide such things.
Many say that they would do anything God asks of them and yet aren’t willing to give an inch in love for their brothers and sisters, maybe they don’t hate and yet they certainly don’t love:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.(1 John 4:20-21 NIV)