Contributed by Ron Johnston, Director of Small Church Connections and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s liaison to small churches. He is the author of Reality Check For The Church. He served for twenty-seven years in pastoral ministry. He holds a DMin degree with a focus on the small church from Acadia Divinity College.
On March 10, 2020, my wife and I had dinner with another pastoral couple. A nice setting, stimulating conversation, and wonderful company made the evening an excellent time together. Looking back, the amazing thing about that evening is that we didn’t discuss COVID-19 once. It just wasn’t important enough to enter our conversation. Little did we know what lay ahead. By the weekend, the pandemic was the most important issue on our agendas.
Over the past three years, the pandemic has impacted our churches in a variety of ways. One of the saddest has been the tension created in some churches because of different views people have had on how the church should respond to the pandemic. What has surprised me the most has been the strength with which people have expressed their views. While the Bible has little to say about the pandemic itself, there are biblical principles that apply to such situations.
In Canada, there has been a great deal of emphasis on rights. The Bill of Rights determines the direction the country has gone on many issues. Most Canadians believe that our judicial system is designed to protect our rights and that everyone is entitled to their day in court. We can be thankful that we live in a country in which individual rights matter, but we need to ask ourselves whether our rights are what define what it means to be a Christian.
Mable Williamson, a long-term missionary in China, in the 1950s wrote a book entitled Have We No Rights? in which she came to the conclusion that as servants of Jesus we do not have rights. I first read Williamson’s book in 1970, and it left a lasting impression on my life.
The Christian life is not about rights. It is about love, love for Christ and love for people. As the church deals with issues such as vaccinations or in-person services or any of the other issues church people have faced over the past three years, churches need to ask themselves what is the loving response to this. As servants of Jesus, our challenge is to reflect his character in our responses.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he calls for unity (1 Co. 13). In the letter to the Ephesians, once again he calls for unity (Eph. 2:11-12). In his letter to the Philippians, Paul begs two women to mend their differences so that there will be unity in the church (Phil. 4:1-3). Jesus, in his prayer for his disciples, also called for unity (John 17:20-23).
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul risks disunity in the churches there when he corrects some serious theological error that was threatening those churches. There are still issues upon which we need to take a stand, but we need to be very sure that those issues are issues that threaten the spiritual life of the church and not issues of personal preference. When we threaten the unity of the church over personal issues, we are acting contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture. It is possible that more Christians will answer to God for creating divisions in the church than for almost anything else. Jesus said that our unity in the church is to reflect the unity of the Trinity (John 17). Somehow, I can’t picture division within the Triune God over issues such as churches faced in the pandemic.