Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Responding to Michael Jensen: Christianity is persuasive and not coercive


The church is a gathering of disciples. Singing, praying and sharing the sacraments together along with all the little incidental interactions around those activities and their organisation, is the communal crucible of our spirituality. God uses our sociality to help transform us. We don’t just gather because we are commanded to by God and don’t just gather because we were created as social creatures, we gather because together there is a different and important spiritual growth that occurs when we gather. A mob is possessed by an evil spirit, but when one or two gather in Jesus’ name they are possessed by the spiritual energy and power of Jesus. Of course Christians are forgetful, broken and sometimes corruptible so our gatherings can (and sadly have been) misused. But that’s part of God’s sense of humour, he uses people, prayers and the circumstances of this broken world to change us. Church contains the spiritual power of Jesus in spite of the recovering sinners who gather to form it. 

 So it was discouraging to read Michael Jensen’s recent article (‘Dear Sister in Christ … About the Vaccines’, 19 January 2022, Eternity) justifying vaccine mandates. You catch the sense of his argument in these two paragraphs: 
In the most beautiful passage about the unity of God’s people, Psalm 133, unity is shown as a gift that flows down from heaven like the dew on the mountains of Lebanon, or like the anointing oil on Aaron’s beard. I have acted (as I know you have), from the best of my knowledge and from my conscience, guided by Scripture. For me, this has meant taking the vaccines and strongly advising others to do so. It has also meant compliance with government guidelines around masks and lockdowns. It has meant temporarily excluding the unvaccinated from church meetings. 
We will simply disagree on whether that was a wise and godly cause of action. I recognise that I don’t know everything and that I could be wrong about this. Nevertheless, I don’t think that I am. With the greatest of respect, I think I am right about the vaccines, and I think the wisest and most loving cause of action for church leaders was to take the best scientific and government advice available in order to protect the most vulnerable and to protect the community in general. 
Michael starts by noting how good unity is, as per Psalm 133. This is a really good place to start. Unity isn’t just agreeable, its an expression of the supernatural way we all belong to Jesus despite our individual differences. Michael then correctly notes he needs to act to the best of knowledge, his conscience and guided by Scripture. This is how God wants us to make ethical decisions, communally, carefully and guided by Scripture. His next premise is that complying with the various government measures wasn’t just rational but also “the most loving cause of action for church leaders.” Many of the government measures have made sense; masks have been used in medical settings to prevent aerosolised transmission for many decades and temporary quarantines have been used since the beginning of societies and infectious diseases. And most Christians have agreed that muffled singing and gathering online was a reasonable workaround, not ideal but making the best of a serious and unusual situation. Additionally vaccines that are developed ethically are a rational risk worth taking. Humans are social creatures and ethical measures that reduce infectious diseases are, like Michael observes, a loving thing to do. 

Sadly though it feels as though Michael has forgotten the central impetus of the Reformation, which was the rediscovery of Grace, and his argument overlooks the fact that Christianity is meant to be persuasive and not coercive. A vaccine mandate is coercive. While there is medical value in vaccination, a vaccine mandate is a political calculation. Instead of continuing with work-arounds, churches that agree to enforce the exclusion of the unvaccinated are participating in a political coercive calculation. Excluding people from the gathering of believers was only ever reserved for church discipline, for people who were disruptive. Until this pandemic, exclusion was the sober exception. When churches exclude a class of people for arbitrary reasons it damages our spiritual unity. When Michael advocates for excluding people from gathering he goes against the historical and theological grain of Christianity. We persuade with words, sermons and articles, not enforce exclusion with COVID ushers and the threat of arrest. Lastly, it feels as though Michael’s stance is unnecessarily divisive. Some churches reluctantly enforced vaccine mandates, while theologically inconsistent, it was not presented as a “wise” and “godly” situation. When Michael doubles down on the goodness of excluding the unvaccinated it sharpens divisions among Christians and undermines our spiritual unity.