I’ve been asked by a number of pastors what Mentone‘s plan is for returning to church later this year. Our church elders recently put together a document and they’ve given me permission to share it here, in the hope that it may be of some value to others. I stress, it is important to read the entire document and not remove one statement from the context of others.
We have tried to convey the complexity of issues that lay before churches in Victoria. We are not suggesting that this is the only path forward for churches. We appreciate that churches will land on these issues in slightly different ways. This is Mentone Baptist’s direction and the theological framework that is underpinning our decisions. In light of the fact that the COVID-19 situation is fluid (and as we state in the document), some aspects of the plan may change in the event of new information and updates. We pray that the Lord grants ongoing wisdom and patience to the churches across our State as we navigate this difficult season.
Statement by the Elders of Mentone Baptist Church regarding the return to church and vaccines
We realise that the topic of vaccine mandates and church is a contentious issue, with strongly held opinions in the community and including among Christians. The Elders have sought advice, discussed at length, and prayed over our position. Here is what we think.
We outline 5 principles in this document which together serve to frame the position we are taking in relation to church and vaccines. As you will see, forming a view is not a matter of using one Bible verse or singling out one issue. Rather, there are multiple issues and many theological strands that together help us formulate the conclusions we have arrived at. Also, it is not the case that we prioritise one of these convictions over the others, but that we hold all 5 together.
We appreciate that each church will be required to carefully consider these issues and some may arrive at slightly different conclusions. We are not pretending that the subject is easy and neither are we claiming to have infallible insight. We are nonetheless persuaded that the direction we have settled on is wise and godly. We also understand that if the rules change we may need to reassess the decisions we have made. As men who love the Lord Jesus and uphold the authority of Scripture and are committed to the health and future of Mentone Baptist Church, we commit this plan to you.
1. We believe the in-person gathering of the church is essential
We believe that Church is an essential service, both for the spiritual and social wellbeing of Christians and for the spiritual and social health of society.
People are not disembodied beings. We are physical creatures who require physical presence and social interaction. We are also more than flesh and blood. We are mental and spiritual beings, who depend on more than food and sleep for life. It was Jesus who famously said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”
Churches provide one of the few remaining places where people can meet and share the joys and sorrows of life, and where supportive relationships are created. Zoom, Youtube, and social media are a blessing but they are no substitute for real and personal meeting. Indeed, church by definition is the physical gathering of Christians, meeting to worship God and to encourage one another.
The Scriptures exhort believers to meet regularly and not to give up this practice,
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Without diminishing the Biblical principle of in-person gathering, it is worth pointing out lessons from history. In times of plague and emergency, Churches were adaptable and took reasonable measures for the common good. For example, when the Spanish Flu struck North America in 1918, churches closed for several months. In the 16th Century, while there was little understanding about the way disease spread, Christian leaders including Martin Luther and John Calvin adapted their ministry practices during outbreaks of the plague.
In a letter Martin Luther wrote,
“Others sin on the right hand. They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.”
“If in the Old Testament God himself ordered lepers to be banished from the community and compelled to live outside the city to prevent contamination (Leviticus 13–14), we must do the same with this dangerous pestilence so that anyone who becomes infected will stay away from other persons, or allow himself to be taken away and given speedy help with medicine.”
Restraints on freedom to gather for public worship must be reasonable and temporary. We believe that current limitations on church gatherings qualify as reasonable and short term, although we are concerned about the increasing toll this is taking on peoples’ mental, social, and spiritual wellbeing. Subsequently, we accept there is an argument for reevaluating the current restrictions imposed on Melbournians. When we believe the Government is acting unfairly and unreasonably toward Churches, we will ask for correction.
2. We believe we have a duty of care toward others
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Corinthians 8:9)
We want church to be safe for everyone and we want everyone to have opportunity to hear the Gospel and for all God’s people to gather as Church. Among these goals are competing tensions and we need wisdom for navigating these.
The Elders accept the broad consensus in the medical community that the COVID-19 vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective and we encourage people to be vaccinated. This is a way we can show consideration toward others. While we encourage people to be vaccinated, we also understand that a few cannot for medical reasons and others may express concerns. It is important for us to love those who have come to different conclusions.
We also don’t want to do anything that will discredit the Gospel and unnecessarily cause anyone to think ill of Christ and his Church. At a time where Christianity has lost social credibility through important issues such as abuse, are our actions adorning the Gospel or confusing the Gospel or conflating the Gospel with other worldviews and political agendas? Serving the wellbeing of our community and city is an important way of demonstrating the love of Christ.
3. We believe obeying the Government is a matter of godliness
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1-5)
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, 2 to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone.” (Titus 3:1-2)
The two exceptions to this principle of obedience are 1. where Government policy directly violates Holy Scripture, and 2. where a Government mandate is manifestly unjust.
4. We believe the conscience has an important although not supreme role in determining what is right and good
We are mindful of the conscience and believe we should tread cautiously before acting against ones conscience. However, the conscience is not infallible. We mustn’t assume that strong feelings equal right feelings. We mustn’t assume that an issue must be primary or essential because people hold strong views or feel strongly about it. As Jonathan Leeman says (Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule: 2016),
“Christians no doubt possess a duty to be faithful to their consciences, yet I would argue that they possess a higher duty to be right. After all, consciences in the Bible can be misguided and must be instructed.”
There is a mistaken view of the conscience that has taken hold in some quarters, and that is, the conscience should never be violated and thus whatever I think about public health measures should only be enforceable where I agree with those measures. Jonathan Leeman is once again helpful,
“First, government is very much in the business of binding whole persons, including their consciences. […] God established governments in Genesis 9 precisely because humanity’s consciences had become unbound. A person might be conscientiously convicted that a nation’s immigration laws are unfair, but he or she is still obligated to obey them, even while simultaneously working to change them. His or her conscientious objection is no measure of the law’s legitimacy. An act of disobedience by the Christian can only be justified by demonstrating that the law is not just or right, not simply that one has a conscientious objection to it.”
“Luther’s celebrated parry against usurpatious princes and priests, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe,” makes for good Protestant sermon fodder, but a theology of authority and submission is a bit more complex. God does in fact authorize various individuals and institutions to place burdens on the conscience. When a parent instructs a child to go to bed, the child should feel conscience bound to obey. So with a prince and subject or an elder and church member in their areas of jurisdiction.”
Professor Patrick Parkinson (Academic Law Dean at the University of Queensland and Chair of Freedom for Faith) explains why the argument from conscience is not always legitimate,
“If I object to taking a vaccine because I am worried about side-effects, or because I am concerned that it is insufficiently tested, I am not objecting on moral or conscientious grounds. I am making a decision based upon my assessment of the risks versus the benefits to myself on medical grounds. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that such a judgment is a religious one. The Bible gives us no guidance whatsoever on the medical efficacy or benefit of a new vaccine. A religious person who has an objection to a vaccine does not have a religious objection by reason only of the fact that he or she happens to be religious.
‘A religious person who has a non-religious objection to vaccination is absolutely entitled to refuse a violation of his or her bodily integrity; but this does not mean that governments and employers are not justified in imposing restrictions to protect others, so long as the restrictions are reasonable.”
In other words, we believe that coercing the conscience is fraught with problems, however not every argument against taking the COVID-19 vaccines can be attributed to the conscience.
5. We believe keeping the unity of the body of Christ is of paramount importance
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Colossians 2:2).
At Mentone Baptist Church we will not divide the church with endless controversies (Titus 3:9-11) and/or over disputable matters. Christians who repeatedly introduce topics to the Christian community which are both divisive and of tertiary importance (such as the debates around covid), and refuse to stop doing so are guilty of dividing the church. People are free to have these discussions in their own time with others who wish to participate. But it is inappropriate to hash these discussions out in Bible study chat groups or church zoom meetings.
We will not treat with antipathy those who cannot be vaccinated or those who hold reasonable grounds for not getting vaccinated. We want to show grace and peace toward all.
We will affirm the Gospel together and that we are one in Christ Jesus. We will encourage each other with this Gospel and not allow other matters to distract or destroy the fellowship we enjoy together in Christ.
We encourage anyone who has concerns to speak with one of the Elders. We encourage anyone who has concerns about vaccines to speak with their GP.
Mentone’s roadmap for returning to Church:
The Victorian Government has announced the roadmap to recovery. We understand that the pathway is subject to unforeseen changing circumstances, but nonetheless it is useful to have this clarity.
Our 5 governing principles are each important but as the Victorian plan indicates, putting these into practice is not always straightforward. We maintain the essential nature of the public gathering of church, our duty of care toward others (both inside and outside the church), the need to obey Government, the role of conscience, and God’s command to maintain the unity of the Church.
In light of these 5 principles, our goal is to return to a single service and with everyone meeting in the same room (auditorium) as soon as possible. We recognise that this aim will come about in stages over a period of time. For the sake of public witness and public health we should exercise patience and grace.
Below are key dates and the Church activities that can recommence as per Government guidelines:
|Date||Our decision||Victorian Government Roadmap” ‘Place of worship’|
|From October 26||Growth Groups and prayer meetings can recommence outdoors (on church property). If there are persons in a Growth Group who are unvaccinated, we encourage the entire group to continue meeting online rather than divide the group. Youth Group may restart, with the discretion of leaders.||If fully vaccinated, with medical exemption, and u16: Meetings must be outside, DQ4, 50 cap. |
Unknown vaccination status: any meeting is capped at 20, is outdoors, DQ4.
|From November 5th||In addition to the above, and depending on latest health advice, we intend to return to in-person gatherings on Nov. 7th. If meeting indoors we will need to meet over 2 services. For those unable to attend we will provide online access.||Fully vaccinated: Indoors DQ4 and 150 cap, outdoors DQ2 500 cap. |
Unknown vaccination status: any meeting is capped at 20, is outdoors, DQ4.
|From November 19||tbd|
- Note: all dates are indicative and may change
The Government rules currently require proof of vaccination for entry into a place of worship to operate with appropriate numbers. As such, those who are unvaccinated (apart from those with a medical exemption and underage children) will be excluded from indoor and main gatherings in the short term.
We have concerns about this. As Sydney’s Anglican Archbishop Kanishka Raffel has said,
“Churches have a responsibility to minister to all, regardless of immunisation status…We want everybody to be safe at church, but we also want to make sure we minister to everybody.”
Hence, we will comply with Government restrictions so long as they are reasonable, fair and temporary. For both stages of reopening (October 26th and November 5th), the Victorian Government is mandating double vaccination for people wanting to attend any events, restaurants, and churches. Therefore, this is not discrimination against Churches. In fact, whereas other public events and spaces are not permitted to include unvaccinated people at all, the Government have made provision for unvaccinated people to gather for a religious service, so long as it is outdoors and with a maximum of 20 persons. We are not comfortable in keeping anyone from our main gatherings, even for a limited period of time, but the rules do indicate that the Government is accommodating religious Victorians.
Many of us may disagree with aspects of the Government’s plan or share concerns, but that is not sufficient reason to disobey. Once the vaccination rates hits the required target on or around November 19th, we anticipate that Australia’s National Plan will remove the barriers between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. If this is the situation, we are prepared to endure 2 weeks of this less than ideal situation. To signal our unity in Christ, for Sundays Nov 7 and 14, we will refrain from the Lord’s Supper. In addition, rather than speaking of church we will use the language of ‘public gathering’.
We believe it is incumbent upon both the Federal and State Governments to confirm with adequate time the date when unvaccinated Victorians can mingle unhindered with vaccinated Victorians. If it becomes clear that these arrangements are going to extend beyond November 19th, we will appeal to the proper authorities and we will discuss with the church what the wise and godly course of action will be.
We recognise that these arrangements are less than ideal; it is the nature of a pandemic. We are very conscious of the fact that while the majority of people agree to being vaccinated, we understand that others have concerns. We are also aware that we have a duty of care toward those who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons and we want to be able to confirm with visitors that we are a safe space for them. Each member is important to the whole body and we do not want to live in an environment where some are excluded. Again, we encourage people to be vaccinated if not for their own wellbeing, then doing so out of love for others. The Elders are happy to address any moral or theological concerns, but we ask that you speak to your GP for any medically related issues.
Brothers and sisters, let’s “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”. (Ephesians 4:3)