26/09/21

Vaccine Passports And The Coercing Of Conscience: What Should Christians Think? (Part 2)

In this series, I aim to frame this discussion biblically so that Christians can make sense of the issue and respond well.
And so, here are four further points that help us understand the fraught issue of vaccine passports, conscience, and religious liberty:

1. The Key Question: When Might Governments Have a Compelling Reason for Restricting Religious Liberty?
In the previous post, we saw that the God-given role of Government is to:
i. Be a servant for the good of the people firstly by upholding law and order (Rom 13:1-6) and
ii. Not to coerce religious conscience, except where that conscience leads to actions that compromise law and order (e.g. the ISIS believer attacking a supermarket).
 
Thus, there may be good, God-given reasons for restricting some religious liberties. In other words, religious liberty isn’t absolute. This applies even to Christians: governments may have legitimate reasons for restricting our liberties.
So, for example, churches are restricted by Government in terms of who they can employ to teach children and youth in church. In NSW, the government has mandated that no one convicted of certain crimes (e.g., paedophilia) is allowed to lead your church’s Sunday school class, no matter how gifted and godly they may now be.
Of course, I’ve yet to hear even the most libertarian minded Christians complain about this restriction. After all, it seems like a reasonable restriction. But such laws do impact a church’s ability to carry out its mission.
Thus, the key issue is not ‘Government must never restrict religious liberty,’ but rather, ‘when is it acceptable for the Government to restrict religious liberty?’
N.b. This balance is codified in international law pertaining to religious liberty, in the  UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—to which Australia is a signatory:
Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. (ICCPR, Article 18.3)
While government restrictions on the employment of paedophiles in the church are deemed acceptable, what about restrictions not related to law and order? In particular, the use of vaccine passports? Is restricting a church’s ability to welcome Christians based on their vaccination status ever acceptable?
To answer this question, we need to take other factors into account:

2. Government (Arguably) Has a Compelling Interest To Protect The Health and Safety Of Its People (And in times of emergency, it could mean restricting religious liberty).
As we’ve seen in Romans 13, Government does have a role in upholding law and order (e.g. Rom 13:4). And why has God authorised Government to maintain law and order? Because they are God’s servants ‘for our good’ (Rom 13:4).
And thus, it’s not unreasonable for Government to do good to its people by helping protect their health and safety. Whether through road rules, medical regulations, or health and safety laws. Or by providing medical assistance via hospitals and other health care.
 
At this point, however, we’ve moved away from the Biblical text of Romans 13 and are in disputable territory (see Rom 14).
But such laws, regulations and provisions seem to be a reasonable outworking of Government working for the good of its people. In principle at least, it doesn’t seem to be Government over-reach (remembering, however, this is disputable territory).
Thus, in principle, there is (humanly speaking) a compelling government interest in protecting the health and safety of its population.
And this compelling health and safety interest has for many decades now placed some restrictions on churches religious liberty:

· Government restricts churches in the type of building they can gather in. For example, building and fire safety codes authorise how many people can meet in church buildings;

· Noise regulations restrict when churches can meet.

As far as I can tell, there has been very little pushback from Christians to these restrictions.
Now in times of crisis, such as a COVID pandemic, a government’s compelling interest could (and arguably should) be to protect the public hospital system from being swamped with COVID patients. If the hospitals were to be over-run—such as has occurred in other places (think Italy, New York, etc.)—other patients (both COVID and non-COVID) would have to be turned away.
The overwhelming of the hospital system would cause direct harm to thousands.
 
A responsible government that works for the good of its people would not want to see such a bad thing happen for the sake of the wider community and so could be justified in taking steps to prevent that from happening.
Even when it means restricting liberties: including religious freedoms. Masks. Social distancing. And, as we’ve seen over the last 18 months, lockdowns.
Whether such restrictions are justified and how far such restrictions can go is, Biblically speaking, a disputable matter: the Bible doesn’t give a direct answer to this. And so, Christians of good faith should give each other space to discuss and disagree on this matter.
But by and large, most Christians and Churches voluntarily accepted the need for such restrictions (albeit begrudgingly). Most agreed lockdowns were and are necessary for the public good (even as we’re concerned about their long term impact).
Of course, while governments may have a compelling interest in protecting the population’s health in principle, it’s not clear-cut what this may look like in particular. Does a compelling interest in people’s health and safety mean vaccine passports?

3. Vaccine Passports Could Be A Necessary Way for Government To Protect The Health and Safety of Its People
Again, we’ve moved away from the Biblical text and are on highly disputed grounds.
 
Thus, we should tread carefully, not putting words into God’s mouth.  There is no place for binding Christian conscience on issues where the Scripture is silent.
Yes, we can have an opinion informed by Biblical principles. But we mustn’t condemn other views as sinful before God because they don’t align with our opinion (c.f. Rom 14). Different Christians will come to different conclusions about these issues.
Personally,  I think it’s reasonable for Government to have a compelling public interest in protecting the viability of the State’s hospital system from COVID overwhelm (due to the dire consequences this would lead to for thousands of people) even when such restrictions include vaccine passports.
With that said, however, I think a good Scriptural principle (combined with a sober reading of human history) is that governments should be required to demonstrate compelling reasons for restricting people’s liberties (religious or otherwise). They should be able to show they have followed the least restrictive path to getting that outcome.[1]
Thus,  when it comes to vaccine passports, the onus should be on governments to show they are necessary (not just ‘nice to have’) for the sake of public health and that they are are going to be introduced in the least restrictive way possible.
Here are some possibilities of what this might look like:

· Mandated vaccine passports for those entering our country (e.g. analogous to ordinary passports);

· Vaccine passports for those working with vulnerable groups of people (e.g. in the aged care sector or with Indigenous health);

· Mandatory vaccine passports as a temporary measure to allow for easing of lockdown restrictions before we hit 80% double vaccinated (currently the NSW government’s position—although it’s uncertain whether VP’s are to be temporary).

· As soon as practicable, unvaccinated people are given other testing options (e.g. rapid antigen testing) to allow them entry into all public areas.

However, there should be a much higher threshold for mandating vaccine passports for areas that burden people’s ability to live a normal life (e.g. public transport, shopping centres, churches).
Again, to labour the point, this is not a clear-cut Scriptural issue. It’s disputable.
Other Christians are free to disagree with me:  some more conservative brothers argue that vaccine passports cross a dangerous line when it comes to personal freedoms. Others are happy with the concept of vaccine passports, as long as they’re managed in the least restrictive way possible (e.g. they don’t prevent people from participating in essential activities).

4. What About non-biblical Conscience Objections to Vaccine Passports?
When it comes to non-religious objections to vaccine passports, we can make the following points:

· Conscience—whether religious or otherwise—is never ‘inviolate’. That is, God authorises Government to violate religious conscience in some instances (law and order is a clear cut case), but arguably in other cases deemed necessary for the common good (e.g. lockdown restrictions/vaccine passports for the protection of the vulnerable in the community). Thus, Christians should not argue from the Bible that ‘all government restrictions against a person’s conscience are always bad.’

· By way of Biblical principle, historical wisdom, and international law, Government should demonstrate that those restrictions are necessary,  and are done in the least restrictive way possible.

Thus, a reasonable outcome is that a government comes to the difficult conclusion that it is necessary to protect public health through vaccine passports. In that case, it should seek to accommodate people’s conscientious objections as much as possible (e.g. by not forcing them to get vaccinated, providing other means of testing if possible). And yet, it will probably mean that the unvaccinated will have to bear the burden of restrictions, for the sake of the wider community.
It’s not a perfect solution, because we don’t live in a perfect world. In the words of Christian Legal expert Patrick Parkinson:
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.
He concludes:
These are difficult times, and difficult judgments have to be made, respecting people’s right to consent or refuse consent to a medical intervention while doing what is necessary to protect others.
 As Parkinson points out, ‘difficult judgements have to be made.’
That’s the world we live in.



Sourced from: Akos Balogh, Vaccine Passports And The Coercing Of Concience: What Should Christians Think? (1/2), viewed 16 September 2021
https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/vaccine-passports-and-the-coercing-of-conscience-what-should-christians-think-1-2/

19/09/21

Vaccine Passports And The Coercing Of Conscience: What Should Christians Think? (Part 1)

Vaccine Passports are increasingly controversial among some Christians.

The recent ‘Ezekiel Declaration’ has garnered almost 3000 signatures from church leaders across Australia. It argues people should not be pressured to obtain a vaccine passport—partly because of conscience:

[C]onscience should never be coerced.  The conscience is one of the innermost expressions that animates an individual, and that allows them to worship God as well as obey a legitimate governing authority … We would therefore ask that the Government not coerce the conscience of many Australians through the use of a ‘vaccine passport.’

In other words, people shouldn’t be pressured by Government (through the threat of various consequences) to do something that might go against their conscience.

This view of conscience raises several questions:

· Should ‘conscience never be coerced’ by Government, as stated by the Ezekiel Declaration?

· Or is there another way to understand conscience and the Biblical role of Government?

· And what might this mean for vaccine passports?

Here are some considerations:

1. Governments are Put here by God, but not to coerce Religious Beliefs

According to Romans 13, God is the One who appoints Governments to their role (Rom 13:1-2).

Gentile Governments have no mandate to coerce religious belief or practice.

And what is the role of Government? In stark contrast to the Government of Old Testament Israel, gentile Governments have no mandate to coerce religious belief or practice. Neither Romans 13 nor any other passage on Government in the New Testament, gives Government that authorisation. On the contrary, the gospel must only be spread via the uncoerced appeal to people’s conscience (c.f. 2 Cor 4:2).

Furthermore, other passages show that Government is not to restrict belief in God (e.g. 1 Tim 2:1-4), but to allow Christians to live a ‘peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’.

And so, Government should not coerce your conscience when it comes to your religious beliefs.

(Hence the reason why religious freedom for all—not just Christians—is a Biblical mandate: theocracy is unbiblical, as is any law that unnecessarily penalises religious belief and practice).

But does that mean that Government is not to coerce any conscience, as Ezekiel Declaration declares?


2. Government Is Authorised by God to ‘Coerce the Conscience’ of Wrongdoers

Governments should not coerce religious conscience regarding what people believe (or don’t believe) about God. But Government is mandated to coerce conscience when it comes to unjust (religious and non-religious) behaviour.

That is, Government has been authorised by God to ‘bear the sword’, to be ‘an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Rom 13:4), regardless of what their conscience might say.

Here are some examples:

· Suppose your neighbour becomes radicalised through online ISIS propaganda to believe it is his solemn duty to attack the local shopping centre. In that case, Government has a right to restrict the free exercise of his conscience by outlawing and punishing such behaviour.

· Suppose your Marxist colleague conscientiously objects to paying taxes ‘to an imperialist capitalist government that oppresses vulnerable minorities.’ In that case, the Government is still free to coerce their conscience by demanding they pay tax regardless (cf. Rom 13:6).

That’s the way God designed Governments.

What about Vaccine Passports? Should Government be free to coerce conscience when it comes to vaccination and vaccine passports?

Before we can answer that question, there are some more things to consider:



3. Vaccination and Vaccine Passports Should not be a Religious Freedom Issue for Christians as Individuals

To make vaccination and vaccine passports a clear-cut religious freedom issue, a religious group must demonstrate that their religious texts/tradition compels them to reject vaccination/vaccine passports.

A religious group must demonstrate that their religious texts/tradition compels them to reject vaccination/vaccine passports.

What about church-going, Bible-believing Christians here in Australia? Could we make a case that the Bible compels us to see vaccination or vaccine passports as a sin?

Again, the burden is on any church to make that claim, but historically almost none have. As Southern Baptist author Russell Moore points out:

Someone who is part of, for instance, a religious tradition that eschews all medical treatment, along with any other shots or inoculations, could make a credible claim to religious liberty. [But] there are very few such groups.

The Bible makes no clear cut ‘straight line’ argument from any specific text that vaccination or vaccine passports are wrong. There is no apostolic, ‘once for all delivered to the saints’ Biblical view on these issues.

Instead, it’s a disputable ‘jagged line’ issue, over which Christians are free to disagree with each other based on their conscience (see Romans 14).

Thus, Pastors and Christian leaders must be careful not to imply that their view on these issues is the Biblical view, to which their congregations must be bound. According to the Bible, it’s not a sin to get vaccinated or have a vaccine passport, or vice-versa.

Of course, there may be all sorts of reasons why Bible-believing Christians are uncomfortable with getting vaccinated or having a vaccine passport as individuals. But an appeal to religious freedom shouldn’t be one of them.

4. In the Absence of Direct Teaching from The Bible, Christians Can Still Bring Biblical (And Other) Principles To Bear On These Disputable Issues

When there is no direct God-given mandate on particular matters, the Bible may still speak to such issues indirectly.

Thus, there may well be grounds to criticise government policy on vaccine passports and vaccinations, such as their impact on other people and wider society (e.g. if a vaccine passport prevents people from buying essentials etc.).

We might also bring other non-biblical principles to bear on the issue (e.g. medical knowledge, law, historical wisdom etc.).

But again, Biblically speaking, our conclusions will be disputable (Rom 14)—even though the different principles that inform our view be clear from Scripture. Thus, in the absence of a direct word from the Bible, we should be reticent to baptise our conclusion as the Biblical view—as if we were an apostle handing down doctrine once for all time.

When it comes to churches, however, mandatory vaccine passports may pose a more direct challenge to Biblical teaching …

5. Mandatory Vaccine Passports May Be a Religious Freedom Issue for Churches

While Scripture has no prohibition on Christians getting vaccinated or owning a vaccine passport, a government mandate for Churches to only allow the vaccinated prevents churches from operating in a Scriptural way, where all Christians are to gather (Heb 10:25), not just the vaccinated.

The question then becomes whether this is a necessary and justifiable burden (such as building fire regulations or noise curfews, for example). Or whether it’s an unnecessary government imposition (such as the Victorian anti-conversion laws).

And so, when it comes to religious freedom, this is where the conversation needs to focus. That conversation will also help inform how we might think about conscience rights.

And we’ll explore that more in the upcoming post.

Sourced from: Akos Balogh, Vaccine Passports And The Coercing Of Concience: What Should Christians Think? (1/2), viewed 16 September 2021
https://au.thegospelcoalition.org/article/vaccine-passports-and-the-coercing-of-conscience-what-should-christians-think-1-2/

12/09/2021

 Dear Church Family,
 
Over the past while we have all noticed that church attendance is down. You have noticed this when someone who have been even semi-regular have not been seen for months now. You have also noticed this if you are a treasurer or on any church board or council, or have attended a congregational meeting where finances and drop in giving have been discussed.
 
Thank you Covid! Or is it really Covid?
 
As you already know, long before Covid, it was already difficult to get people to attend weekend church services. Travel, sports, weekend away, the well reported slow death of cultural Christianity and a growing indifference and increased mobility meant that for most churches, or worshiping communities, attendance was flat or already declining.
 
Post-Covid, as churches reopened, and we’ve certainly noticed this, it seems like that attendance that was on a slow decline has now fallen off a cliff.
 
It would be easy to diagnose the current low reopening attendance numbers as a “medical precaution” or merely a “medical issue”…but what if the problem runs much deeper than that?
 
Research (pre-Covid) have already shown that church attendance is well in decline and has been over that past 20 years or so. The LCA’s reports this much as well. The current “church attendance crisis” is not medical, it is cultural. “Medical” would be nice, it would be easy, it would be a “comfortable scapegoat”…but there is something deeper going on, and it has for decades now.
 
After all, crisis is not an “inventor” it is an “accelerator”. The arrival of Covid did not “invent a new” issue it merely “accelerated the already known” issue.
 
As much as we may want to ignore it, argue against it, pretending this is not the case…the reality is that the trend has been there, the end point might just have moved forward a couple of decades. And it is important for us to handle this knowing that “denial” is not a strategy. Simply denying what we hate will not get our church to a place we will love.
 
So, as a church community, we can do one of two things…we can:
 
1) “Romanticise” or “Wish-dream” that “once everything is over (and we have no idea when this will be) everything will be back to ‘normal’”, or,
2) Ask ourselves honestly “what is going on?” and “what can we do now?”.
 
Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not willing to sit, and to be really blunt, roll the dice, and hope things “return”. Return to what exactly? A slow decline as we worry more about our comfort and the gaps in our roster?
 
Are you tired of “just waiting”? Are you tired of just “hoping things would improve a little” whilst not being so optismistic?
 
Then let us go experience the joy and hope that God has waiting for us as we live out our purpose as the Ipswich Lutheran Church. Let us be the proactive, Spirit-driven, hope-giving, gospel-motivated and joy-experiencing community we have been made and called to be and go meet people wherever they are at instead of waiting.
 
Let us be the church for all its worth, taking hope to everyone everywhere and receiving the joy that comes through that.
 
You are all loved and appreciated.
 
In His Service,
Pastor Roelof

05/09/2021

Psalm 121:1-4
I lift up my eyes to the mountains
    where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.


You are hiking…there’s a big mountain in front of you…what’s your thoughts?

  • Obstacle?
  • Difficult to overcome?
  • Steep, need help?
  • Scared will fall or get crushed?

Think about the phrase, “someone watching you, and they never slumber nor sleep”…what comes to mind?

  • Pays attention to your life?
  • Sees everything?
  • Nothing gets passed them?

Sometimes, as we carry on with our daily living, life seems to throw a mountain in our way. This could be ill health news, negative work news, sad family news, or maybe just a situation which seems unfamiliar and, at least for the moment, without the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

This is the exact situation and opportunity to allow Psalm 121 to speak into your situation and give you the courage and hope you need for the next moment, the next day, the next week, and whichever period of time until you see “the light at the end of the tunnel”. And the encouragement and hope from Psalm 121 is this:

Yes, there’s a mountain…but there’s a maker of heaven and earth, who is bigger than your mountain. He made everything and everything above and everything below, in fact, everything that is seen and is unseen…and He made you!

Even more to the point, He made you out of love and to love and for love. And, furthermore, what you, His beloved, are going through are not going unnoticed by God.

God is paying attention to your life and while “the mountain” is getting sorted, He sends family and friends to surround us and care for us until that day you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

God cares about you, and what you’re going through is not unnoticed and will work out for your good.

In His Service,

Pastor Roelof