Since the Government’s announcement about the COVID-19 Protection Framework, my mind, like that of many pastors, has been occupied by what this will mean for our church. How will we attain church unity under a traffic light system that could segregate the vaccinated from the unvaccinated?
My thoughts turned toward some research I have done on cruciform conflict resolution in the church, based on the Book of Philippians in the New Testament. Could the Apostle Paul’s advice to a church whose unity was threatened by a serious disagreement between two individuals (Euodia and Syntyche) help us attain a unique form of Christian unity for the church?
“I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2, emphasis added).
His words deliberately refer the contentious co-workers back to an earlier part of his letter,
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” (2:5, emphasis added).
There, Paul outlined how having “the same mind” as Jesus is practiced, which he explains by quoting a gospel hymn (2:6-11).
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Paul used this summary of the gospel to instruct Euodia and Syntyche, and the whole church, about how to resolve their differences in order to attain cross-shaped unity in the church.
Cross-shaped conflict resolution
Although Paul does not say what Euodia and Syntyche’s dispute was about, we do know it was serious enough for Paul to devote a significant part of his letter (1:27-4:9) toward resolving their dispute in a consistent manner with the mind-set of Christ.
If attaining church unity was important enough for Paul to write a letter from prison to help the Philippian church overcome their differences, then might not his Spirit inspired advice also help us attain church unity in response to the government’s ‘traffic light’ COVID-19 Protection Framework? Although it will not be easy, according to Paul, cross-shaped unity is achieved with God’s help as an outworking of our salvation that is pleasing to God (2:12-13).
Pro-vaccine certification versus open to everyone
Let’s say Euodia is a pro-vaccination church member who strongly believes that everyone in the church should be vaccinated and that under the traffic light COVID-19 framework those who choose not to be vaccinated will have to watch church online. There are others in the church who share Euodia’s pro–vaccine certification stance but for different reasons.
Alan and Jan’s pre-school son Johnny has a chronic lung condition. Their Starship consultant has advised them to keep Johnny away from gatherings where unvaccinated adults are present. Consequently, they are in favour of vaccine certification for church.
Jill is a church Elder with governance responsibility for the church’s health and safety. She is also in favour of vaccine certification for the greater good of the church.
Jack leads an ESOL Bible study for new immigrants interested in Christianity. He is aware that most of his class will not attend if there are unvaccinated people present. Therefore, he also favours vaccine certification for church.
Let’s say Syntyche is an anti-vaccination church member who strongly believes that the vaccine’s safety has not yet been adequately proven and that every church member whether vaccinated or not should be able to meet together provided suitable precautions are taken. There are others in the church who share Syntyche’s open to everyone stance but for different reasons.
Mary has been bringing her non-Christian neighbour Sally and her two pre-school children to mainly music and to church. Her neighbour is strongly opposed to vaccination and will not be able to attend mainly music or church if vaccine certification is required. Sally is unlikely to participate in online church, therefore Mary favours church remaining open to everyone.
Jack is the church pastor with strong theological convictions about the inclusiveness of church for everyone regardless of their differences including their vaccination status. He therefore opposes any form of segregation between who can or cannot attend church.
Frank and Sarah have a teenage daughter who does not want to be forced into vaccination before she is ready to decide for herself. Frank and Sarah highly value attending church together as a family. Even though they are vaccinated themselves, they are in favour of church remaining open to everyone so that they can continue attending church with their unvaccinated daughter.
Although there are two opposing factions of people—pro-vaccine certification versus open to everyone, yet there are many reasons why people have taken either stance.
How might cross-shaped unity be attained in response to the vaccination certification debate? The gospel hymn describes the faithful obedience of Jesus in his death on the cross. Likewise, cross-shaped unity involves mutually practicing faithful obedience to God when resolving a conflict.
- Both factions can practice faithful obedience by praying for a unified outcome, by endeavouring to listen and understand each other’s point of view, and by speaking and acting gently with each one another (4:5-6).
The gospel hymn describes the self-giving love of Jesus in giving up his position of equality with God to become a human servant. Likewise, cross-shaped unity involves practicing mutual self-giving love for each other.
- For the Euodia (vaccine certified) faction—this might involve deciding that although I am a vaccinated church member and have the right under the traffic light framework to exclude non-vaccinated members from church gatherings—yet I will give up my right to exclude out of concern for the unity of church.
- For the Syntyche (open to everyone) camp—this might involve deciding that although I am an unvaccinated church member and have the constitutional right of meeting for church regardless of my vaccination status—yet I will give up my right to gather out of concern for the health of others.
Acting out of self-giving love for the other rather than out of what I want for myself—offers the possibility of resolving the disagreement in a manner that unifies rather than divides the church.
The gospel hymn also describes God’s power acting through the weakness of Jesus’ death. Likewise, cross-shaped unity involves allowing God’s power to work through weakness.
- For both the Euodia and Syntyche factions this might involve laying aside—numerical support, legal action, positional power, and threats of leaving the church.
Acting out of weakness rather than power offers the possibility of resolving their disagreement in a manner that unifies rather than divides the church.
The gospel hymn further describes the amazing turn-around of Jesus’ death into his exaltation as Lord of all. Cross-shaped unity involves practicing faithful obedience, self-giving love and power through weakness—in the hope of transforming division into unity. Such a turnaround, is a practical expression of the hope we have in the ultimate reversal of all conflicts into the peace of God’s kingdom upon Christ’s return.
Shining like stars in the world
Paul goes on to describe the outcome of being a unified church as shining like stars in the world (2:15). What this unity looks like in practice will vary between churches depending on their context, resources, and creativity.
- For example, it could result in a congregation mutually agreeing that for the sake of church unity, they will remain open to both the vaccinated and unvaccinated and together they will endure the health and safety restrictions of social distancing, mask wearing and church gathering limits.
- Another church, however, might mutually agree to restrict church to those who are vaccinated but improve their inclusion of online attendees so they can participate fully in the church service.
- Yet another church may mutually agree to hold two services: (1) for the vaccine certified; (2) open to everyone regardless of their vaccination status.
- There are many possibilities of what cross-shaped unity might look like in practice but whatever it is, it will have been decided by mutual agreement of everyone in the church.
Whenever church unity is threatened by divisive issues—such as vaccine certification for church gatherings—Paul would encourage us to seize the opportunity for practicing cross-shaped unity so that the church may shine like stars against a dark and divisive world!
Or is cross-shaped unity an impossible possibility for the church?
- What is your position regarding vaccine certification for church?
- Which of the six positions on vaccine certification given above—is closest to yours?
- Which of the six positions is most different to yours?
- How might understanding other people’s positions help you find a mutually agreeable resolution?
- How would the goal of cross-shaped unity change your thinking about vaccine certification for church gatherings?
Contributor: Ken Keyte
Ken has been pastoring the All Nations congregation of the Auckland Baptist Tabernacle for the past three and a half years. Prior to that he pastored Te Puke Baptist Church for 15 years. He is married to Raewyn and they have three young adult sons and one daughter. This year they became grandparents, hence they are longing for Auckland to get out of lockdown so they can see their grandson (and his parents) again!
This article is based on Ken’s research—Christ-like conflict resolution in Philippians—that was published by Grove Books and is available in hard copy or digital format from grovebooks.co.uk.
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright ©1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.