This article was first published in the Otago Daily Times on 25 October 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Are vaccine mandates a threat to churches, asks Emeritus Professor Gareth Jones.

A great deal has been heard of late about the use of vaccine mandates to control who can and cannot work in various organisations, from hospitals to schools, and who will or will not be allowed to attend concerts and sporting fixtures.

In the midst of what can be a confusing scene, the leaders of some church groups have made their views abundantly clear, as they have railed against any mandates that would prevent people from attending their churches. In their eyes vaccine mandates would represent placing the authority of the Government over the authority of God.

Claims like these, coming from a minority of largely conservative Christians, are never as straightforward as they seem, since they stem from vaccine hesitancy and on occasion explicit anti-vaccine sentiments. Nevertheless, they touch on important issues for churches in general as all will have to decide whether or not to allow the unvaccinated into services. To turn people away from services goes against all that most churches stand for. But it is unfortunate that much of the well-publicised opposition to vaccine mandates is based on the rights of individuals and the freedom to express themselves as they wish.

Protect the health and wellbeing of all

An emphasis far more congenial to Christian thinking is the opposite, and that is to protect the health and wellbeing of all within the community—both within the church and in wider society. There is no hint in Christian thinking that the authority of the church is superior to the authority of government. Ideally, they work alongside one another respecting each other and endeavouring to achieve what is best for all within society.

Biblical values emphasise love of neighbour; service of others; support for widows and orphans—in our society this translates into support for the vulnerable, those unable to fend for themselves, those with compromised immune systems, the elderly and the very young, and especially those with chronic health conditions. There is a communitarian thrust to Christian teaching, pointing towards the welfare of others, inside and outside the church.

Everyone in a church community is affected by the actions of everyone else

In the midst of a serious pandemic, individual churches have to determine their own policies regarding vaccine mandates. Since COVID-19 is a serious public health problem, the vaccinated/non-vaccinated dichotomy cannot be ignored by allowing everyone to act as they wish. In public health terms, everyone in a church community is affected by the actions of everyone else. No-one is an island and so the decisions of each person have an influence on everyone else. Individual interests are never to dominate, as clearly brought out by core biblical teaching to love God and one’s neighbour. Each of us is responsible for looking after those around us, in health terms as well as in spiritual terms.

Alternative ways of meeting as the people of God

If a government were to impose vaccine mandates on churches, churches should find alternative ways of meeting together, including in people’s homes and on occasion in the open air. Meeting as the people of God extends far beyond physical meeting together in a formal church setting, normal and healthy as that may be under most circumstances.

Vaccination is not a private matter

Vaccination is not a private matter since it impacts everyone else within a community. In this sense it is of considerable interest to the church as a whole. However, all are to respect each individual’s position, no matter how much they disagree with it. All are members of the body of Christ, and judgement belongs to God alone. Not only this, we are all flawed, and from time to time we all make unwise decisions.

Since this is a public health emergency, people cannot act entirely as they wish; they are to act responsibly by public health standards. Hence, if the church is prepared to allow the non-vaccinated into church services, the non-vaccinated have an obligation to be able to demonstrate that they are not infected, that is, to have negative COVID tests. This should be possible once rapid antigen tests become available. In fact, a large church may wish to insist on this for everyone, including the vaccinated if the infection rate in their area is very high.

Who are those most in need of support?

All are to think of how their views and attitudes affect others, particularly those with a different position from their own. Pay regard to the ʻweaker’ members of the church community, no matter how the weaker member is defined within the context of vaccination. Who are those most in need of support? A good deal of trust is required all round, showing ample grace and love towards each other.

Responsibility for health and safety

In the final analysis, the church leaders have responsibility for the health and safety, and the welfare of all within a church building. This is a general principle, extending far beyond COVID-19 considerations.

Contributor: Gareth Jones,
Gareth attends Dunedin City Baptist Church and is an Emeritus Professor in Anatomy at the University of Otago.

More Covid related thoughts from Gareth Jones:

An individual’s Christian response to a vaccine mandate in the workplace.
An open letter to the unvaccinated in the Christian community.