As a collective of Baptist churches and faith communities we’re very interested in how things pan out post-COVID lockdowns and any requirements regarding vaccinations in terms of public gatherings, church services, and other accessibly, restriction or exclusion issues. Things change quickly; this week we’re  not  writing guiding or supportive policy to help churches—there isn’t enough information to do this yet. As things become clearer we will be in touch with local churches through the usual mechanisms.

What we have done is seek a variety of perspectives at this time on the vaccinated/not-vaccinated discussion as New Zealand soon ends lockdowns in favour of a highly vaccinated population. Not all people who were asked responded to this request. Responses below are in alphabetical order. We asked for their opinion in 200-250 words to the following question:

Question

Last week Air New Zealand introduced a ‘no jab, no fly’ policy for international travellers from 1 February 2022. The Ministry of Health are working on the government’s vaccine passport. People have different views of vaccinations and COVID-19 in the community, what do you think is important for local churches to be considering? 

Chris Bullen
Public health physician and Professor of Public Health at the University of Auckland. 

I think vaccination is a remarkable gift from God. We should be immensely grateful that we have such ready access to a vaccine that is safe and effective at preventing serious disease and death from COVID-19. 

However, many people in poorer nations still don’t have access and are suffering. As an expression of our gratitude, I think churches should be advocating for our government to ensure vaccines are made available to the nations that still don’t have them. 

I think that getting vaccinated is an act of love for our neighbours. Our individual action of getting vaccinated protects others, especially the most vulnerable. Collectively, we erect a protective barrier through which the virus cannot be transmitted to infect susceptible people. By being vaccinated, we can save the lives of others. 

Vaccination is also a strongly ethical act. Church gatherings, typically held indoors, accompanied by singing, talking and close contact, provide an ideal situation for the SARS-Cov-2 virus to spread. Without vaccination, we will harm others when we meet.   

Furthermore, vaccination is an act that promotes justice. Epidemics typically most impact the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, directly from the disease itself and indirectly from control measures. If COVID-19 becomes widespread, our hospitals and ICUs will be full of people with the least wealth and power. Public health control measures, such as lockdowns, have their greatest adverse impacts on low-income people. When most of us are vaccinated, there will no longer be the same need for these restrictions. I think that if churches have any claim on the moral high ground, they should be leading on promoting vaccination.   

Geraldine Crudge
Associate, Watermark Employment Law

There has been much talk of ‘rights’ in recent days. The right to freedom of movement. The right to worship and meet communally to express religious beliefs. The right to refuse medical intervention.  

And it’s true, the NZ Bill of Rights Act enshrines all these things. 

But, those rights are not absolute rights. They are prescribed rights—they can be subject to such limits as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. And there’s no bright line or guidebook for what’s justified in a democratic society, especially not in a global pandemic.  

What happens when my right to worship, impinges on your right to worship, because I don’t want to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and you’re immunocompromised. Whose ‘right’ trumps? What limits are justified in a free society? The law makers are figuring that out as they go, to the best of their ability. 

And, of course, Jesus didn’t talk about rights.  

He talked about loving each other, loving our neighbour. He said that we’d be known for how we treated each other. And my neighbour might be anti-vaxx. Or my neighbour might be immuno-compromised. And somehow, we both have to figure out how to be the body of Christ together.  

Maybe, like the law makers, we have to work out how to prescribe our ‘right’ to have things our way—or as they always were—and figure out how best to love each other. Maybe our gatherings look different—smaller, kinder, masked, outside, at different times of the week, on Zoom… As the local church, we need to talk about how we make this work in our own contexts—just like the law makers are trying to do for our nation.   

Roi Nu Maran
Pastor, Waiheke Island Baptist Church—a ministry of Windsor Park Baptist Church 

I think it is important for local churches to be promoting vaccination, to be thanking God for the public health system, and praying specifically into this situation. 

I would like to address my views on vaccinations regarding our current COVID-19 crisis. Vaccination is the pathway out of this pandemic. I believe this to be the appropriate Christian response in this situation. Everybody over 12 should be vaccinated, not only for their personal benefit but for the benefit of all humanity. The more people vaccinated, the greater our ability to stop a more deadly strain of COVID-19 developing which would be a much greater tragedy. We need to stop it NOW, in its tracks, and we must all contribute to this milestone. In doing so, we experience more freedom and have more choices.  

I am so grateful for the public health system that we have here in New Zealand. I trust the doctors, nurses, the scientists and the hardworking, dedicated people guiding us through this current pandemic. God bestows on them, the wisdom to make the right choices and to do the right thing for His people. I believe that as a Christian, we need to trust God’s sovereignty. 

My prayer is for people who haven’t yet got the vaccine and who are still undecided, is to put their trust in both science and the wisdom of God as He will guide us in the right direction. I also pray for the vulnerable, and those suffering difficulties. May you all feel the love, compassion and the power of our God Almighty. Amen! 

Tim Palmer
Senior Pastor, Franklin Baptist Church 

Dave’s bike carries a hand painted sign “No jab, no job is wrong.” Despite typically being pro-vaccination, he feels compelled to stand against political pressure. Dave accepts he will probably lose his job. Apparently he has the right to choose… except the wrong choice causes job loss and exclusion from society. Is that OK? What freedom loss would be enough for others to speak out? It’s a human rights issue for Dave. Our church decisions have the potential to exclude him from gathered worship.  

Justine* has had three serious lung collapses alongside her life-long asthma. It’s no exaggeration to say she is among those who could face death with COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, ones like her must avoid certain settings. Vaccination significantly reduces that risk. Our church decisions have the potential to exclude her from gathered worship. 

Jesus welcomes both to the communion table.

As a pastor I’ve observed more than 15 distinct views on this vaccination (I’ve listed them in a 2-page PDF here). This has helped me understand, care, and avoid categorising people in damaging ways. Personally, I embrace medical research, and my decision to receive the vaccination was mainly out of concern for the vulnerable. I advocate for this and it fits well within my Christian worldview. Yet pastorally, I also believe this issue should not divide the church, or enable people to create enemies.   

I believe churches need to take time to listen and love others in their setting who hold various different views, as we somehow work together towards the inclusion of all. 

*Name has been changed.

Rosanna Patolo
Hosanna Avondale Baptist Church

As we now come to terms to living with COVID-19 in a way we haven’t quite undertaken in New Zealand, it is important that at all times, we remain faithful by seeking God’s wisdom and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As a Christian, Samoan, daughter, aunty and a member of the wider community, the risks and threat that COVID-19 pose for the Pasifika community, the high-risk age groups, and those with underlying health conditions, give enough evidence to support and consider my thoughts and actions in response to this continuing era of living with COVID-19. 

I think the local churches should carefully consider the decisions and actions when engaging the risks of COVID-19 in the community appropriately as we look to prepare to gather and create some sense of church normality. The local church should actively embrace the different expressions of uncertainties, confusions, the fear, or stances, they should bed embraced with respect and love and be available as the local church, to be a place of trust and guidance during such a time. COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, as we had seen once before. However, if the vaccine is currently the best barrier and helper in keeping ourselves from experiencing the full effects of what the virus can do, as well as alleviating hospital resources for more at-risk COVID-19 patients, I strongly recommend local churches to encourage the vaccinations and support those who are uncertain about the vaccine and to engage more information from trusted sources. 

As believers of the church, we are called and encouraged to think, consider, and live for others above ourselves consistently. To live with and for Christ is to live with and for others (Matthew 10:45, John 13:34). It is OK to be uncertain and unsure during this time. That is when our faith in God calls us to a greater wisdom of consideration and response (Philippians 4:6-7). 

Andrea Sergeant
Manukau City Baptist Church 

‘Vaccinate!’ It’s the key message from the daily press conference as COVID-19 spills into our suburbs. We fix our eyes on the 4pm updates waiting for news of further freedom. Look around though, and you may notice a few people becoming nervous as the call for restrictions ease. We are the immunocompromised. 

It’s not that we don’t appreciate vaccination—it’s just that it doesn’t solve all our problems. As parents we have chosen to be vaccinated, but we could still bring COVID-19 home to our immune suppressed daughter (age seven). If child vaccination gets approved her body still may not produce the required antibodies. As a whānau, we must accept reality—we are immunocompromised in the face of death. So, our plea is this: please help us to stay focused on Jesus! 

Who is it in your church that feels vulnerable in the face of COVID-19 The immunocompromised, the elderly, the ill, the anxious and depressed? Get to know them, send them a food parcel, and most importantly ask how you can help them stay focused on Jesus. Think long-term when you’re planning and consider keeping restrictions for some events and meetings long after the government removes them. Tools include mask wearing, no eating or drinking, physical distancing, and COVID-19 screening questions for all attendees. As a church we are called to be a safe place for all people, so let’s use prayerful ingenuity to create solutions, and ensure our people remain well loved and deeply connected. 

John Tucker
Principal, Carey Baptist College

Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).   

In this crisis, we need to ask who are our neighbours, and how can we love them? I see two categories. First, there is the wider community. Loving our neighbours means asking: How can we protect the vulnerable in our community? How can we encourage people to get vaccinated? How can we promote reliable information about the vaccines? How can we enable more equitable access to the vaccines? How can we show respect and courtesy toward those with whom we disagree? How can we demonstrate compassion for those who have chosen not to get vaccinated and who fall seriously ill? These kinds of questions need addressing in our preaching and discussions. 

Second, there is the worshipping community. The government is planning to introduce vaccine passports to combat the virus. What if this meant our churches had to exclude unvaccinated worshipers? This brings us to the first commandment. Yes, God’s word commands us to obey the government and its laws (e.g. 1 Peter 2:13-14). But if the government were to pass laws requiring us to disobey God, then, as Peter says, “we must obey God” rather than our human rulers (Acts 5:29, NIV).  

This is what Baptists means by “freedom of religion” (and its counterpart in the “separation of church and state”). As one early Baptist church expressed it: “the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force and compel men [and women] to this or that form of religion, or doctrine: but to leave Christian religion free, to every [person’s] conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions (Romans 13) … for Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience (James 4:12).” [Paul FiddesTracks and Traces, 260-1]  

We need to ask whether this principle of religious freedom would be violated if the government required us to exclude unvaccinated people from attending worship gatherings. Would the government be forcing and compelling people to adopt a certain religion or doctrine? Would the government be requiring us to disobey Christ our king? I don’t think so.  

In any event, the government has signalled that it is unlikely to impose vaccine passports on churches. We need to consider, therefore, what measures we will voluntarily take to protect people when we are able to gather physically for worship. Perhaps we need to provide one service for those who have been vaccinated, and, with the alternative services, to create designated areas—a space for worshipers who have been vaccinated but who remain concerned about their health, and a space for all other worshipers, both vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. 

Thank you

Firstly, thank you to all the above people for being willing to contribute in this way: seven Baptists helping us to engage with the topic of vaccinations and the local church by answering the question: what do you think is important for local churches to be considering? 

Secondly, thank you as a reader for getting to the end of these 2,000 words, I hope they help you and your local church as we navigate this significant COVID-19 transition. I encourage you to pursue this further in your own local context, and feel free to share in the comments section below. 

Host: Mike Crudge
Communications Director, Baptist Churches of New Zealand