Political commentators have recently expressed concern about the idea of a vaccine passport. The concern is that this could divide society, creating discrimination which treats different people unevenly. Amnesty International are even referring to this as ‘vaccine apartheid.’ Of greater concern to me, however, is that this issue can create division in the church. It can cause quarrelling, judgemental attitudes, thoughts of superiority, and treating others with contempt. All of which must be resisted at all costs.
There are a number of issues the Bible talks about which are clear cut, with God directing the correct way to respond. There are other issues the Bible talks about where the correct response is not clear cut, or directed by God, or even addressed at all. These issues are left to individual conscious. The subject of whether to have the coronavirus vaccine is not something the Bible gives direct instruction on. It, therefore, is not a sin to get or to not get the vaccine, but rather is a matter of conscious for each individual to decide.
Some people consider that the vaccine has not had enough long-term testing to truly know if it is safe. Thus, they think it is for the greater good of humanity not to take the vaccine until the long-term effects are known. Others consider the vaccine significantly reduces the likelihood of becoming seriously sick or dying if someone is infected with covid. Thus, they think it for the greater good of humanity to take the vaccine. Neither option is sinful, and both are motivated by what is best for humanity. Ultimately, time will tell which is more accurate. As time progresses though, and more information becomes available, we should not be afraid to change our mind accordingly.
In the meantime, it is well worth reading Rom 14:1 – 15:7, where the Apostle Paul gives a template for dealing with conscious issues. Paul begins by instructing Christians to accept each other without arguing over disputable matters (Rom 14:1). Christians have been united together through the sacrifice of Jesus, and the same Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Christians are to work hard to maintain this unity which was brought at such tremendous cost by our Lord and Saviour. We are not united by the food we eat, the days we celebrate, or the vaccines we have. Therefore, the unity we have in Jesus should not be broken by disputable things unrelated to the gospel. This relates to vaccines which, likewise, should not be a source of arguing and division.
Paul commands Christians a number of times in this passage, not to treat each other with contempt, or to judge each other. Instead, we must bear with each other, allowing different opinions. Bearing with each other means resisting getting annoyed, frustrated, accusative, and assuming the worse of those who think differently. Instead, we should be as generous as we can and assume the best. While we may not agree with an opinion, we should assume it is being shared with us because the other person cares and wants the best for us.
It is also interesting that Paul puts the onus for unity, keeping peace, and bearing with others, predominantly on the mature. Those who are stronger in faith are to bear with those who are weaker. For Paul, this means he will bear with those who think that certain foods are off limits (a major issue in the first century), even though, he knows there is nothing wrong with such foods. Paul’s example here deserves significant thought and contemplation.
We do not know whether Paul at a later time took the opportunity to teach these Christians that all food is acceptable (as Jesus did, Mark 7:19); or whether Paul chose not to bother because the issue was not important enough. What we do see is that Paul will not force his opinion on others, even though he is right. Furthermore, he is unwilling to encourage those who think differently, to act contrary to their conscience. This is because it is sinful to do something we believe is wrong (Rom 14:23). Our conscious might change over time with more information, but while we think something is wrong, we should not do it. The same should be true with vaccines, not only should we not tell others what they should do with conscious issues; but we should not encourage people to go against their conscious and do something they think is not right.
What the passage goes on to suggest, is that both options can be acts of worship when done with the right attitude and for the right reasons. Therefore, those who have prayed and believe it is right, and for the common good to have the vaccine, should have it. And those who have prayed and believe it is right, and for the common good to wait for further information, should do so.
We should also carefully note verse 17, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Surely this is also true of vaccines, and therefore, we must not let something like this divide us. Instead, we should make every effort to keep peace (Rom 14:19), making sure we don’t destroy the work of God over such an issue (Rom 14:20). We need to find a way to talk about such issues without offending others, otherwise it is better to keep our opinions between ourselves and God, if expressing them is likely to cause division (Rom 14:22). For regardless of what we do and do not think about vaccines, we are to accept one another, just as Christ has accepted us (Rom 15:7). Contrary to what our culture might think, we are not united by race, gender, politics, vaccines, common opinions, or any other number of things. What unites us is Jesus Christ, his sacrifice for us, and the Holy Spirit in us.