Wednesday, September 09, 2020

If It Happens Again I’m Leaving

Doug Wilson is not the only Christian blogging about the phenomenon of people leaving a church over the issue of compulsory mask-wearing, but he’s probably more quoted on the subject than most. Responding in a recent post to questions from believers frustrated by the stand their own elders have taken over the issue, Doug has (perhaps inadvertently) opened a larger can of worms than the mask issue itself, which is the authority of elders to bind the consciences of those under their care over matters about which scripture is silent.

And the mask issue is certainly that.

Facts and Opinions

A recent University of Florida study showed the likelihood of an asymptomatic person passing on the coronavirus is 28 times lower than a person showing symptoms, a finding consistent with an earlier (June 8) statement from the WHO’s technical lead to the effect that asymptomatic transmission appears to be “very rare”.

For me, that seems to square with what we are observing. I believe we’d be seeing significantly higher infection and death rates than we are currently seeing if both symptomatic and asymptomatic infected people transmitted the virus at comparable rates. If this study is correct, then masks are really only useful when a person is already displaying symptoms of infection ... and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people with fevers, coughs and shortness of breath are tending to stay home these days. It also suggests that the medical reasons to mask in church are few and far between.

However, it should be pointed out that estimates of the percentage of the COVID-19 infected who are asymptomatic vary wildly, from 15% all the way to 80%, leaving plenty of room for Christians to disagree about the likelihood they might catch the bug from unmasked and symptom-free fellow churchgoers — or worse, feel responsible for having passed it on. At this stage, I am not at all concerned about the risk, but I recognize others are. Love requires we take their feelings into consideration, even if we think they are unnecessarily fearful or gullible. That is the walking definition of a “weaker brother”, and we all know how they ought to be treated.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

Does that mean everybody should mask in church? Not necessarily, but it does mean respecting the fact that folks in masks probably don’t want a hug from an unmasked brother or sister; in fact, they may prefer you sit over there rather than in the pew behind them. Yes, WAY over there, right by the back door, up in the balcony, or even downstairs with the rest of your ilk, listening to the speaker through the sound system.

But that’s not enough for some. There are Christians who become offended when their brothers and sisters in Christ will not mask to worship, praise, pray or listen, and there are those who become offended on their behalf even when they will not push the issue. Still other Christians are offended at the State’s intrusion into the local church, where it possesses no legitimate authority, and view refusing to wear a mask in church as something just short of a proclamation of the headship of Christ. Both positions are matters of conscience, and elders everywhere have been left trying to play referee over an issue where facts are thin on the ground and chimerical, while opinions are wall to wall.

Political Footballs

If you think elders like being handed political footballs like this, you do not know many elders. After weeks of lockdown, nobody wants to be forced to mandate a bunch of new rules that threaten to drive either the COVID-fearful or the feisty questioners of State authority back home to watch meetings on Zoom over a matter of principle. But of course the elders are the ones to whom the people of God turn when questions get difficult, and here we are. And some elders, apparently, have decided to solve the problem by mandating mask-wearing for everyone.

The difficulty, of course, is that in doing so they are binding the consciences of Christians who feel that worshiping the Lord with faces covered week after week is at bare minimum weird and spiritually unhealthy, and at worst a craven capitulation to either fear or the inappropriately exercised authority of the State. And hey, I understand their position too. Moreover, even if I didn’t, and thought they were a bunch of crazy loons, I need to respect the fact that they too are taking a position on the basis of conscience before God.

Hmm, but then again, if they are crazy loons, doesn’t that make them “weaker brothers” too? And we all know how weaker brothers ought to be treated.

See the problem? Poor elders. And people are actually leaving.

Blocking the Exits

Most church auditoriums are fairly large, and most congregations are currently well below 100% of their normal numbers. You would think in most cases there should be adequate space for the expression of a little freedom of conscience. For myself, I’m fine with sitting in a room full of believers, masked and unmasked, distancing or not, as each sees fit. I am not fine with mandatory masking, because mandatory masking requires imposition of the will of one bloc of Christians on another over a matter where our differences are not over morality, but over disputed facts. I would not leave a church permanently over it, but I might consider going down the street for a few months where the elders are allowing a little more freedom, or participating in church life from home to the greatest extent possible.

Doug Wilson contemplates a situation in which this option has been ruled out:
“At the same time, if the elders require masks in order to participate in worship, and if they also require attendance at worship — not allowing their dissenting members to visit other churches during this time, or to worship at home, then I do think it would be possible to leave the church on that account without being rebellious.”
I must admit I had never thought of that one. Maybe I know too many reasonable elders. But now that Doug brings it up, I have certainly heard of churches where church “membership” is only granted to congregants who sign pledges of obedience to local leadership. Such a scenario does not seem quite so unlikely in a context where the elders, for whatever reason, anticipate future non-compliance with their directions and have attempted to deal with it up front.

First Century Blues

I’m trying to picture how something like this might have played out in the first century of church life, and I must admit to having some difficulty. We are so far away from where they were. Paul speaks of the “churches of Galatia”, the “churches of Macedonia” and the “churches of Judea”, all plural. While the areas in question were fairly sizable Roman provinces, and we do not know how many local churches existed within them, or how far away these gatherings were from one another geographically, Paul does address all the churches in Galatia with a single letter, which strongly suggests the various congregations had regular contact and access to one another.

Further, while there was always the danger of Christians developing a sectarian spirit, in those early days there were no denominations; the gnawing concern that “those people over there are heretics” would come later. It is hard to imagine the shepherds of a mid-first-century church forbidding their sheep from enjoying the fellowship in other sheepfolds. Diotrephes too would come later, perhaps by as much as four decades.

And even with our modern denominational departure from orthodoxy, I increasingly dislike the notion of elders restricting where their sheep graze. Advising, certainly. Warning, definitely, especially where the other church has a reputation for holding questionable doctrines. But not allowing a dissenting member to visit another church? That would be a real shame; in its own way a denial of the one Body.

I haven’t seen it or heard of it yet. I hope not to.

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