Sunday, April 18, 2021

The Breaking Point

There is a lot of talk these days about Christian COVID “conspiracy theorists”, the spectrum of which ranges from anyone who does not accept lock, stock and barrel the ever-evolving mainstream media narrative about masks, vaccination and the efficacy of social distancing, all the way to the full-blown “George Soros and Bill Gates set up the whole thing” crowd.

A not-insignificant movement is underway to encourage these whispering saints to please curtail their speculations before they manage to ruin the collective testimony of the people of God by making us all look whack-a-doodle.

I am less concerned about the whole testimony bit than some, not least because speculation about various possible “conspiracies” is every bit as rampant in the unsaved world as in our churches, so that the same opinions which might make a man a “bad testimony” to the COVID-narrative “true believers” may also serve to make him a whole bunch of new unsaved friends among the swelling numbers of anti-vaxxers. You never know, these folks might be just as willing to hear what he has to say about Christ as they are to hear what he has to say about the epic evil of coercive vaccination.

Hey, we all have our roles to play. (Or, as the apostle Paul may (not) have put it, “To the whack-a-doodles I became as a whack-a-doodle.”)

Pulling Strings and Contriving Things

One of the more reasonable people on the issue is a good friend of mine who recently said this:
“We hear a lot these days about conspiracy ... I’m seeing a lot of believers that are, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you don’t understand what’s going on here. No, no, no. Behind the scenes there’s these wicked people’ — you know, whoever ... the Illuminati, Gates, Soros — ‘who are pulling strings and contriving things to create this wicked outcome.’

“I get a little bit sad when I see believers who seem consumed with peeling back the lid on different kinds of wickedness that are going on behind the scenes, when we should’ve come to grips with that a long time ago, in my opinion.”
He suggests that “long time ago” was way back in Genesis 3. And I quite agree. We always knew they were out to get us. The specifics of who, how and why are in one sense rather unimportant.

It is irrelevant, for example, whether our Canadian Prime Minister’s affection for the Great Reset concept, and his consequent desire to see the pandemic drag out until the middle class is begging for government assistance on the terms of the would-be-resetters, is a product of naivety or malice. Time spent debating that question is time well wasted. Likewise, it is unimportant whether the way the Ontario medical authorities have repeatedly fumbled the ball for the last 12 months is the result of a covert ideological agenda or simply plain old confusion, incompetence, and listening to the wrong advisors at the wrong time.

It is also really, really unimportant that all our Christian friends learn to see George Soros or Bill Gates lurking behind every tree.

They are, but that’s quite beside the point.

Basic Pattern Recognition

But if there is one little thing at least some of the so-called conspiracy theorists get right, and one way in which they may be useful to our churches, it is this: they may not be correct on every detail, and they may even be wrong about most, but unlike the rest of us eternal optimists dozing in our basements, they can do basic pattern recognition.

For example, when the story was “Two weeks to flatten the curve”, I absolutely supported every single Christian who said, “The powers that be are ordained of God” and quietly complied with the lockdown orders concerning church meetings. I was one of them. When the goalposts shifted, and shifted again, I was easy-going enough to play along for a while, and I had no negative impulses towards others who went along with a story that was becoming increasingly inconsistent and suspicious.

But over a year into the “two weeks to flatten the curve”, when the curve has entirely failed to flatten, and new excuses to extend the lockdown are being advanced weekly, many of them mutually contradictory, it is that much-maligned conspiracy crowd whom we can rely upon to point out that last time we expected to be done with this thing, we weren’t, and the time before, and the time before.

We may leave off speculating about the reasons for this entirely if you like. We are probably wise to ... only so long as we are alert enough to notice that our churches are not opening up, that the government’s influence on our meetings is not lessening, and that the prospect of a speedy resolution to the problem of not being able to gather to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ with the full blessing of our government and peers and the liberty to conduct ourselves as we once did is, well ... not great.

So maybe your “conspiracy theorist” brother or sister in Christ who tells you he thinks the old ways of meeting are never coming back should not be completely written off as a goofy paranoiac, even if his speculations turn out in the end to be 90% wrong. He is at least paying attention, and in that respect we would all do well to emulate him. If he is adding up the evidence wrongly, at least he is genuinely concerned that we may all be Zoom-worshiping well into 2022 and beyond, and he sees that as a problem in need of a better solution than the one we have currently.

It is. No, really, it is.

The Camel’s Back Waiting for a Straw

Okay. Work with me now. Moses’ parents: should they have hidden their beautiful male child in violation of Pharaoh’s edict to put him to death? That’s not a hard one. Hebrews gives us the answer: their violation of the laws of Egypt was an act of faith. God didn’t just let it pass. He was pleased with it and recorded his opinion about it for our benefit.

Second witness, and I’m going to call at least three. The apostle Peter has been arrested by Herod on a whim, not in accord with any genuine legal principle. Herod is playing politics, not doing the job God has given him. When the angel sent by God to free Peter from his jail cell strikes the apostle on the side and says, “Get up quickly”, would an appropriate Petrine response be, “There is no authority except from God”, as he lays his head back down on his stack of chains? Or should Peter get up as quickly as possible and run out that door?

Just asking. The angel certainly had an opinion.

Third case. The great king David of Israel, pre-king status, has been warned by his wife Michal that her father Saul is about to take her husband’s life. Does David dutifully wait at the front door of their home for Saul’s soldiers to take him to his summary execution, or does he allow his wife to let him down through the window to escape certain death? And remember, David doesn’t even have Peter’s angel to advise him.

Aw, why not. Just one more. Those 7,000 men and women in Israel during Ahab’s reign who had not bowed to Baal or kissed him: Would they have been better bowing and kissing, or would they have been better on the run like Elijah? Were they even up to being Elijahs if they had wanted to be?

Or maybe, in their quiet but firm civil disobedience, they were just fine where they were.

When Subjection is the Wrong Play

These are not complicated questions with multiple possible answers. All Christians will readily agree there is some crucial point at which we must obey God rather than men, even if we do it very quietly indeed. There is some point of crisis for every Holy Spirit-informed conscience in which the teaching of Romans 13, which we all agree holds generally, has to admit an exception or three. The apostles found one. The Hebrew midwives in Egypt found another.

In fact, there is a breaking point for every one of us to the principle that “Therefore one must be in subjection.” I bet I will not find a single Christian dissenter on that issue. Certainly we will not find one in the apostle Paul, who wrote the subjection-to-authority principle down for us. When the governor under King Aretas (most definitely a “power that be”) tried to seize Paul at Damascus, the apostle was let down in a basket through a window and escaped. Once in a blue moon, being “in subjection” is just the wrong play.

So the question is not “Is there a breaking point?” but rather “Have we reached it yet?”

I say we have. Your mileage may vary, and I am happy to respect and love you anyway.

Not Neglecting to Meet Together

There is a more important issue here, or maybe two related issues. We had better face up to them. The first is this, that Christians are commanded to come together, and to keep coming together on a regular basis:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
That’s not just a human being’s opinion. It is the word of God’s Holy Spirit. It’s phrased passively, but still that’s a command as I read it, and I’m sure as you read it too.

Then there’s the “Do this in remembrance of me” of 1 Corinthians 11. Do what? Break bread and share it. Pass a common cup and drink from it.

Does a Zoom session in which we watch other people break bread with only family members count? Hey, maybe for a week or three while we are figuring out what’s happening. But are we really “meeting together” when we do that? Not in any sense the church of the last two thousand years would have recognized, and not in the sense that significant numbers of committed believers in our own congregations are satisfied with. You can’t share a cup over the internet, or pass a broken loaf from hand to hand. You can’t care for a lonely senior who wants physical company, not just another phone call or text.

Flirting with Neglect

Three weeks at home is not “neglecting”. One can make a reasonable argument that it is being responsible. We didn’t know what was happening and we needed time to process what was going on around us. But a year and change in which some Christians have not attended a single physical gathering of the saints while the vast, vast majority of us are healthy and robust in the face of the “pandemic”, and have been all along? I’m thinking I would have difficulty explaining 52 weeks of consecutive absences to the Lord. I am becoming concerned that many of us are rationalizing disobedience of the grounds of safety, and tacking Romans 13 on to our little self-justification package as cover for our desire not to be perceived as rocking the boat with our unsaved neighbors, family and friends. If we are not there already, we are definitely flirting with neglect.

But, say the critics, surely you can’t mean we should all be engaging in open defiance of our government? That doesn’t sound very Christian!

I agree, it doesn’t. As much as I applaud the spirit and bravery of the congregations of LA’s Grace Community Church or Calgary’s GraceLife Church, I am not sure opening up a traditional church building in the face of federal, provincial, state or city ordinances is an useful way to proceed in the present environment, not because it’s a “terrible testimony”, but because it is ultimately a futile gesture. When any level of government decides to put its foot down hard enough, that will be that. Sure, those buildings are there, they were expensive, they are convenient, and it is really tempting to man up and defend them. But they are almost completely irrelevant to church life, and they are certainly not a major concern of the Lord in this present moment.

So no, the buildings can burn. Or be sold. Or fall into decrepitude. Or whatever happens to them. I don’t care. I’m advocating something else entirely.

But you’ll have to wait until Tuesday to find out.

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