Monday, September 12, 2022

Anonymous Asks (214)

“How can Christians repair broken relationships caused by differences of opinion about COVID policies?”

I think it’s fair to say debates about vaccination, masking, distancing and lockdowns probably caused more dissension between believers than any single issue in my lifetime. In most cases interpretation of scripture had little or nothing to do with it; if the Bible was quoted at all, it was usually a verse or familiar Bible phrase tacked on as a gloss, like the “Vaccination is loving your neighbor” rhetoric.

Facts and Opinions

I call it rhetoric because the statement was nothing more than an emotional appeal expressed pithily. It had no obvious truth content. It is valid or invalid depending on the facts about vaccine efficacy and potential dangers, which were definitely not in evidence at the time these bromides were coined and began to circulate. The truth is that nobody really had a clue whether getting vaccinated was actually a loving thing to do or not. We have a little more information today than we had in early 2021, but nothing conclusive. The facts remain largely in dispute, and may never be discoverable with sufficient certainty to settle an argument.

Similarly, the efficacy of masking, distancing and closing churches was hotly debated. Some Christians were offended that churches were closed; others that their fellow believers wanted their churches open. On all these issues, the absence of evidence didn’t stop a great number of Christians from expressing their opinions far too strongly, giving others cause for offense. Families were divided, friendships suffered, and angry or unhappy people left their home churches for what they hoped were greener pastures.

Social Media Pontificating

Much of the more heated back-and-forth between Christians took place on social media, which meant that I missed it entirely and am only hearing about it now, usually when I get up the courage to ask friends why they have changed churches or simply stopped going to church at all. When I get an answer, it is usually that someone did or said something hurtful, and the injured party is either waiting for an apology or has come to the realization they are never going to get one.

I’m generalizing here, but most people who got vaccinated were high-trust individuals who believed the authorities were telling them the truth when they said the vaccines were safe and effective. Most people who didn’t get vaccinated were lower-trust types who took it for granted they were not. Former West Germans got vaccinated en masse; former East Germans didn’t. But most of us made our choices not on the basis of the available scientific evidence, but on the basis of our previously-established opinions about the honesty of drug company salesmen, politicians and media personalities, and on our assumptions about how largely-unsaved medical professionals might respond to intense peer pressure.

Aiding Reconciliation

With all this in mind, I’ve been reflecting on what we can do to aid in the process of reconciliation rather than further fragmentation. Some thoughts:

1/ If you were wrong, apologize

This may seem almost too basic to tell fellow Christians. I have talked to lots of Christians who have changed their opinions about one or more of these controversial subjects since early 2021. I have not talked to single soul who has publicly retracted statements made in anger or in the absence of information, or statements that insinuated character flaws in fellow believers for their stance on this or that. Broken fellowship displeases God. “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” There is an urgency in that command that is not negated by the number of other Christians who talked out of turn and haven’t bothered to retract their comments.

2/ If you are offended, DO something about it

The teaching of the Lord Jesus leaves us no room for sitting home nursing grudges against fellow believers. I do not believe for a moment that the Lord was contemplating church discipline in Matthew 18 when he taught his disciples how to deal with erring Jewish brothers (and sisters), but the basic principle of pursuing a solution wherever possible applies in every era:

Step One: Go and tell the erring person their fault, between you and him/her alone. Wouldn’t it be lovely if every difference between Christians could stop right there?

Step Two: Take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

Step Three: Tell it to the larger group in which you are involved, which may or may not be a local church, depending on the situation. Depending on where the offense took place, it may be your social media app of choice.

Step Four: Have nothing to do with him/her.

It has been my observation over the years that these steps are rarely followed. Most often, Christians jump to Step Four without having done any of the others. It’s certainly easier, but it doesn’t solve problems. One unhappy churchgoer I know of put his elders on blast in a general email to the members of his local church without following Step Two first.

Which brings me to …

3/ Be willing to be a witness

I have actually heard of several instances in which an offended brother literally could not find a person willing to serve as a witness for him so that he could follow Step Two. To be fair, I would have difficulty serving as a witness in a case where I thought the offended party was imagining the offense against him, which actually happens more than it should. I would be more likely to counsel him to give his fellow believer the benefit of the doubt and drop the matter entirely. But if a complaint about an individual’s conduct seems legitimate and is backed by evidence, I cannot see why a fellow Christian should resist getting involved to serve as a witness. After all, the point of the Matthew 18 exercise is to “gain your brother”. Establishing facts and getting to the truth should be concepts with which all Christians are on board.

4/ Counsel others to follow Matthew 18

The first question out of our mouths when we hear criticism of other believers should be “Have you gone to him/her about that?” It would stop of lot of bitterness in its tracks if the offended party were reminded that he has only two Christian options open to him: (1) let it go; or (2) follow the biblical procedure. Gossiping about how so-and-so offended you deeply is not a legitimate option.

You Can’t Fix What People Don’t Want Fixed

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Some Christians have found their good opinions of others permanently changed. They are willing to be civil in public but are no longer particularly interested in keeping company with this person or that one. In some cases it has been made clear one or more of the parties involved are not willing to discuss their differences honestly or at all. You really can’t fix a problem unless both offender and offended are willing to come to the table and work it out. The apostle Paul certainly understood that.

No comments :

Post a Comment