There may not be a hotter and more potentially divisive topic of discussion in the world and in churches right now than whether or not people should be gathering, if they should wear masks and if they should social distance.
In one corner, you’ve got people who think it’s just common sense to stay away from people and wear masks. We need to stop the virus (or the speed of the spread) and that’s really the only way to do it. They think we should listen to our medical experts. To them, doing anything else is borderline (if not) sinful because its selfish and lacks compassion for the well-being of others.
In the other corner, you’ve got people who think gathering is just fine and wearing masks and social distancing is not healthy at all – and they’ll gladly show you stats to prove it. This other side thinks the first side is uninformed and manipulated by the fear-mongering media and its political agenda.
They also think we should listen to medical experts…just not the same ones. To them, drastically changing our lives is borderline (if not) sinful because it’s not becoming educated on the real truth of the matter, it’s selfish and lacks compassion for the well-being of others.
Yes, both sides come to the same moral conclusions from a different perspective. Quite the dilemma.
You probably want me to tell you which side I’m on with this one. Well, I’m not gonna do that :).
Everything hinges on love
What I am going to address is how each corner (and everyone in between) should treat each other.
As it stands, this issue falls under the category of a “debatable matter.” Debatable not in the sense that we should have debates about them, but in the sense that there’s no clear direction from the Lord on the matter.
If someone denies that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, that’s not a debatable Christian matter. That’s not a belief of a citizen of the Kingdom of God. If someone commits adultery – also not debatable.
A debatable matter is one in which believing different things about the matter does not indicate citizenship of the Kingdom.
Now, you personally may be fully convinced that you’re on one side or the other. But, you would have no biblical grounds for claiming that the other side is believing or acting outside of their realm of freedom as a Kingdom citizen.
Therefore, what could be sinful is the behavior you display to the other side. As you consider that, remember that everything hinges on what is loving to your brothers and sisters.
A biblical pot-luck dinner example
Let’s take a look at a classic biblical example and then apply it to this current issue. This kind of thing was going on in the first churches that were planted, and likely almost every single church that’s ever existed after that :).
A church in Corinth was having a pot luck dinner and some people in the church decided that the main dish they would bring would be steak. But some others in the church had a problem with that. This was because they were new converts that came from a background steeped in idol worship.
People that were into this would sacrifice meat to idols and then believe that their eating was an act of worshipping the idol the sacrifice was made to.
Although you might think people would get over that once they converted and realize there’s only one God and the idols aren’t real and the meat is not contaminated in any way…they still struggled with it. They couldn’t eat the meat with a clear conscience. They weren’t completely free in that area.
So what were the exchanges going on between the people that brought the meat and the people that weren’t comfortable with eating it? Here are some of the things you can imagine they were saying back and forth…
- Hello?!?! Those idols aren’t real. So that meat is not contaminated. Don’t you believe in Jesus?
- That meat was used in worship to an idol. How can you worship Jesus and an idol at the same time by eating it?
- Stop being so weak and trust in the Lord. Just eat it and get over it already.
- Why eat something that even could be contaminated? Why not just get some other food? That will make sure we’re safe.
- Why should I have to get other food when this food is just fine?
- You think it’s fine, but I know an expert that says it’s not.
- Well, God is the expert and He made it. No human can contaminate it. You’re crazy!
- You’re crazy for eating it! There’s no reason to do such a thing.
Sound familiar? It’s the same exchanges going on right now between some Christians in churches around the world regarding gathering, wearing masks and social distancing.
What the Apostle Paul said
The Apostle Paul heard this was going on because the church told him about it in a letter they wrote to him. The book of I Corinthians is his response to their letter and what he learns about what’s going on in the church; including this issue.
So what does he say?
He does acknowledge that those who were struggling with eating the food had consciences that were “weaker” in this matter. But check this out…he doesn’t insist they change their minds. Instead, he zooms in on those with the stronger consciences.
To them he says this (I’m paraphrasing what he means)…
Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. We know the idols aren’t real, but some people still struggle with a weak conscience in this area. If your knowledge and freedom to eat the meat offends your brother or sister, or worse yet, causes them to jump to your side and eat the meat when they’re still not convinced it’s OK to do, you’re not acting in love.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, our primary goal is to build one another up. For those with weaker consciences, it takes time and discipleship and our love displayed in our actions to them helps this process take place.
Always seek first what is good for your brothers and sisters before standing up for your own personal freedoms. If someone’s conscience is offended by an action you think is the right thing to do before God, you should sacrifice the freedom to do that thing for the sake of another’s conscience. (I Corinthians 8)
Basically, you don’t get someone with a weaker conscience to become stronger (and see it your way) by offending them with your freedom. You get them to become stronger by loving them where they’re at through putting their interests above your own and understanding the transformation of the mind is a process. And that process moves like a glacier.
Healthy church decision-making
In light of what the loving approach is, what do we do with this issue of gathering, masks and social distancing?
In our church, as is likely the case with most churches, we have people all over the spectrum of what they believe and what their convictions are. They’re everywhere from “If this is what takes me out, I don’t care. I’m going to be with my people.” to “I’m staying home and won’t see anybody until this whole thing is over.“
So what do we do? Do we get a few “key” people to make the decisions, announce them and enforce them as being right for all? That certainly violates what we’re talking about here. Do we include everyone in a conversation and debate about it until someone wins and others go home corrected and defeated? Of course not.
Instead, we come together, communicate, understand and explore solutions that work for everybody. (I wrote a whole series on church decision-making here that outlines these principles fully.)
Without exception, the solutions that can work for everybody will require the laying down of freedoms from some – those with a stronger conscience in the matter. As the Apostle Paul says…
When you wound a weak conscience, you sin against Christ. (I Corinthians 8:12)
Respect the weaker conscience
People’s consciences are a very delicate thing. Here’s what a thegospelcoalition.org article on this topic says about the conscience…
The conscience is such a delicate spiritual organ that it is easily damaged: to act in violation of conscience damages conscience, it hardens conscience—and surely no Christian who cares about right and wrong wants to live with a damaged conscience, an increasingly hardened conscience.
If we violate our consciences when we think that what we are doing is wrong (even though, according to Paul, the action itself is not wrong), then we will find it easier to violate our conscience when the envisaged action is wrong, with the result that our conscience will be less able to steer us clear of sin.
Respecting the weaker conscience is just one way in which we collectively as a church can offer our bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular) to God. This is true worship. (Romans 12:1)
We give up things to be unified, we don’t fight for our freedoms if they’ll cause division.