My dad had a six-bypass surgery when he was 47. He struggled on for another thirteen years of life, but struggled is the key word.
I turned 47 in June. It’s been on my mind all year.
In a sermon about medicine just a couple days after my birthday, I had a long paragraph about some of my physical problems. I won’t repeat it all here, but to sum up, I have been more weak than strong, and not always as edifying about it as Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:10.
For 2021 I didn’t make any resolutions, but I did choose a theme, which is FIT. It has two or three applications, but the first is, as you should certainly expect if you’ve read this far, related to my body.
I mostly bring it up, not necessarily for seeking public accountability, but because I just read an entire section about qualifications for preachers regarding their health. The book is, The Joy of Preaching, written by Phillips Brooks.
“[E]verything that you do for your body is not merely an economy of your organs that they may be fit for certain works; it is part of that total self-consecration which cannot be divided, and which all together makes you the medium through which God may reach His children’s lives.”
If God gives illness and pains and weaknesses and afflictions, then we know He has His reasons. He uses affliction to teach us His statutes (Psalm 119:71), and He afflicts some, especially ministers, that He might also comfort them so that they can share that comfort with others (2 Corinthians 1:3-6). By His grace I have learned, and by His grace I have been a medium of comfort. Also by His grace, I’m still thinking about what I can do on my end to be less of a “sick minister [who] is always hampered and restrained” (Brooks, 48).
In God’s providence we are still being confronted with COVID panic, or we are being confronted again, or we are being confronted somehow with heretofore unprecedented measures. (Didn’t it seem like the box labeled UNPRECEDENTED was already dumped out?) We have been told to stay home, we’ve been told to mask up, we have been told to vax up, and now we’re supposed to re-mask up. We’ve been told if we stayed home for 15 days we could get back to normal (which I think was more than 500 days ago). We were told that if we wore masks we could get back to (a new) normal. We were told that if we got vaccinated we wouldn’t have to wear masks. We were told that if a certain percentage of the population got vaccinated we could be done with all restrictions. And now, a number of our church members are being threatened that if they don’t get vaccinated then they can’t keep their job. It’s also being teased that if we all don’t get vaccinated none of us might be able to travel or shop in stores or eat in restaurants. Just this past week in Washington state, government employees were given an ultimatum for vaccinations, as well as health-care workers, and all school employees, whether public or private schools. It is surprising, and it would be just silly if it weren’t for how many people are taking it seriously.
What this post will not be is a set of reminders about your Constitutional rights as a United States citizen or citizen of Washington State. It will not be scientific or medical stats or stories (though that is available and I’d be happy to share what I’ve read and listened to). It will not be about the necessary questions regarding the believability of our public officials or media outlets, about their changing of the goalposts or flip-flopping messaging without corresponding evidence. It will not promote an alternative fear to the virus, a “conservative” fear about tyranny, even though we appear to be in MiniTyrant Season. Instead I want to remind us of what we know in summary form and to affirm our church’s support for your decisions made by faith.
So what I’m writing here is not a legal defense, nor will this help you seek a medical exemption. If pleading sanity was an option, I’m sure many of us would try.
A couple qualifications about terms. I will be speaking about religious exemptions, especially for those who wonder about the legitimacy of claiming that status or who desire to seek such an exemption from your employers regarding “forced” vaccinations via threat of termination or retaliation.
But even as I give the first point below, what we believe is not a footnote, a digression, an incidental allowance for ourselves as some sort of crazies. Seeking an “exemption” is what it has come to, but those who are acting in the place of God have the first problem. Playing savior of others is a hard job, and there will be no exemptions from judgment before God for such arrogance on their part. You may not even want to play along with the pride of men, or be put on their list like some sort of beggar. So be it.
But if a religious exemption is offered to you, and you believe it a God-honoring course of action, then here are some things to consider.
The Faith of Christians
There are three things that are part of our faith, truths we believe in this religious “sect” of ours called Christianity, that apply to your appeal for a religious exemption from mandatory vaccination. They are broad truths that are relevant to any “forced” medical procedure, and, ironically, these are the truths that established the principle of religious exemptions in the first place.
These truths are true whether or not your request is accepted. These truths are true even if we are persecuted for believing them.
1. God’s Sovereignty
Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth (Psalm 124:8). He is God, Creator of all, and He “does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). His Son is the King of kings and Lord of lords, risen from the dead. There is none like Him.
As stated in our church’s longer What We Believe document, Section 3.2:
We believe that God upholds and governs all things – from galaxies to subatomic particles, from the forces of nature to the movements of nations, from evil to good, and from the public plans of politicians to the secret acts of solitary persons – all in accord with His eternal, all-wise purposes to glorify Himself
Which means that we believe that God is sovereign over sickness and health, that He works through miracles and medicine. It means we also believe that every authority on earth throughout history has been established by Him.
For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. (Romans 13:1, see also John 19:11)
We believe in God’s existence and power and authority, which already makes us weirdos to those busy trying to suppress their knowledge of God (according to Romans 1:18, 21). We are living in different worlds.
Part of the reason for our religious exemption is that we think there is a God over science, not that science is god. We think there is a God over the President and CDC and Governor and County Health District. In our current circumstances, these authorities are not just “doing the best they can” against a virus, they are acting without any reference to God at all. We object to their conceit, and to their entire lack of context “under God,” because of our faith.
As Christians we also are comforted by this truth of God’s sovereignty. He is God and Father. He clothes us, feeds us, cares for us (Matthew 6:26). He knows what we need before we do (Matthew 6:32). He knows that the Gentiles panic about getting their little greedy hearts less anxious. Because God is sovereign we are secure.
2. Limited Government
Though that phrase isn’t in Scripture, it is a truth found in Scripture. Limited government is a religious principle, and a particularly Christian idea, not based on political conservatism or libertarianism.
God sets up kings, and He removes them, at will. God also says what government must do, and what they must not do (Romans 13:3-4; 1 Peter 2:14). He also reveals that sinful men, in their power-hungry pride, will often abuse their positions (Ecclesiastes 8:9).
While He is in control of evil men, He prohibits us from obeying men rather than God (Acts 5:29). God has commanded us to submit to earthly authorities, but not absolutely everything that they mandate.
Plus, it turns out, our system of government in the United States is “the people,” as asserted in our Federal Constitution, which was established to limit the authority of our representatives in government. The Founders got that principle from knowing that the State wasn’t God.
God gave authority to rulers “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14). He commands that we pay “taxes to whom taxes are owed…honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:6-7). This does not mean that we will never be on the government’s bad side, it means that when the government acts badly we may suffer for doing good (1 Peter 2:15; 4:19).
But again, this means the government does not have absolute authority. The State may make a “law” that theft is legal, and that will cause the people to groan (as in Proverbs 29:2), but it is wrong. The State may mandate a medical treatment, but it is wrong. Of course the State can use its force, but that is abuse of authority. We object because of our faith.
3. Liberty of Conscience
Scripture does not use this exact phrase, but the truth is there. It has been recognized in political and church history (see a good example of this going back to 1721). Because each man answers to God, we are not even allowed to speak evil against one another, let alone bind them to a moral good we’ve defined/declared outside of God’s Word.
There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:12, see also Romans 14:4)
Your body does not belong to any Governor, but to God, and it is not the Governor’s prerogative to make you safe from every illness, from all cancers (or climate). You are responsible to God as a steward to consider what is best for your body. What great opportunities God has given us for learning and for seeking counsel with those who have done more medical “practice.” But a public professional cannot dictate your conscience before the Lord. We object to such “force” because of our faith.
The following passages from Scripture have their own contexts, none of which concern vaccinations specifically, but each passage does have broader application in principle.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)
You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. (1 Corinthians 7:23)
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1–2)
whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)
Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. (1 Peter 2:16)
Though many governors have taken up our own Christian language of “loving our neighbors,” they do not get to define that. For what it’s worth, neither do other Christians (pastors, ethicists, bloggers) seeking to make Christians feel moral guilt for not submitting to certain medical treatments, like vaccines. (Here is a bad example of such an attempt, with a good response here.)
And so the use of “force” through threats of termination, discrimination and retaliation, are sinful abuses of authority. Can the State, and employers, promote, encourage, and provide help? Of course. Does the Bible authorize the State to quarantine persons with certain sorts of contagious illness? The Bible gives examples of that. But the Bible does not give State, or “masters”/employers, the authority to force any medical procedure on any person (or eat specific food, or only drive on Tuesdays, etc., for the “good” of your neighbor (Romans 14)).
What you must do is not go against your conscience before God.
I am not saying that you must not get vaccinated. I am saying that you must make that choice, by faith, with wisdom through research and counsel.
Our church elders agree that we are not the boss of your medical choices, and we agree that elected representatives or appointed officials or public health officials or business employers are not the boss of your medical choices.
We are available to talk with you, to give you counsel, to give you support if applying for religious exemption including writing a letter on your behalf, to give you support in finding other employment. We labor for your progress and joy in faith (Philippians 1:25). These days, living by faith may bring you into collision with those who would try to force you to go against your conscience.
Today has its own trouble, who knows about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34). Who knows what opportunities we will have to live by faith and call on the Lord. In our struggle against sin we have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood (Hebrews 12:4), and we are not to grow weary or fainthearted (Hebrews 12:3). As a congregation we are not really running lean yet, but we are running together, and that will continue to be important in whatever days the Lord gives us.
Again, if you’ve considered the risks and have been vaccinated by faith, if you’ve been vaccinated because you willingly chose to make a sacrifice by faith, then you have our support. But what you must do is trust God, thank God, and be ready to give Him an account.
Anxiety rages around us like a drunk two year-old, like a pounding hurricane parked right offshore. Cultural fretting is as fast and furious as our President is slow and confused. There are fights without and fears within. What we see in Afghanistan is horrific, and that is just the current focus of the camers. We have friends who are in pain, friends who are under threats and facing uncertain futures. Marriages are struggling, important projects are unfinished, big decisions need making. Anxiety is like being wrapped in a blanket of porcupine quills, as uncomfortable as it is unhelpful.
But Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). He said, “In “the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Paul wrote, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” The “rule” is like that of an umpire. Take a look at the situation and then make a judgment: be at peace.
Jesus died and rose again so that you might have peace with God (Romans 5:1). The Father and Son sent their Spirit that you might know the fruit of love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:22). This peace is a gift, and it is potent, like a deep river (Isaiah 48:18; 66:12). “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
I started reading a book called Four Thousand Weeks yesterday. I am the sort of sucker who bought it shortly after seeing someone else mention it, because I am the sort of sucker who regularly (and wrongly) thinks that I could get more D.U.N. if I just had a more optimized system, the right app stack, a cleverer acronym, or was just a different person altogether, ha!
Anyway, I’m still in the introduction, and I don’t know where the book will end up; is it even possible to agree with anyone completely? But Burkeman has already encouraged me with this:
The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.
—Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks, Location 55, emphasis added
It reminds me of this inspired life-buoy from Solomon:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.
It’s enjoying the process. It’s seeing the wonder of God’s many gifts. And it’s what the “man of God” called wisdom:
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
As the title of Burkeman’s book signals, a life of 80 years (a number Moses figured for those with strength, Psalm 90:10) is about four thousand weeks. Not only is that calculation not morbid, it’s an opportunity for both mighty work and whacking gratitude (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
Paul told one of his disciples to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22). The virtues listed here are religious meat and potatoes, but it is the company around the table that I’d like to consider: “those who call on the Lord.”
That’s not typical terminology for us, but it may be the first proactive descriptor of worshippers in the Bible. It’s in Genesis 4 that men “began to call upon the name of the Lord.” (Genesis 4:26)
To “call on” means not only to depend on, but to depend on consciously, verbally. It’s especially applicable when men are in trouble and distress (Psalm 118:5; 120:1); they call on the one who can guide and protect. It’s applicable for our greatest trouble, sin, with its guilt and our awareness of just judgment against us, and we call on the one who can forgive and restore. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13, cited from Joel 2:32).
And this is a group that can be distinguished. Paul knew a lot of other labels, including those called by God, but these are those who call on God.
What an encouragement that we are not alone, that our life as disciples is connected to our life in the assembly. When we are having a hard time, we are with others who are calling on the Lord. when others are having a hard time, we know what to do: call on the Lord.
The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. (Psalm 145:18)
Let us be those who call on the Lord from a pure heart, and that reminds us to confess our sins.
A friend gave me a copy of this book and I was eager to get after it right away. It didn’t take too long before I was reading bigger chunks at a time…so I could be finished with it faster.
The book is primarily about the power of liturgy to affect our desires/loves. And amen. This is something I had not thought about until ten or so years ago, and I am very thankful that this book by James Smith is not the first one I came across. It might have messed me up all over.
It’s not just that I don’t care for a number of his terms, such as “precognitive,” but I really came to not believe him when he tried to stick on a weak qualification here or there about how we shouldn’t abandon all propositions/sentences/statements of truth. Liturgy should be emphasized, especially among those who only see worldview issues through catechesis. But Smith emphasized it in such a way that liturgy becomes the autocrat of pedagogy, so to speak. But God gave us His Word. His Son is the Word. Psalm 19:7-8 describes the Word as potent.
I cannot recommend that you read this, and, if you do, watch out that you do not follow Smith in giving too much authority to the experiences and feelings and traditions of men.
If there was a man who took it as a great punishment to be invited to a well-prepared table with family and friends, we would say something was wrong with that man. His feeling of burden or horror might be due to the bruised trauma of a previous experience, or maybe a failure to regulate hyper-introversion, or maybe straight-up selfishness. Under normal circumstances, it should be more of a punishment to not be included.
The Lord’s Supper is a well-prepared table for the sons and daughters of the Lord, for brothers and sisters, for all those adopted by the Father, for those transferred into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love, for each individual member of the same body. Rightly received by faith, the bread reminds us of Christ’s body given for our forgiveness, and where sin abounded grace abounded much more. Rightly received by faith, the wine reminds us of Christ’s blood shed for us, and where sin disrupted our relations His blood covers and reconciles. It is a cup of blessing (1 Corinthians 10:16).
Gathering here is no burden, no punishment, no cause for anxiety. By grace, our communion as a church has been the opposite. Some of our best singing, at least in loudest volume and joyful noises, is done during this part of our liturgy. Some of the best facial expressions, at least most awake and biggest smiling, is during the walking and waiting in line. That is how it ought to be.
May God use it to give you such a taste that the Lord is good that you would never turn away from Him. May God disciple your loves that you would feel the pain of discipline if you had to miss it.
One thing we’ve really been seeking to do better as a church is consider the relationship between sacred and secular. Often the two are distinguished as church and not church, but if that’s the line, then we are headed for problems, as church history has shown. Others want to see the everything in the world as sacred, but that could make it harder to avoid the sin of worldliness, as if there was no such thing.
The word secular comes from the Latin saeculum which meant “age,” an amount of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person or the equivalent of the complete renewal of a human population, a generation. It’s a measured way of referring to the now, the current. A secular man is identified as a man of this age. He’s a chronological sectarian. His context is narrow because his context only has room for what’s on the calendar on his desk.
A Christian man lives in the present, but his faith connects him to higher realities in heaven, invisible realities in the present, inescapable realities in history, and inevitable realities to come. It’s not only the immediate things that are relevant, it’s God who determines what is relevant, the God who was and is and is to come.
The things that are seen are secular, they are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Corinthians 4:18).
We have been given amazing things, we live during the most blessed time in history, and yet our identity is not in the now, but in Christ. We have died with Him, and our life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, appears, we will appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:3-4). For now, we see the world and do our work in His light (John 8:12).
Abraham Kuyper on the chosen and precious foundation of our churches:
Your church is then a colony of heaven living on the earth. It has its own autonomous existence, resting on its own foundation; it is constructed in its own unique style; it is built of very different stone than those offered by the mines of the world; and in its state and organization it depends not on the laws of nature, nor on the legislation of earthly lawmakers, but only on the law of life of its divine founder.
—On the Church, p. 323, emphasis added; think also of 1 Peter 2:4-5
To my memory I haven’t talked publicly about why I really have to work at singing “Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners.” It’s not just because of the verbal association with the popular and irreverent “Jesus is my homeboy” Christian t-shirt fad that thankfully seems to have faded, along with the various contemporary Christian rock music that makes it sound like Jesus sound like my girlfriend, which is even worse.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is Savior. Jesus is the eternal Word. Jesus is the Firstborn from all creation, the Head of the church. Jesus is the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Jesus is the Lamb, standing as having been slain. Friend is too casual, too comfy, for a song about the King.
But I do sing the song, even though I have work to prepare to do so, because it was Jesus Himself who, without directly calling Himself our Friend, called us His friends, and showed Himself a friend in action.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one that this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. … I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:12-15)
We are His servants, yes, but He says we are more than that. Therefore we shouldn’t try to be more “spiritual” than He says. We needed His sacrifice for sake of escaping God’s wrath, but He says His sacrifice was also for sake of showing His love. He says we are His friends, and He’s prepared a table for us to share with Him.