Soon, we will be returning to in-person church services.
As is often the case, in my church, there were differences of opinions over the wearing of masks and the safety of vaccines. There was more disagreement over the appropriate Christian response to the governmental closures of religious gatherings and quite a bit of controversy over the use of our church building as a vaccination site.
Since last March, I have been researching the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve read all kinds of articles from various perspectives, and I have read whole books on the subject. I went to a Liberal Arts university, so I have some ability to understand science and as I digested all this material, I developed opinions that I believe are the right ones–they are grounded in my analytical skills and my expertise in the evaluation of sources; they are built upon my understanding of human nature and culture derived from a lot of experience and more than a little reading; they rest upon the foundation of 40 years of deeply reading and studying the Bible. And lastly, conversations with experts.
So I am confused, frustrated, and sometimes angered by those who do not share my opinions on the Christian response to the various issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
I can’t believe they could be so dumb and so unfaithful to the general themes of scripture, the teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, and the instructions of Paul to the early church.
And soon, I will be sitting in the pew next to these people with whom I have disagreed. One’s whose views I believe are totally wrong. And we will together be worshiping our Lord and King. So how is that supposed to work?I am frustrated by those who do not share my opinions on the Christian response to the issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. And soon, I will be sitting in the pew next to these people. And we will together be worshiping our Lord. How?Click To Tweet
The Screwtape Letters (1942) by C. S. Lewis offers us some help here. In The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon named Screwtape provides advice to a novice tempter, his nephew Wormwood, about how best to lead his human ”patient” to damnation. “Our Father,” then is Satan, and “the Enemy” is Jesus Christ. Screwtape’s letters give a pretty clear indication as to how the demons plan to use the disagreements about WWII to weaken the church and thwart any of the purposes that God might have through the turmoil. These demonic intentions are no different in our current situation and it is clear from Lewis’s book that we will either be agents of heaven or the instruments of hell as we encounter events like Covid-19. Indeed, we already have been.
I have found in these letters three insights that will make it possible for me to come together in worship next to those with whom I disagree on all the issues around the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Best We Knew
In the fifth letter, Screwtape talks about the Second World War. Obviously, this was a big deal for the original audience of Lewis’s book; it was a time of tremendous turmoil and uncertainty. He explains to Wormwood,
But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.
As you can see from this excerpt, in times of turmoil and uncertainty, the demons want to exacerbate division by turning my focus on the rightness of my own position and the wrongness of those who disagree with me.
This is exactly what has happened during the pandemic. We’ve taken opposing opinions about masks and vaccines and church closures and using the church as a vaccination site. I am right, obviously. If you can’t see that, you are obviously wrong. So how can we get along? Well, we can’t because not only are you wrong, you are ignorant and probably not even really a Christian. Have you thought this? It’s exactly what the demons want, and exactly what God does not.
The amazing thing about this passage is that all our passion about masks, or vaccines, or church closures might be completely misplaced. And God’s OK with that. As long as we are looking to values and causes higher than the self. God wants us to look beyond ourselves–to principles that we believe to be important because we believe we are being faithful to his will.
So there is a lot of soul searching required. How much of my passion is about serving the self? Be honest, some of it is. If you think you are 100% focused on the good of the Kingdom, you don’t know yourself very well.
Let’s get back to the point: How can I get along with people on the opposite side of the issues? They held their views because they thought they were the right ones. God doesn’t care very much if they were wrong. And neither should I.
And be honest, there is a possibility that you were the one who was wrong. Take comfort in the truth that God likes it that you were trying to be faithful.How can I get along with people on the opposite side of the issues? They care about the issue and they think they are right. God cares more that they care than that they are right.Click To Tweet
Don’t be Extreme
If you still wonder if you can go back to church with those people, here’s a second insight. In the seventh letter, Screwtape returns to a subject he refers to in an earlier letter. Again, in the context of the Second World War, Christians obviously took opposing positions regarding the appropriate Christian response to the war. Some were in favour of the war and others opposed it. I’m sure that there was a lot of division within the church, and strong feelings, and broken relationships–and behaviours akin to unfollowing someone on Facebook. Even without social media, there were arguments about which side was faithful, and which was in league with the forces of hell.
So here’s what the demons are up to. Screwtape says,
I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. [The current age is] unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame [it].
It’s like Lewis has written these words for today, not just for 80 years ago. Did you notice what side the devils are on? Neither! The side doesn’t matter, they just want the extremes. Extremes are emotional and unstable, and they create divisions that are difficult to overcome–because of the damage they create; people on the extremes can’t listen, they can only shout. I watch the exchanges on Twitter. If you have a Twitter account, you know exactly what I am talking about. Extreme this, versus extreme that. They talk as if those with whom they disagree are in league with the devil. What they don’t understand is the devil isn’t on one side or the other. The devil is behind the demonizing of others regardless of the side.
The divisions in our culture are getting more and more extreme–liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. And Covid-19 created new issues with new extremes. The issues are in the church, but we need to keep the extremes out. In the States, many politicians and much of the media know better but are using the extremes, both sides, for their own political ends. This, whether liberal or conservative, whether mask or no mask, is what makes the devils dance with hateful glee. We can’t expect those in politics and media to live in obedience to the king, but it is expected from the children of God. By his Spirit, we must stay away from the extremes.
It’s not too difficult to infer that God isn’t very concerned about what side we are on. He is a lot more interested in you still talking to your brothers and sisters in Christ. And singing with them, and praying. And disagreeing with them, and still finishing your coffee and shaking hands when you leave each other.
If God doesn’t really care which side you are on, then neither should I.
Charity and Humility
In the sixteenth letter, the local church is described as being “a unity of place and not of likings.” It brings together people with whom you might not naturally associate too closely. In the church, different classes, generations, races, and political views come together in unity in a particular place. This is the kind of unity the Lord desires. The devils want divisions about “likings”:
The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” . . . . And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application.
We will always have disagreements. They had them in the early church and we have them now. The argument around circumcision was a big deal; it was about fully understanding the extent of Grace. But not all conflict is as significant. Screwtape calls these “unessentials.” I think sometimes, when we are in the middle of it all, we can’t tell if we are dealing with a serious issue or an unessential liking. A good rule of thumb is that the closer it gets to Christ, the more essential it is.
The Corinthian church had a contentious issue to deal with. The issue was about eating meat that has been associated with idol worship. Most of the meat available in the Corinthian marketplace and at public social gatherings was associated with idol worship. You can imagine that some Christian thought it was was a sin to eat this meat and that Christians must, then, eat only vegetables. Others argued that since the Greek gods didn’t exist, the meat was fine. You can imagine the same passions from both sides of the issue as we have about masks and vaccines and defying government closures and using the church as a vaccination site.
So what does Paul say? Well, he says, go ahead and eat the meat. But then he says that love is more important than anything else, so consider how eating meat will affect others and refrain from any action that will cause others to stumble.
I’m not sure which side is supposed to move when it comes to the Covid 19 issues. We have to determine who might be stumbling. I won’t be stumbling. That means I’m the one that is supposed to concede. Crap!
Hell wants us to focus on being right and heaven wants us to focus on loving each other. When we thwart the plans of the demons, the church becomes “a positive hotbed for charity and humility.” Whatever side we are on, we’ve got to get out of the “fight because you are right” mindset and embrace an attitude of love.
There are a lot more issues pulling against Church unity today. It’s not just the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the issues have nothing to do with orthodox doctrines about Jesus Christ. I wonder if we can’t take these three insights into all the big issue conflicts we find ourselves in.
- Believe in your position, but remember that God is more interested in motives than rightness.
- Don’t be extreme, except in your devotion to Him.
- If your causing your brother to stumble, his position is the one we are going with.
These are the three insights that I will be trying to remember as we head back into in-person corporate worship because Christ prayed for unity above all things. These are the very circumstances in which he prays it. Who am I to place my desire to be right (even though I am…stop it! Just stop it!) above the prayers of the King?