Okay, fine, I’m vaccinated. I’ll admit it. As a writer, there is always a temptation to open with caveats, to carefully identify your location on the contours of the controversy you are about to wade into. You’ve probably done the same in countless conversations. And let me remind you, it’s the holiday season, so there will be many more of these delicate, or perhaps emotionally charged and exasperated, conversations to come.
I recently filled out a questionnaire for a religious conference I was attending. You know, things like, “Have you been vaccinated?” “When was your last vaccination?” “Have you had a booster?” “Would you be willing to provide proof of vaccination?” And of course, “Have you recently had a fever, cough, headache, body chills, or lost sense of taste or smell?” I told my wife, “they now know more about my COVID opinions than they do my theological ones.” At the moment, one is surprisingly far more controversial.
To be fair, I have a lot of sympathy for them and the complexity they are trying to navigate. I’ve led a congregation through two years of it. I’ve heard every opinion possible, been asked to sign statements, protest mandates, and participate in drives. COVID and vaccinations have proved controversial worldwide, but my seat for the show has been ring-side for the church fight, and, it turns out, professing faith in Jesus hasn’t made any of the decisions simpler. To put it simply, when it comes to the decision to be vaccinated, Christians disagree.
They disagree from church to church, from pastor to congregant, from husband to wife. Kids trying to convince their elderly parents to get the shot, and other elderly parents trying to convince their thirty-something kids to do the same. Some see mandatory vaccination as a massive governmental overreach that threatens religious freedom and the foundations of individual liberty. Others argue that Christians who refuse a vaccine deny science, wading into a murky cesspool of nationalism and conspiracy that risks the clarity of our witness to a lost world.
Both caricatures do exist; I’ve seen them for myself. And while the church is certainly capable of both capitulation and conspiracy, there are two other dangers we’ve failed to acknowledge. These two fallacies are quickly exposing the Christian vulnerability of conforming to the world’s ways of framing just about every conflict. We’re being backed into corners and prodded into controversy like dumb sheep constantly afraid and on the defensive.
The Twosideism Fallacy
There is an old fallacy called bothsideism, in which we are tempted to give credibility to both extremes in the name of sensationalism and interest. This fallacy suggests that both sides are not always equal, and by presenting them as equal, you distort the truth. Certainly, there is plenty of evidence of this at work in our media.
But I want to add another more broad fallacy which I’ll call twosideism. We tend to be driven by the same sensational news cycle and to frame every discussion as a debate between two possible views. You are either for the vaccine or against it. That’s the question we’re each trying to delicately sniff out with family and coworkers to avoid offense. But the whole question is absurd.
Does being pro-vax mean you’ve had at least one shot? Or does it require two? Or does it require two, plus a booster? Does it require your children to be vaccinated? At what age? Does it require a mask and vaccination? Does it require a Facebook post showing your vaccine card? Does it require vaccination upon emergency approval, official FDA approval, or if you just waited a few months, are you still on the pro-vax side?
And are you an anti-vaxer if you had COVID and want to count on antibodies? Are you anti if you had COVID and such mild symptoms you’ve decided, much like you have previous flu shots, to skip it? What if you are concerned about the novelty of mRNA technology? What if your concern is the use of fetal stem cells in research? What if you legitimately believe mandatory vaccination is a governmental overreach and though you may not be worried about the actual shot, decide to abstain in protest? What if you’re convinced it’s a deep state conspiracy, or a Chinese weapon, or a divine judgment?
Do you belong to one or the other? We are growing increasingly used to seeing the world in two sides. Republican/Democrat. Left-wing/Right-wing. Pro/Con. For/Against. Vaxer/Anti-Vaxer. To be fair, there are some on both sides who feel like the stakes are so high that there is nothing left but two sides to pick. They see Fort Sumter already under fire and imagine people like myself late to the news.
But I want to suggest that even such extreme positions are on a spectrum. There are not two sides; there is a spectrum of decisions and evaluations. With its split-screen sound-bite debaters, the news will never cover it this way, but the vast majority of Americans, and Christians too, do not fit neatly into either extreme.
I’m not convinced the church is as polarized as news agencies, including some of our own evangelical ones, are wanting us to believe. Even when we do disagree adamantly, and we feel irreconcilably opposed, I still see us on a spectrum, a spectrum with room to move in both directions.
All Christians agree that there are times in which our faith compels us to comply and pay honor to the state. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But we also agree that there are moments in which Christians must stand opposed to the state, in which our faith compels us to disobedience. It is helpful when the question before us is so explicitly clear that we understand where we are and what is at stake. When asked to renounce Christ or face the wild animals, we understand where we are on the spectrum pretty clearly.
But historically, the church has often wrestled with recognizing when that moment is only theoretical, when it is approaching and when it is here. Let me give you a current example. Consider the complex decisions of Chinese Christians who have been forced to navigate their nation’s limited child policies. For several decades, the state has limited families to only one, and more recently two children. Does the Bible allow the state to dictate the number of children you bear? Should you violate it and pay a fine? Violate it and cover it up? Is this an issue worth Christians speaking out against and risking greater persecution or the closing of their churches? China has recently increased its policy to allow for three children. Does that change the Chinese Christian’s decisions? There is a fascinating Christianity Today article from June of this year that explores how complicated these issues have been for believers and churches in China.
Certainly, Christians should all agree that the state’s forced abortions violate a fundamental line and demand opposition, but there is a complicated spectrum of decisions and interests that must be weighed out even before such definitive lines are crossed. Could we not recognize that a Christian couple who abides by the one-child policy with careful planning and another who knowingly violates it in protest might both be faithful to their religious convictions?
Was this not the same tension churches in Germany faced during the rise of Nazism? There were definitive lines crossed that should have triggered Christian resistance, but we look back from our position and also fault those churches for not recognizing earlier signs that might have avoided the whole thing.
Let me tip my hand, a thing I have been reluctant to do as a pastor. I do not hold any conspiracy views about the vaccine. I do think regulations in some places have unjustly targeted churches. I never felt such unjust motivations in our community, and our church was happy to abide by local health codes, but I can understand other churches deciding to protest them. They see a trajectory leading to a clear line. I hope they are wrong, but perhaps they are right, and I’m one of the Christians missing critical signs of our time. There are signs I do see.
We are not opposites; we are on different points of the same spectrum. Some saw in the meat sacrificed to idols a demonic system and a potential violation of the Christian’s stand within society. Others saw just meat. Paul was willing to give his opinion on the controversy, but he wasn’t willing to split the church or to subject the fellowship into endless rounds of guilting and shaming and arguing.
But What About Our Christian Witness?
Some will respond that the arbiter of our decisions should be how our opinions impact the church’s witness. This might be the single argument I have heard more than any other during the church’s vaccine discussions. Christians should be vaccinated in order to preserve their witness to neighbors and communities. The obligation to love our neighbor through vaccination supersedes even personal liberties or concerns. Christ’s love compels us.
Such arguments are not a surprise. For several decades the church has been working to maintain an effective witness in a world less interested in or deferential to the Christian message. There is much talk about the church’s need for a winsome witness, but what has surprised me about this push is that the church’s winsomeness always assumes the lost neighbor is on our left.
(I don’t like describing this second fallacy in terms of right and left. I’m falling into the same twosideism I just described above. But given the two fallacies are congruent with each other, you’ll have to momentarily indulge me in making the point.)
Many worry that Christians are sacrificing their witness by opposing mandatory vaccinations. They fear that a portion of the church’s response to COVID has jeopardized our lost neighbor’s willingness to listen to our message. How can we speak a message of love if we cannot demonstrate love in the ways our neighbor understands it? But is it only Democrats who are lost and in need of a winsome gospel witness? I don’t think so.
I was recently visiting a family member who does not claim to be a Christian believer or attend any church. He is a devout Trump supporter; put him in whatever box you think necessary. He was explaining to me that during the COVID lockdowns, all of the churches in his area simply shut down. That probably isn’t true. They were probably meeting online, as our church was doing. “How can churches just shut down?” he asked. “COVID is more important than church? You think Jesus would have just stayed home if they told him to?”
Disagree all you want. Certainly, he didn’t have all of his information straight, but I can’t point to any winsome attempt to contextualize the gospel to his political or ideological views. The same shutdown that was meant to improve the church’s witness to one neighbor offended the other neighbor and appeared like capitulation to the thing he most opposed.
If you get a vaccination to protect the health of your neighbor, both of you may take that as a sign of Christian love and hospitality. But if another Christian refuses the vaccine in solidarity with a different neighbor’s valued right to limit governmental intervention, a right he holds higher than even his own health and safety, has the Christian not offered a sign of Christian love and hospitality as well? The ways in which we rank values—health and liberty included—are not opposites but on a spectrum.
Should some church have attempted to match the rhetoric of the right for the sake of preserving our witness to this second neighbor? Be sure it would be quickly identified as nationalistic, Trumpism, and a perversion of the gospel. To be fair, many who make the same move to the left are just as quickly identified as woke, Marxist, and also a perverter of the gospel.
You may protest, “But one is correct, and one is wrong.” Or, one is more fundamentally important than the other, but that would put us back at the spectrum in which we all have a range of measurements and disagreements. There are more than two sides and more than one winsome witness needed to reach the lost.
If people of good faith understand this moment in very different ways, we should be slow to accuse one another of poor Christian witness. How the world will receive our witness is a poor arbiter of how Christians should behave. There are lost people in need of the gospel across the entire political spectrum. The neighbor on your left and the neighbor on your right both need Jesus. Guilting one another into certain behaviors of conscience for the sake of acceptance from one neighbor, and by doing so, offending the other, is no way for Christians to make decisions about how to live in the world.
The Winsome Witness of Complexity
My favorite way of defining humility is self-suspicion. The longer I follow Christ, the more I am suspicious of my first thought. I’ve waited two years to write this after all. I have been wrong about so many things before. I’m probably wrong about plenty now. Maybe you’re shaking your head thinking I got this whole article wrong too. But maybe that is the point. I want to understand. I want to get it right. I want to recognize better the way of Jesus and how I faithfully follow him in this world.
People I deeply respect have deeply different answers. Time will tell. Eternity will tell.
We will shuffle around on this spectrum. Things change. After all, the vaccine itself changes. Why shouldn’t our views on it? Some will be proven more right than others, but perhaps our greatest witness right now is a willingness to listen. Perhaps the refusal to reject brothers and sisters of different conclusions is far more winsome than parroting culture’s expected refrains.
For many, this article will not be decisive enough. Do you even have something worth saying if it doesn’t condemn or confirm a particular side of the existing debate? And honestly, I do have stronger personal opinions than I’ve articulated in this article. But I’m not sure they are the same thing as my Christian faith. To say that another way, I respect the genuineness of faith in those who may disagree. That is the very thing too often missing in the church. Jesus said the world would know we were his disciples by the love we have for one another. He didn’t say we couldn’t disagree, even his first disciples did, but he anticipated our disagreements would include a humble love distinct from the world’s ways of conflict.
Maybe the way we embrace being peculiar in our time is acknowledging the complexity of our challenges, the humility of our solutions, and our desperate need for Christ to lead us. Imagine how radical it would be for a people with enough courage to say, “I disagree with you but I genuinely hear your point.”
Throughout the pandemic and on days when I’ve felt confused and disoriented, I’ve turned to this prayer by G. K. Chesterton and found each time only more profound. I have been particularly struck by the line, smite us and save us all. All is not a spectrum. The one thing universally true is our propensity toward pride and conflict.
God, humble us all and save us all.
O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
– G. K. Chesterton