Currently, Victorian citizens are required to show Covid 19 vaccination status before they can enter public gatherings. This has raised questions about the separation of worshipping congregations into vaccinated and unvaccinated gatherings and how legitimate these restrictions are for churches.
Separation and holiness
Separation is a sensitive issue for Christians because, biblically, it is the root meaning of the word, Holy. Holiness is distinct and separated from the profane, the unclean, the impure, the common, the damaged, the ill and the sinful. Biblical books like Leviticus descibe the grades of holiness and separation that are required in different circumstances, from cleanliness to bodily emissions to dietary restrictions to contagious illness to accidental and willful sins to outright criminal activity. The point these rules make is that separation exists for the sake of preserving holiness and that this concern for imitating the nature of God (‘Be holy for I am holy’ -e.g. Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 11:4; 1 Peter 1:16) must permeate every part of his people’s lives.
In the gospel writings we find Jesus altering the distinctions of holiness that Israel operated under. One change is he declares all foods clean (Mark 7:14-19) which means that as different cultures and peoples are still marked by different foods the food laws that were peculiar to Israel would no longer define the people of God as his distinct people. Instead, the people of God will be drawn from a buffet of different nations and cultures (‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ Acts 10.9-23). Another change is that Old Testament sacrifices and rites that dealt with ritual impurity and uncleanness have become more directly what they represented and reminded people to do – sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, efforts of restitution, commitments to work under the Spirit of God to grow in holiness (e.g. Romans 12.1-2; Colossians 3:1-17). Another change is that the laws that related to ancient Israel as a theocratic State, the civil and criminal offences, could no longer apply to a church that was spread amongst all nations like the Jewish diaspora before it. The most significant change Jesus brought to the covenant of Moses is Jesus’ own death as the final sacrifice that deals with all the sin and defilement of human beings before our creator.
Separation within the church.
Though contemporary Christians like to emphasize how Christ draws people together, we produce an unbalanced equation for Christian discipleship when we do not see the requirements of holiness as separation continuing in the New Testament. This is why people who commit certain wrongs are to be excluded from the community of God’s people, until they repent and begin to live changed lives (as a sacrifice of restitution). So we read that Ananias and Sapphira are cut off from the church community for lying to the church and the Holy Spirit (Acts 5.1-11); and that wrong doers, of various categories, must be disciplined by excommunication from the body before the whole body is corrupted by their behaviour or beliefs (1 Corinthians 5.1-13; 6.7-11; 2 Thessalonians 3.6-15; 2 Timothy 3.1-5; James 2.14-19; 1 John 3.7-10; Jude; Revelation 2.18-29).
The New Testament also describes two other forms of separation within the church.
Apart from separation over what we’d call moral or doctrinal matters, there is what we’d call natural or circumstantial distinctions made between people on the basis of different roles (Ephesians 4, Colossians 3), gender (1 Timothy 5), gifts (1 Corinthians 12), stages of life (1 John), economic needs and race (Acts 6), social standing (Luke 10), languages and cultures (Acts 2), leadership commitments (1 Corinthians 1-3) and levels of spiritual maturity (Romans 15).
Finally, there is a wrong form of separation that occurs when churches decide within for themselves that some of the natural or circumstantial distinctions between people are markers of their worth or holiness before God.
A wrong kind of separation is why Paul rebukes of Peter in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church. Peter refused to eat with gentile Christians because of social pressure from jewish Christians who were concerned to honour the dietary laws of Moses. While the jewish and gentile Christians may have normally lived, eaten and worshipped separately, when they were together, no one could imply by separated hospitality that others are not saved. No one could imply the gentiles were not made holy by God’s grace in Christ by making pointed separations in Christian fellowship (Galatians 2.11-16). Such separations are not only social snubs of the worst kind but contradict the will of God to save people from all tribes, languages and nations in Christ Jesus (Revelation 7.9-17). To do this is declaring unholy what God has declared holy in Christ Jesus and his sacrifice.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.Romans 15.7
In my experience, it is uncommon for churches to decide together to openly separate themselves from people who practise what the Old and New Testaments agree is unholy behaviour or belief. However, it is normal for churches to separate people in worship for natural or circumstantial reasons such as: time of worship, stage of life, gender, church location, social status, workplace, language and cultural groups, theological tradition, health status (e.g. specialist services in residential care or hospitals), music preference, denominations, liturgical preference, ordination status – to name the most obvious segregations. Yet despite these separations, the New Testament teaching is, if we have entrusted ourselves to Christ with a life changing commitment (1 Thessalonians 1.2-7; 3.11-13) we all belong in him and are valued by him equally and therefore are called to accept each other as brothers and sisters together. We are holy together before the Lord because of the effect of Jesus’ sacrifice, even if we have different gifts, callings, history, preferences and rewards.
Vax v UnVax?
The current separation of vaccinated and unvaccinated people in public gatherings in Victoria is a practical and temporary response of government to the Covid 19 pandemic. It is not a natural separation because it is separating people who may normally be together, but it is a necessary separation, caused by our current circumstance, to assist the health of the community. It has not arisen from a desire within any church to separate people on the basis of their salvation or intrinsic worth before God – it is not a marker of holiness, therefore it is not a separation forbidden by New Testament teaching.
Separation of Church and State
Some argue government interference with worship services contradicts a constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. This particular separation is an American idea that was adopted in a modified form in the Australian constitution to prevent the government from establishing or favouring particular religions. The back story to this is the settlement of the European religious wars from the 16th and 17th centuries at Westphalia (Germany) in 1648. This settlement gave birth to the modern secular state but did not limit any government from making laws for the common good and safety of the populace, which includes the churches.
When we turn to the New Testament to ask what it teaches about church and state we find Jesus and the apostles teaching us to obey the government of the day (Romans 13, Matthew 17:24f, Mark 12.17). Paul wrote that the government is there to accomplish God’s will, to punish good, reward evil and promote safety amongst its citizens. The only time civil disobedience is carried out by New Testament Christians is when rulers ask them to stop doing evangelism (e.g. Acts 4 & 5 or Paul’s missions) – their response was to, graciously and with deference to the civic authorities, continue their missionary work. After the New Testament, in the early church, Christians were famous for being some of the most loyal subjects in society except when they refused to worship images.
The current pandemic restrictions requiring separation based on vaccination status are a continuation of the principle of separation seen in closed borders, hotel quarantines, state wide lockdowns, the wearing of masks, hospital ward isolation, essential worker permits and so on. The vaccine separations do not target the church alone so cannot be reasonably read as acts of persecution. Nor has the government banned churches from undertaking missional work or worship, though all our work occurs under changed circumstances.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.Romans 13.1-2
We also know that government has long been involved in all aspects of local church life without us raising questions of the separation of church and state. We have not protested against the fundamental legitimacy of building regulations, council rules, food hygiene laws, parking restrictions, child safe legislation, safety checks of volunteers and staff, even though these rules affect the running of worship and other church programs. This is because we accept these things as the role of government to keep people safe and society civil. Pandemic restrictions likewise follow the same logic of health, safety and necessity in restricting our freedoms and separating certain behaviours and potential sources of infection or illness from us.
It is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can say that the rules our government have applied during this current pandemic might have been improved but they can only be viewed as fundamentally illegitimate if the pandemic itself is false – but it is not. There are too many personal stories and varied reports from reliable sources of just how deadly a disease the world is grappling with in Covid 19.
A personal note
It is likely Australian complaints against restrictions will be seen in years to come as priviledged world problems. Our frustrations are aimed at government because we have not experienced the alternative, namely, the fear and grief other parts of the world have known as disease ravaged their communities because they had limited access to good medical practice and undisciplined governance.
It is likely that God wants our churches to repent of focusing on imaginary rights and a once brilliant but now faded legacy. It is ironic to blame the waning influence of Christian values on State and society when we are also implicated in our own decline (Psalm 81). Being self-focused and, frankly, self-righteous is the wrong strategy when many are suffering in Australia because of pandemic restrictions and many of those hardships will be long term. Claiming that government is persecuting the church more so than say, the hosptitality and entertainment industries, is unconvincing lobbying especially when, according to God’s word, our governments are doing what God has given them responsibility to do. We would serve God and our country better by taking up the responsibilities we have been given of growing in the life and holiness of God, works of prayer, building up the body, of mission and care. If we do these things God will make his people useful to our struggling neighbours who have endured some of the world’s longest lockdowns to help produce some of the world’s lowest death and infection rates from Covid 19.
We are called to obey legitimate authority, we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves by acting for their health and safety, we are called to live and speak the gospel. We may do this imperfectly but this is the truth we serve. After all, it is Christ who overcomes seperation and joins all things together.
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.Colossians 1:15-17