Pastor's Pen - 15 September

Pastoral lettter from Mark on Corona and the vaccine

I felt it time to write a pastoral letter to you with some thoughts about discerning God’s will in this confusing, difficult era of our history as we navigate covid, vaccines, discouragement and loads of chaos. This is not an official Mercy Vineyard Church, leadership or National movement position, but rather my personal thoughts.
As a movement, we value adult to adult relationships, which simply means that we value the integrity and maturity of our members, highlighted in the teaching on the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5). The outworking of this, is that we trust our people to act as spiritually mature Christians, making good decisions by correctly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), being led by the Spirit (Acts 15:28) and our conscience (1 Peter 3:16) and humbly seeking wise counsel (Proverbs 12:15).
We are reticent in over shepherding people by forced groupthink, where everyone is pressured to think the same way about all matters. Over-shepherding is the tendency of spiritual leaders or movements to overextend their influence or theological directives by trying to control the decision-making process of believers in every area of their lives. This erodes Christian unity and can lead to judgemental behaviour. The uniting factor for us is simply faith in Jesus Christ, and not in our belief in eschatology or corona.
We hold to the main and the plain, which is the clear biblical directives of a charismatic evangelical position. We must resist the temptation to impose man made rules that fit our tradition but are regarded by serious theologians as ‘grey areas’.
The Vineyard movement could be summarised as charismatic evangelicals, holding to all the traditional statements of faith (creeds) with a strong emphasis on the kingdom of God and seeing the Holy Spirit move in our midst. We are also comfortable with the tension we experience in life, where we don’t always see breakthrough or healing. This is what we call the already but not yet.
Many of us have lost loved ones through this pandemic and our faith has been rocked. Times of intense pain are universal, and if we don’t have a good understanding of the already / not yet and the sovereignty of God, our faith will flounder under pressure. James says that prayer will bring healing (5:14,15), but many faith - filled people are not healed. Why is that? I don’t know, but what I do know is that I have grown more in the dark times than the easy times.  
Despite many disappointments, we continue to pray for breakthrough of the kingdom through signs, wonders and healing. Our goal however is not healing, our goal is Him. His presence…. If this is not our goal, then we become discouraged in our faith when life doesn’t go as we anticipated.
There has been much talk about how we as Christians and as a church should respond to covid and the vaccine. Some believe that we lack faith by adhering to the government’s rules, while some have seen us as being lax in our approach to restarting physical meetings.
My view is based on Paul’s words in Romans 14. He is answering the thorny question of whether a Christian should eat meat sacrificed to idols. It may seem like a trivial issue to us, but it drove a wedge between Christians in Pauls day. In this passage Paul gives us some guiding principles in making decisions on difficult, divisive matters and often grey areas:

Romans 14:1-8 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord”
Let us summarise the principles Paul is presenting here:

  1. He is stating that there are DISPUTABLE MATTERS in the faith. These are matters where the answer is not biblically clear and different decisions can be made by sincere believers.
  2. Paul mentions that everyone HAS FAITH for different things and decisions need to be made in accordance with one’s faith.
  3. He encourages us not to JUDGE those with different perspectives that are held in good conscience.
  4. Everyone needs to act in accordance with their CONSCIENCE, and if they violate their conscience, they sin. The paradox here is that it wasn’t eating the meat that caused sin but violating conscience or judging another that resulted in sin. The sin wasn’t in the partaking, it was in the attitude of faith.
  5. That we belong to the Lord and should not live for OURSELVES alone.

How could this apply to covid and the vaccine?
I believe our decision about the vaccine falls into the Romans 14 category as a disputable matter. Some may disagree and regard vaccination as a clear attempt at totalitarian government control. Others may feel that having the vaccine is the best way we can love our neighbour. Others are genuinely unsure about what to do. My belief is that it is a disputable matter that may become clearer with time. For now, I apply the above principles of Romans 14 and regard it as a disputable matter.
I also believe that we need to obey the government (Romans 13:1-2) in all things unless it erodes Christian fellowship or the preaching of the gospel (Acts 5:29). Zimbabwe is doing just this by making it illegal to go to church if you are not vaccinated. I believe this is wrong and I could not in good conscience abide by this, if it became law in South Africa.    
Please feel free to share your opinions on covid and the vaccine in robust discussion. But I would ask that this is done in grace and humility and not in a way that creates division in our church family. It’s not our view on covid that determines our unity and fellowship, it’s Jesus. May we give space to one another to be led by the Spirit and conscience in this emotive, complicated issue and not try to enforce our opinions on others. So far, I feel that we have been able to maintain the unity and diversity in our church community and I commend every one of you for that.
Love Mark

A. Making good decisions
Paul tells us in the book of Ephesians that “we should not be foolish but understand what the Lord’s will is” (5:18). This word understand means to ‘bring together’. So, we have a responsibility to actively bring together the different sign posts that God places in our way to lead us. This in turn gives us a framework for making good decisions when it comes to things like covid, work, looting and life.
So, what are the signposts we look for when making decisions?
1. Concrete Scripture.
Some people find this unsettling and try to resolve these grey areas through focussing on only parts of the whole counsel of God or becoming dogmatic about their position. Paul does not do this, instead, he lays down principles knowing this issue is more nuanced and complicated. He exhorts Christians to stop “passing judgment on disputable matters” (Romans 14:1) and speaks about conscience being a guide in the decision on this matter. Some can eat the meat and sin, while others can eat the same meat in faith because their conscience is clear.
2. Wise counsel.
Proverbs tells us repeatedly that in the presence of a multitude of counsellors there is wisdom. Another principle for discerning the will of the Lord is humbly approaching others for godly counsel. Wise counsel in the context of corona, can also be seen as to what the medical experts are saying. This may be a slippery slope, as there are varying opinions among medical specialists on covid dangers, vaccinees etc.
3. The Holy Spirit and conscience.
We are blessed with a Counsellor who leads us into all truth. We have the Holy Spirit as our guide, let us take time out to wait upon Him and be led by Him. We also have a conscience or what I call ‘having peace’ about something. The bible says we are to let the peace of God rule in our hearts (Colossians 3:15). The word rule means to act as umpire. If the whistle of our heart goes, we need to take note of this, as it is often the way God leads us. However, in saying this, we also need to be careful that we do not mistake a lack of peace with fear. This is the subject of my next point.

4. Fear and decision making
I mentioned in a recent talk that fear has become a major problem in our approach to the pandemic. There is massive fear associated with covid. If you scour the news, you will find that 80% of the articles are fear inciters. This is what sells news, and if we are not immersed in the word, we may develop a real sense of fear as we seek to navigate this pandemic. Fear has become a problem, especially the fear of death.
Personally, my fear of death was exposed in January when I believed I had contracted covid. Being asthmatic, one of my lifetime fears (maybe from being admitted to hospital from a young age with asthma attacks) is that I won’t be able to breathe. Since covid can become a respiratory disease, I have had bouts of anxiety and the spirit of fear has sometimes gripped me. However, some good has come out of this journey. After my recent infection with covid, the Lord has lovingly revealed and set me free from this fear and this experience has been enriching to my faith.
B. The claim that government is attacking Christianity.
There is an often-made claim that governments are targeting churches by forbidding them to meet. I would disagree with this at present. However, the marks of world government control and anti-Christian sentiment are becoming increasingly evident, and I believe that the church will face increasing persecution in the West. However, so far the government has not stopped churches from proclaiming the gospel, but rather have instituted a blanket closure of ‘gathering’ points that could spread the virus. I do not see this as a specific attack on the faith but a general decision to limit gatherings and reduce the spread of covid.
However, if we are ever directly targeted because we are Christians and told not to preach the gospel (which I believe is coming), we would have to reject the governments restrictions and obey God rather than man.
When Billy Graham visited Russia during the cold war, he advocated for Christianity among the atheist regime, saying that Christians are law abiding citizens and “make the best citizens”. This is because scripture commands us to “obey the governing authorities of the day” unless of course there is a law imposed on us that bans us from preaching the gospel (Acts 5) With this in mind, regardless of our personal beliefs regarding covid, we are called to come under the authority of the land and not regard personal beliefs as a license to not follow the safety protocols imposed.
C. Christians and healing
John G Lake was used mightily in healing, even in the highly contagious bubonic plague in the early 1900’s. Lake would go into houses to carry out the dead and when a doctor asked his secret, he replied, “I believe that as long as I keep my soul in contact with the living God so that His Spirit is flowing into my soul and body, that no germ will ever attach itself to me, for the Spirit of God will kill it”. He even conducted an experiment where the doctor placed the plague on Lake’s hand and observed that all the germs died instantly. Lake told him, “That is the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus… When a man’s spirit and body are filled with the presence of God, it oozes out of the flesh…and it kills the germs”.
We are all familiar with the many miracles that have been documented and experienced around the world, including in the Vineyard movement. God’s power is still the same as always and we still believe in healing. Does this mean that we should continue as normal, knowing that we will always experience healing and never get sick? I don’t believe so. My approach is that faith is not just expressed in physical healing but is first and foremost a confident belief that Jesus has defeated sin and death on the cross and His resurrection is the launching of a new creation that we will be a part of.
D. Vaccine and mark of the beast
I would like to believe that the context of the mark of the beast makes it clear that receiving such a mark would be an informed decision against Christ and for the beast, and not that we could be tricked into receiving it by a subversive chip implanted in the vaccine (See this article on the chip:
Few serious theologians would believe that the covid vaccine is related to the “mark of the beast”. Firstly, the mark (Rev. 13:16-18) does not seem to be a medical procedure or something you could accidentally take. This is because the mark is closely tied to the worship of the beast (13:12, 15; cf. 19:20; 20:4). When you read Rev. 7:1-8 and 14:1 you see that there is a mark of the Lamb. This is a mark given to God’s people to identify and protect them. Whereas the mark of the beast is most likely a sign that identifies you as something you already are – a follower of the evil one.  
E. Loving others
Until we consider the effect our vaccination decision has on others, we have not addressed the question from a fully Christian perspective. We need to consider the effect our decision may have on others. Philippians 2:4 “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others”. We need to make wise decisions for ourselves, recognizing that our “bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). But we also need to recognize that we were created to be in community with others, loving and serving them as Christ would.

In Acts 11:27-30, we read about a prophetic word (that came true!) and note that the church’s response was to identify who this tragedy would affect and act together to alleviate the suffering. The famine did not become a time of prophetic exclamations about end times or sin, but rather solutions were sought by a caring community to alleviate the pain caused by creations disorder, in this context, a famine

Until we experience a new HEarth (the perfect, sinless future heaven and earth), we will be subject to varying degrees of environmental and social upheaval, plagues and pain. Mature believers can hold this tension of pain while continuing to trust in His will to be “done on earth as it is in heaven”. The church is a prophetic picture of a future world, and we should live as such.  
F. Helpful additional reading with a variety of perspectives: