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Rev Jamie Franklin: A Theological Argument against Vaccine Passports in Churches

A wonderfully written piece by Reverend Jamie Franklin:

Radical Hospitality – A Theological Argument against Vaccine Passports in Churches

My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. – James 2:1

The aim of this post is quite simple: to articulate as clearly as I can a theological and biblical argument against the idea of vaccine passports in churches. I mean by this the idea that one must show some kind of proof that one has been vaccinated against Covid-19 in order to be admitted to a church service. I would include in this argument any other form of screening at the church door – negative flow tests, antibody tests and so on. I think my argument covers all of these things. This argument is not necessarily about the rest of society, although I am very much against the notion of vaccine passports in general and some of this might be applicable. I hope that people will pass this around and especially on to church leaders, priests, bishops and anyone who might have a hand in forming a theological response to what is being proposed.

A principle that I hope we can all agree on: the Christian response should be primarily biblical and theological. It should not be drawn from some kind of generic sociological principle which is then baptised with Christian language as an afterthought. We’ve seen a lot of this so far. They normally start with the words, “Jesus taught us that we should love our neighbour” and then proceed to argue that the latest government mandate is an unambiguous fulfilment of the example of Christ’s love. It might seem that the theology comes first here, but really the political idea comes first and the theology simply acts as its handmaiden.

Anyway, enough of the preamble. My argument begins with James 2:1 – “Show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” From this point, James goes on to give an example of two men who enter the assembly (this may be a church gathering or a church court; I don’t think it matters), one of whom is rich and finely dressed, whereas the other is poor and shabby. The rich man gets a fine seat and presumably a good view, whereas the poor man has to sit on the floor. The person who does this is rebuked by James because he has made distinctions and become an evil judge (James 2:4). Later on, he says quite plainly, “If you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:9).

Going back to the first verse, the interesting thing here is the second clause of the verse. The first one is “show no partiality”, the second one is, “as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”. In Greek, it literally says, “holding the faith of our Lord Jesus…”. The implication is that to have faith in Christ is not to show partiality. And it is quite easy to imagine why this might be: Jesus himself did not show partiality. In fact, Jesus displayed what we might describe as a kind of radical hospitality towards everybody who came to him. Jesus is the exact representation of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3) and therefore we know that God too offers to the world through Christ that same radical hospitality, and indeed, that he calls us to do the same as we imitate the life of his Son.

So before I go anywhere else, here is my argument against vaccine passports in the Church:

  1. The Incarnation shows us that God is impartial and treats all people in the same way, not showing favouritism or partiality (Deut. 10:17; Gal, 2:6).

  2. The Incarnation also shows us that God’s welcome is a radical welcome that pays no heed to any kind of distinctions that human beings make between one another. More on this below.

  3. As individual followers of Christ and as the Church we are commanded to imitate God (Matthew 5:48) and to walk in the way of Jesus Christ (eg. Philippians 2:5-11, but I’m assuming we all agree about this).

  4. Therefore, Christians and the Church should be absolutely impartial and should imitate God’s radical hospitality.

  5. The notion of screening people at the doors of churches to check vaccination status (or any other kind of health status) and potentially even turning individuals away clearly violates the example of Jesus’ radical welcome and erects distinctions between groups of human beings (James 2:4) which is sin (James 2:9).

  6. Therefore, using vaccine passports or any type of screening with the potential of excluding people seeking to enter the church assembly is sin and should be thoroughly rejected.

That’s my argument, but I just want to bolster 2. because I really believe that this is where lies the error involved in any Christian support of vaccine passports. As an example, I recently came across this from John Van Sloten in the Calgary Herald. In an article of probably around a thousand words or so, he puts forward about 40 words of theology, which he confidently asserts constitutes an even stronger argument than the one he has just made about science. It runs as follows:

To be a Christian is to model one’s life after Christ. Jesus always put others first. He gave up his individual rights for the common good and sacrificed for the sake of the weak. He loved others as he loved himself and would have surely done anything to best protect the unvaccinated children in his neighbourhood. A Christian ethic always puts the vulnerable first. John Van Sloten, Should churches require vaccine passports?

It is very easy to imagine a Jesus that fits with our preconceptions of what is right in a certain situation and to have those expectations disappointed. In fact, I think that is basically the root of pretty much all of the hostility that Jesus ever faced. He was radically obedient to the Father, and his obedience was uncompromising in the face of the expectations of the human beings he came into contact with: Jesus, you should lead a revolt against the Romans. Jesus, you shouldn’t go to the cross and die. Jesus, you should rebuke those tax collectors and sinners. And so on, and so forth. But he really wasn’t interested in fulfilling people’s expectations of what the Messiah should be or do.

Now, in this short theological argument above, it seems to me that the same move is being made. Firstly, there is no actual Scripture to back up this argument, and it moves very quickly from a Christian ethic (imitate Christ, put other people first, love others as you love yourself etc.) to a much more questionable assertion: Jesus would have done “anything” to protect unvaccinated children and then presumably the argument goes (although not explicitly stated) that this would have included setting up a vaccine passport checkpoint at any large gathering that he was involved in were Covid-19 an issue in his time and place, and that therefore we should do it too etc.

I think this is a very poor argument, not least because the Christian ethic (eg love others as you love yourself) does not imply that Jesus would have done “anything” to protect unvaccinated children and that this would have included vaccine passports etc. But the real reason why this argument is so weak is that it is fictive: it is not the real Jesus he is speaking about. When you imagine a contemporary Sermon on the Mount, can you really see the apostles at the door of the cathedral holding an electronic scanner, checking vaccination status, turning away the orphans and the widows who unfortunately have proven themselves to be “antivaxxers” and “conspiracy theorists” and so are therefore barred from hearing his message?

But let’s stop talking imagination. I said above that Christ’s example shows us the “radical welcome” of God that pays no heed to the distinctions of men, and this is exactly what we find in the Gospels. When people approached Jesus, no matter what the expectation might have been, he never turned anybody away and always accepted everyone. Emphatically: he never took heed to a man-made distinction and turned away an individual who came to him. Rather, they were met with compassion, love and healing. Some examples:

In Matthew 8:5-13, Christ commends a Roman Centurion for his faith and heals his servant. The Romans were hated by the Jews and by many were seen to be enemies of God.

In Mark 2:15-17, Jesus is rebuked by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”. Tax collectors were Jews who had betrayed their own people by collecting taxes for the Romans.

On this, in Matthew 9:9-13, Christ calls a tax collector, Matthew, to be one of his twelve apostles. In Luke 19:1-10, Christ hears the call of Zacchaeus, a tax collector and fraud and honours him with a visit to his house.

In Mark 10:13, people were bringing children to Christ and his disciples rebuked them. Jesus was indignant, issued a counter-rebuke and then he blessed the children, laying his hands upon them.

In Mark 10:46-52, Christ heals the beggar Bartimaeus of his blindness, despite the fact that many people rebuke Bartimaeus for crying out to Jesus.

Jesus also associated himself with a Samaritan woman in John 4:1-26. The Samaritans were hated by the Jews and to spend time alone with a woman would have been scandalous in any case. Jesus didn’t care.

In John 12:1-8, Mary of Bethany made a scene by breaking a jar of ointment and wiping it on Jesus feet with her hair. Again, this was scandalous behaviour and Judas rebuked it. Needless to say, Jesus was again not impressed with this exclusive attitude.

But perhaps the most relevant example comes to us in Mark 1:40-42,

And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.

At the time, leprosy was considered to be a highly contagious and infectious disease. Moreover, to touch someone with leprosy was to become ritually impure. Therefore, this action on the part of Christ would have been shocking to anybody looking on. Commenting on this passage, the church father Origen comments,

Why did he touch him, since the law forbade the touching of a leper? He touched him to show that “all things are clean to the clean.” Because the filth that is in one person does not adhere to others, nor does external uncleanness defile the clean of heart. So he touches him in his untouchability, that he might instruct us in humility; that he might teach us that we should despise no one, or abhor them, or regard them as pitiable, because of some wound of their body or some blemish for which they might be called to render an account. So, stretching forth his hand to touch, the leprosy immediately departs. The hand of the Lord is found to have touched not a leper, but a body made clean! Origen, Fragments on Matthew 2:2-3

The touching of a leper by Christ was symbolically significant. This untouchable underclass, this despised and rejected group of physically and ritually impure men, was rendered touchable and was healed by the Son of God.

The basic point I want to come back to is this: Jesus did not accept manmade distinctions and discriminate or differentiate on the basis of them. He accepted and loved everyone who truly came to him: the rich and the poor, the foreigner and the Jew, men and women, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick. None of these things made any difference to the radical welcome and prodigal love which Christ gave to those who came to him. Jesus is the ultimate example of no partiality and no distinctions and that is why, to return to James 2:1, we should show no partiality, namely, because our faith is in him.

I heard a famous theologian once say that the question “What would Jesus do?” is the wrong question. Rather, we should ask the question, “How can the spirit of Jesus be re-embodied in this time and place?” I agree. That is the right question. There is perhaps no certain answer here, but my argument is that when we look at the actions of Jesus in Scripture, we can see that they were characterised by a radical welcome which took precisely no heed of the social expectations of his time and were deliberately intended to undermine the notion of the untouchable underclass or the social undesirable. Conversely, there is precisely no indication whatsoever in the Gospels that Christ was concerned about catching, spreading or in any way passing on an infectious disease. In the example of leprosy, Christ needlessly touched someone who was deemed to have been infectious. Rather, as Origen taught, and as is clearly Christ’s teaching in, for example, Mark 7:1-23, God is concerned about the impurity of the heart rather than the body. This is not to say that physical health is unimportant to God, but it is to say that the actions and teaching of Christ embody the truth that the uncleanness of the heart is humanity’s deepest problem and not that of the body.

We have to ask ourselves, therefore, what to conclude from these accounts? Can we truly come away from an encounter with the real Jesus with the thought in our minds that he would turn people away at the door of the church for not having a vaccine passport? Which passage of Scripture gives any indication that Christ would have commended these actions? How would any argument for vaccine passports take into account the multiple passages that I have produced that indicate that Christ’s only concern was radical welcome for those who sought his presence?

Matthew 25:40 says that as we do to the least of our brethren, we do so to God himself. The examples of “the least” in that passage are the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked and the person who is in prison. These people, we are told, represent God himself, and the extent to which we love and care for the most marginalised, destitute and despised is the extent to which we serve God. If we fail in our duty, then God will say to us, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).

If we give in to the all-too-human propensity to scapegoat certain groups, to despise and reject the outcast and to not love those who are on the margins, then we are scapegoating, despising, rejecting and perhaps even ejecting God himself. I would go so far as to say that any church that implements a vaccine passport scheme can no longer proclaim and embody with any integrity the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, therefore, will have its lampstand removed (Revelation 2:5). Jesus will not be in that church anymore, but he will be outside with the infectious, with the unvaccinated, with the undesirable outcast. The folks inside who believe that they have rendered themselves “safe” by rejecting their brethren will be in danger of eternal perdition and, though they may feel that they have done the prudent thing, the emptiness of their souls will testify to the magnitude of their folly.

My plea therefore is as follows. There will be some who give in and accept the heresy of vaccine passports in churches. In the case of the Van Sloten article above, I’ve already produced what I predict will become textbook, theology-free nonsense from establishment churches who want to avoid conflict with the powers that be and are too far gone to even try and think in Christian terms about all of this. But we come to a historical moment in which the Church is called to respond to new phenomena. This has happened lots of times in history and it’s always the case that some Christians and churches get it right and others badly wrong. There is a right side of history sometimes. And this time it is on the side of those who will defy this wickedness and continue to exercise the radical hospitality that was shown forth when God sent his Son to save us. “To him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever” (Ephesians 3:21).

This is the first part of probably two posts. In the next I will consider objections to this argument and other related issues, so please leave comments to that end if you would like to see me address them.




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