AN OPEN LETTER TO PASTORS IN A DIVISIVE TIME

By Mark Clark, Founding Pastor, Village Church Vancouver BC

Hey Pastor,

I hope you are doing well.

But seriously, I do. I know this is a weird time.

I have some good news and bad news.

I will start with the bad (no surprise I guess, I am a preacher after all).

I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I predict that the next year or so will be one of the most divisive times in the local church we have seen in our lifetime. I hope it isn’t, but if it is, as a pastor I know you will struggle.

It’s hard to keep up with all the new information about COVID, shut-downs, government requirements, how to love your neighbors well, when to open and not to, and beyond that all the latest theories of what COVID actually is: a disease that’s not a big deal anymore (oh), the biggest deal since the Spanish Flu (ok), a Plandemic (what’s that?), QAnon (never heard of it), wearing masks v. not wearing a mask, the deep state, Bill Gates (huh?).

You aren’t an epidemiologist so you aren’t sure how to re-open – don’t worry many people in your church seem to be so that’s good, just check their social media pages for the latest science.

Then there is all the online church stuff (gosh, I just got on the Facebook, now I have to be a televangelist?).

It’s a lot to take in for someone who got into this job to help people come to know Jesus and shepherd those who already know him. But here we are.

A QUICK WARNING:

Here’s what’s going to be most confusing about all this: people you have loved, preached to, married, baptized, visited in the hospital and prayed for privately in your home, will all of a sudden, as if over-night, project their ideas, fears, and frustrations onto you and other church leaders.

They will ask the church to take a stand on this side or that during this time.

Here’s what it will sound like:

“The church leadership needs to publicly come against people who are pushing against policy and spreading conspiracy theories on their social media because it’s harmful for society.”

“The church leadership needs to go against the government overreach and speak out against people who are just going along with all these rules which take away our freedoms and are hurting society even worse than if we were out and about (the rise of abuse, mental health issues, suicide, etc.,).”

“Pastor, you need to use your platform to say this and this, not that and that. You need to speak out right now. To not speak out is to support this idea and that one.”

“We should be going back to church right now! It’s our right. Sign this petition!”

“We should be waiting a long time to go back to church to love our neighbors!”

And on it goes.

For months now, many of you have already seen your inbox filling with such requests (hear, demands).

You see people on social media who are part of your church who, six months ago, were at an event laughing around a cup of coffee as their kids played together, but are now screaming at each other online about stats around deaths (oh, yeah you have a lot of statisticians in your church too, so that’s good), and how those stats support their idea about FILL IN THE BLANK.

It’s all very confusing, but more than that it’s concerning. This has the potential to divide us.

To divide not only the church at large but your church.

So, what do we do?

How do we respond?

I think there is a principle in the Bible that can help us as pastors – and as Christians in general – to get through this healthily. And, as Jesus said, retain what we all want: being both ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt. 10:16).

HERE’S A BETTER RESPONSE:

In Romans 14 Paul is addressing a divided church, or one with the potential for division (Jews and Gentiles are trying to be one church but disagree on a lot of stuff: what to eat, drink, how to socialize, etc.,) all of which is an issue of who is more righteous than the other.

Who is more godly, which group does ‘church leadership’ support?! Paul’s direction is this, and it is something we all need to hear right now and lead our people in:

Welcome one another, do not quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the [other] eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?

Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God … Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died … For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:1-4, 5-6, 13-16)

Notice Paul’s point: one person thinks eating meat or vegetables only is right or wrong, the other doesn’t.

It is the first-century version of: one person thinks vaccinations are an issue of public health and we need to get them when the government and health officials tell us to, another thinks they are unhealthy and being pushed by the deep state’s desire to control the population, as part of a One World Government.

One person thinks that social distancing is just us doing our part and we should stay in our homes and not see anyone at all – calling the police anytime they see a gathering of people that don’t look related (I am looking at you Karen), another thinks this is a sham against small businesses and a controlled destruction of the economy and an opportunity for the government to take our liberties away (the end of the world based on that passage in Daniel) – and once they take things from us, they rarely give them back.

And what is Paul’s advice? To take a side and publish a statement about this as a church or as a pastor? To get on your social media and tell one side or the other that they are decisively wrong?

No. The point of Romans 14 is to not do that.

We are called to not judge a fellow-believer on whether they eat meat or drink or vote this way or that, or like this ideology or that, or share this YouTube video or that – as crazy as we may think it is – we are instead, “not to quarrel over opinions” (v.1) and live our lives ‘according to conscience’, or ‘fully convinced in our own mind’ (v.5).

Remember brothers and sisters, you are pastors, your job is to reach and disciple people of every political and ideological stripe and publicly taking sides on issues that aren’t gospel-issues helps only to advance one idea or another, but not advance the gospel (Phil. 1:12).

In doing so, it actually by implication creates more division.

Don’t get me wrong, on issues of racial injustice and reconciliation,  you need to be speaking out. We can never hide behind Romans 14 when it comes to clear black and white biblical issues like race (Gen. 1-2; Gal. 2; Rev. 7).

Those things are actually biblical.

Taking a stance on mask or no-mask, vaccines or no-vaccines isn’t.

WHY?

Well, now everyone in your congregation that doesn’t agree with ‘the church’s stance’ on said non-biblical issue is seen as an ‘outsider’ – and now you have insiders and outsider, and who was against insiders and outsiders more than Jesus? The desire for the church to come down on this side or that is a desire to censor the other side of the debate and that isn’t our job right now.

Pastor, don’t feel it is the job of church leadership to control what people can post on either side of this debate.

This is the beauty of being able to share ideas openly, be they good or bad ideas (according to you), the debate about these things is precisely where truth is to be discovered. Any scholar will tell you it’s in the debate that so much historical truth has been discovered.

I just finished a manuscript for a book on Jesus and the long history of the debate of scholars on how to understand the historical Jesus is how we have arrived at such a good understanding now of who Jesus was and what first-century Judaism was all about. Schweitzer disagreed with Reimarus, Sanders proposed this revision; Dunn that one; Wright this one.

Three hundred years of give and take. This idea is terrible, this one is great. It’s how truth is revealed.

As you know from a historical perspective there has always been cultural moments that the church is asked to get drawn into – what’s taught in schools, what candidate we should vote for, views on war, baptism, evolution, etc, etc, etc, – and of course there are times when the Bible brings up things that orbit around these issues that we must hit as a prophetic role in culture (civil rights, slavery, etc.,), but about this issue in this moment, until something changes or evolves, my advice for what it is worth is: your job is to preach and teach the Bible and its principles the best you can and let the Spirit convict people in their lives one way or the other, or in a third way or fourth in regard to this issue or that.

The role you as a pastor have right now, is of course, to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, as the best before us have done, but that always was about speaking gospel truth into people’s lives as they experience the real world, not taking stands on every sociological issue that arose in their generation.

You will notice when Billy Graham started to feel he was being used politically, he distanced himself from it all. His audience which filled stadiums wasn’t there to hear his views on Vietnam or Watergate, but were hungry for the word of life. And he gave it to them because what he was preaching transcended all the cultural moments and the ‘culture wars’ he was consistently tempted to be dragged into. Everyone wanted to use him to push their ideas, he only wanted to push Christ’s.

Paul warns against this in his letter to the Colossians, who were surrounded by all kinds of theories and mysterious ideas about true knowledge versus appearances: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition…and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

The role of the pastor is to stick to philosophy according to Christ. For what other hope is there? The solutions of the Left? The ideas of the Right?

Both sides are spinning. We stand in the gap. Offering Christ to both as the solution to all.

“If, as Christians believe, the shed blood of Jesus Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, then the ideologies offer a surrogate source of salvation that may also call for bloody sacrifice…a kind of counterfeit Christianity.”

This is our concern and where we do our battle as pastors. With all our hearts we don’t want people to mistake their views on this or that as more important than the truths of the gospel. We don’t want them to elevate them above their intended place. Because while in the moment they may feel ‘most important,’ we know that place is already occupied by the message of the crucified and risen Jesus.

This is exactly Paul’s conclusion at the end of 1 Corinthians, where he says that that message, among everything else he wrote about (and it was a lot: sex, politics, church life, drunkenness, spiritual gifts), the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3).

But aren’t you as a pastor supposed to fight injustice, like your church is telling you to? You know like, if you stay quiet you are like the church during Nazi Germany so get up and tell these people “This is wrong”.

Yes, both sides will use the World War II analogy and the church’s silence during the rise of the Third Reich – outside of a few bold preachers/teachers like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and other historical moments like it, but we all must admit with rationale, wisdom and cold common sense: this is not that. In a sense, comparing the two is so far off as to almost be offensive (if I ever got offended).

All that to say, I will let you go, because I know you are busy trying to lead, be a psychologist, fundraiser, theologian, marriage counselor, cultural critic, staff manager, budget connoisseur, entrepreneur, tech wizard, world-class communicator, a person of prayer, a shepherd, a philosopher, not to mention your own spiritual health and that of your family.

When people send you these messages – and they will – just know: you’re doing a good job. Keep going. One foot in front of the other.

Find a few people you love and trust, who can remind you during the dark days that you aren’t the solution to the problems of the people in your church, Jesus is.

Nor are you the spokesperson for this ideology or that, and don’t feel pressured into that. You will because you like to be liked, and these are people you love and want to see flourish.

Paul is trying to save you from that, because it’s a trap, but more than that, it’s unbiblical.

Is whether a person believes in vaccines or not a gospel issue? No. It’s a secondary thing like almost everything else we talk about around the dinner table: one’s view on the second coming, methods of baptism, church governance, tongues – these are all inhouse debates we have as brothers and sisters in Christ. We don’t delineate people’s salvation based on them.

That is exactly what Paul is trying to save us from.

His principle: hang out, be friends, debate, razz each other, fight for good ideas over bad ones – this is literally what life is about.

But don’t judge one another over it. Live according to your conscious/conviction by the Spirit after thought, prayer, and a devotional life in the text. But break table/unity over it? Never.

And if we do, arguably, that disunity is a gospel issue. Read Galatians 2. Peter breaks table fellowship with Gentiles and Paul says your inability to keep the unity in the midst of difference is not a sociological problem, or your sin, or your personality profile, but a failure to grasp the gospel itself. “When Peter [and Barnabas] drew back and separated … I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:12-14).

Right now, unity and understanding should be our focus in the midst of divisive times, not taking sides over secondary socio-political debates. The former is a gospel issue, the latter is not.

These are things your church must navigate carefully and wisely and that’s what you are trying to best do right now. And you are doing a good job. Just remember Paul’s advice to a young preacher in his day tempted to lapse into commentary on cultural debates and Gnostic battles of the time: “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).

Sincerely,

Mark

A fellow pastor in the trenches with you all under Jesus, our Senior Pastor.