The Sins of COVID

“We were being asked to do something which is not in step with the gospel and which Paul would have condemned. He would have opposed us for segregating the Churches.”

“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” Apostle Paul, Galatians 2:11

“Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.” This is a very prominent and respected Christian principle, which is based on a paraphrase of something that Jesus says to the Jewish leaders who brought the woman before him that was caught in adultery. The principle is very simple: before you seek to judge, weigh up your own guilt, especially if you are involved in this same situation. This is a very applicable principle to every human being.

I bring this up because I am going to address one of the key sins of the Church from the Covid years and some people will immediately think: mate no one got it perfect, so why don’t you lay off other pastors who were just seeking to do what they thought at the time was the right thing? This is an understandable comment.

Pastors don’t have an easy job, it is not the hardest job in the world, but nor is it the easiest. Leading, ministering to and caring for large groups of people brings a host of challenges, especially in trying times. So, why would a fellow pastor want to bring up this big fault in a bunch of other pastors’ work during the Covid years? Someone might say to this article, “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone. You are not a perfect pastor, so let it go.”

I understand those who are coming from this perspective, and I even think some of them are coming from a genuine place and have no malice. They just want to move on from what happened, and they genuinely believe that they did not do wrong with things like supporting mandates and segregating Churches. But this is exactly why this piece is so important.

I have encountered guys recently who thought this way and then changed their minds after they encountered the Scriptural argument for why segregating the Church is a grievous sin. One discussion I had with a man ended with him acknowledging that he had not really thought about this issue from the perspective of the book of Galatians.

So, in light of this, what I want to do in this piece is take you through the argument for why segregating the Church, even at the behest of the state telling you to, is sin, and why pastors who did this need to recognize their wrong, and admit it. I want to seek to bring people along who may disagree with me. Some people will not change their minds on this, but I have seen for myself that some people will. So, let’s examine how the book of Galatians shows us the error of segregating the Church. 

Many Christians, particularly Protestants, will be familiar with Galatians as a wonderful text about justification by faith alone apart from works and as a strong defence for an orthodox gospel. Many would consider the book of Galatians as the second most powerful treatment of the gospel of salvation by faith alone after the book of Romans. This teaching is central to this letter. For instance, Paul tells us that,

“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

Gal. 2:15-16

Paul initiates the book by outlining how disappointed he is that the Galatians are departing from the gospel that he taught them, “6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal. 1:6-7).

Galatians will often be quoted, correctly, by Christians to challenge Pharisaical ideas that teach you must add works to salvation. How can works be added to salvation when no one is justified through works of the law?  

But, perhaps because of certain influences in Protestant theology which have caused us to emphasize soteriological or salvific issues, that is issues regarding salvation, alongside a de-emphasis on social issues, a lot of Christians forget about the deep ecclesiological and sociological application of this teaching from Paul.

The Galatians are falling for false teaching that has the impact of segregating the church. Because they are falling under the sway of Judaizers who teach that you must become Jewish to be considered a full member of the people of God. This creates different classes of people in the household of God, something which is inherently anti-gospel. So, Paul is going to prove to the Galatians that they have departed from the gospel.

Paul is adamant in chapter 1:11-24 that the gospel he preached was not given to him by man, but was given to him by the Lord Jesus Christ, and that he was accepted by the Apostles,  

“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.”

Gal. 2:11-24

It is important for Paul to establish his gospel is directly from Christ, and therefore he is an Apostle of Christ, because he is going to hammer the Galatians on the gospel they were practicing.

Paul then explains how he was dedicated to making sure that the Gentiles knew that they did not need to submit to the law to be Christians, “But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (Gal. 2:3). When he encountered the rest of the Apostles, none of them corrected him on this. They added nothing to Paul’s teaching because what he was teaching was the vintage and correct gospel,  

“7 On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8 (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), 9 and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”

Gal. 2:7-10

Paul is establishing his credentials here as a Christ-appointed authority on the gospel of Jesus Christ. His gospel is the same as the gospel of the Apostles that lived with Jesus. Paul just received this gospel from Jesus in a different way (1 Cor. 15:1-11), but it is the very same gospel stamped by Christ and confirmed by the leaders of the Church in that era. The gospel that Peter, James and Paul preach does not require submission to the works of the law. Gentiles need not be circumcised, that is “Judaized” to be part of God’s people, Israel, the Church, because the gospel is for all who believe. Which he is going to establish conclusively.

How does he begin to establish it? By singling out Peter’s error of falling into the trap of segregation in the Church. Paul is horrified when he comes to the Apostles and witnesses Peter excluding himself from fellowshipping with the Gentiles,

“11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Gal. 2:11-14

We have already established that Paul’s concern in this letter, Galatians, is about their departure from the gospel. Paul is furious that they appear to be following a false gospel, “6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—” (Gal. 1:6, emphasis added). However, he then starts to complain about Peter’s eating arrangements. This is a strange turn of events, isn’t it? Peter had stopped eating with the Gentiles and was now only eating with the Jews, who had come from James, that is from Jerusalem. In fact, Paul is so angered by this he opposes Peter to his face, and says he was not living in step with the gospel!

What does he mean? What does the gospel have to do with who you eat with at church gatherings?

Well, as we know early church meetings often centered around a meal (1 Cor. 11:17-34). This was a meal that all believers were allowed access to. Even when full meals were not being practiced, the church still ate together from the communal bread to remember Christ,

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

1 Cor. 10:16-17

Every believer was allowed access to this meal because it was a remembrance of what Christ had done for them on the cross. What gave them the right to have access to this meal? They were justified – declared righteous – in the eyes of God through faith in the Lord Jesus,

“15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

Gal. 2:16-15

To become followers of Jesus with full access to the Church of the living God, Gentiles did not need to submit to the law, making them ritually clean enough to eat with Rabbinical Jews (cf. Mark 7). They simply needed to place their trust, their faith, in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are justified by this repentance from our sins and our turning to our Lord and believing that he can save us. This makes us full members of the body of Christ. This grants us, as a result, complete access to the people of God. Full citizenship as Paul explains it (Eph. 2:11-22), a citizenship that comes, let me emphasize again, by faith, not via works of the law.

This is why Peter’s segregation from the Gentiles was not in step with the gospel, and why Paul opposed him to his face. By not associating which the Gentiles when he ate, Peter was reinforcing the Pharisees’ idea that Gentiles were not ritually clean. But the gospel says we are ritually and spiritually cleansed by the blood of the lamb, and we do not have to add to this with any works. It is a finished work, achieved by the Lord Jesus Christ himself,

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”

Rom. 3:21-24

This true and experienced spiritual cleanliness, granted to us through the righteousness of Christ being accounted as ours, by his free gift that we access by faith, gives us the right to full fellowship in the community of believers. We would be sinning to exclude anyone who had not sinned grievously and rejected Christ first (Matt. 18).

We would stand condemned with Peter. We would be accounted as bewitched, like the Galatians,

“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?”

Gal. 3:1-6

The book of Galatians is one of Paul’s greatest works attacking the idea of salvation by works and defending the truth of salvation by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And because of this, it is also one of the most significant works in the Bible for understanding who has access to the church gathering: everyone who has been justified, and who has not rejected their faith and been excommunicated as a result of unrepentant and continued sin[i].

And this is also why Christians could not expel people during Covid because of their vaccination status. Because as much as we want to obey our government authorities – and we really do, Christians like myself see the authorities as God’s ordained servants put in place to punish evil and reward good – even more than this we want to obey our God. And our God does not allow us to exclude someone from the fellowship for something which is not a sin in Scripture.

To exclude someone would make us stand condemned as Peter was, and in need of repenting. It would also have caused us to show favoritism, something Jesus’ brother James, condemns,

“1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

James 2:1-9

There was no heart or desire for rebellion in the hearts of any minister who could not allow themselves to segregate the Church. In fact, it came from the exact opposite place, obedience, a desire to obey their Lord and God. The church is a place for people of all walks of life, all ethnicities, all types and shapes and colours, and this includes all sorts of opinions about vaccines. We were being asked to do something which is not in step with the gospel and which Paul would have condemned. He would have opposed us for segregating the Churches.

The Biblical law makes provisions for excluding people from meeting who are sick (Lev. 13). This is a wise principle. But equating being unvaccinated with being sick is a gross redefinition of that word. And as we now know conclusively, the unvaccinated person’s ability to spread the virus was pretty much on par with the vaccinated. This is why we felt so compelled to publicly state this principle about rejecting segregation in the Church.

This brings me to pastors who did segregate churches. I do not think many of them are bad guys. They felt intense pressure, or believed it was right, or believed that the authorities had the right to overrule God’s word on this matter in a time of emergency. But I think you need to now come to terms with how wrong this was, how much it damaged people who felt betrayed by their churches when this occurred, and how wrong, and it turns out, unnecessary it ended up being.

It is good it never came to this in Queensland Churches, and it is also good that in NSW it was only for a short period. But some believers were excluded for some time in some parts of this country, and it is time to acknowledge how wrong this was. I ask you to consider this, because there are many wounded people in Churches who would be very happy if this was just acknowledged.  

[i] Sin being defined as rebellion against God, or rejection of God and his commands.

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