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Vaccine Passports and Corporate Worship: Concerns and a Way Forward

In a concerning development, the government of New Brunswick, through its latest Covid-19 restrictions, now requires churches to choose one of two paths for corporate worship. One path requires churches to require proof of full vaccination for anyone who comes to worship and participate at the communion table.  If a church agrees to enforce a vaccine passport policy, then those who enter there are not required to physically distance, there are no capacity limits, and congregants can sing while masked. There is another path for churches who believe their congregation should not be segregated and refuse to require full proof of vaccination as a condition of corporate worship or to access the sacraments. For those churches, the rules prohibit singing, impose a 50% seating limit with social distancing, and require a fixed seating plan among other things. Similarly, Manitoba’s latest restrictions include this distinction: “Faith-based indoor gatherings have been reduced to 25 people or 33% capacity… faith-based gatherings can take place without restrictions for fully vaccinated people.”

These are the first instances we have seen in Canada where provincial governments are applying the Covid-19 vaccine passports to churches. We are grateful that to date no other provincial government has done so but we are concerned other provinces may follow suit.

Imposing vaccine passports on worship services unnecessarily infringes on the separation of church and state

ARPA Canada believes that the civil government should not impose vaccine requirements on worship services, nor require churches to impose vaccine requirements as a condition for attending worship. In a piece we recently released, we said:

“The civil government does not have authority from God to determine who comes to worship. The call to come is free and open to all. It is in corporate worship that the keys of the kingdom are clearly exercised: the preaching of the gospel (including through the administration of the sacraments) and church discipline. These keys are given to the church, not the state.”

Participating in gathered, assembled worship is the obligation of every individual at the call of the elders. It is not a permitted activity bestowed on the bride of Christ at the discretion of the civil government. The civil government is given authority by God to pursue public justice (Romans 13), but it is the church who holds the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 28:18-20) including determining when and in what manner worship is to take place. The church, then, must “governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.” (Belgic Confession, Article 29). That is, the church must recognize that it is Jesus as their head who determines who may come to worship – not the civil government.

We go on to say:

“There are Scriptural reasons and standards by which someone could be denied admission by church leaders. One reason relates to contagious diseases but the standard for denying access to the assembly of God on the grounds of a contagious disease is set through careful consideration of a variety of scriptural principles by the church elders and not by the civil government.”

Ceding that authority to determine who may come to worship is a case of rendering unto Caesar what is God’s. Even if a congregation is 100% vaccinated, the ceding of this authority would be a dangerous precedent.

A choice that’s not really a meaningful choice

We can be thankful at least that New Brunswick and Manitoba are not imposing the vaccine passports directly on churches, treating the church and corporate worship like restaurants or movie theatres. Had provincial governments picked this route, the issue would be much more clear-cut. Instead, these provincial governments have given churches the choice between vaccine passports and very few restrictions or no vaccine passports with much greater restrictions.

It should be noted that the choice offered to churches isn’t really a meaningful choice at all. As one Christian nurse put it, the church is the emergency room for the soul. And just like the ER at the hospital where she works accepts all patients who need help, whether they are smokers or obese or unvaccinated, so the church needs to tend to the souls of all who come to the door for help, whether they are vaccinated or not.

Even if 100% of their members are vaccinated, out of principle a church that is open to guests who may possibly be unvaccinated would be stuck in the “unvaccinated” category with severe restrictions on corporate worship. This doesn’t mean their worship service is filled with unvaccinated people. Rather, the worship service would be compromised of people whose vaccine status is simply unknown. And the likelihood 100% of the members of a church are vaccinated is very slim anyway. The unity of the church, particularly manifest at the Lord’s Supper table and experienced in corporate worship, has a very low tolerance for segregation, and any separation must be rooted in Scriptural principles.

We encourage a response

We are encouraged to see many provinces still holding the line on not imposing vaccine passports on churches, either directly or indirectly. British Columbia, which had treated churches very poorly from November to May, is now treating churches with much more respect. That’s worth acknowledging and applauding. And this is due, in part, to Christian leaders (and others) carefully, thoughtfully engaging with political leaders behind the scenes in that province. Praise God for listening ears! So far, Alberta and Ontario seem reluctant to impose a vaccine mandate on churches as well. But we shouldn’t just assume it will stay this way.

ARPA staff have heard about many churches already writing to provincial leaders, thanking them for not applying the vaccines to churches and urging the provinces to hold the line on this. This is great news! Being proactive against divisive policies is necessary. The social and spiritual health and unity of local communities – including religious communities – have profound public health benefits. The healthier and more united churches are, the more these churches can bless the communities in which God has placed them.

Whether you’re an office-bearer or not, you should speak up on this issue in encouraging and winsome ways. We have seen over the past 18 months a consistent lack of understanding by our culture of the role of the church. Rather than wait for more problems to develop, this is a key time to enlighten our government of what the church is, what worship is, and why vaccine passports are an unacceptable policy. This is also a good time to offer prayer and encouragement to these representatives during this very difficult time. Combining your request with a token of appreciation (like a bouquet of flowers or a large collection of cards and coloured pictures from young children in the congregation) can go a long way to building a mutually respectful relationship with a local member of your provincial legislature.

We communicate with our governments in the knowledge that He who sits enthroned in heaven is in control and actively working on our behalf. And so, as you undoubtedly already do, continue to the practice the exhortation of Paul “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior” (I Tim 2:1-3).

May we continue to have the freedom to worship our God according to His Word, and may the unity and courage of the Bride be a witness to our country of the sure hope we have.

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