In theology there is a category called presenting issues. A presenting issue is observable, thus easily politicized. An example of a “presenting issue” is women in ministry leadership. Whether or not a local church allows women to preach at a worship service is made visible by what happens at church events. When congregants see only males preaching, the theological issue is made evident by church practice. When congregants see a woman upfront exhorting God’s Word to them, the theological practice likewise is put on display.
Presenting issues are volatile. Take baptism, for instance. If a church baptizes infants, the theology of the church leaders is publicly made known at the presentation level. If believers are immersed, same thing. Church splits often result from presenting issues.
Many theological issues, however, do not rise to the surface to become presenting issues. For example, it is usually not self-evident what theology churches adhere to when congregants partake of communion. Do the leaders of the church see the Lord’s Supper as physical elements that represent Jesus’ body and blood? Does the church think it is receiving sacramental grace when congregants eat the bread and drink the bottled grape juice or alcohol-based red wine? The answer is we don’t know. In most evangelical churches, communion (the Eucharist) is not a presenting issue. Yes, of course, it could be. Wine versus grape juice is certainly a presenting issue. Unleavened bread pierced with holes and drawn with lash-like stripes versus neatly cubed pieces of leavened Wonder bread or saltine crackers is, likewise, a presenting issue. Even so, it is relatively rare for local churches in the last few hundred years to split over the matter of communion. True, some churches today offer gluten-free bread and possibly a choice of fermented or unfermented grape juice and the option of a common cup or an individual cup, basically whatever buffet might ward off a theological skirmish. But still, it seems quite rare for Christians in the twenty-first century to blow up over the matter of communion.
Historically, however, Christians were so upset about the Lord’s Supper that some church leaders physically ended up dead. Quakers thus decided to celebrate communion without using any physical elements. Given the life or death high stakes of seventeenth century church politics, the Quaker denomination was founded, in part, on a commitment to forgo using grain and fruit for the Lord’s Supper. They communed instead with the Holy Spirit and no physical food or drink.
A better example of a theological issue that is not a presenting issue is predestination versus freewill. Another example is that of inerrancy versus infallibility of Scripture. Another is of covenant theology versus dispensationalism. Granted, congregants may read about these items of theology in a local church’s Statement Of Faith. But even so, these matters are invisible. Abstract.
I say all this as a preface to provide a broader context, so that we have more perspective as I now take the risk of talking about Covid vaccines. To say what nearly all of us already know, the church today is wracked by extremely severe church conflicts about whether or not church members should take “the vaccine.” Some church families are so divided on the issue that the viability of the church’s existence lies at stake. Yes, watching church online steers many around the conflict, but it doesn’t make the conflict go away. Emotions are intense. Opinions are unyielding. Accusations are hurled like flying debris. Consequently, pastors are demoralized. Some pastors have become so exasperated and exhausted by vitriol in the hearts of church members that those pastors have quit and altogether left the ministry.
Biological families of parents, grandparents, children, cousins, step-family, and in-laws are perhaps even more afflicted by jarring, rude, polemical, sometimes downright hateful meltdowns and reactions from one family member to another regarding the vaccines. It is common in our culture for biological parents to be cancelled by their grown kids who share their same bloodline. Because family members are connected by marriage and bloodline–not by shared theological convictions as church members typically are–it is really no surprise that more drama is ensuing overall in families than in churches.
Thankfully there are people, especially mature believers, who are much more laissez faire, warmly accepting those who are boostered and vaccinated and warmly accepting those who are not. But these more welcoming people increasingly seem somewhat rare.
In society, countless citizens and residents in our nation are so worked up about mandating the vaccine or protecting the rights of the unvaccinated that they stand on the verge of punishing or banishing or declaring war on each other. Others lean so far into their viewpoint that they express themselves with inflammatory remarks that threaten to set off an artillery round of other presenting issues. One Christian I know said verbatim:
“For those who want to fight for personal freedom, please pick another battleground. There are countless such battlegrounds. For example, pro-abortion, fight for women’s freedom to abort . . . Fight for guns, so that people have the freedom to own a machine gun or pistol or whatever. Fight for the freedom to smoke marijuana or snort coke or whatever . . . The list goes on and on, ad infinitum. Fight, fight, fight for personal freedom. Pick almost any battleground out of the gazillion opportunities, but please do not pick the best-known solution to a pandemic, a vaccination, to fight for personal freedom.”
The above quote, in my view, illustrates the problem of a well-intended Christian shutting down conversation, making argument taboo, and thereby constraining Christian fellowship. I can see how a non-Christian might perceive this Christian as being someone who thinks it’s better to snort cocaine and abort an unborn baby than to argue for the freedom to choose not to be vaccinated.
Of all people, authentic Christians are equipped from heaven above to argue without quarreling. To search for truth together. To earnestly pray for help and not hypocritically fight for our own point-of-view at the expense of others’.
But we need to be discipled. That’s why Right On Mission is offering the course, Civility and Incivility, taught by James Spencer, Ph.D. whose Life Mission Statement is this: To prod the church to learn to please God together. I hope everyone reading this blog will register for the course, either to audit it (without doing the homework) or take it for a grade (you get to choose if you want to take it Pass/Fail or for a letter grade). I plan to take the course myself.
Lord, we cry out to You on behalf of families and churches. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.