In the late summer of 2020, our local church transitioned from fully online services to holding in-person services outside in the courtyard, while also streaming the services on Facebook. In that format, I enjoyed reading the comments in the Facebook chat and getting a feel for who was also worshiping from home, and I would even chat online every now and then.
One morning, early in that courtyard/Facebook phase of things, a long-time, well-respected member that I've known since my teenage years, wrote something like the following comment: “Thank you for offering the online option. As long as I have to wear a mask, I won't be worshiping in person.” No other information was added to elaborate — just that simple statement was made. Our family had chosen to stay home that Sunday out of caution, but, apparently, this person chose to stay home because they did not want to wear a mask to church. I read the statement as though this person prioritized their freedom of worshiping without a mask above their commitment to fellowship with other believers. There were other possible interpretations of their statement, but this was the only one I found myself entertaining. I was choosing to stay home out of care and protection of our church community, while this person was choosing to stay home because of the affront to their freedom that wearing a mask at church apparently stands for.
Can you see what I was doing? I was taking this person's statement — a statement that can be read in a number of ways — and filling it up with intentionality and meaning that it didn't necessarily bear — intentionality and meaning to which I was opposed. And so, I had created a barrier between myself and this fellow believer, based on this one, simple Facebook chat. I held onto this tension and supposed offense for almost eight months. It caused me to be frustrated with and think negatively of this person, and that feeling persisted and grew when I would allow myself to dwell on it. It was unhealthy and horrible. I felt a growing conviction that I must address this barrier to unity and supposed offense. Nevertheless, eight months was a long time to carry such a weight.
As illustrated in this story, these last two strange and tumultuous COVID years have brought to the surface so many negative emotions, personal presuppositions, and previously unspoken assumptions — about people whom we know and those whom we don't. We all have deep-seated convictions about either the medical data, the political spin on that medical data, the proper public and private response to the reality of the pandemic, and the religious freedom issues that come into play when government-issued protocols intersect with our corporate worship practices. While in some senses it is a surprise that a health crisis that has claimed 5.5 million reported lives globally has so radically divided the church, in other senses, it is very understandable given the diversity that exists within the church. Followers of Jesus can be found in any and every social class, from a variety of political parties, with varying theological convictions and having formed individual ethical codes that grow out of different ways of understanding and applying the Word of God. It may have been ideal if the church had responded uniformly to the pandemic, but I'm less and less convinced that a united response was possible in the real world.
So, what do we do when we go to church with hundreds or thousands of people, all of whom love Jesus and claim Him as Lord, but with whom we disagree about how we should live out that love for Jesus and how we should express His lordship in our lives? The theological answer is that we need to live up to and live out our Spirit-produced unity. As children of our Heavenly Father and brothers and sisters in Christ, we are unified by the Holy Spirit with a bond that is deeper and greater than any of our differences. The apostle Paul exhorts us in his letter to the Ephesian churches (4:3) to keep and maintain that brotherly and sisterly unity with one another. And just in case we think we can keep unity in a spirit of anger, frustration or even hatred, Paul emphasizes that we have to maintain it “in the bond of peace.” Whatever that means, it surely rules out a surface-level “unity,” underneath which festers one or a number of forms of hostility. Unity is what we are called to, but that unity is certainly tested today with our numerous and significant differences about the pandemic. So, we need more than a theological exhortation. We need practical help from Scripture that we can tangibly flesh out in our daily lives, through which we can maintain and keep this Spirit unity that we have from the Father in Christ.
This practical help will look different depending on what we're struggling with in this tension-filled moment. For me, the Lord has had to teach me to “keep short accounts” with some of the people in my local church, the very opposite of what I did with the fellow believer mentioned above. For those not familiar with that phrase “keeping short accounts,” it simply means that when an issue arises between you and another person, whether your fault or theirs and if you can't simply “forgive and forget,” you don't let it sit there, causing a problem for a long period of time. You deal with it quickly. I will unpack the biblical basis for keeping short accounts in Part 2 of this post.
Thankfully, the fellow church member with whom I was so angry reached out to me for a meeting about something else entirely. When we got together, I raised the issue. We talked it through and, while we are certainly not on the same page in regards to our response to the pandemic, I learned that much of the meaning I had loaded into this person's statement was not what they were intending at all. They apologized for even the possibility of offense and I apologized for harboring anger in my heart against them for so long. The reconciliation called for in Scripture became a reality and our unity was maintained. But, by not keeping short accounts, I let a barrier to unity grow thicker and deeper that had no business doing so, with my heart being negatively affected and weighed down in the process.
Read the remainder of Eric's post in My COVID Lesson: Keeping Short Accounts – Part 2.