I wish judging wasn’t such a big thing, especially in the church. But it is. It’s human nature to compare. People judge other people. Ministers judge other ministers. Churches judge other churches.
The kingdom of heaven is a world without this kind of judging, just as Eden was a comparison-less world. Adam wasn’t worried about who had the bigger house, the sweeter ride, or the more attractive wife. Nor was Eve into judging. They were all content to live in peace together and to live in the presence of God. (I’m speaking theologically, just like the creation stories themselves.) It was all paradise until the serpent tempted them with a comparison, “Hey, you don’t know as much as God.”
We live among the kingdoms of this world, and those kingdoms are filled with competition and appraisal, along with feelings of inferiority and superiority.
John wrote, “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19). The church is the first fruit of God’s new creation. Too often, however, the church lives according to the priorities of the world rather than of Eden. If only Christians lived with the contentment of God’s coming Kingdom rather than the competition and judgmentalism of earthly kingdoms.
This brings me to my main point. As churches choose to reopen or stay closed after the coronavirus lockdown, it’s natural to look around and see what one’s neighboring and comparable churches elsewhere are doing. It’s human nature to contrast another’s choices against one’s own. This isn’t all bad. We need the advice and counsel of others. We ought to learn in community and not just play this out as survival of the fittest.
Noting variances is not sinful. Learning from others is good. Judging differences is evil.
One church may be filled with elderly, at-risk people. Their leadership board might be comprised of medical personnel, scientists, or intellectuals. They might find themselves in one of the areas hardest hit by the pandemic. Their local leanings will push them to act in a way that suits their context and their understanding of what’s best. In other words, it should be a local, contextual decision.
Another church may be filled with younger, healthy individuals who are tired of being kept apart. Their leadership may consist of folks who are leery of overly cautious, scientific experts. They may find themselves in a region not badly hit by the virus but devastated by the economic shutdown. Their local leanings will push them to act in a way that suits their context and their understanding of what’s best. In other words, it should be a local, contextual decision.
Perhaps no passage speaks into this environment more than Romans 14. The church in Rome was not one single congregation but rather a large grouping of house churches(Rom 16:1-16). Paul’s words of instruction in chapter 14, therefore, are not merely directed toward the behavior of individual believers within a single congregation. Rather, they address how varying congregations can coexist and continue to glorify God despite differing convictions.
Paul’s teaching ought to speak clearly at this moment in history. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servants of another?” (14:4) When you hear that your neighboring church has decided to remain closed for in-person worship until September, do you inwardly mock them? If so, you are ignoring Paul’s direction.
“So do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (14:16). Your church may have good reasons for opening soon. You may have a great plan in place and be carefully following state and local guidelines. Yet if you try to impose your template on someone else’s church, you are guilty of turning your good into evil.
Here’s the kicker. “Whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (14:22). You’re allowed to explain what you do. Some folks are glad to learn from your process, and churches really need to be helping each other during these days. But if you have a conviction that all churches should do/act/think in a certain manner, keep it to yourself. That’s not your place.
Lest anyone think evil of me, I need to clarify that some issues are matters of opinion and therefore subject to the above teaching while others are not.
For example, following the guidelines of your county or city departments of public health is not optional. In this matter, all churches should be thankful for civic leadership and work hand in hand with those trying to advise us. We are not being oppressed.
Also, wearing masks in public has sadly become a political issue. There is much misinformation about this. Simple cloth masks worn by myself and many others don’t work well at protecting wearers from catching a virus. What they do well, however, is prevent the spread of disease from those who may not yet realize they have covid-19. A homemade mask reduces the risk of spread by 90%. Wearing a mask in public is not a sign of personal fear or weakness. It’s a demonstration of love and concern for others.
Beyond these things, churches and Christians will move on differing tracks for some time to come. Can Christians rise to the level of God’s Kingdom, showing understanding and support for the decisions of others? Or will Christians reveal a tendency to judge and condemn others, despite not knowing the local facts on the ground? Time will tell, but I’m hopeful we can learn from Paul and show understanding for others in these difficult, uncharted waters.