Two Biblical Principles We Must Make Every Effort to Follow During This Season of Regathering
By Ken Idleman
“To be or not to be? That is the question.”
Most of us will recognize this quotation from Hamlet, one of William Shakespeare’s famous plays. Hamlet, who spoke these words, was contemplating suicide . . . trying to decide whether it was better for him to live or to die. It’s pretty heavy stuff. (Shakespeare sometimes managed to encapsulate in a very few words ideas that take the rest of us many paragraphs to articulate.)
We are currently living through a season that is causing all of us to ponder the inescapable fact that life is hard. Faithless people have to be wondering if living or dying is better.
COVID-19 has brought a raft of intense new stressors. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Some have lost their homes or businesses. Families are quarantined because of stay-at-home orders. People are chafing under the stress. Tension, even violence, between spouses and siblings is on the rise. Boredom and disrupted routines exacerbate the relational strain. Preexisting mental illness and substance use and abuse have contributed to even greater depression and desperation.
We are constantly warned we could contract the deadly virus at any moment. And while social distancing might preserve our physical health, it is endangering our emotional health and well-being. Churches have not been able to assemble for weeks and months, resulting in spiritual lethargy among many.
“The cumulative effect of all this [and more] could be a ‘perfect storm’ when it comes to the increased risk of suicide,” says Dr. Mark Reger, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
In light of these life and death issues swirling around every day—and their consequent negative impact on people—there is one thing we do not need . . . and that is division among Christ followers, especially over something as insignificant as temporarily wearing a surgical mask in our worship assemblies.
This is not a hill we want to die on. This is not something we want to debate into significance. This is not worth us sacrificing the unity Jesus prayed would mark his disciples . . . something about which he prayed so intently in the Garden of Gethsemane that his perspiration fell as droplets of blood. We must not insist on our own way when it comes to this and other nonessential matters. Rather, in this season we must all be self-disciplined to follow two simple biblical principles: (1) resist division, and (2) submit to civil and spiritual leadership.
A review of the Gospels convinces me that Jesus actively resisted divisive political issues.
The Samaritan woman at the well, in an effort to divert the Lord’s attention away from her marital history, asked a potentially divisive question, “Sir . . . our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:19-20).
Jesus would not weigh in. He ignored her request for a verdict on the divinely authorized location of corporate worship and responded,“Woman . . . believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . [A] time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (vv. 21, 23).
Jesus was not going to be lured into petty theological arguments, nor would he identify with either side of unimportant and divisive matters. He was calling the Samaritan woman away from her pettiness and into the deeper life of faith.
It occurred again when some of the Pharisees and Herodians put Jesus on the spot publicly. After a thinly veiled attempt to manipulate him with affirmation, they pounced:
“Teacher . . . is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” [Again, Jesus seemed to ignore the question. He certainly was not going to cater to the divisive spirit of the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus said,] “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it. . . . Whose image is this? . . .”
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him (Mark 12:14-17).
Jesus was not going to be pulled into a tit-for-tat argument over a political issue. He operated at a much higher level. He called the crowd up and into the kingdom of God.
Finally, at his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus refused to even defend himself against the contradictory charges of his false accusers. They accused him of boasting that he would rebuild the temple in three days. Jesus would not even take his “own side” by explaining what he truly meant! (Jesus had been referring to the resurrection of his bodily temple.) The high priest could not believe it. The religious leader said, “‘Are you not going to answer?’ . . . But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer” (Mark 14:60-61).
In every Gospel setting, when anyone attempted to pull him into an argument, Jesus refused to participate. Matthew wrote, “But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor” (Matthew 27:14).The Lord resisted entering into a conflict or participating in a schism even to save his own life. He consistently did not step up . . . rather, he stepped back/away when there was division.
There was one exception, however. Jesus clearly and consistently identified himself as the Son of God.
Jesus said to the woman at the well, “I, the one speaking to you—I am He [meaning the Messiah, called Christ]” (John 4:26).When the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”Jesus responded,“I am” (see Mark 14:61-62).
Jesus did not weigh in and take sides on trivial and divisive matters, but he placed a high value on unity and oneness, especially among those who believed in him through the word of the apostles. The mystery of God’s will, his eternal purpose is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
We would do well in this season of potential division over all the questions/issues regarding the why, when, who, and how to regather the church to let the apostle Paul have the last word, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
OBEY CIVIL AND SPIRITUAL LEADERSHIP
Peter had come a long way. In the Garden of Gethsemane he was ready to take off the head of the high priest’s servant. Flash forward a few years and he said,
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors. . . . For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. . . . Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:13-15, 17).
There is no possible way to misunderstand or misinterpret these verses, which closely parallel Paul’s words:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. . . . Consequently, whoever rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. . . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:1-2, 5).
So, whatever is mandated by our civil/governmental authorities is binding on us as Christ followers as long as it does not violate the higher authority of God’s Word. In addition, we believers also have a duty to submit to our local church elders. The writer of Hebrews was clear about our duty to defer to our congregational leadership in matters of opinion, especially when the possibility of division presented itself.
“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Never in my lifetime have I seen a time when there was more to criticize in our civil leadership. I have been disappointed again and again through the years with the careless manner in which our tax money is spent and with other thoughtless and damaging legislation. But, as of yet, I have not had to suffer through a Nero, an Attila the Hun, or an Adolf Hitler. So, I can support our civil servants in prayer; and I can submit by keeping this in mind—it could be worse!
Never in my lifetime have I seen the global Christian community or the local church more divided. But, as Christ followers, we are bound by the Word of God to submit to the congregational elders whom we have put in place to lead us. We do this so that their role as spiritual shepherds will be a joy and not a burden. During this battle against the coronavirus, let’s continue to remain positive and encourage our church leaders by our affirmation and support!
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).
Ken Idleman serves as vice president of leadership development for The Solomon Foundation. He served as the fourth president of Ozark Christian College and then as senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Newburgh, Indiana.