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An Open Letter to Pastors in a Divisive Time

By Mark Clark, Founding Pastor, Village Church Vancouver BC

Hey Pastor,

I hope you are doing well.

But seriously, I do. I know this is a weird time.

I have some good news and bad news.

I will start with the bad (no surprise I guess, I am a preacher after all).

I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I predict that the next year or so will be one of the most divisive times in the local church we have seen in our lifetime. I hope it isn’t, but if it is, as a pastor I know you will struggle.

It’s hard to keep up with all the new information about COVID, shut-downs, government requirements, how to love your neighbors well, when to open and not to, and beyond that all the latest theories of what COVID actually is: a disease that’s not a big deal anymore (oh), the biggest deal since the Spanish Flu (ok), a Plandemic (what’s that?), QAnon (never heard of it), wearing masks v. not wearing a mask, the deep state, Bill Gates (huh?).

You aren’t an epidemiologist so you aren’t sure how to re-open – don’t worry many people in your church seem to be so that’s good, just check their social media pages for the latest science.

Then there is all the online church stuff (gosh, I just got on the Facebook, now I have to be a televangelist?).

It’s a lot to take in for someone who got into this job to help people come to know Jesus and shepherd those who already know him. But here we are.

A quick warning:

Here’s what’s going to be most confusing about all this: people you have loved, preached to, married, baptized, visited in the hospital and prayed for privately in your home, will all of a sudden, as if over-night, project their ideas, fears, and frustrations onto you and other church leaders.

They will ask the church to take a stand on this side or that during this time.

Here’s what it will sound like:

“The church leadership needs to publicly come against people who are pushing against policy and spreading conspiracy theories on their social media because it’s harmful for society.”

“The church leadership needs to go against the government overreach and speak out against people who are just going along with all these rules which take away our freedoms and are hurting society even worse than if we were out and about (the rise of abuse, mental health issues, suicide, etc.,).”

“Pastor, you need to use your platform to say this and this, not that and that. You need to speak out right now. To not speak out is to support this idea and that one.”

“We should be going back to church right now! It’s our right. Sign this petition!”

“We should be waiting a long time to go back to church to love our neighbors!”

And on it goes.

For months now, many of you have already seen your inbox filling with such requests (hear, demands).

You see people on social media who are part of your church who, six months ago, were at an event laughing around a cup of coffee as their kids played together, but are now screaming at each other online about stats around deaths (oh, yeah you have a lot of statisticians in your church too, so that’s good), and how those stats support their idea about FILL IN THE BLANK.

It’s all very confusing, but more than that it’s concerning. This has the potential to divide us.

To divide not only the church at large but your church.

So, what do we do?

How do we respond?

I think there is a principle in the Bible that can help us as pastors – and as Christians in general – to get through this healthily. And, as Jesus said, retain what we all want: being both ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ (Matt. 10:16).

Here’s a better response:

In Romans 14 Paul is addressing a divided church, or one with the potential for division (Jews and Gentiles are trying to be one church but disagree on a lot of stuff: what to eat, drink, how to socialize, etc.,) all of which is an issue of who is more righteous than the other.

Who is more godly, which group does ‘church leadership’ support?! Paul’s direction is this, and it is something we all need to hear right now and lead our people in:

Welcome one another, do not quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the [other] eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?

Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God … Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died … For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Romans 14:1-4, 5-6, 13-16)

Notice Paul’s point: one person thinks eating meat or vegetables only is right or wrong, the other doesn’t.

It is the first-century version of: one person thinks vaccinations are an issue of public health and we need to get them when the government and health officials tell us to, another thinks they are unhealthy and being pushed by the deep state’s desire to control the population, as part of a One World Government.

One person thinks that social distancing is just us doing our part and we should stay in our homes and not see anyone at all – calling the police anytime they see a gathering of people that don’t look related (I am looking at you Karen), another thinks this is a sham against small businesses and a controlled destruction of the economy and an opportunity for the government to take our liberties away (the end of the world based on that passage in Daniel) – and once they take things from us, they rarely give them back.

And what is Paul’s advice? To take a side and publish a statement about this as a church or as a pastor? To get on your social media and tell one side or the other that they are decisively wrong?

No. The point of Romans 14 is to not do that.

We are called to not judge a fellow-believer on whether they eat meat or drink or vote this way or that, or like this ideology or that, or share this YouTube video or that – as crazy as we may think it is – we are instead, “not to quarrel over opinions” (v.1) and live our lives ‘according to conscience’, or ‘fully convinced in our own mind’ (v.5).

Remember brothers and sisters, you are pastors, your job is to reach and disciple people of every political and ideological stripe and publicly taking sides on issues that aren’t gospel-issues helps only to advance one idea or another, but not advance the gospel (Phil. 1:12).

In doing so, it actually by implication creates more division.

Don’t get me wrong, on issues of racial injustice and reconciliation,  you need to be speaking out. We can never hide behind Romans 14 when it comes to clear black and white biblical issues like race (Gen. 1-2; Gal. 2; Rev. 7).

Those things are actually biblical.

Taking a stance on mask or no-mask, vaccines or no-vaccines isn’t.

Why?

Well, now everyone in your congregation that doesn’t agree with ‘the church’s stance’ on said non-biblical issue is seen as an ‘outsider’ – and now you have insiders and outsider, and who was against insiders and outsiders more than Jesus? The desire for the church to come down on this side or that is a desire to censor the other side of the debate and that isn’t our job right now.

Pastor, don’t feel it is the job of church leadership to control what people can post on either side of this debate.

This is the beauty of being able to share ideas openly, be they good or bad ideas (according to you), the debate about these things is precisely where truth is to be discovered. Any scholar will tell you it’s in the debate that so much historical truth has been discovered.

I just finished a manuscript for a book on Jesus and the long history of the debate of scholars on how to understand the historical Jesus is how we have arrived at such a good understanding now of who Jesus was and what first-century Judaism was all about. Schweitzer disagreed with Reimarus, Sanders proposed this revision; Dunn that one; Wright this one.

Three hundred years of give and take. This idea is terrible, this one is great. It’s how truth is revealed.

As you know from a historical perspective there has always been cultural moments that the church is asked to get drawn into – what’s taught in schools, what candidate we should vote for, views on war, baptism, evolution, etc, etc, etc, – and of course there are times when the Bible brings up things that orbit around these issues that we must hit as a prophetic role in culture (civil rights, slavery, etc.,), but about this issue in this moment, until something changes or evolves, my advice for what it is worth is: your job is to preach and teach the Bible and its principles the best you can and let the Spirit convict people in their lives one way or the other, or in a third way or fourth in regard to this issue or that.

The role you as a pastor have right now, is of course, to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, as the best before us have done, but that always was about speaking gospel truth into people’s lives as they experience the real world, not taking stands on every sociological issue that arose in their generation.

You will notice when Billy Graham started to feel he was being used politically, he distanced himself from it all. His audience which filled stadiums wasn’t there to hear his views on Vietnam or Watergate, but were hungry for the word of life. And he gave it to them because what he was preaching transcended all the cultural moments and the ‘culture wars’ he was consistently tempted to be dragged into. Everyone wanted to use him to push their ideas, he only wanted to push Christ’s.

Paul warns against this in his letter to the Colossians, who were surrounded by all kinds of theories and mysterious ideas about true knowledge versus appearances: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition…and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).

The role of the pastor is to stick to philosophy according to Christ. For what other hope is there? The solutions of the Left? The ideas of the Right?

Both sides are spinning. We stand in the gap. Offering Christ to both as the solution to all.

“If, as Christians believe, the shed blood of Jesus Christ is the sacrifice for our sins, then the ideologies offer a surrogate source of salvation that may also call for bloody sacrifice…a kind of counterfeit Christianity.”

The role of the pastor is to stick to philosophy according to Christ. For what other hope is there? The solutions of the Left? The ideas of the Right? Both sides are spinning. We stand in the gap. Offering Christ to both as the solution… Click To Tweet

This is our concern and where we do our battle as pastors. With all our hearts we don’t want people to mistake their views on this or that as more important than the truths of the gospel. We don’t want them to elevate them above their intended place. Because while in the moment they may feel ‘most important,’ we know that place is already occupied by the message of the crucified and risen Jesus.

This is exactly Paul’s conclusion at the end of 1 Corinthians, where he says that that message, among everything else he wrote about (and it was a lot: sex, politics, church life, drunkenness, spiritual gifts), the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3).

With all our hearts we don’t want people to mistake their views on this or that as more important than the truths of the gospel. @MarkaClark Click To Tweet

But aren’t you as a pastor supposed to fight injustice, like your church is telling you to? You know like, if you stay quiet you are like the church during Nazi Germany so get up and tell these people “This is wrong”.

Yes, both sides will use the World War II analogy and the church’s silence during the rise of the Third Reich – outside of a few bold preachers/teachers like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and other historical moments like it, but we all must admit with rationale, wisdom and cold common sense: this is not that. In a sense, comparing the two is so far off as to almost be offensive (if I ever got offended).

All that to say, I will let you go, because I know you are busy trying to lead, be a psychologist, fundraiser, theologian, marriage counselor, cultural critic, staff manager, budget connoisseur, entrepreneur, tech wizard, world-class communicator, a person of prayer, a shepherd, a philosopher, not to mention your own spiritual health and that of your family.

When people send you these messages – and they will – just know: you’re doing a good job. Keep going. One foot in front of the other.

Find a few people you love and trust, who can remind you during the dark days that you aren’t the solution to the problems of the people in your church, Jesus is.

You aren’t the solution to the problems of the people in your church, Jesus is. @MarkaClark Click To Tweet

Nor are you the spokesperson for this ideology or that, and don’t feel pressured into that. You will because you like to be liked, and these are people you love and want to see flourish.

Paul is trying to save you from that, because it’s a trap, but more than that, it’s unbiblical.

Is whether a person believes in vaccines or not a gospel issue? No. It’s a secondary thing like almost everything else we talk about around the dinner table: one’s view on the second coming, methods of baptism, church governance, tongues – these are all inhouse debates we have as brothers and sisters in Christ. We don’t delineate people’s salvation based on them.

That is exactly what Paul is trying to save us from.

His principle: hang out, be friends, debate, razz each other, fight for good ideas over bad ones – this is literally what life is about.

But don’t judge one another over it. Live according to your conscious/conviction by the Spirit after thought, prayer, and a devotional life in the text. But break table/unity over it? Never.

And if we do, arguably, that disunity is a gospel issue. Read Galatians 2. Peter breaks table fellowship with Gentiles and Paul says your inability to keep the unity in the midst of difference is not a sociological problem, or your sin, or your personality profile, but a failure to grasp the gospel itself. “When Peter [and Barnabas] drew back and separated … I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:12-14).

Right now, unity and understanding should be our focus in the midst of divisive times, not taking sides over secondary socio-political debates. The former is a gospel issue, the latter is not.

These are things your church must navigate carefully and wisely and that’s what you are trying to best do right now. And you are doing a good job. Just remember Paul’s advice to a young preacher in his day tempted to lapse into commentary on cultural debates and Gnostic battles of the time: “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).

Sincerely,

Mark

A fellow pastor in the trenches with you all under Jesus, our Senior Pastor.

Right now, unity and understanding should be our focus in the midst of divisive times. @MarkaClark Click To Tweet

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An Open Letter to Pastors in a Divisive Time

18 Comments

  1. Richard Epler on July 14, 2020 at 2:35 am

    We are in strange times, but the simple truth given by God and Jesus are what Jesus taught to remain within – and if these are the “latter days”, we know Jesus said to endure in sound doctrine, not imaginations of men, but in the Teachings given by God Himself, as those are the Teachings He will bless.
    Times are confusing because mankind is confused and polarizing to distinguish those of the Light from those who are in Darkness – the dawn is coming, but we must repent to do the will of God, not men or our own imaginations. If a “brother” has offended us, are we not to seek reconciliation? Not every problem can be reconciled if the parties are not willing to accept efforts to restore justice, and by justice, God did not mean “social justice” of those who have gone mad! Politics drives men mad, as can be seen in the Democrats from 1960 to what they have become today – or even in just the last decade.
    The confusion that results when we leave the pathway of Life as given by YHWH, which is why YHWH said it is necessary to observe, keep and teach His Teachings as given. The failure of the Churches to Teach the Decrees of God as given and taught by Jesus in Matthew is the source of your divisions and confusion, because you fail to recognize one who serves God – from the one who does not.
    Learn the Truth from Jesus, and you wouldn’t be aiding the problem. onediscipletoanother.org

  2. Dave Z on July 13, 2020 at 2:28 pm

    Overall, I love this post, but there is a bit of a contradiction in one place.

    At one point the article says, “Pastor, don’t feel it is the job of church leadership to control what people can post on either side of this debate.”

    I did speak to a prominent member of my church who was posting things that were hurtful to other members who then spoke to me about it. The call did not go well – politics and being “right” are evidently more important than biblical principles.

    However, when posts are offensive, shouldn’t we speak up? Isn’t that what Paul is doing in Romans? My concern is that unloving posts will create even deeper divisions within a congregation.

    Thoughts? is there an appropriate time to speak up?

  3. Richard Epler on July 9, 2020 at 2:59 am

    Wow, another Paulite.
    Those of Paul are deceived from Jesus and YHWH – fact.
    onediscipletoanother.org/

    Anyone who understands and believes God and Jesus will have to reject Paul.

    You are not there yet and teach others to regard the greatest liar of all time.

    If they count on you, and you feed them known lies, what will YHWH have to say to you?
    By your words you will be judged, and by your deeds convicted.?

    Jesus never taught his righteousness would be imputed to anyone else, nor did God. See Ezkiel 18 and Isaiah 1.

    You should be telling people to repent and observe the clear words of God, that they might do them and live in His kindness and blessng.

  4. Wendy Wu on July 8, 2020 at 7:29 am

    Thank you, Carey and Mark, for the Open Letter. It speaks for what I have been thinking but could not put in words! I would like to ask for some feedback. Last Sunday, I shared the following based on my seminary professor’s teaching.

    “An average American places their hope on the following, Technology, Politics, Education, “Sharing of resources” Marxist or socialist belief, Personal Escape through drugs and alcohol.”

    As I briefly explained each one, I decided to expound on my thoughts about Marxism since I have been doing some reading. I said via Zoom to my church group that Marxism violates a simple biblical, universal principle, “You reap what you sow.” And every time we choose a political system or policy that is against God’s principles, we ask for trouble.”

    Afterward, my family said I was taking a political position. I have tried very hard to stay out of politics, but it is not always easy. There is too much to suppress and stifle to keep my mouth shut. (Could it be that is a sign that I am not called to shepherd, lol)

    I would like to hear your thoughts about whether we can speak against Marxism/socialism from the pulpit. Don’t worry, you won’t hurt my feeling.

  5. Chip on July 4, 2020 at 2:07 pm

    I agree that Nazi Germany in WW2 is normally a terrible analogy – one exception, being complicit or silent about 400 years of racism and white supremacy in US… that one is pretty close

    • Richard Epler on July 9, 2020 at 3:06 am

      Do you actually believe what you just said? Wow – are you deluded from fact and history., I’m amazed you go by “chip” instead of mushroom.

      May I suggest you read “Judaism’s Strange Gods”? There is the root of racism in the world – well documented. It’s no wonder Jesus warned them about the Scribes and Pharisees – look what their rejection an killing of Jesus has evolved into – Zionism, rule of the Rabbi, when the Rabbi pretends to bind up God you his superior wisdom and trickery. Did you knwo they also teach Solomon built the Temple with the help of demons he summoned?

      Get a life guy.

  6. Mark on July 4, 2020 at 6:43 am

    The simplest way to do this is carry out the commands “love one another” and “love your neighbour as yourself.” These are the basic tenets of the faith and yet are ignored.

  7. David Anderson on July 3, 2020 at 12:56 pm

    I think the author, Mark Clark, takes a far too-limited view on what are biblical or gospel issues. If we believe that God is at work in the world, then vaccines, masks, and behaviour that cares for our neighbours for the sake of the common good are not irrelevant to the gospel. These are not mere opinion. Some ideas are dangerous and threaten to harm the creatures of God. They should be denounced by any whom God gives a voice. I think is sinful to give them space and one reason why some churches are havens for all sorts of dangerous ideas.

  8. India Dennis on July 3, 2020 at 12:49 pm

    I owuld agree whole-heartedly with the emphasis on “maintaining the unity of the faith” in these divisive times by not getting into disputes about non-biblical essentials. My only problem is that the science behind mask-wearing and social-distancing is not up for debate. It seems there is a serious problem when medical advice becomes politicized and spiritualized, instead of simply being God’s wisdom revealed through the sstudy of God’s laws of nature. I fear that the non-mask-wearing folks view science as anti-God, even when it is simply one of God’s ways of leading in us in wise living. Serious thought needs to be given to the fact that Satan tempted Jesus to ignore and defy the law of gravity and the inevitable consequences of casting that law aside in some display of foolishness rathther than wise faith (Matthew 4:5-7). What if the push NOT to wear masks in light of what medical experts are telling us is actually a clever deceit of the Enemy to get us to TEST GOD???? Would we seriously argue that jumping off a tall building in defiance of God’s law of gravity is a matter for individual discerment, epsecially when, in the case of mask-wearing, not complying risks harming our neighbor, a violation of the “love your neighbor as yourself” commandment? While we must not get into divisive arguments, at some point, the call of Scripture to submit to the laws of God revelaed in nature needs to be taught and applied to this particular moment as an expression of faithful Christian living.

  9. Darryl Harris on July 3, 2020 at 9:53 am

    The church has the ability to understand the issues of our times like Covid-19, systemic racism, reopening protocols and others, but we have to be willing to embrace change and let go of some of our century old thought processes without compromising the gospel of Jesus Christ! It can be done and the church needs to be a leader on these issues. We have medical professionals in our congregations, diversity in the body of Christ and people who are willing to grow and learn! The Bible addresses every issue we face such as pandemics and racism that have been around for hundreds of years. The United States must realize our society is browning, pandemics are not a hoax and God wants us to step up and lead through these changes with integrity and love until He returns! We can do it!

  10. Ron on July 3, 2020 at 9:23 am

    I like your article. Thank you. It is so easy to be about causes that a cause us to neglect the things that are really important. I am Southern Baptist and recently our President told us not to say ALL LIVES MATTER. He probably had good intentions, but it is not his to tell us what to say. I do believe that ALL LIVES MATTER.

  11. Tim Terhune on July 3, 2020 at 9:02 am

    Okay, but at the end of the day this article begs the question. Pastors shouldn’t take sides on social media regarding non-gospel issues. Fine and dandy. I was personally helped and convicted by that. But when a church reopens it has to take sides: face coverings required or not required at services? Or no-covering service at 9, face covering service at 11? But not all churches will have the ability to do separate face covering optional/required services. Eventually all churches will be in the position of having to choose a side/policy on some of these matters.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 3, 2020 at 9:39 am

      Tim…thanks. I think making a decision is different than taking a position. You can require face masks or comply with local by-laws without making it a right or wrong, life of death, Christian or non-Christian decision. The tendency right now is to make everything an absolute, and that’s the danger.

  12. Brian on July 3, 2020 at 8:59 am

    Very timely and full of wisdom.

  13. Randy Brock on July 3, 2020 at 8:49 am

    Thank you for this perspective. Often times people read or listen just to respond, not to understand, looking for that one thing that will launch them into their opinion that supports their position or philosophy. You may find that here in the comment section. I found your approach refreshing and supported by the simplicity of the Gospel. To this I say, Yes!

  14. Donna Miller on July 3, 2020 at 7:21 am

    On behalf of pastors everywhere, thank you for this timely letter of encouragement. On the beginning it was all fun and games and we became home activity directors, helping people stay hopeful and and not kill each other. Now we are just exhausted. It sometimes feels like I am just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. I have told the Lord many times lately that my job is to preach the word. And he says, “I know.” I understand that Covid-19 did not take him by surprise, but he could have given me a heads up. LOL. Thank you again for affirming what I have been telling myself!

  15. Dennis Mahaney on July 3, 2020 at 7:05 am

    Interesting that you refer to Paul who was addressing an internal issue. How about the Prophet Jesus who took sides on behalf of the least, last and lost against virtually anyone corrupted by power. I do not believe that this strategy acknowledges what Paul does in Corinth or in Jerusalem, nor does it move us closer to a Gospel vision of church. Sorry. Eisegesis is always dangerous.

    • Christopher White on July 6, 2020 at 2:31 pm

      Sorry, I think you have shrunk the gospel here. Your definition of what are gospel matters I think is too limited for the existential issues we are facing as a church and as a species. There are ways of speaking on contentious issues that invite conversation and dialogue. From Paul to today, disagreement has always been and will always be a reality in the church. Silence in my view, doesn’t help that, it just pushes it underground, but doesnt eliminate it. Thank you for sharing your perspective, even if we disagree, it’s an important conversation.

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