- Phone: (505) 899-0665
- Mailing Address: 6400 Golf Course Rd NW Albuquerque, NM 87120
COVID, Idols, and Christian Witness
Dear Church Family,
As I trust you all have seen in the news already, in light of the continued prevalence and spread of COVID-19 in New Mexico, our governor has reinstated a temporary mask mandate for indoor public spaces. This means that beginning this Sunday, August 22, we are asking all who attend public worship at First Baptist West Albuquerque respectfully to wear an appropriate face covering while gathered in the building.
Over the last many months, I am pleased to recall, our church body has endured many changing conditions and restrictions with much grace and willing cooperation. I expect it will not be an issue for us to do so temporarily one more time.
At the same time, I am aware that many of us, myself included, have grown weary from being subject to public policy “whiplash.” Yet, our weariness must not become cause for divisions among our body on positions related to wearing masks, receiving vaccinations, or politely complying with governing authorities on matters related to public health. I do not anticipate this sort of response from any of our members, because you have all been exceptionally gracious and patient this last year.
Nevertheless, we do see such responses from so-called and professing Christians in the news and on social media. It is shameful that we have seen Christians hurling insults and condemnations against one another through these media of late. I am so glad the bride of Christ that gathers at First West has not done this publicly.
The apostle John closes his first epistle with an oddly placed but perennially pertinent statement: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). In the present verbal melee over masks and vaccinations and whether or not to listen to the government and follow public health orders, I observe at least two forms of idolatry that we must be aware of and keep ourselves from.
The first is the idolatry of physical health, vitality, and this physical life. Now, our bodies have been given to us to steward as a gift of God and to use for his service and glory in the world—so I am not saying that you should stop exercising and eating right and taking your vitamins and going to the doctor to stay on top of your health. But what we do observe among many right now is a deep seated and paralyzing fear of illness and death that has prevented many Christians from attending corporate worship and ministering in boldness to those most in need. Non-Christians, too, fearful over falling ill have cloistered themselves in their homes and demanded that everyone everywhere receive the maximum level of prophylactic treatment before ever returning to their lives. Christian history, however, is full of Christians doing the opposite. When plagues ravaged ancient Rome and then later all of Europe, it was Christians who stayed behind in cities to care for the sick and ailing, often at the expense of their own lives due to infection. They did not disregard their health, but they did not so worship it so as to stop living as Christ had transformed them to live. And in so doing they won the esteem of many and the message of the Gospel multiplied across the globe carried along by the message of Christian charity, service and self-sacrifice. We know that because we live in a world that has been bent away from God’s design by our own sin that we will live with illness, plague, and pestilence until Christ returns.
Not worshipping at the shrine of physical health, though, does not mean being reckless with our health nor unconscientious of the health of others around us. So we will wear masks for a period of time as we gather out of care for our children who cannot yet be vaccinated and the immune-compromised among us. We will do so to show to our neighbors that while we do not worship the god of wellness, that we still care about helping to keep them healthy during a still ravaging pandemic.
The second idol that I observe as a danger to the church in this season is quite different. It is the idol of personal autonomy and individual liberty. Now as Baptists we believe in soul competency and the responsibility of each individual to answer to God for their own lives, their own sins, and their own faith in Christ or lack thereof. But there is a strain of personal autonomy idolatry observed in both Christians and non-Christians of late whose battle hymn is, “No one tells me what to do!” This refrain sung by Christians, we must note, runs contrary to very heart of the gospel, which is submission to God. In fact, submission to God also means submission to human authorities whom God has ordained. And the ones he has ordained are not just our favorite ones, but even the ones who subject us to public policy “whiplash” (Rom 13:1-7). Submission to a public health order of the sort we have again before us, when evenly and neutrally applied across all sectors of society is not in and of itself an affront to the gospel or a threat to the church. To assume so is to think too little of the power of the gospel, and too much of what humans can do to stop it.
Submission to public authorities, though, does stop at their command for us not to proclaim Christ and him crucified or any other truth from God’s word. There is a profound difference, we should observe, between the governor telling us to wear masks in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, and the governor telling us we cannot proclaim that salvation from sins is available to all without cost, but only through trusting in the death of Christ for sins and resurrection from the dead. There is a great difference between governments using their authority to curb a dangerous viral outbreak, and flexing their authority to curb the message of the gospel. We do well to remind one another of these differences, and that submission to the former in each case is biblical, and submission to the latter in each case is disobedience to God and idolatry of the state.
Yes, dear brothers and sisters, keep yourselves from idols!
So then how shall we live as true worshippers of Jesus in these odd and often frustrating times without falling prey to either of these or a hundred other related idolatries? I have just a few suggestions.
I love you, dear church. We will persevere by the grace of God and with the grace he supplies to us day by day. See you in worship soon!
Your partner in the gospel,