A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Disagreements in a Time of Crisis
April 2, 2020
Helping congregations handle internal disagreements graciously is one of the most critical tasks of church leadership. Faced with disagreements about which foods are to be considered “clean” and “unclean,” Paul argues eloquently for the grace of deferring to those whose scruples differ from our own. (Romans 14:13-23) Such an argument may seem quaint to us who have no roots in the Hebrew dietary laws under which many early church members had been raised. But a new version of the “clean” vs. “unclean” argument has cropped up among us in the current COVID-19 crisis.
In its broadest expression, our nation has manifested a politicized divide between those who have embraced governmental social isolation directives and those who have resisted them, calling the coronavirus issue a hoax. A Florida pastor made it a faith issue – do we trust God to protect us when we honor God’s call for the saints to gather together? Defying the state’s social isolation order, he continued to gather his congregation, which led to his arrest on misdemeanor charges following last Sunday’s service.
This week Governor Wolf extended Pennsylvania’s social isolation mandate for our region at least through the end of April. This order precludes congregations gathering to worship. Nearby presbyteries where the order is not yet in force report that some of their congregations continue to meet. For smaller congregations whose primary mission has been to assure that there is a viable morning worship service every Sunday, following this order can be especially dismaying. To be clear, Pittsburgh Presbytery will condone no congregational gatherings as long as this governmental order is in place.
Even if we are all on the same page with that, I have discovered that there remain sharp disagreements within our churches around “clean” vs. “unclean.” Should the church office ever open? If so, does that risk providing a portal for the virus to enter the premises? Should we mandate face coverings for anyone on church property? What level of cleaning of church facilities is necessary to assure the safety of any who may come there, or more broadly of the whole congregation when we begin to gather again for worship? Sharp disagreements between people of goodwill arise in response to these questions, even between people who agree on compliance with social distancing directives.
This can be further complicated by power issues if church leaders ask employees or volunteers to come to the office or engage particular tasks when they are uneasy about doing so. The leader may think there is little risk, while the one they’ve asked to do this or that is gravely concerned about the risks involved. In our current environment, leaders need to make a practice of asking nobody to do anything that takes them outside their home, without making absolutely certain that those they have asked are fully at ease with doing so. Pastors, supervisors, and program leaders who think they could not possibly be perceived as coercive need to be mindful that people they are asking to do things may not feel free to decline, unless they are specifically asked whether they are comfortable with the assignment.
In Romans 14 Paul points out that when we insist on our own viewpoint’s superiority we effectively pass judgment on those who see things otherwise. To survive and even thrive through seasons of disagreement, the church must grant space for people to hold differing convictions without being judged thereupon. We won’t find our way through to solidarity in mission as long as we persist in passing judgment against brothers and sisters in our community whose opinions differ from our own. To put it another way, the Body of Christ cannot be whole and bear good fruit when members of the body insist on judging each other rather than welcoming each other.
Tensions over disagreements get amplified in times of crisis. It’s one thing to disagree over what style of music is preferable in Sunday morning worship when nobody’s life is on the line. It’s quite something else when possibilities for exposure to a deadly virus are abundant around us. Apostolic counsels of forbearance and refraining from judgment apply equally, but with far greater consequences amid a severe public calamity.
More than ever, as we face this grave worldwide health crisis that has found its way to our own back door, we must remain resolute in our commitment to bear with one another when we see things differently, deferring to one another while doing all in our power to avoid causing others to stumble.
Your companion in mutual forbearance,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister