Facing Vaccine Fear
By Zoe S. Erler and Megan Fowler
vaccine fear

No PCA pastor ever dreamed he’d spend precious time and emotion debating a new vaccine.

But now many — perhaps most — of our teaching elders are asking themselves: Should I get the vaccine? Should I encourage parishioners to get it? Do I need to know who’s had the vaccine and who hasn’t? And how do I respond when members are wary of the latest “miracle drug”?

COVID-19 Vaccine Concerns

A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 20% of white evangelicals definitely won’t receive the COVID vaccine, compared with 13% of adults nationwide.

Among those who are hesitant, one-fourth (23%) are waiting to see the outcomes for themselves. They want to know the long-term effects and to see how friends and neighbors fare in the months ahead. Many are concerned about safety or side effects (14%). Some worry that the vaccine is too new — approved under an expedited emergency use authorization process — hence, not enough research is yet available (9%). Eight percent just don’t want it.

Though surveys don’t break out the respondents who think the vaccine may be “morally tainted by the testing and production using cell lines derived from aborted babies,” sites such as “Christians and the Vaccine” address the issue in their FAQs.

Media outlets have added to the tension by labeling hesitant evangelicals as “anti-science.” An Atlantic article by David Graham was headlined: “It’s Not Vaccine Hesitancy. It’s COVID-19 Denialism.” Around the same time, The New York Times ran a piece called “White Evangelical Resistance Is Obstacle in Vaccination Effort.”

Engaging the Concerns

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxes masking guidelines for those who are vaccinated, churches must grapple with how to worship freely, yet safely. Pastors feel the strain. A Lifeway survey from August 2020 found that more than a quarter (27%) of pastors believe that maintaining church unity in response to COVID was their greatest source of pain.

Covenant College professors Bill Davis and Tim Morris have spent the past year talking about the vaccine with students. Consequently, both men relate to the pain pastors feel.

Most people think in terms of getting the vaccine or not getting it when they should be thinking about getting the vaccine versus getting the virus.

“This is a front-burner issue for all of our students,” says Davis, professor of philosophy, who also serves as an advisor for the ethics committee at CHI Memorial Hospital, Chattanooga. He’s had several conversations with students who want the vaccine — who are persuaded that it’s the best way to love and protect their neighbors — but whose parents forbid it.

Davis doesn’t want to encourage anyone to dishonor their parents, but he does want to help students think and reason as adults.

Both Davis and Morris, a professor of biology, have been vaccinated. And both men believe Christians can be both confident about and comfortable with the vaccine.

For those who have concerns about the potential unknown health hazards, Morris points out that there are risks whether one gets the vaccine or not. Most people think in terms of getting the vaccine or not getting it, Davis said, when they should be thinking about getting the vaccine versus getting the virus. Based on Morris’ understanding of COVID-19 epidemiology and the current projected vaccination rates, those who choose not to get the vaccines will very likely contract the virus at some point. Morris says he’d rather take his chances with the vaccine than with “a systemic, replicating viral infection that could come back to haunt me and my loved ones, years down the road.”

Timothy Persons, chief scientist of the Government Accountability Office, and the stated clerk of Chesapeake Presbytery, shares Morris’ perspective. In his view, the idea of risk assessment needs to factor more prominently in how Christians think about the vaccine and its unknown long-term effects, versus getting COVID and its unknown long-term effects.

Persons, who heads a team of technical specialists, including scientists with expertise in virology, microbiology, and epidemiology, points out that humans make risk assessments all the time. We assume the risk of injury from a car accident when we drive to church or work. But the risks pale in comparison to the risks of psychological and emotional damage incurred by staying home and cutting oneself off from relationships, work, and all sorts of service and ministry.

The same logic, he believes, applies to getting the COVID vaccine. The risk of possible vaccine side effects must be weighed against the risk of serious long-term illness or death from contracting COVID-19.

But what about the vaccine’s possible connection to fetus-derived cell lines in testing and production?

“There’s no question that we should not be killing a child in order to do research, no matter what kind of good we think may come of it,” says Davis. “We should be pursuing research that honors everyone living now.” Nor do we want to promote research that advances the mistreatment of others, ever, in any way.

In Davis’ estimation, this vaccine doesn’t increase the likelihood that fetal cells will be used in the future; hence, no evil is perpetrated. Likewise, Morris would prefer a vaccine that had no tie to abortions, no matter how far back in history. But no such vaccine is available. However, because none of the available vaccines utilize actual fetal cells, Morris concurs: No evil is perpetuated — and a current danger is addressed in a loving way.   

Persons adds that in his examination of the data, the vaccines are ethically sourced tissue cells from the 1970s, “or at least we cannot tell that they are unethically sourced.”

That degree of probability might not put every Christian conscience at ease, but it speaks to a reality of life in a fallen world. And, according to Davis, Morris, and Persons, it provides an opportunity for Christians to learn to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Such decisions are integral to the Christian life, Morris says. We make them with faith and in obedience as best we can, trusting our good and all-powerful God.

Postures of Wisdom and Faith

Davis likes the fact that God’s people are thinking about these issues. We must always be “weighing our various responsibilities before God.” By doing so, he notes, some may choose different paths. When they do, it’s important that we don’t become angry and/or overly skeptical. That’s poison, Morris says. And hostility toward vaccines stands in contrast to the historical posture of American Christianity, which has welcomed vaccines as tools to end great scourges like polio and smallpox.

Nor is this a contest to see who’s holier or more righteous or who loves their neighbor most and best.

Dan Doriani, professor of biblical and systematic theology and vice president at large at Covenant Seminary, says he has seen this attitude create barriers and divisions in the church. While many Christian leaders encourage their followers to follow the CDC guidelines and get the vaccine as the best way to “love your neighbor,” Doriani cautions that the converse is not always true. We can have questions about the vaccine and still love our neighbors. Even as Christians work through their concerns, they can love their neighbors by maintaining social distance and wearing a mask.

Where tension exists, Doriani counsels pastors to create an open forum for discussion and information sharing. That’s one way to restore unity even in the midst of conflicting opinions, he says. Churches might find neighborhood experts like a physician, nurse, or scientist who’s familiar with the research and trained to speak on it. And a Zoom meeting with local experts might give worried congregants the thing they need most: a chance to ask questions and feel heard.

If a church doesn’t have medical experts, Davis and Morris are available to help. Online sources such as the Friendly Neighborhood Epidemiologist can also be a good place to start.

Ultimately, Doriani points out, Christians will draw different conclusions about how to approach the pandemic, and Scripture should finally dictate how we should relate to one another. In Romans 14 Paul urges his readers not to quarrel over opinions, and says each believer should “be fully convinced in his own mind.” But believers are not to use their opinions to judge their neighbors, Doriani says.

Rest for the Weary

The strain of the past 15 months is driving pastors out of the ministry. Doriani implores them to get some rest. Turn off your phone and the news. Go for a walk with a friend. Get more sleep.

“A lot of people would be helped by following God-given patterns that give our life order,” he said. If pastors can take a break, they should take it, and then decide if they’re really finished or just exhausted. No one should quit in haste or despair.

Shepherding God’s people means bearing with others in love, teaching with patience, and remembering that those who’ve been vaccinated, and those who haven’t, all belong to the body of Christ.

“Paul said ‘The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness’ (2 Timothy 2:24-25). So let us show Christ-like kindness, gentleness, and patience, even as we teach,” Doriani says.

“Afterward, let’s rest in our labors and trust the results to the Sovereign.”

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