Many pastors of all opinionated sorts are parroting the same line to explain, justify, or excuse the decisions churches have made, and have had to make these last year.
Paraphrased, "we were damned if you did and damned if we didn't." That there was no right answer or response to the government mandating anything or viruses infecting anything and all the "anythings" started to pile up so high that we decided to do nothing in response. That doesn't mean we did nothing at all, but it was the delicate balance of doing things that couldn't be cast in binary terms or black and white light. heaven knows having real UV-killing virus illumination would have changed that a bit, but hey, c'est la vie.
When phrased as either doing one thing to offend one certain group and another to offend another certain group. It can seem impossible to do anything but the bare minimum of risk and compliance. To comply with those that comply and to bear all things like the love we espouse. But without sounding like there is a third way, there is the often neglected practice of having principles.
A principled man is just as susceptible to wrong decisions as is a liberal or passionate man. But the principled man has one advantage. He trains for the battles of the mind ahead of time and while caught by surprise is often never caught unprepared. When we zoom in to the level of a pastor facing the decisions that they did. To open or close a church, to mask or unmask, to socially distance or gather, to venture online, or to remain in person. These decisions on the surface can seem vague enough from a moral standpoint to allow for both ways to be right enough to pursue under the guise of each being the lesser of two evils compared to the other.
But are they? A principled man would have learned about the devastating effects of facing a logical problem that isn't going to try to hit him but is going to hit him without trying. In the famous words of one of the best boxers in the world, Mike Tyson. "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." Suppose the principled man knew he would get punched in the mouth and as such did nothing to stop the punch but instead used the attack to also punch their opponent in the mouth. It would be a painful choice of moves in the ring, but it would allow for effective punching nonetheless. Because as much as I want to avoid being punched in the face by a guy like Mike Tyson. I'll let someone hit me if I know I can not only survive the hit but also use it to benefit my side of the fight. To have a fist land square on my jaw to close the distance for my own uppercut.
I've thought since the middle of our first year of this pandemic nonsense, that what might be presenting themselves through this time period was some unorthodox but devastatingly powerful chance, for the church to be a kind of super relevant in the face of communal opposition. If we had stood together as followers of Christ and not as individual non-profits and denominations, we would have been the answer to so many of the wrongs and sorrows the world faced these last few years. But to say people would be mad if we closed and mad if we stayed open relies on those two options being equal which they are not. The world is a fundamentally better place with churches being open because of the death-proof gospel we proclaim there.
Which brings us full circle to the being damned if you do part of this piece, because, at the end of the day, the founding principle of all Christendom is that we are all in fact, damned.
20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:20-26 ESV
The math of trying to save just one person from a virus only to have one other person who would have come to your church, but instead stayed home, and in doing so was never preached the gospel unto repentance and salvation, is a moot point in its sum.
Saving a Christian's life even less so.
We preach that we have no fear in death and then demonstrated fear in death at every turn. As we shut down to prevent death, distanced to prevent death, masked, plexiglass, and sanitized to prevent a death we preached that we did not fear. And while caution and fear are distinct in their execution, we openly participated in the hypocrisy of how the prescribed caution was exercised. How many singers on church stages kept their masks off to sing over and to masked congregations? Did their exceptions for performance or clarity from the stage somehow not contribute to the death we were preventing? How many more masks were improperly disposed of or stored or reused. No one actually took the mandates seriously. If we did we would be in masks and buildings that actually prevent viral transmission.
The problem with principles is that they damn those without them. Principles of personal protective equipment and viral outbreak control were not what we were practicing. We were practicing compromise. Surgical masks don't stop viral load like full-face cartridge respirators do. They fall short of their goal of keeping the wearer safe from the virus. Just like our works of trying to do church through the means of online services, social distancing, forbidden contact, touch, and vaccination status also fall short of what's necessary for real salvation from sin and death.
This wasn't a time where we were damned if we did and damned if we didn't.
This was a chance for the church to be the only community of people in a time of isolation. The only example of courage in a time of fear. The only place where the image of God was not covered by created things. The only place where principles existed in an ever-changing landscape of moving goalposts, graphs, and statistics. This was a time for the church to be what the church was with no apology, excuse, or compromise. Open to all but defined by one defining principle.
What's the church at its core?
Saved from sin and death by the gospel it preaches.