Are we puffed up with knowledge, or do we build up with love?
By Andries van der Merwe, Amo O’Kennedy, Phillip Boshoff, and Heinrich Titus
The controversy surrounding Covid-19 vaccines has turned families and friends against each other, and social media into a battlefield. You are either for or against the vaccines, with very little grace for disagreement.
Both sides of the debate have sources and research they deem credible showing how effective or ineffective, safe or unsafe the vaccines are. The ethical discussion around fetal cells used in the vaccines’ development also warrants Christian scrutiny.
Pastors and church members, what should a Christian response to the debate look like?
Well, at the moment it seems less like healthy, reasoned debate, and more like a mud-throwing competition. It’s unclear who will win, but one thing is certain: We will all end up with mud on our faces if we continue like this.
What would Jesus have done in this situation?
Shofar’s leaders are not medical professionals and therefore cannot speak with authority on medical matters, but we can address the vaccine debate from a Biblical standpoint.
Firstly, we do not believe there is any clear directive in the Bible that prohibits the taking of a vaccine. However, we acknowledge that there are moral and ethical questions to be answered around the development and testing of some of the vaccines currently available.
Secondly, we believe that it is not only important to address whether Christians should take the vaccine or not, but also the way that we handle ourselves in these discussions and debates.
An issue of conscience
The Apostle Paul faced a similar issue regarding the eating of meat offered to idols.
Because of the practice of offering meat to idols, some Christians did not eat meat at all. But the more significant issue Paul had to address was that those who did not eat meat condemned those who did eat meat, thus causing division in the church.
1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 are very helpful portions of Scripture to study in our current context.
In 1 Corinthians 8:1-3, Paul starts by addressing the heart of the conflict between the two groups. He says, “Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’. This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (ESV).
Paul is saying our disagreements should be characterised not merely by knowledge, but the high value of Christian living: love.
He then addresses the theological concern in v 4-8, summarised in v 8: “Food will not bring us close to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do” (NRSV).
In v 9-13, Paul then makes it a conscience issue, as opposed to a theological issue. He states that, regardless of your position on the issue, you should be very sensitive to the conscience of your fellow Christian, because “wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (v 13).
In Romans 14 he follows the same line of argument:
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (Romans 14:1-3 NIV).
Jesus, too, was confronted by this contentious issue of the day.
“‘Are you so dull?’ [Jesus] asked. ‘Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body’” (Mark 7:18,19 NIV).
Jesus makes it an issue of the heart. Can the vaccine defile your heart? As with Paul, we can argue that it is not a doctrinal issue for Jesus, but an issue of conscience.
In the same passage, Jesus adds: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come” (Mark 7:21,22 NIV). He then lists sins that come from “within”, including “slander”.
Jesus warns us not to allow contentious issues to trap us in slandering those with different positions.
We therefore do not believe taking or not taking a Covid-19 vaccine is a doctrinal issue, but rather a conscience issue.
For some, however, the ethical nature of vaccine development is a matter of conscience.
The link between vaccine development and abortion
We believe in the sanctity of life and that life begins at conception. Thus, we are against abortion. Is there a link between the vaccines and abortion? In the early 1970s a researcher by the name of Frank Graham working in the Netherlands took cells from the kidney of an aborted baby and was able to successfully “immortalise” these cells, meaning they are able to divide indefinitely in a lab environment, thereby creating the cell-line known as HEK293. None of the original fetal cells are still in existence today (they would be about 50 years old), but due to the perpetual nature of the cell line it is widely used in all manner of medical research.
A similar fetal cell line, named PER.C6, was developed from cells taken from the eye of a baby aborted in 1985, also in the Netherlands. PER.C6 is owned by Janssen (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson) and is used exclusively for vaccine development.
Pfizer and Moderna used HEK293 cells to test their vaccines, while Johnson & Johnson used PER.C6 in the development stage of their vaccine. No abortions were performed in either the development or testing of the vaccines, with the link limited to the varied use of the above cell lines.
We therefore respect those who because of their conscience do not want to take the vaccine, as well as those whose conscience does not accuse them for taking the vaccine. Still, we do not believe that taking or not taking the vaccine is clearly disobedient to Scripture.
Let us encourage all our people to do everything with faith in God (and not from fear), and treat each other with love and respect. There is a tremendous opportunity for the Body of Christ to showcase the strength of the family of believers, especially when confronted with potentially divisive issues.
Now, more than ever, let us be known for our love and not whether we are for or against the vaccines.
These words from a contemporary of Martin Luther during the religious wars that ravaged Europe can serve as a good guideline for us, even now: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Or, to put it plainly, let’s not contribute to the mud fight, but make every effort to help clean up the mess.
 The exact date is unclear.
 The abortion took place in 1985 after which the research cells were frozen. They were subsequently thawed in 1995 for the generation of the PER.C6 cells.