First published on Christian Converser
We all have heard the arguments against the Coronavirus response worldwide, including vaccines. Much of the opposition to this is coming from within churches, from particular groups of Christians, almost all of whom follow obscure and rather extreme theological viewpoints, generally ones which, like many of the anti-arguments, have been bulk-imported from the USA. Unfortunately the United States is fast gaining a reputation as a country of ever more extreme beliefs and those which are in a church or Christian context are no exception. In America, the real problems that are resulting from the strong polarisation caused by the extreme nature of views being expressed by Christian and church groups started to show up in force during the Trump Administration and continue on the premise that Trump claims to be the rightful president and will continue campaigning for the 2023 national campaign and a host of lesser ones before then e.g. midterms. The main churches in New Zealand which are heavily invested into the anti-campaign (three large churches, perhaps examples of what could be called a “megachurch” in NZ, two in Auckland and one in Christchurch in particular, and a number of smaller ones) tend to keep to themselves and fly under the radar most of the time. One in particular does have strong links to the New Life Churches of New Zealand, which was founded by expatriate Australian evangelist Peter Morrow in the 1960s and was headquartered in Christchurch for many years. NLCNZ essentially imported its Pentecostal beliefs, doctrines and culture direct from the US, including the dispensationalist theology that underpins most of the anti-viewpoint. The late NZ end times evangelist Barry R. Smith, of Pelorus, was a regular fixture at City New Life (Christchurch) with his message, which faded from prominence especially after the failure of many predictions he had made about Y2k. NLCNZ itself faded a great deal after most of the larger congregations left and branched out on their own, and is no longer the force in pentecostalism it once was. The reasons for that could be as much theological as anything else.
In any case it is wholly understandable that a leading former NLCNZ pastor in Auckland has gone out on his own preaching a strongly anti message full of dispensationalist belief. Well, his church did manage to keep a low profile but is now attracting a lot of unwelcome attention. He has been content to let another Auckland based nationwide church with a prominent leader known for with an outspoken media profile and similar beliefs hog the limelight to this point. Some of the churches referred to are involved in the provision of education through their own private schools. The fact these schools are outside the mainstream of Christian education in NZ, which is state integration, is an important consideration because the high costs of private education naturally limits school attendance to more wealthy families and therefore lends itself to an air of elitism. Whilst not all private Christian schools are so disposed, churches which are already dabbling in highly questionable theological viewpoints are much more likely to prefer fully private education rather than the government funding that state-integrated schools receive, in order to minimise what they see as the pernicious / corrosive influence of the State. The reference to elitism is especially relevant because of the way dispensationalism is often associated with a culture of theological superiority, particularly in the United States of America, and the potential for this to spill over into church communities elsewhere.
The churches that are most strongly pushing the anti messages in NZ all appear to be underpinned by strong adherence to dispensationalist theology. The problem is their ideas on it can conflict, which underscores the different understanding that can result when churches invent theology on the fly and it also underscores much of the theologically shaky foundation of these beliefs. An illustration of this is that both of the two Auckland churches mentioned above posted similar viewpoints about the Trump presidency, the gist of which was that Trump was standing up to the “One World Order” leaders and delaying the onset of the Tribulation and other key “end times” events. The problem with this view is that Trump had an evangelical support committee working with him during his term of office and some of those people, or those they represented, made it very clear they believe their role is to be the guardians and facilitators of the end times event timeline, so that some of the major policies the Trump administration enacted in relation to Israel (for example relocating the embassy to Jerusalem and the Abrahamic Accords peace deal) were specifically focused on helping to hasten the onset of the “end times”.
The real problem for the many churches which make up evangelicalism in New Zealand as well as Australia is that significant levels of their membership have personally chosen to follow the more extreme views coming (mainly) out of the US which in NZ are most strongly espoused by the likes of Billy Te Kahika who has been tapping into Christian communities for support. New Conservatives, the party founded by Colin Craig with strong links into the Christian churches in NZ. has taken the side of the anti-vaccine view of late and at the time of writing this is becoming more overtly focused on this level of differentiation. The fault lies with the tendency of a significant percentage of the NZ evangelical church membership, as elsewhere, to uncritically lap up what is being taught from pulpits as quantifiable truth and supposedly with a Biblical unction behind it courtesy of the futurist pre-millennial interpretation of Revelation and the numerous embellishments added to it by dispensationalists. In reality what is being witnessed to in volumes is the closed minded or narrow minded nature of those on the receiving end of the teachings or messages, who accept it as the spoken word of truth simply because of the demonstrably conservative Christian mindset of those promulgating it, people who have track records in speaking the right type of political and social viewpoints that appeal to their flocks.
The problem is that having a closed mind or a narrow mind on important theological issues is essentially a divisive viewpoint and this division is harmful to the greater body. The narrow or closed viewpoint (so far explored in this blog in an ongoing current series) is mostly predicated upon a very small range of social or moral issues upon which Christians have taken absolutist viewpoints based on traditional Biblical positions and they then apply the same absolutism to other wider events that are not in the Bible, because the Bible is not in any way an account of the entire set of life circumstances that every Christian could expect to encounter in the world at large. It’s one thing to hold strong moral views on abortion euthanasia or whatever but another to be able to extrapolate absolutist principles to life in a secular society where there are a wide range of considerations to be looked at. For example, across the wider Christian community in New Zealand, a significant percentage of those attending mainline churches are concerned with issues like high housing costs, inadequate levels of wages for families, income inequality etc. These issues are not addressed to any real extent in conservative evangelical communities because of this same prevailing narrow mindset where the overwhelming viewpoint is that people are paying the penalty for their sin, ignoring that a significant number of highly sinful people are successful in their own business activities across society. This disengagement from the major issues of the secular country we live in is also majorly influenced by a number of other theological paradigms, including the Christian nationalism heresy, claims that the disintegration of society in the last two or three decades is caused by progressive anti-family policies, and the general dispensationalist mindset that a breakdown of society is a key precedent to the Tribulation. It’s also notable that in Pasifika communities there is significant church adherence yet that community is not found to be one in which financial or general prosperity is especially evident, which contradicts some of the stereotyping.
Leaders of conservative evangelical churches in NZ who are not in the same league as the three churches previously mentioned are nevertheless largely avoiding debate of the issues. This is understandable due to the wide spectrum of belief of individual members. Nevertheless, the Vineyard churches in New Zealand whilst not taking a strong public stance on the matter (a message online from the national leader made some nonspecific criticism of conspiracy theories but did not substantively elaborate on these concerns) have a publicly stated theological viewpoint that opposes dispensationalist eschatology. The biggest Vineyard church in NZ is in Christchurch and their general direction for all of the past two decades in which they have operated stands out as a strong contrast with the anti-campaigning large Christchurch fellowship alluded to above. Other prominent nationwide evangelical communities which have largely panned anti viewpoints such as Arise Church and Equippers Church also generally fall within the conservative evangelical community, and most of these churches as well as the bulk of mainline denominations generally reject the theological premises of dispensationalism overall. The existence of this diversity within conservative evangelicalism in NZ as well as across the wider church community (represented by mainline churches) is one of the factors that aids in gaining a more balanced theological perspective of the anti-campaign and therefore being able to nullify its influence to a considerable extent. The overall response of the broader spectrum of conservative theological viewpoints to the wider policy perspective being enacted by the New Zealand Government in order to deal with the public health issues created by the Covid virus is generally balanced and avoids the extreme comparisons with totalitarian regimes being invoked by tendency of anti-campaigners, paralleling the broad political support apart from minority groupings not represented in Parliament such as New Conservatives. It is important to note that the National Party also represents Christian interests, including from its present leadership, and there is little to suggest they have taken on board those more extreme viewpoints that are transfixing parts of the wider Christian community. Vaccine mandates in world terms are nothing new, often being a condition of entry for the issuance of visas to numerous countries historically, and also being common public health initiatives for centuries.
In this posting a major concern to be addressed is that a significant, perhaps overwhelming, source of anti-vaccine activism comes from within conservative evangelical Christianity in New Zealand, which imports it lock stock and barrel from the United States of America. As in numerous other situations which this blog is highlighting in other posts and series, this is largely originated from specific types of theology which have become entrenched in US conservative evangelical churches, yet are not widely supported elsewhere, whether in NZ or worldwide. Such viewpoints whilst not strongly emphasised in most churches in NZ are widely held amongst members of the evangelical church community as a whole and being fed to a certain extent by the small number of overtly focused churches and their networks. Dispensationalist / anti-vax / end times conspiracy issues are polarising the church at large having come to fever pitch since the advent of the Trump administration and the coronavirus pandemic and will likely escalate further if Trump wins a second term of office. Opportunities for church leadership in the NZ evangelical community to differentiate themselves on this issue are being sidestepped because of the widespread uptake of the views within the membership of most churches.