Editorial: Mask or no mask: Are we (still) on the same team?

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While playing basketball when I was young, I often heard: “Same team! Same team!” I, in turn, yelled the admonition to young basketball players I helped coach.

In the pitch of athletic battle, players so intent on getting to the ball sometimes are unaware they are grappling with their own teammates for possession. They need a not-so-subtle reminder of the team around them.

I wish this were the problem in the church, that we are so focused on the same thing we get in each other’s way. But current division in the church over politics and social issues leaves many wondering if we’re actually on opposing teams.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement Mar. 2 that he is rescinding the statewide mask mandate and allowing “all businesses of any type … to open 100 percent” starting Mar. 10 set off a new round of divisiveness.

Almost immediately after the announcement, pastors were bombarded by opposing sides in their congregations.

Division and unity

Division is nothing new to the church. Throughout Christian history, we have divided over substantive things, and we’ve parted over inconsequential things, though often with no less hurt, bitterness and rancor.

The entirety of Christian history is a story of parting ways. Ironically, through it all we have proclaimed the authority of these words:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:2-6, NIV).

As our division over politics, racial justice and pandemic safety protocols strains the fabric of our society, it also is damaging “the unity of the Spirit” and “the bond of peace” within the church. Many are wondering: “Are we on the same team? Are we competing teams in the same church league? Or are we all-out opponents?”

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Paul and Barnabas

Paul wrote the words quoted above, the same Paul who himself parted company with his brother in Christ, Barnabas, over a disagreement. As Luke relays the story, Paul wanted to head back out on the missionary trail with Barnabas. Barnabas wanted to take John, “also called Mark, … but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them” earlier. “They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company” (Acts 15:36-39).

The irony is rich. When fearful Christians rejected Paul, Barnabas stood up for him (Acts 9). The two of them traveled all over Asia Minor together, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. They suffered much together. Then, they stood before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem to stick up for gentile believers. And after all of that, they divided over whether or not to give John another chance.

We don’t know the nature of their relationship after their dispute, but we do know Barnabas was not mentioned again in Luke’s account.

I wonder if Paul and Barnabas thought they were on the same team. Paul’s mention of Barnabas in his letters to the Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians suggests they probably did, or at least they saw themselves as playing in the same church league.

We and ours

To hear the way some Christians talk about each other these days, you wouldn’t guess they are playing the same game, much less wearing the same jersey. The caustic language some Christians use to describe other Christians, because of political and social differences, sounds more like a council of elders ready to stone the sinner out of existence than like Paul and Barnabas disagreeing about John.

The barbs and flaming arrows we hurl at one another—especially on social media—certainly don’t paint us as people who believe “there is one body and one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” much less that we care anything about being “completely humble and gentle … patient, bearing with one another in love.”

I use “we” intentionally, because all who proclaim the lordship of Jesus Christ—regardless of how complete the submission to his lordship—should share equal concern for the division among us. This is our problem, not “theirs.”

We should not divide over things like who we vote for, our position on specifically how to achieve racial justice, or whether masks should be worn. The pressing concerns of our day call us to hold together. More importantly, Jesus Christ calls us to hold together, even in our disagreements.

Whether in the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves—depicted by a good Samaritan—or the charge to serve others—demonstrated by Jesus washing his disciples’ feet—Jesus makes it clear: The game plan is to serve as he served and to love as he loved.

Our pastors and ministry leaders need us to keep our heads in the game. They need us to work together. We can support and, even more, serve them by coming together to find solutions to our differences over things like mask wearing, solutions that move the ball—the gospel—down the court and build up the church.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at eric.black@baptiststandard.com or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP.

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