In the first part of this series we briefly examined the circumstances of the establishment of lodging court cases against the Government’s vaccine mandate policies by two separate groups of Christians. These groups are FreeToBeChurch, and the much more widely known Family First. The purpose of this part is to dig into some of the theology that is either expressed or is relevant in the views of these groups in respect of the court cases.
FreeToBeChurch is a grouping of small conservative fundamentalist churches that essentially has channeled the similar action of Christian Concern in the UK which successfully challenged the Scottish Government’s restrictions on churches meeting together. FTBC’s case appears to largely rest on the claim that Government restrictions on churches meeting together impinges on the right of churches to self-governance. Their case is not solely about the vaccine mandates as they also have referenced other current cultural war issues such as conversion therapy and hate speech. However this comment is specifically about their anti-mandate campaign. The support for this campaign, as with the Christian Concern campaign in the UK, is not wide ranging across the whole church in NZ.
The key theological reference made by FTBC is the UK one prepared by Dr Martin Parsons, who has a range of impeccable relevant academic qualifications and experience in the theological realm. The substance of his statement refers to the physical meeting together of Christians as being essential to the functioning of the church. These arguments are, however, on a theological basis, extremely weak, because of the establishment in recent years of online church ministry. Specifically, several large churches in the United States and elsewhere have established full online ministry ecosystems, equivalent to those used in in-person ministry, making full use of electronic communications to achieve all of the range of ministry activities that would be normally on offer at most churches.
Family First has not to date stated exactly what their court case is based upon, but comments made on their website suggest it is essentially the same as FTBC. Apart from the obvious problems stated above, FF is also theologically compromised in other ways as a careful reading of their website will discern. It is clear that the basis of their beliefs and actions is American-style dominionist evangelicalism, well rooted in a mixture of nationalism, dispensationalism and political activism. As previously explored in other posts in this blog, dominionism is the branch of US evangelicalism that is suffused with an overriding desire for political power at all costs, redefining the core purpose of the Church’s place in society as dominance and leadership in a theocratic government. Dominionist themes also feature in the policy platform of the NZ New Conservative political party, although there is no known formal link between the two organisations.
Whilst a handful of larger churches at the core of the anti-vaccine anti-mandate debate in NZ (and a lot of very small ones) have tapped into this particular theological worldview, it doesn’t generally have a strong following at denominational level outside the US, notwithstanding that many individual Christians worldwide may blindly follow its leadership without the theological understanding to discern the many highly questionable beliefs espoused. It is therefore essential to this particular discussion to understand that this neatly sums up how an organisation like Family First would have credibility challenges in taking a legal action with a theological basis when its own understanding of theology as a whole appears weak.
Dominionism in the US in the last decade has driven fault lines through evangelicalism with bitter factions fighting against each other in major denominations like the SBC, particularly since the beginning of the Trump presidency. It underpinned the storming of the US Capitol 14 months ago and some of its key beliefs, such as the nonsense concept that the 2020 presidential elections were somehow stolen, still finds support from evangelical supporters of the nascent Trump 2024 campaign. The Capitol insurrection in turn inspired the recent anti-mandate protest at the NZ Parliament from February 6-March 2. These same fractures polarise Christians worldwide and dominionism is very closely aligned with anti-mandate beliefs worldwide, including in New Zealand. The churches listed as signing up in support of this court case are a mixture, consisting of one large denomination, several smaller ones, and individual churches that are parts of denominations. They all run a considerable risk of experiencing the same divisive fault lines themselves and this explains why other major denominations in New Zealand have more wisely chosen to ignore this campaign.
(NOTE: At the time of writing there has not been any known media reporting on this matter and the date of a court hearing is unknown, as is the status or current progress of the FTBC legal challenge)