The Christian Ethics of Mask Mandates in the Body of Christ
Mask mandates are back in my home state of Western Australia. Predictably Churches are included in the mandate. I suspect many Christians will want to observe the mask mandate in Church, nevertheless I am dismayed how enthusiastically Churches without reflection institute the mandatory mask for Christian worship.
After the mask mandates were introduced, Churches I follow on social media made an announcement insisting all congregants wear the mask for entrance into the Sunday night service. One particular post read like a threat:
“It is absolutely necessary that you wear the mask”….
Not exactly an endearing invite to Church. I guess the marketing guy was on holiday.
So I dare ask the question: Why is it necessary?
What follows is my contribution to the Christian ethics of mandating masks in Church with a hope that Christian leaders will have a conversation around masking, theology and ministry practice in order to serve the Body of Christ rather than tick a big government box. After all isn’t that what our gathering is supposed to be about?
Where are the Exemptions?
Mask exemptions are a thing. Believe it or not. And it is between you and your doctor! Many individuals have exemptions excluding them from mask mandates. Everything from anxiety to asthma are legitimate medical reasons not to mask. But I have heard nothing from mask mandating Churches about honouring them. Why not?
Whilst I suspect many Churches are satisfied that some congregants have legitimate exemptions and welcome them inside, should people with an exemption have to arrive at the church doorstep, run the gauntlet of check-in wardens, hand over the doctor’s certificate for inspection only to then be rejected or accepted, all the while praying that if they are fortunate to be admitted that once inside they don’t receive those disapproving looks which say “you are a diseased person trying to kill us!”
Wouldn’t it be better to make people feel welcome upfront? If Churches are going to ask people to wear masks then why not include a qualifier that recognizes some people have exemptions?
And is it really the churches job to be checking each and every person’s exemption? Why not assume those not wearing a mask have an exemption and leave it between them, their doctor and God? As a friend of mine commented on the recent trend, “Churches are doing the governments dirty work… and loving it!” Implementing a policy that accords with government mandates is one thing, enforcing the mandates with a style of ruthless bureaucracy that is unbecoming of the Christian gathering is another.
Gladly many businesses operate with this mentality making sure all patrons feel welcome and not hassling unmasked persons who enter. Sadly the primary concern of some Churches is to ensure the highest rate of uniformity and conformity to mandates rather than serving and respecting the individual needs of members in their community whilst giving each the benefit of the doubt.
Where is the Conscience?
Like it or not, there is no verse in the Bible that says Christians must cover their nose and mouth to enter the Christian gathering. Now that doesn’t answer the question of mask mandates definitively, because there are other commands in Scripture that might lend themselves to either wearing a mask or not. Nevertheless in the absence of any clear direction we must at the very least admit: the issue is open to interpretation.
So if you are going to mandate the mask for everybody in Church, let me ask you Christian leader: have you first made a solid case from the whole of Scripture for doing so? And if you have, is that case strong enough to unequivocally bind every person’s conscience on this matter such that they should have no other choice but to submit to this rule?
Below are two reasons why mask wearing belongs in the arena of each individual’s conscience.
Masks have a negative health impact.
The evidence is clear that wearing a mask may pose a health risk. For example NIH studies from 2004-2020all found negative health effects of wearing masks, including scientifically verified reduction in blood oxygen levels. The truth of this isn’t hard to recognise after wearing one for any length of time.
Now some Christians may decide the health risks of masks are manageable or may agree to take a risk in exchange for some perceived benefit. However it is difficult to find any precept in the bible whereby a believer should be coerced against his own judgement into an act of self harm even if it can be demonstrated that such an act may benefit others.
Not everyone believes in the COVID pandemic!
Like it or not many Christians do not accept the state and media narrative around COVID. There is a great deal of controversy and significant debate continues around everything from the existence of the virus,to the reliability of the tests even the extent of its lethality and so on. The list is endless.
Mandating the mask requires all believers in a congregation to assent to certain key propositions, namely:
There is a deadly virus pandemic; and
Masks prevent the spread of this virus and protect people.
All other concerns are secondary to the above two propositions.
Or alternatively it requires individuals who do not believe these propositions to suppress their judgement and simply comply. Some may be able to suppress their convictions without guilt, but others consider themselves to be participating in a lie and spreading unwarranted fear. For such people to put on the mask is to sin against their conscience and therefore against God. To mandate an act that for some individuals is perceived as an act of idolatry has significant spiritual implications.
Whilst some may not think to allow competing views on the pandemic to impact their ministry practice, preferring only to trust the official state narrative, one should remember that the Church throughout history has often found itself off side with establishment views.
More importantly though the basis of Christian doctrine is rooted in verifiable historical events and sound reasoning from the Scriptures. To ask a believer to operate contrary to what they believe to be reality, opposite to their plain reasoning is to require of them acts of faith derived from a rational framework foreign to Christianity. Here we begin to dabble in the mythical and cultic: “Do this, even though it doesn’t make any sense to you.”
If we perform acts like this in worship simply because an outside authority says so, but which cannot be reconciled logically in the minds of many, then on what basis should we expect them to receive our rational testimony concerning Jesus?
Divergent viewpoints on the pandemic allow for preservation of unity in the congregation by not insisting every believer hold a particular scientific or political belief. It follows then that Churches ought not insist on the masking of every believers conscience.
A Muzzled Christianity
Does mandatory mask wearing in the congregation impede our worship and obedience to Jesus Christ? Furthermore is it possible that mandatory masking communicates a message in contradiction to the message of Christianity?
The mask impedes Christian Prayer, Praise and Song. God gave us mouths to speak to him and to speak well about him to each other. This is fundamental to Christian experience:
"Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song." -Psalm 95:1–2
“…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-19)
”I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people…” (1Timothy 2:1)
Verses can be multiplied a hundred-fold, but the point is that prayer, praise and thanksgiving are at the heart of Christian gathering. These are commanded of us, it is why we meet together. Masks impede this aspect of worship, they make it difficult to breath, speak, sing and be heard clearly. 1 Corinthians 14 outlines how important it is to be understood in the Christian gathering. Yes, we could all struggle along in masks, but the fact is that we are physically restraining our worship and our ability to edify one another.
Additionally physical impedance is not the only concern. Clothing can communicate certain beliefs in a cultural context (eg. 1 Corinthians 11:5-7). In our culture to cover the mouth is to symbolize the gagging or prohibition of speech, the opposite of what every Christian disciple is called to do, namely to speak truth in praise of Christ.
The mask communicates fear of sickness and death. It cannot be denied that the mask is a constant visual reminder that we are living in fear of that which can kill the body. But is this message to characterize Christians and their worship?
The central tenet of Christianity is that in Jesus we are set free from the fear of death:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” -John 5:24
”Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes….Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” - Luke 12:22-25
“For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” -1 Corinthians 15:53
Unlike the world, Christianity at its core is not primarily anxious for things that afflict the physical body. So let me ask you straight: What kind of message are you sending by forcing every believer in your congregation to wear a potent visual reminder of anxiety for their mortal life?
The relevancy of the gospel to a world consumed with fear of sickness and death is the very reason why some Christians may not want to wear the mask. We are not afraid!
Drawing a Line
In Romans 14 we see that matters relating to the health of the body, or more accurately how one consecrates their body in worship on any given day as to what he eats or does not eat is within the prerogative of conscience. Each person has autonomy concerning what he puts in his body and is to remain free from the judgement of others.
It stands to reason that if each individual has autonomy over what he puts in his body then he should also have freedom of conscience over what he puts on his body for the Lord, unless otherwise directed principally in Scripture.
Consequentially, if your Church has no plans to coerce the conscience of Christians to take into their body an injection to enter the gathering, why get into this space of coercing the conscience to wear a mask on the body? Many Churches will cross the latter line because they have crossed the first. This is because enforcing “safety” is now the driving motivation.
Draw the line early so you are not having to justify later to your congregation why you can no longer follow mandates to be “safe”. It is biblical to entrench liberty of conscience as an overriding principle for Christian worship.
But What About… the Objections:
Let me address common objections used to justify the mandatory mask for the Church gathering.
But What About Romans 13? Doesn’t it teach us to obey the government?
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established… ” (Romans 13:1)
This verse does require Christians to submit to governing authorities. However it must be recognized that this verse provides us with a general principle to observe civil authority in its ordinary exercise of special service for God. This can be demonstrated from the passage itself.
Paul outlines the purpose of civil governance in verse 3, “They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”. This purpose forms the basis for our submission given in verse 5, “Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience”. In other words Christians should respect government because its purpose is to maintain the civil order of society by punishing those who do wrong. Christians have nothing to fear because they do right! This general principle is expressed elsewhere in scripture:
“My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not join with those who do otherwise” (Proverbs 24:21)
Christians cultivate a healthy respect of state authority because they recognize government serves God for the good order of society. However this principle is predicated upon the idea that the government has a limited sphere of authority for this particular purpose. This is why Paul gives examples in verse 13:6-7 of things that governing authorities usually require for the exercise of this special service, namely the payment of taxes and respecting offices of power. These things are so that civil authorities can attend to this particular role.
Paul however does not believe in a government that has an all encompassing power over every aspect of Christian life, family and worship. We know this because the apostles frequently found themselves at odds with authorities who constrained their ministry or violated their perception of what God required of them. (Eg. Acts 4:18-20). And, if Paul thought governing authorities were always correct in their practice of authority, he would not have embarrassed the magistrates when they acted in contradiction to the law (Acts 16:37). Paul believes in the proper exercise of civil authority and thereby defended his rights under it.
Whilst Romans 13 does not preclude a Christian wearing the mask, this general principle of submission to governing authority is insufficient by itself to warrant a mandate for every individual believer to cover his nose and mouth in Christian worship. There are other overriding factors which we have considered.
But shouldn’t we love our neighbour?
The love your neighbour principle (Mark 12:30-31, Luke 10:25-37) gets to the heart of Christian behaviour. The problem with deploying this principle as a basis for mandatory masks in Church is simple: It assumes that there is only one way to love your neighbour and someone else outside the Church has predetermined what that looks like for everybody. Mandates requires every believer adopt those same scientific and political viewpoints we already considered above and discard any personal perception and reflection upon the individual needs and circumstances before them. Mandating “love” in this manner precludes the principal essence of love: namely an individual’s motive.
Take for example the person who knows the mask causes physical harm and who does not believe himself to be at risk from a virus. For that person to require of another to wear the mask, or even to wear it themself becomes an unloving act. He believes himself to be spreading fear and causing harm.
Therefore Christian love doesn’t always look the same for everybody and we cannot slap a label of love on a mandate so as to bypass considering individual situations and motives.
Doesn’t the “go the second mile” principle show that state enforced mandates must be abided by the Christian?
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” (Matthew 5:41)
In the ancient world Roman civil servants and soldiers could conscript Jewish citizens to carry their load one mile.
In using this example, Jesus aim is to teach a principle of exercising loving service from the heart, not to comment on the necessity of observing state mandates.
Christian testimony only becomes apparent if one goes beyond mere obligation. The issue then is not adherence to the governing authority, but actually demonstrating love for the one relieved of the load. This gets to the heart of the issue. Love is fundamentally about motive and we have already discussed the problem of conscripting all Christians into bypassing their motives and slapping a label of love on a mandate that many believe is causing harm and restricting obedience to God.
What about the consequences?
If we let Christians choose whether or not to wear the mask in Church there could be consequences. You bet. Welcome to authentic Christianity.
Some mask wearing congregants might be afraid for their life, not attend, or be spiteful of those not wearing a mask. True. But if you mandate the mask, non-mask wearers won’t come to church either! They will feel stifled in worship, harmed in conscience and will resent your leadership. There is no win when choosing a side. However if you grant individual liberty and teach brothers and sisters in Christ to respect each others decisions and individual conscience then there is an excellent opportunity for all the family of God to practice Christian love which will preserve unity. This is precisely how the apostle Paul handles a similar kind of situation in Romans 14. He grants liberty, not uniformity.
The police may fine us or close our church. Possibly, but unlikely. And that is the kind of cost counted by those engaged in an authentic Christianity that puts service to Christ and his body before ticking government boxes. Maybe you get a warning, or a small fine but you are unlikely to be thrown in the Lion’s den.
Maybe you can reinvent your service for awhile to accommodate consciences and government mandates. Why not have a “dinnertime church”? You don’t have to wear a mask while eating. The worst consequences we can think of probably aren’t too bad and there are work-arounds to consider. So why jump so quickly into enforcing mandates?
The aim of this article was not to convince any individual to not wear a mask! I have provided Scriptural bases for why the mask in worship belongs in the arena of liberty of conscience.
Rather the aim is to encourage Christian leaders to think through the implications of mask mandates from a biblical perspective and go beyond a simplistic “the government said so” approach. Don’t cop out. Your primary concern is to the glory of Christ, his worship and the spiritual wellbeing of the family of God, as Pastor Tim Cantrell writes:
“The heart of a Christian is not for maximum obedience to the state and minimum obedience to Christ. Especially in the church sphere, our Lord has given us New Testament epistles packed with dozens of “one another” commands and principles for our church life, and our highest priority is to study and obey those divine regulations to please Christ our Lord and King, our Head, Shepherd and Ruler of His Church, whose glad slaves we are, who bought us with His own blood.”
Some pastors will scoff at the content of this article. They will justify enforcing state mandates on their congregations on the basis of “safety” without speaking to their congregations and thinking through the ethical and spiritual issues. When this happens pastoral leadership becomes an extension of an authoritarian state, consciences are trampled and Christian worship is structured around the whims of government. It will take courage to pursue a biblical approach.
A biblical Case for Civil Disobedience and the Right Use of Romans 13 in 5 Parts (Pastor Tim Cantrell, 2021)