I don’t often have ‘guest posts’ but this one from Dave Brennan is excellent and I have agreed to let him publish it here. Publishing does not necessarily mean endorsement of every detail – but I am in general agreement with what Dave says here. There is one area where I disagree which I will mention at the end…..
Masking the Truth
Why mask mandates* in church violate the word of God
*This is chiefly the product of reflections that arose before the Government reimposed legal mask mandates on churches. As such, it mainly concerns the decision to insist apart from Government insistence on masks for all in church.
Towards the end I do also turn to the question of what we should do now that masks are once again legally mandated.
As I sit down to write this – somewhat reluctantly – I have specific people at the forefront of my mind. I won’t name them, but they are dear brothers in the Lord, doing their best to be faithful, preaching the gospel, diligently pastoring churches (including some that I have spoken in myself in recent years), and they are men of God from whom I have learnt and hope to continue to learn much.
I love them, not just because I’m meant to, but with genuine affection.
But I am convinced that in this regard they are going down a destructive and unbiblical route (I don’t say deliberately), and I wish to lay out my reasons for thinking so, and to entreat them to reconsider. What concerns me is not only the plain fact that, as far as I can understand, Scripture is being overridden (serious enough though that would be): it is the untold and possibly irreversible damage this is already doing to the flock, and the far greater damage that is yet to come unless we change direction.
I am speaking of the seemingly innocuous request to church-goers, “please wear a mask”, and the seemingly reasonable and loving rationale, “it’s what makes everyone feel most comfortable”.
Feelings over facts?
The Church of Christ is a “pillar of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). The veracity of what we communicate – be that by our words or by our deeds – matters. Apart from anything else, the integrity of our gospel proclamation is endangered if we are found to be lying, or tolerating falsehood, in some other area.
So the fact that the rationale is generally what makes people feel safe – quite apart from whether it actually makes them safe – ought to set some alarm bells ringing.
Do masks actually work?
It is no good rolling one’s eyes and saying this is an intractable or political question or one only for the experts – “it’s not for me to say”. If we are to impose this on our churches, we are saying! We are saying that masks do keep people safe. On what basis do we make that claim?
(Or, we are saying that we don’t think they keep people safe but what matters is that people feel safer, and I want to say that this is neither Christian nor respectful. You are not loving your neighbour by pretending the emperor has clothes on when he hasn’t. You are simply lying to him.)
So, much as we might like to excuse ourselves from this question, if we are contemplating asking congregants to wear masks, we need to face it:
Does the evidence out there warrant such a mandate?
Assertions are aplenty, but such high-quality scientific studies as there are hardly present a compelling case.
It used to be that scientific hypotheses were false until proven true. By this standard, we would have to say there is no real scientific backing for mask mandates. For church leaders to insist on a health measure that is, at best, yet to be proven, is seriously problematic – especially when they would generally (and quite rightly) abstain from going beyond Scripture in insisting on any specifics at all in arenas such as health (most church leaders would not preach against rugby or red meat on health grounds – though there would be stronger scientific reasons for doing so – much less forbid their congregants to partake of them!).
Another aspect of the truth question is the issue of proportion. Even if it were proven that masks did provide some benefit, is a mandate really proportionate to the situation? The vast majority of people (more than 99%) get through Covid-19, and the ones that don’t often have other underlying conditions (meaning that it is too simplistic to say that it is Covid-19 that killed them). By contrast, over a lifetime the probability that any one of us will die in a road accident is 1 in 240. Are we a truth-loving people if we imply that Covid-19 is more dangerous than transport? Or would we ban our congregants from road travel because of the health risks to themselves and others?
But such questions seem utterly irrelevant to those who care only for whether people feel safe, rather than whether they actually are reasonably (we live in a fallen world, and we must carry on living) safe.
I have been in churches where everyone had to wear a mask until the end of the service, and then they whipped them off for coffee and cake and chatted with each other for half an hour. In other churches, they take them on and off during the services for singing (an activity which, in the absence of any proper evidence, many of us were told not so long ago was especially dangerous!). If masks work, taking them on and off this way clearly renders any benefit redundant. If they don’t work, why are we pretending that they do?
Is this kind of insanity fitting for the Church of God?
I am concerned that our willingness to mandate, or even to simply encourage, the wearing of masks represents an acceptance of a post-truth mentality where feelings, and signalling that we are on the right side of political correctness, matter more than whether or not something is true.
“Do not be afraid”
It is, apparently, one of the most repeated commands of Scripture.
How then have we come to this point where the fears of the most fearful are dictating corporate decisions in churches?
The rationale – no doubt sincere – is that we want to cater for the fearful and do all we can to make them comfortable. Or to put it more bluntly, we want them to come back to church! Wearing a mask is a small thing if it means they can come back, so the thinking goes.
And of course, we must love the weak, and the fearful, and the doubtful. The question is: how?
My concern is that merely playing to their fears is short-sighted. If fears are not lovingly confronted, they grow. And fears prevent us from living out our fullest, most faithful Christian lives. Hence the zero-tolerance policy we see in Scripture when it comes to fears (think Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Jeremiah…). Clearly God did not think the way to love his people was to leave them holding onto their fears. Indeed, one of the reasons the Son of God appeared was “to free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). But now fear of death has been allowed to run riot in our churches once again, and is ruling the roost.
As visual markers affirming claims that are at best unwarranted and out-of-proportion (see section above), and that inhibit forms of corporate worship as instructed by the word of God (see section below), this goes way beyond proper, expansive observance of the Sixth Commandment (i.e. taking reasonable steps to protect the health of others and oneself).
Fears are often based on false perceptions/beliefs, such as an exaggerated sense of danger, or forgetting that God is sovereign and is good. Real love helps to set the record straight on these things.
Fears are often based on idolatry. As it has been said, “Fear God and you’ll have nothing else to fear.” Real love helps to expose and smash the idols that keep people captive.
Fears often give birth to disobedience (especially sins of omission). The only way to be happy in Jesus is to trust and obey. Real love helps to remove hindrances to obedience.
We live in a culture that scapegoats “triggers” and grants a sort of “heckler’s veto” to those who say they feel most threatened. We are starting down a dangerous track if we follow suit and allow the fears of some to dictate what others have to do.
What do we do if someone feels unsafe around people of a certain ethnicity? What if someone feels triggered by men? What if someone finds weddings or children painful?
Will we start banning or censoring anything that people claim makes them feel uncomfortable?
It seems many of us have decided to give fears a free pass but Scripture does not appear to agree with us on this. Instead of managing fears at a superficial, pragmatic level, we would be more in line with Scripture if we tackled fears head on, in love – “the one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
What about biblical communal worship?
The intimacy of communal life carries risks and always has. But it is a consistent command of Scripture.
Yes, there are exceptions to the general norm – Old Testament law was clear that the symptomatic should keep their distance (not the asymptomatic i.e. (to all intents and purposes) healthy), and I think everyone agrees that in extreme situations such as fire, war, plague, etc, for a short and limited time normal gatherings may be suspended.
But we are now nearly two years into a “new normal” of inhibited communal life, and the healthy, not just the sick, are under restrictions.
Many scriptures speak to the intimacy of life together as the Body of Christ.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common… Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and at together…” Acts 2:42-46
“Greet one another with a holy kiss.” 2 Corinthians 13:12
“…do this [the sharing of physical bread] in remembrance of me…” 1 Corinthians 11:24
Even if we are permitted to take our mask off to take a wafer and a sip of wine before putting it back on again, are we not in danger of a pharisaical pseudo-observance of the sacrament that misses the entire point? It is meant to be, at least in part, a symbol of our partaking in Christ as his Body together. If we have our mask on before and after – with all its concomitant “social distancing” (a loathsome, self-contradictory phrase) behaviours – are we not acting out the exact opposite?
Staying physically distant and masked up from our brothers and sisters in Christ should be as unthinkable as doing it with our own biological nuclear family – because the Body of Christ is family. Those who are sick or vulnerable or even just fearful should of course be permitted to wear masks or keep their distance, that’s up to them – I am not saying that intimacy should be forced! – but what we have seen over the last year and three quarters is biblical-style worship being discouraged or even banned, by the leadership, for all, the healthy included.
Again, this does in part come back to a key question that no-one wants to ask. Is the “pandemic” really so severe as to merit such long-term suspension of normal Christian life? We have to make our own minds up on that, it’s no good subcontracting our thinking to the Government, because Romans 13 does not mean that we obey the Government over and against Scripture, whatever the Government says. Is a virus that more than 99% of people who get it survive, and that masks don’t (so far as any proper evidence goes) help with, enough to justify long-term suspension of normal Christian life together, for all?
There are many silent victims of mask-wearing that are not given time of day. How are the deaf or the hard of hearing supposed to feel at home and participate in a church where almost everyone else is wearing a mask? How are toddlers meant to learn how to speak, participate in the worship service, develop socially, and build trusting relationships with adults, when they can’t see anyone’s faces? It is no good to say that they get to be in a mask-free room when they are siphoned off for kids’ work. We are meant to be family, not a Lego kit of compartmentalised programmes – and that solution clearly doesn’t work for the deaf or the hard of hearing.
The great assertion is that masks are about loving your neighbour and loving the vulnerable. Quite apart from the fact that falsehood and fear-encouragement are never the way to love anyone, masks leave other vulnerable people firmly excluded – not to mention those who for the reasons outlined here cannot in good conscience play along with the whole thing.
It has been alarming and saddening – at a time when we were beginning to hear healthy critique of “ministry” conceived of as a performance delivered from the front by one person – to see worship services reduced again to pretty much exactly that: a majority of silent pew-fillers who are actively discouraged even from speaking to one another before or after the service, told to keep their distance from one another, able only to watch what happens on the stage.
What about the others?
From the rhetoric that so often accompanies mask mandates, we are supposed to believe that it’s about doing what makes everyone feel most comfortable.
But this clearly doesn’t include everyone. It’s about taking a certain side – the side which, I am arguing, favours falsehood, fear, and unbiblical non-intimacy – and it is just as likely to exclude those on the “wrong” side as it is to include those on the “right” side. This is one of the great deceits of utilitarian arguments.
As I have argued, I firmly believe that if I were to wear a mask I would be as good as telling a lie. I would not be loving my neighbour but hating him – by affirming falsehood and by encouraging a spirit of fear. And I would be disobeying Scriptural commands regarding intimacy in communal worship. And there are many others who think like me.
What are we to do when mask mandates come to our church? Do you want us to lie, to hate our neighbours, and to disobey communal worship as commanded by the Bible? You have rightly taught us to check what you say against the Scriptures, to take it from the Book and not from straight from you. What are we to do now that we believe that what you are asking of us is in contradiction to Scripture? We are not trouble-makers, we want to obey those who are in authority over us, but you know as well as we do that Scripture is the ultimate authority. What are we to do?
Sadly, I know of not a few Christians who have been de facto forced out of their fellowship because of this. Not being vaccinated, others in their house groups have said that they “don’t feel safe” around them, and have kept their distance (never mind that the vaccines don’t prevent infection or transmission, and don’t even reduce them as well as natural immunity does). They have tried to force them to wear masks even in settings where the Government has issued neither laws nor guidelines to do so. The fearful and the bystanders can’t see what all the fuss is about – “it’s just a mask” – but for those who see things as I am outlining here, it is not “just a mask”: it is lying, it is encouraging fear, it is disobeying the character of New Testament communal worship. In the end, these Christians in all good conscience have quietly left, because the alternative would have been to violate the word of God.
There has been some debate about whether mask-wearing should be considered a “conscience” issue (akin to eating meat, e.g. Romans 14). I want to say that it is that – and more.
It is that, in that if it would be inappropriate for church leaders to dictate on an issue of conscience such as whether to eat from the market (and it would be) then it is certainly inappropriate for them to dictate with regard to a certain specific health measure (even if it were grounded in solid scientific evidence). Similarly, it would be inappropriate for a church to mandate the wearing of ties, even though a reasonable argument could be advanced for the importance of dressing in a certain way for communal worship, and I know that some Christians are offended by the decision of other Christians to dress so informally.
But I want to say that it is more than a conscience issue because mask-wearing is not just like wearing a tie. Mask-wearing communicates a message that is untrue. Mask-wearing encourages fear. Mask-wearing gets in the way of communal worship as commanded by the New Testament.
For this reason, it goes beyond what we might call a “mere conscience” issue, to do with totally superficial or symbolic issues such as the provenance of meat or certain days in the calendar. It is clear what Paul’s real view on such things is: the more mature take on such issues is liberty, rather than strictness, but more important than that is mutual acceptance and love. But I don’t think it’s possible to address the issue of mask-wearing in quite the same way, as if the more mature or “stronger” response is one or the other. Rather, it’s a question of truth, of whether fears should be allowed to dictate, and whether it violates worship together as commanded by Scripture. This goes beyond mere personal sensibilities.
However, because many in sincerity don’t see it in these terms, I don’t think we could call mask-wearing a classic “sin” in the sense that stealing for example is. I think we’d need to place this somewhere in between a conscience issue and a classic sin issue. There’s real material damage to the Body of Christ when healthy people wear masks in church, but I’m not arguing that it’s something for which there should be church discipline.
But at the very least – and this is not a big ask – those who do not feel able in good conscience to wear a mask, because they believe it’s lying, encouraging fears, and disobeying biblical communal worship, should be welcomed and included all the same. They should not be excluded or forced.
Try to imagine if it were the other way round. If someone came to my church and I demanded that they take their mask off, against their will, otherwise no entry! There would be uproar! Quite rightly. Why, then, is it ok for the unmasked to be barred entry?
In a sense, all we are asking for is to be allowed to worship with our brothers and sisters, without our hands being forced in what is at the very least a matter for the individual’s conscience (but I am saying it is more than that).
Do we break the law then?
As I said at the beginning, this is all written primarily with the situation in mind where churches have mandated masks in the absence of Government laws telling them to do so. But what should we do now that masks are legally required in church again?
Well, quite simply, if what I have said above holds true – that mask-wearing breaks the Ninth Commandment, that it encourages fears to rule, that it violates New Testament life together – then a Government edict should make no difference, because we are not to obey the civil magistrate over and against Scripture.
Unless in all good conscience you believe the evidence truly does warrant the mandated wearing of masks to the degree that biblical norms to do with the character of life together are overridden for months on end, unless in all good conscience you can say that mask mandates are not encouraging fears to fester and grow with all the debilitating impact that that has on individuals and communities and on mission, then you are following the Government over and against what Scripture commands. And this is idolatry.
Paving the way for vaccine passports
It is not difficult to see how all the same logic can be applied to vaccine passports.
Already the “soft totalitarianism” of political correctness and majority expectation has led some unvaccinated brothers and sisters to feel deeply unwelcome in Church; some have effectively been excluded.
But when that “soft” totalitarianism goes “hard” – i.e. when vaccine passports are mandated everywhere by the Government – will churches stand against that? Or will the unvaccinated be excluded from functioning as part of the local church, indefinitely?
Unless we change direction significantly, it would seem that we are preparing to say “yes” to vaccine passports.
Of course, it may never come to that, and it may be that such passports will not actually require vaccination for entry (but it’s still problematic to be demanding medical data from people before allowing them entry into a Christian worship service, even if taking a test or having had the virus already aren’t as ethically loaded as an abortion-derived vaccine). But what will we do if it does?
The one area I would disagree is concerning breaking the law. There are some issues that are worth breaking the law over – I don’t think masks are. Churches should obey the law under protest. However I would break the law over vaccine passports. I would not turn anyone away from church on the basis of vaccination status. I was in a Church this past weekend where the state law is that masks must be worn, but the church does not enforce it, and leaves it up to individuals – and asks people to be tolerant of one another. I thought that was wise. On the other hand I read of a church where, despite the state not requiring it, they insist on everyone being vaccinated. I cannot imagine Jesus banning people from church because they are not vaccinated….