Without qualification, masking has been one of the most contentious issues for church leaders to face over the last two years. For some, it is a matter of health and preserving life. For others, it is a matter of liberty and personhood. For all, it is a matter of wisdom. By examining the issue of masks, we get a picture of the growing behemoth and complexity of bureaucratic rule and how we might respond as Christians. As the government expands, so do its rules. Christian wisdom demands we not settle for pat answers to an ever evolving code of ‘right behavior’ from a demonstrably godless state. So rather than view this as just another exercise in futility, continuing to model the heated rhetoric in the world, I believe it can be a constructive conversation in exploring the relationship of church and state for Christians.

I was a missionary in an Islamic country before I became a pastor. When you go to a Muslim country you comply with the dress code because if you do not, you would be punished and removed. There were legal codes to punish people who did not abide by them. However, they also had laws restricting Bibles. Most Christians would not abide by this law (or if they did would still utilize the Bible on their phone). In places where the church must gather underground (such as the country in which I was located), there is a balance to be struck in the tension of honoring the governing authorities in order to disciple the nations while disobeying where you can in order to fulfill the same commission.

However, the American system is different in many ways than the system in many Muslim countries or China for example. How? The American system ostensibly welcomes dissent, protects the right to assemble, and as a result invites peaceful protest as a way to contribute to the common good. Time and time again, peaceful protest has proved invaluable to push against unjust laws. Christians have historically been involved in some of these protests in order to secure liberty where the government encroaches upon God given freedoms.

Furthermore, the constitutional system demands that the freedoms enshrined therein are cherished above the civil magistrate’s orders when the civil magistrate violates the constitution. It is common within the Reformed tradition for clergy to preach a form of disobedience to governing authorities when those authorities act in an unjust manner. This form of disobedience typically fell along several lines of argumentation historically. There were those who were monarchical absolutists believing that it was never appropriate to subvert the authority and rule of the state. There were also those who believed in passive obedience. In this understanding, “if a king orders someone to do something immoral, the subject is to withhold active obedience and remain passive, responding only with noncompliance” (Justifying Revolution, Steward, 10). Finally, there was the option of disobedience when the king issued orders which violated the agreed upon arrangement between the state and church.

Here’s the question: Why would we not comply with mask orders? I thought we were supposed to obey the government as long as they are asking us not to sin? Asking someone to wear a mask surely isn’t sinful?

It comes down to the reasonableness of certain public health orders. Or as others have put it “the issue is whether it is wise and in keeping with sound legislative judgement.” As an absurd example, in order to keep more children safe, what if the CDC and local public health departments mandated that every child under 18 wear a helmet any time they left their home. Many children receive head injuries every year from accidents and so if it saves one life, as the logic goes, it is worth it. Well, we should not simply obey because it isn’t a sin to wear a helmet. The question would be one of looking at the actual risk to individual children. And instead of leaving the freedom of that decision in the hands of parents for the safety of their children, the government would be over-reaching and over-involving themselves in the decisions of parents.

The challenge with masks particularly is two fold. First, the authorities who were trusted to be transparent and honest about the usefulness of masks squandered their trust with the public when, early on in the pandemic, they waffled on whether or not to use them. This erosion of trust is widespread and not only limited to the issue of masks. It does not necessarily follow that disobedience is warranted simply because the government has squandered their trust on this issue, but it should at least cause us to question the legitimacy of their claims now. Second, simply declaring that “masks work” wholesale may convince some but does not convince many. The governing authorities have clearly shown that well fitting n95 masks offer some protection but have failed to prove that any and every cloth mask, fit in any manner, would offer a level of protection justifying broad mandates. Rather than leaving the choice up to individuals to make their health decisions for themselves, the government is seeking to intervene, which is their limited right, in a manner with which they have failed to convince the public is justified.

That said, some pastors have made the argument that wearing a mask is akin to sin or even explicitly sinful. This argument is made in part to bolster the biblical argument that we should obey the governing authorities so long as they ask us not to sin. But if they ask us to sin, then obeying their authority would, in fact, be sinful. Therefore, if you claim wearing a mask is sinful, you get to disobey. I understand this reasoning but believe that it falls short in two key respects. First, I believe it binds the conscience in the same way they are actually seeking to resist. It creates sinners out of a man-made law. Second, I believe that it paints too broad of a stroke to account for the complicated nature of our post-virus world. To say that everyone who wears a mask is breaking the ninth commandment is quite a fragile reading of the law.

If we listen to these simplistic approaches to law, government, and obedience (wherein we obey as long as they don’t ask us to sin), then I believe we are failing to account for two things. First, we are failing to account for the freedom to disagree and disobey the government in things which we find objectionable as Christians which are afforded to us in the American system. Second, we are failing to account for a robust theology of civil government and sphere sovereignty. Throughout church history, we see that God has ordained three authorities: the family, the church, and that state. These spheres have their own responsibilities. It is within the purview of the sphere of the civil magistrate to create legislation which protects life without infringing on godly liberties except in extreme cases. The civil magistrate, for example, creates laws regarding seat belts, speed limits, and insurance surrounding vehicles. Those laws are within the purview of the civil magistrate in order to protect public safety to certain degrees (however much my father complies with seat belt wearing or not).

But, without a biblical and theological understanding of the role and limits of civil government (a full exploration of which goes beyond the limits of this article), then Christians are left to simply comply with any and all government restrictions and infringements on human personhood and liberty. What is demanded, however, is a brief excursus on the theological and anthropological implications of government infringement on God-ordained freedoms. The theological rationale has to do with the theological anthropology of individuality and personhood as well as the God-given right for certain choices to be made autonomously and non-coercively.

The Bible lays out a picture of human personhood in which each person is made in the image of God and is worthy of dignity and respect. We were made to work and earn a living. We were designed to be with people in community. The face specifically is a fundamental expression of our God given personhood by which we build relationships and connection with others. When these basic rights and design features are restricted by the government, I believe the Bible teaches that they have overstepped their bounds. To broaden the discussion briefly from just masks, how are people making money when the government institutes lockdowns? What about the “least of these?” Online community is not the type of community which is designed by God, even if it may serve a temporary purpose.

In church history, Calvin’s Geneva, for example, there are cases in which the civil magistrate does limit certain activities, but it is temporary and clearly so. They would shut down the courts temporarily or restrict commerce during severe outbreaks of the plague. There were certain interventions to daily life that the civil magistrate in Geneva had authority to implement as a response to the plague. However, never did they make a practice of quarantining everyone in their homes, regardless of health status (“Calvin’s Company of Pastors,” Manetsch, 284-288).

Let’s return to masks. The federal government (as well as numerous public health departments) has not been clear on how they are practicing the principle of honoring the self-government of individuals and restricting their own powers. They have not attached their guidance to a limiting principle for people by stating – “at this infection rate we suggest wearing masks” or “at this fatality rate and amongst these populations we suggest wearing masks.” Some have, and where they have, they should be commended. However, by and large, the lack of self-restraint, not to mention unpredictability, of these agencies tasked with public health undermined their own credibility. Instead, the mask guidance seems flippant and unrestricted by self-limitation. They are unbound and unruly laws meant to rule by blunt force. It is truly draconian.

If Scripture’s only command concerning our submission to governing authorities is to obey so long as those authorities do not ask us to sin, then we’ve failed to comprehend our inheritance and the comprehensive nature of the gospel. When the government, as in Australia, requires citizens to check-in before leaving their homes with a geotagged picture of themselves, are we to simply accept this rule? Are we to comply with any dress code for any scientific or psychological reasoning simply so that others feel more comfortable around us? Is that the standard for loving your neighbor?

Our dress is designed to dignify us (as God designed an outfit for Adam and Eve post Fall). When we are compelled to wear clothes that obscure our identity as male and female, should we not be concerned that it diminishes the created order and offends the God who made us? The biblical writers could not have imagined the pervasive nature of surveillance and the invasions of privacy by governments today. However, that does not mean that God has not set forth in his word a vision for the church and the state and the laws and principles therein which are much more than simple compliance.

The ideal scenario would be thus: the agencies tasked with scientific inquiry release information and guidance on the statistical reliability of preventative measures such as masks (cloth, surgical, KN95, and others). Then, people would be permitted (free) to choose to implement such measures as they see fit based on the personal risk to themselves and others. This is what any Christian should want. It is why when I see a member at my church wearing a mask, I don’t think they are living in sin, I think that they have weighed the risks and have chosen to don a face covering as a conclusion. One may object and say that based on this principle, there would be no use for public health or collective action to fight a viral pandemic. This may be a fair critique. However, because of the technological and medical advancements in the last 100 years, many of our public health officials have no sense of self-limitation. As the slogan goes, “one death is one too many.” This is the general sentiment in our post-Christian culture, and it informs the approach of public health officials. Unless public health officials are told “no,” they will not relinquish their newfound appetite for public safety rules. There is a place for collective action against a viral pandemic. But rather than honor their role by employing methods with more wisdom (such as making masks or quarantine suggestions for the most at-risk populations), public health departments would rather make everyone suffer with their blanket edicts in the name of safety.

Should your church mask? Each congregation needs to discuss this internally, decide, and act in unity so far as it depends on them within their local church. Even if the government has legal precedent and constitutional power to enforce, or at least, edict these types of mask mandates, what are we to do? The public health departments and legislature rely on the common belief of the people with respect to the perceived threat to their lives in order to issue these kinds of mandates. They have failed to convince people.

Even in a place as seemingly left as Boulder, where I pastor, mask use is extremely low in light of the local health department mandating widespread mask use for all people. Businesses are reluctant to enforce. A local theater pushed for exemptions to the mask mandate because of the deleterious effects of such orders on their business. The health department granted an exemption from anyone within the range of their edict that they are allowed to remove their mask while seated. Of course, viruses do not care whether one is standing or sitting. What does this tell us about how much the general public believes their lives are at risk (or even those health officials)? A virus which doesn’t spread when one is seated?

It is the public health officials playing theater now. It tells us that the general public knows that this pandemic does not justify the mandates themselves and only comply when mandated. It then comes back to what kind of people we want to be. As Christians, do we want to lead the way in showing the importance of virtue and civil resistance? We cannot settle for catering to mandates simply to ‘go along to get along.’ We need to model the theological convictions we have regarding the importance of human dignity and the limited power of the civil magistrate.

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Posted by J. Chase Davis

J. Chase Davis (M.Div, Th.M, Denver Seminary) is Lead Pastor of Ministry of The Well Church in Boulder, Colorado. Chase is married to Kim and they have two sons. He is the author of Trinitarian Formation: A Theology of Discipleship in Light of the Father, Son, and Spirit (2021). He also hosts the podcast Full Proof Theology. You can find more of Chase’s writing at jchasedavis.com.

16 Comments

  1. The statement that “Australia requires citizens to check-in before leaving their homes with a geotagged picture of themselves” is false. The article you link refers to a trial of at-home quarantine for returning international travellers in one city in Australia (Adelaide). Apart from the fact that I live in a big city in Australia and this is not how we’re all living our lives. Please feel free not to hysterically use Australia as a picture of democracy-gone-totalitarian.

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  2. Basically, the writer does not want to follow the mask mandate though wearing masks in the past has helped control the spread of a contagious virus that had reached the pandemic stage. The writer would be more honest if he just said that he isn’t going to mask because he doesn’t want to.

    It could be that the writer is overcompensating for what he had to endure in the culture he was living in. We all have issues in which we overcompensate because of things in the past and so we need to be reflective and understanding when reacting to his article here. In the end, it seems that he has greatly magnified the concerns for oneself possibly because of where he lived before. And thus, he can’t properly distinguish between what the mask mandates are about from what was required where he lived before.

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  3. “Christians are left to simply comply with any and all government restrictions and infringements on human personhood and liberty.”

    That’s pretty much the testimony of scripture. Apart from the nonviolent Exodus, you can’t even find much enjoining civil disobedience. We follow a crucified savior, not one who fought for his rights. So love your neighbor, live peaceably with all, and wear a mask when required.

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  4. I mean, if the government has implemented measures that reduce the spread of a deadly virus that has claimed the lives of over 700,000 Americans, who knows what they will do next!

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  5. As an East Asian Christian, this article boggles my mind. The authors argues for the Christian right to dissent from public health policies, yet does not acknowledge that his reasoning comes from a distinctly American context, and that churches in other contexts (at least churches in my country) do not perceive in any way the mask mandate as something contradictory with Christian living. If this is not applicable to the global Church, can it really be a theology based on universal truth?

    Furthermore, it can be argued that the American church is really the only church that feels ill at ease with something as simple as a mask mandate. (It’s a mask, for crying out loud! They’re not telling you to bow to Caesar!) And no wonder, America is one of the few places in the world where officials are struggling with convincing the public of the threat of COVID-19. Could this possibly mean that what the author thinks is solid biblical reasoning is in actuality just his culture being read into the Bible?

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    1. Vincent,
      For multiple reasons, we religiously conservative American Christians have developed some hypersensitivities, or allergies, that cause us to overreact and be vulnerable to both misinformation and disinformation.

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  6. Wow. Booo…This essay is a series of logical fallacies, poor reasoning, bad theology/hermenuetics, and a stunted grasp of civics or just living in community and not being a jerk. Essays like this are a big reason evangelicals/conservative Christians are taken less and less seriously. And it’s a terrible witness as far as loving one’s neighbor and living sacrificially. Wearing masks saves lives. Anyone making an argument against such a small thing is hardly “pro-life” or reasonable. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/preventing-the-spread-of-the-coronavirus

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  7. I’m sad to see that those commenting are so quick to attack a brother in Christ (or at least I’m assuming they are all believers). The science on masking has been suppressed and censored to fit a certain narrative (the narrative that is presented in the Harvard link shared above) and that is to not ask questions and to take the government and mainstream media’s word for it. There are many studies that have shown the places that have been the most restrictive have had either equal or higher case rates than those with more freedom to choose whether or not to mask. https://twitter.com/ianmSC/status/1449834707286315010?s=20

    Also, if we’re never allowed as Christians to appeal to our rights as a citizen of a certain country then why did Paul appeal to his Roman citizenship in Acts 16?

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    1. Sarah,
      Suppressed by whom?

      In this time period of the spreading of misinformation and disinformation through social media, vetting one’s sources is essential to avoid the belief of or the spreading of false information.

      Those who cannot cite well vetted sources and then go on to attribute the lack of such citations to the suppression and censorship are logically begging the question here. When they then go on to charge us to believe what they are saying because of such suppression, they are asking us to believe them simply because they said so. Such is an authoritarian approach.

      I agree with your expressed concern about the ease at which a brother is being attacked. That is why I wrote that we need to be aware of the context of what the brother you’re defending wrote. There are different ways to disagree with each other.

      But you do need to show documentation of your claims from well vetted sources.

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  8. There are essentially two distinct questions to be addressed:

    1. Does the government have limited authority (i.e., moral authority that ought to be respected by Christians) when it makes a well-founded law that properly serves the purpose of improving public health?

    2. Does the government have open-ended authority (again, meaning moral authority) to impose public health laws in all cases, even if they appear not to serve any well-founded public health purpose at all?

    If the answer to the second question is “yes”, then we get to skip the first question. But if the answer to the second question is “no”, i.e. we need only obey laws that are well-founded, then Christians (either individual or collectively) suddenly need to have some kind of internal authority of their own that can distinguish between well-and ill-founded public health laws.

    My guess is that a lot people on the pro-masking side are pretending to endorse “yes” to position 2, when really they’d switch sides pretty quickly if the partisan dynamics of the situation were reversed. If a Trump government decided that everyone needed to wear red MAGA hats to stop the spread of COVID, I think the response would be “No, that’s obviously stupid and wouldn’t work at all and we don’t need to obey that law.” So at some level, I think virtually every American Christian would really fall back to endorsing “yes” only for position 1, at least if the government law were truly foolish enough.

    I picked “red MAGA hats” as an analogy quite deliberately, since it seems hard to deny that masks have evolved into a partisan shibboleth. Most of the people I know who hate them are Republicans. Most of the people who spend a bunch of money on high-quality N95s are Democrats. They have a strong partisan valency and this symbolism can’t easily be dispelled in the current cultural environment. In effect, any mask mandate will be perceived psychologically like an attempt by one side of the culture war to impose its will on the other side. This makes them non-neutral in a moral sense. They are coupled into the culture war, so any argument against the “red MAGA hat” law (“Not only is it worthless against COVID, but it’s forcing us to pretend to honor Trump and he’s evil!”) will apply to masks as well. Mask-wearing is now politically encoded in ways that can’t be reversed; a policy to penalize non-maskers will have strongly disparate outcomes that are comparable in scope to a policy to penalize non-MAGA hat wearers.

    So the conclusion is that mask mandate advocates can’t bypass the obligation to engage with harder arguments about the efficacy of different categories of masks. They can’t just say “obey the government” and then toss out Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 proof texts as though that was an absolute authority that obviates the need for a careful discussion of whether masks are as effective as claimed. This authority can’t be absolute, or it becomes a mechanism to punish philosophical or ideological dissenters while Christians stand by approving tacitly of that punishment.

    Once we agree that this discussion of efficacy is necessary, then we have the new problem of figuring out what happens if different Christians come to different conclusions in response to the same body of evidence. This presents special difficulties for low-church Protestants, naturally. It’s hard for me to see any outcome other than “evangelicals are going to be pro- or anti-mandate based on personal investigations of scientific literature that can’t be superseded by Scripture”, and that realization itself seems like it results in an objectively anti-mandate stance.

    Probably the most conclusive meta-survey of masking efficacy against respiratory viruses is the Cochrane review from November 2020 (https://www.cochrane.org/CD006207/ARI_do-physical-measures-such-hand-washing-or-wearing-masks-stop-or-slow-down-spread-respiratory-viruses). Its conclusions are mostly negative. I don’t see anything in the current literature that suggests that low-end cloth masks have meaningful value as a public health intervention, although I’m still open to persuasion on higher-grade masks. But the current slate of orders to simply cover your face in any way with any random material you want are entirely unserious. They mostly seem to function as political statements that compel participation in a Covid-alarmist semiotic posture, which makes them a form of compelled political speech in a way that Christian tradition ought to regard with wariness.

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  9. […] Why (Not) Masking Matters: A Dissent Published October 18, 2021By donndayCategorized as Culture, Politics, Religion […]

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  10. Edward Hamilton October 18, 2021 at 9:57 am

    I also want to thank the editors of Mere Orthodoxy for being one of the few remaining publications (in the Christian world or anywhere, really) that would be willing to post articles on both sides of an issue like this one.

    I could probably count the others using the fingers on one hand.

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  11. I regret reading this article. Be wary yes of over reach by government and health bureaucrats. We wary yes of the rise of big surveillance. But any account of Christian liberty and freedom which doesn’t reckon with Paul’s reasoning that love limits liberty hasn’t understood Christian freedom.

    And speaking as an Australian, stop spouting discredited false claims. The South Australian government is one state, not the whole nation, roughly the equivalent population of West Virginia. And the conservative government in that state is using that technology is a limited, time-based way, to enable people to enjoy more freedoms, not less.

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  12. My daughter, mildly asthmatic, got bacterial pneumonia from wearing a mask for essentially 7 straight hours at school. If you are contagious with a virus do not be foolish enough to think a non-approved ‘device’ with a warning label ‘not for the prevention of Covid-19 virus’ is going to do a dang thing. How asinine…,.

    Yes resist this madness founded on lies. Discern…

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  13. “ Gainesville, FL (June 16, 2021) – A group of parents in Gainesville, FL, concerned about potential harms from masks, submitted six face masks to a lab for analysis. The resulting report found that five masks were contaminated with bacteria, parasites, and fungi, including three with dangerous pathogenic and pneumonia-causing bacteria. No viruses were detected on the masks, although the test is capable of detecting viruses.

    The analysis detected the following 11 alarmingly dangerous pathogens on the masks:

    • Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumonia)

    • Mycobacterium tuberculosis (tuberculosis)

    • Neisseria meningitidis (meningitis, sepsis)

    • Acanthamoeba polyphaga (keratitis and granulomatous amebic encephalitis)

    • Acinetobacter baumanni (pneumonia, blood stream infections, meningitis, UTIs— resistant to antibiotics)

    • Escherichia coli (food poisoning)

    • Borrelia burgdorferi (causes Lyme disease)

    • Corynebacterium diphtheriae (diphtheria)

    • Legionella pneumophila (Legionnaires’ disease)

    • Staphylococcus pyogenes serotype M3 (severe infections—high morbidity rates)

    • Staphylococcus aureus (meningitis, sepsis)

    Half of the masks were contaminated with one or more strains of pneumonia-causing bacteria. One-third were contaminated with one or more strains of meningitis-causing bacteria. One-third were contaminated with dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacterial pathogens. In addition, less dangerous pathogens were identified, including pathogens that can cause fever, ulcers, acne, yeast infections, strep throat, periodontal disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and more.

    The face masks studied were new or freshly-laundered before wearing and had been worn for 5 to 8 hours, most during in-person schooling by children aged 6 through 11. One was worn by an adult. A t-shirt worn by one of the children at school and unworn masks were tested as controls. No pathogens were found on the controls. Proteins found on the t-shirt, for example, are not pathogenic to humans and are commonly found in hair, skin, and soil.”

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