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.