[The following article was written by Danny for the express purpose of refuting the common claim that Christians are required by Scripture to wear a mask]
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:9-13)
“We must obey the government!” This is the common response I receive from just about every Christian I encounter on the issue of whether it is right to obey the restrictions given to us by the government today. I understand the sentiment. It’s an easy and quick answer and it provides the Christian with a very simple answer to a very difCicult question. You’ll notice that I didn’t say “if” we should obey the government, but whether it is right to obey the government on this one thing. The reasonable observer would clearly surmise that this teaching is clearly not absolute, as it would make most of the people in the Bible guilty of sin, including Jesus himself. Clearly there is more to this teaching about submitting to the government that cannot be fulCilled by just a simple application of a simple verse. My hope is to address this issue with clarity and faithfulness to the text of Scripture in order to give us a good understanding of the problem with obeying the command about mandatory masking.
So I wish to begin by drawing from the lesson Jesus gave in Mark Chapter 7. The chapter begins with a rebuke the Pharisees give to Jesus for failing to obey the tradition (I know the word tradition sounds unrelated, but remember that in Israel at that time, the Sanhedrin had real authority and the council could enact very serious penalties to those who did not obey). At this time in Israel, many Rabbinical traditions had established laws that expanded on the Mosaic law, which they considered to be just as binding as the Scriptures. Jesus’ response was to point out how their rules actually encouraged the people to sin by breaking God’s law about honouring one’s mother and father (v12-13). Jesus referred to this practice as “Corban,” using a term that means devoting something to God. This is the picture I would like you to have in mind as I discuss the modern day practice of mandatory masking, and whether following this modern “tradition” similarly causes people to sin.
So let’s address the primary basis for mandatory masking used by the church. The justification used is to appeal to Romans 13, 1 Peter 2 and Titus 3. They say the following:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. (Romans 13:1-7 )
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1)
There is no question that the church should be following this mandate. We should absolutely be willing to submit to our government in whatever they ask. If they require taxes, we should pay them. If they make laws about speeding, we should abide by them. We should clearly be good citizens, abiding by the laws of the state we are in even if they do not follow the values of the church. Such an approach is repeated in places like 1 Timothy 6:1-2 (one how slaves must regard their own masters as deserving of full respect), in Titus 2:9-10 (also about servants with their masters), in Hebrews 13:17 (obeying leaders and submitting to them), and in various places in the OT, such as Jeremiah 29:5-7. The question about whether we are instructed to submit to government authorities should be pretty straight forward. The issue though lies in where we draw the line in saying no to authority.
Clearly the directive to submit to authorities is not absolute. If it were, then every biblical Figure would be guilty of sin, even when God himself says they are not. Consider for instance the midwives of Egypt, who refused to kill the boys that Pharaoh commanded them to kill (Exodus 1:17). If they had sinned by refusing to obey authority, then why would God have rewarded them for their actions? (v21). Or consider Esther who went to see the King even though it was illegal (Esther 4:16) Was she sinning by breaking the law? Clearly the Bible does not condemn refusal to obey authorities in an absolute sense, otherwise people like Daniel, Moses, Ezra, Peter, Paul, and even Jesus would be guilty of sin. There are clearly places where it is acceptable to disobey the commands of those in authority. So when is it appropriate to disobey authority? There are a number of reasons when it is appropriate to disobey authorities. The assumption by many Christians is that we should only disobey when doing so would cause us to commit a sin, but what does it mean to sin? Thankfully, the Bible does provide us with a good definition. I’m going to use the KJV for this as it really clearly lays out explicitly the underlying meaning: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” Sin is to transgress (break/disobey) God’s law. That can be either a sin of commission or a sin of omission (James 4:17). In short, to sin is to disobey a directive that God has given us. A few examples will suffice to make this case.
Peter and John, for instance, disobeyed a direct order from the Sanhedrin when they were told not to preach the name of Jesus. That would involve a sin of omission, in that they would be ignoring the command by Jesus to preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15), so they had to refuse saying “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).
We also see this in the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego, when they refused to obey a direct order from the king to bow to his statue. They cannot worship an idol in direct opposition to God’s command in Exodus 20:5 (Daniel 3).
We see Mordecai refuse to bow to Haman, even when the other officials told him it was required to do so (Esther 3:4-5). Commentators1 are torn on the reason for Mordecai’s refusal, but it is not considered to be a sin to abstain from such a gesture.
Finally, in Ezra 5, at the prodding of the Prophets Haggai and Zecheriah, the people of Israel began rebuilding the Temple in defiance of the Kings command. They were defying a state law, yet they were commended for doing so.
So when obeying a command by the state which causes them to disobey a command given by God, the Christian is compelled to disobey the government. This principle is laid out throughout the Old and New Testament.
With this in mind, let us address the issue of the modern command to wear a mask. The church always refers to Romans 13 to make its case that we are to obey the government (even though it says “submit,” not obey), but it seems to ignore the teaching in the very next chapter, Chapter 14. In Romans 14, Paul lays out the teaching that people in the church ought not to pass judgment on one another in matters where differences of opinion are involved. I will include the entire text of Romans 14 at the end of this email for you to refer to if you need). Paul begins by saying “as for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” (v1). He goes on to lay out the case that in the Roman church, people had differences in opinion. They’re summarized as follows:
"One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.” (v2)
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.” (v5)
Paul does not suggest that either side abandon their deeply held belief, saying only that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (v5) He actually defends the differences of belief within the church, saying that the one who eats and the one who abstains does so in honour of the Lord (v6). He actually commends this, saying that both are honouring to the Lord. What Paul does go on to condemn is passing judgment on our brethren (v10), instructing us to “never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” (v13). Paul understands fully that there is nothing wrong with eating any kind of meat (v20), but he lays out very explicitly in verse 14, saying “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” In this entire chapter he instructs the church not to pass judgment or try to talk people out of their belief, but to be sensitive of their conscience. Why is this relevant? Because of what Paul says in verse 23: “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
So Paul has presented the principle as follows:
There are a variety of different opinions in the church that are not in themselves sinful
If a person believes partaking or abstaining is sinful, it is sinful to them
Encouraging, shaming, or judging a person into doing something they feel is sinful despite their doubts is to cause them to sin.
Now some people would argue that this doesn’t apply to masks, but my answer to them is on what basis can they claim that? Firstly, the idea that teachings in the Bible are completely limited to the subject at hand is not true. Peter used Psalm 16 to argue that the person being referred there was Christ, even though the speaker was David (Acts 2:27). The apostle Paul used a verse about animals and used it to teach that overseers deserved to be paid (1 Timothy 5:18). Paul in Romans 14 is giving an instruction that can clearly apply to any difference of opinion about non-essential matters. Modern commentators have clearly followed this approach, applying this principle to things like dancing and drinking. Do masks fit this criteria? Clearly, as there is no prohibition on wearing a mask in the Bible. So there is no reason to suggest this would not apply to a non-essential matter such as masks. Now it is very important to emphasize the key distinctions Paul makes in order to understand it properly. Paul says that neither eating meat is sinful, nor that practicing a holy day is sinful, but that one can practice either. In the same way, a mask is simply a tool. A tool in itself is not evil, but it can be used in ways that can be evil, just as a knife, a car, or a rope. What he does say is that people in the church should not force, coerce, or even encourage a brother to violate their conscience by doing something they believe is wrong, especially something legitimate like questioning whether a mask is being used in evil ways by the government. This teaching is repeated in other teachings of Paul, such as this one from 1 Corinthians:
“For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” (1 Corinthians 8:10-12)
James also echoes this sentiment in saying that “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” (James 4:17) Did you see what he said? For HIM it is sin. This shows clearly that there are sins that can be committed that are subjective for the person. Paul would not be sinning by eating meat, because he believes you can eat anything, nor would he be sinning if he abstains. But to the person who believes it is wrong to eat meat, to them it is sin to do something against their deeply held belief.
So here is the issue when applied to our modern situation. Let’s say Karen walks into church and they tell her, “hey Karen, you have to wear a mask!” Karen says “I don’t think it’s right to wear a mask. They are causing incredible suffering to so many and I cannot be a part of that. I think it’s sinful to partake in the deeds of darkness.” Would it then be right for the church to say “sorry Karen, rules is rules. God wants you to wear a mask cause government says so.” So Karen, whose conscience is deeply troubled, puts on a mask and has now committed sin by doing so in doubt. So the church has directly encouraged people to sin. How is that in line with Scripture? After all, does not Scripture tell us not to encourage sin or to even tolerate it?:
“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” 1 John 3:4
“Do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” 1 Timothy 5:22 NLT
“...but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:6
“Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” 1 Corinthians 5:6-7
The usual response to this conviction is to tell the person that they must go home. After all, the church can avoid causing sin by sending people to worship at home right? Unfortunately this is not a valid solution, cause now you fall into another sin, the one laid out in James.
James chapter 2 lays out the very serious sin of partiality. Here James addresses what was a common practice in the early church. People would enter the church and by simply a visual examination, would say to them “you sit here in a good place” (v3) while to the person with poor clothing they would say “‘you stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet.’” (v3). At this point, James rebukes the church mightily, chastising them for showing partiality. The church should not be treating people with prejudice, but should encourage all the take part equally. This is why this solution doesn’t work. In your desire to please the government, you are showing partiality against your own people (This is also why the church is wrong to follow the mandate to purge 85% of its own people, but that is a discussion for a different time)
If the church is telling people “you may not enter unless you wear a specific piece of clothing” how are they not showing prejudice against their own people? Was Jesus not outraged that the Gentiles were being excluded from worship with the Pharisees filling the court of the gentiles with moneychangers and sellers? Commentators2 from so many places have said that one of the sins committed by the religious authorities in Jerusalem was excluding them. This is why Jesus exclaimed “my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” (Mark 11:17). If Jesus was angry that Gentiles were being kept out of his own house (the Temple), how would he feel at the thought that his own people - bought with his blood - are being kept out of his own body? And for what? A false sense of security, and an assumption that every person is a dangerous carrier of disease? Even the book of Leviticus does not instruct Priests to assume that everyone should be quarantined despite the evidence to the contrary.3
So here is the dilemma I see the church being caught in:
OPTION 1: Force everyone to wear a mask despite their seriously held beliefs that it is evil to do so, causing many of them to sin.
OPTION 2: Send those who cannot comply home, causing the church to sin by acting in prejudice against members of God’s own household
Sin is caused in either scenario. So what is the church to do?
The solution is actually not that difficult. The church needs to honour religious exemptions (something that even the Canadian of Charter of Rights recognizes - how on earth do churches not recognize this??) and make accommodations that work for their church family. Such an approach would be entirely possible if the government had not stepped in and told the church what they must do. The problem of course is that IF the church were to do this, they’d face the same pressure and scrutiny and ridicule that GraceLife Church is experiencing. But honestly, the church should not be choosing its path based on mob rule, by threats from the state, or by compromising its commitment to Scripture. In the same way that Jesus pointed out the contradiction of enforcing a law that made people sin against their parents, let us not ignore a law that forces us to sin or cause others to sin. Saying that we must “obey the government” while endorsing sin is no different than declaring “Corban.” The church needs to enact policies and rules that protect people but that do not violate the principles and commands of Scripture.
1 https://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/esther-3/ 2 https://biblehub.com/commentaries/mark/11-17.htm 3 https://davidschrock.com/2020/11/27/what-can-we-learn-from-gods-quarantine-laws-four- truths-for-today-from-leviticus-13-15/