Must Churches Follow Mask Mandates?
Just when we thought we were done with masks, the mandates returned. You could almost hear the collective sigh from pastors everywhere. Really? This again?
Within a few days, elder boards were putting their heads together. Do we “require” our members to wear masks? Or “recommend” them? Or can we “rebel” against them? What’s the right word?
For instance, my pastor friend Garrett and his elders discussed the matter. One invoked 1 Peter 2: “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” (vv. 13–14). This elder believed these verses provided an open-and-closed case: “We have to ‘be subject.’ Period.”
Yet a couple other elders weren’t so sure. Do we have to obey everything the government says? What if the government required hopping on one foot every Tuesday? The elders of my church had a similar conversation.
Toward the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic I offered some thoughts on civil disobedience. I’d like to offer a few more now for pastors, both for the sake of the mask questions but also for the analogous challenges I expect to follow in coming months and years. My goal isn’t to tell you what to do with masks, but to lay out a few principles that might help your elder conversations on this and other matters.
WHEN CAN CHRISTIANS DISOBEY THE GOVERNMENT?
When is it morally acceptable for Christians to disobey the government? Most, maybe all, Christians agree that if the government asks you to sin, you don’t (see Acts 5:29). But there are two further categories of possible civil disobedience worth considering, though they will generate more disagreement among Christians:
- jurisdictional transgressions: do some matters fall outside of governments’ God-given jurisdiction, such that a mandate, even if it doesn’t involve sin, has no moral force over us?
- jurisdictional overlap: what if the government requires something that isn’t sin and that potentially falls within its God-given jurisdiction, but it also falls within the church’s mandate, and the effect of a mandate interferes with the church’s ability to do what the Bible requires of churches?
THE NATURE OF THE GOVERNMENT’S AUTHORITY
Before unpacking each category and applying them to masks, here’s the theological backdrop that must be crystal clear for every Christian: human authority is always relative. Only the Creator possesses intrinsic, comprehensive, and absolute authority by virtue of being the Creator. The creature, on the other hand, only possesses authority when and where the Creator gives it.
Call this a theology of authority derived from Genesis 1 (for an extended conversation on this, see chapters 3 and 4 of Political Church). Authority is not something humans are. It’s something we must be given. As such, our authority is always limited and relative to the authorization (that is, the moral licensing) of the authority-giver, God. Parents, pastors, and presidents cannot demand whatever they please. Their authority has boundaries or a set jurisdiction. They can only step where God tells them they can step.
Suppose, for instance, that a pastor commands a church member to bring him dinner every night at 7 p.m. and then appeals to Hebrews 13:17 in doing so: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” While this verse may not explicitly limit the scope of a church member’s obedience, most of us would argue this pastor’s command is usurpative based on a theology of Genesis 1 and the broader range of texts on elder authority. Think of the prophet Jeremiah condemning the “priests who rule by their own authority” (Jer. 5:21, NIV). We would therefore tell the member he is not morally obligated to bring his pastors dinner nightly because his obligation to obey extends only as far as the pastor’s authorization to command. Moral authority and moral obligation are two sides of one coin.
So it is in every domain. I’m obligated to obey you only as far as God has authorized you.
When we turn to texts commanding obedience to governments such as 1 Peter 2:13–14 and Romans 13:1–7, the same Genesis 1 and whole-Bible framework applies. We should not presume the government’s authority is jurisdictionally unlimited, like the elder commanding his dinner from a member. That’s the wrong (and an implicitly beastly) starting point. It gives absolute power to someone who doesn’t possess it.
The humbler, creaturely approach is to assume that governments possess absolutely no authority except in those places where the Creator says, “You may act here.” So Jesus says to the Roman governor, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11); and to the tax collectors, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (Luke 3:13).
Sure enough, Peter in the verses quoted above says that God “sent” governments to punish the evil and praise the good. Which evils? Which goods? Answering that requires a fuller biblical investigation, beginning in Genesis 9:5–6, which we can leave for another day. The point here is, God didn’t send governments to do whatever they want. He sent them for a purpose, and the jurisdiction of their authority lies within that purpose. They have an assigned lane, and they must drive in that lane. Our obligation to obey, furthermore, is co-extensive with that lane.
Paul gets at this same idea by using the language of “owe”: “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7).We don’t “owe” governments everything. We owe them certain things. So with parents. So with pastors. So with husbands.
Bible readers will reasonably disagree about how wide the government’s lanes for driving are, but this much I take to be incontrovertible: governments possess authority or the moral license to command obedience only in those places where God gives it. The alternative is to say governments possess authority in places God didn’t give it, and I’m not sure how a Christian theologian could ever say that.
CAN THE TALIBAN JUSTLY REQUIRE YOUR WIFE TO WEAR A BURKA?
That brings us back to the first additional category for civil disobedience: are we bound to obey when a government transgresses its God-assigned jurisdiction? Can we imagine the government asking us to do something which in and of itself is not sin, like bringing a dinner to your elder every night at 7 p.m., but which the government has no moral license to ask, such that we have no moral obligation to obey?
Suppose the government commands, “You must convert to Christianity, or we will kill you,” as Charlemagne did. Though converting to Christianity is a good thing in and of itself, trying to force a conversion is jurisdictionally transgressive. We’d even call such a governmental action “unjust.” Not only does the government not have the power (ability) to do that, it doesn’t have the authority (authorization or moral license) to do it.
Or how about an example of something that, in and of itself, is morally neutral, like wearing a piece of cloth on the head called a burka. Suppose you and your family move to Afghanistan tomorrow as missionaries, and the Taliban commands your wife and daughters to wear a burka that covers everything but their eyes. For pragmatic reasons, you might ask them to obey. You don’t want them to be arrested. But would you say your wife and daughters are morally obligated before God to obey because the Taliban says so? If your daughter asked you to remove her veil on her wedding day, and you could guarantee her safety, would you say, “No, the Taliban forbids it”?
I would not. I would remove her veil.
Why? I believe a burka requirement is a jurisdictional transgression. Even if it’s not inherently a sin to wear a burka, I don’t think God “sent” governments, to borrow Peter’s language, to tell its citizens how to dress for any reason willy-nilly. It would need a clear and compelling interest that does fall within its jurisdiction, as with requiring soldiers to wear a uniform. To borrow Paul’s language, I don’t believe our daughters “owe” the wearing of burkas to the government. I’d even call burka laws unjust. Any obedience I recommend would be purely pragmatic.
Some of this pragmatism, I dare say, I learned from Jesus. Jesus himself relativized the authority of the “kings of the earth.” When Peter wondered about paying the temple tax, Jesus told him that, as a son of the divine King, he was “free” in some sense not to pay it. Meaning, our allegiance to the rulers of this world is not ultimate. Their time and authority, like the authority of the Jewish temple, is quickly passing. Disciples owe allegiance only to Christ. Still, Jesus continues on a pragmatic note: Peter should pay it so as “not to give offense to them” (Matt. 17:24–27).
WHAT IF BOTH CHURCH AND STATE HAVE A COMPELLING INTEREST?
Turning to the second additional category of possible disobedience: are there places where both church and state have a compelling interest, and the interests of the church might override the interest of the state, such that disobedience to the state is warranted?
I covered that topic here. Briefly, the basic challenge is, sometimes the jurisdictions which God assigns to different authorities overlap, as in this illustration taken from that article:
Whenever I’m teaching on the nature of authority in a seminary class, for instance, I’ll ask the students, “Does God give final authority over a child to the government or to the parent?” One student will quickly answer, “The parent,” to which I follow up, “What if the parent is abusing the child?” At that moment, the whole class usually gets that look in their eyes which says, “Oh. This is more complicated than I thought.” A student might want to argue, “Yet what if the state forbids any form of discipline” or “But who gets to decide what constitutes abuse?” Well, exactly. That’s why areas of jurisdictional overlap will always remain contested. Yet we cannot just wish them away.
The mask mandates, likewise, present us with an area of possible overlap between church and state. On the one hand, Christians are commanded to gather, and the face, more than any other part of the body, is the physical center of our embodied gatherings. It plays a role in the church’s ability to fulfill its mission. Were we to write a theology of the face, we could say that the Bible highlights the face as facilitating presence, fellowship, and blessing, drawing on passages like these:
- “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you” (Num. 6:24–26; cf. Matt 17:2).
- “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image” (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6; cf. 1 Cor. 13:12).
- “We pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you faceto face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thes. 3:10; see also, Acts 20:37–38; 1 Thes. 2:17; also, Col. 2:1).
- “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12; also, 3 John 13-14).
Notice in these four examples how the face is tied, respectively, to divine blessing, the knowledge of God, faith, and joy-completing instruction. (To be sure, references to God’s face are anthropomorphic and analogical.) It’s not merely the co-mingling of legs and arms which makes the gathering what it is. It’s beholding one another’s faces. The face represents the whole person and our posture toward a person, as in “But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:12). We recognize one another, read one another, interpret one another, know one another, and love one another through the face. Just ask any preacher preaching to a crowd of mask-covered faces how well he can read the audience.
Now, I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which a mask stretching from chin to cheekbones hinders our fellowship in the church. But can we say it’s not nothing?
On the other side of the ledger, however, the government also possesses a potentially reasonable interest in masks, at least if you assume, like me, that the Bible assigns governments with the job of preserving life, especially when that involves preventing one citizen from jeopardizing the life of another (I won’t take the time to make that case here). Further, God calls governments to preserve our lives precisely so that the church can do its work (see Acts 17:26-27, 1 Tim. 2:3-4, and my articles here and here). A lawmaker who believes that COVID is mortally dangerous could sincerely say, “I want churches to enjoy presence, fellowship, and blessing, too. I’m a Christian! But you’re not going to enjoy those things if you’re dead. The temporary restriction serves the long-term work of the church.”
Suppose, for instance, we weren’t dealing with COVID-19, but the Bubonic Plague, and one out of three children in the church nursery were dying. Would your elders feel not just pragmatically bound, but morally bound to obey the government if the government required masks? I assume most would say “yes.”
Yet now turn down the danger-level knob from “Bubonic Plague” to “common cold,” and move the duration lever from “one month” all the way over to “indefinite.” I assume more of your elders will begin to say “no.” Why? Because the government’s compelling interest will seem less and less clear. It will begin to look arbitrary, ideological, even despotic—like another jurisdictional transgression as with the burka requirement.
Somewhere in between the plague and the cold is COVID-19, and different churches and elders will locate it differently on the spectrum. Even different doctors do.
Like the students in my class, you might ask, “Who gets to decide what constitutes sufficient danger or compelling interest?” Whatever legal answer one might give to that question, the ultimate theological answer is, everyone who will stand before God and account for their obedience both to church and state must decide. He has established both authorities. To submit to both is to submit to him. That means, most conflicts in these areas of overlapping jurisdiction, where you can find a Bible verse to support each side, won’t finally be resolved until Judgment Day. God alone will adjudicate them perfectly then. In the meantime, we ask God for wisdom and make our best judgments.
QUESTIONS TO ASK IN DECIDING ABOUT MASKS
In the meantime, it’s the job of everyone with a conscience to prepare to give an account on that day. Each elder and elder board needs to answer the following questions for themselves:
- Is it a sin, in and of itself, to wear a mask?
- Assuming it’s not, does the Bible give governments the right, broadly speaking, to protect lives (and not just to protect each person from him or herself, but to protect people from one another)?
- Assuming it does, and assuming that the Bible couldn’t possibly specify all the specific ways a government will be required to fulfill this charge, and assuming furthermore that governments require some flexibility for implementing this God-given mandate, is it reasonable to assume that God would give governments the right to temporarily require masks in public settings?
- Even if it is reasonable in some situations, is it hypothetically possible that this requirement becomes arbitrary, unreasonable, and despotic in other situations, such that the mask mandate becomes akin to a transgressive burka mandate? What criteria can be given for when that line is crossed?
- Furthermore, does wearing a mask hinder the ability of the church to be the church and fulfill every requirement God has placed on it?
- Even though wearing a mask may impose upon the church’s purposes for fellowship, might the imposition here be small enough, while the cost of civil disobedience to another aspect of the church’s mission—its witness in the community—be big enough that, as a matter of weighted judgment, wisdom recommends obedience?
Speaking of staying in one’s institutional lane: 9Marks doesn’t exist to make any of these judgments for you or your elder board. That’s your job, pastor. Nor can we assess the particular mandates or health threats you face in your location. But as well as I know how to describe it, these are the principled questions before you.
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM VERSUS CHRISTIAN FREEDOM
A last word on consciences, perhaps worth separating as its own article, but just related enough: Christians sometimes muddle the difference between the doctrines of religious freedom and Christian freedom, but clarifying them will help the above and other conversations. Religious freedom concerns the church’s relationship with the world and its governments—our outward posture. Christian freedom concerns our relationships with each other inside the church (see Romans 14)—our inward posture.
A person can claim something is a matter of religious freedom most clearly when it’s been formally affirmed by one’s entire church, presbytery, or bishop (depending on your polity) as binding on the whole church. If something is instead merely a matter of individual conviction that hasn’t been formally affirmed by the church, you can, in your inward posture, say to other Christians, “Please respect my Christian liberty in this matter.” But you should be a little more cautious about claiming it, in your outward posture, as a matter of religious freedom. To be sure, you’re free to speak to your conscience with outsiders. But have the humility to recognize that you’re not formally representing Christ or Christianity in the same way a church (or presbytery or bishop) does when it makes a formal declaration of belief and “binds on earth what is bound in heaven” (Matt. 16:19; 18:18).
In other words, there’s a difference between “I believe” and “We believe.” If we in the West are moving into a time in which the government increasingly pushes against the free exercise of our faith, it will be tempting to forget that difference, especially since, as individualistic Westerners, we’re not accustomed to recognizing that distinction in the first place. But we can’t forget it, lest in our outward posture we turn Christianity into “everyone demanding what’s right in his own eyes” (see Judges 21:25).
Inside the church, pastors who don’t believe that masks rise to the level of religious freedom or civil disobedience can simultaneously encourage submission to the government while looking for ways to accommodate Christians whose consciences cannot.
That said, I would remind Christians who feel like any imposition on the conscience by the government is intrinsically unjust—that’s what laws do. They impose themselves on people when people’s consciences would allow them to do otherwise. The mere fact that a law makes an imposition on the conscience doesn’t make it unjust. For a law to be unjust, it must be inherently wrong or jurisdictionally transgressive.
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 Thanks to Michael Lawrence who offered this insight to me in a personal conversation.