Allow me, if you will, to address the issues of true liberty, liberty of conscience, and the vaccine mandates.
As more COVID mandates look to be coming at us, all hot and heavy like, more and more Christians are trying to work through the related issues of conscience. If we apply for a religious exemption from the mandates, for example, are we guilty of special pleading? Are we trying to haul God into the picture simply to get out of something that is distasteful to us personally? Are we we trying to get the Holy Spirit to put His imprimatur on something that is just our personal conviction?
I don’t think so. For more resources on all this, I recommend the following. The presiding ministers of our denomination (the CREC) have adopted a statement on the vaccine mandates that can be found here. Another very helpful statement is here. And the Warrenton Declaration can be found here.
As we work through these issues, we cannot be children in our thinking. We have to grow up, and deal with our various circumstances responsibly. That is going to be accomplished through sober reasoning in the light of Scripture. It will not be accomplished through fear-driven accusations and with a chaser of subsequent yelling. For example, it is irresponsible to accuse the vaccine hesitant of “not caring” whether people die. It ain’t that simple. Just within my circle of acquaintances, I know of COVID deaths, and I also know of vaccine deaths. We are not playing a game here, and so we must not confound the two categories of “believing the science” and “believing the television.”
A Westminster Summary
The reasoning I want to offer below needs to be set within the framework of the historic Reformed tradition on liberty of conscience. As a minister at Christ Church, I have subscribed to the Westminster Confession, and so I am going to begin with a summary of the relevant portion of that confession. This does not address all our vaccine issues directly, but it does provide a good framework for our reasoning.
The liberty of believers is fundamentally a gospel liberty. We have been liberated, through Christ, from guilt, from wrath, and from the curse of the law. We have been delivered from Satan, from death, and from damnation. Christian liberty is therefore, at bottom, freedom from the reign of self and pride. Not only is it freedom from these toxic things, it is also freedom to something else. It is to be ushered into a free access to God, along with the new ability to obey Him. Believers in the Old Testament had this kind of liberty also, but we have been given it in much greater measure. All of this and more is found in WCF 20.1.
When it comes to matters of faith and worship, God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left the believing conscience free of the “doctrines and commandments of men.” Consequently, to “believe such doctrines” and to “obey such commandments” is to betray genuine liberty of conscience. In addition, to require of the people an implicit faith in the authorities (with regard to their faith and worship) is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason along with it. In addition, any requirement of an “absolute and blind” obedience is to do the same kind of destructive work. This is the teaching of WCF 20.2.
But Christian liberty is threatened from the other direction also. The pretended friends of Christian liberty, who use it as a cloak for the practicing of sin, or the cherishing of lust, are destroying the whole point of Christian liberty, which is to set us free to walk in holiness before the Lord, all the days of our lives. This is WCF 20.3.
And last, those who hoist the banner of Christian liberty in such a way as to challenge any lawful power or any lawful exercise of power—whether it be civil or ecclesiastical—are resisting authorities who were established by God, and set in their place by God. If such persons foment rebellion in the name of their antinomian principles, it is right and proper for them to be subject to church discipline, and for the magistrate to proceed against them with the force of law. This is a summary of WCF 20.4.
Now as I said above, this is all stated to set our parameters, to provide a framework for our discussion. For those who want to pursue their study of all this further, I would suggest first that all ideological libertarians and the “don’t tread on me” absolutists spend their time studying WCF 20.4. And for those cowards and charlatans who thought it was somehow their duty to collapse before any and all CDC directives regarding their worship, and who on Reformation Sunday had their people humming A Mighty Fortress through their masks, their time would be better spent on WCF 20.2.
And not to keep you in suspense, the central screaming problem of this feckless generation has been neglect of 20.2. Far more craven churches have closed than sinfully rebellious churches have manned the barricades in some kind of misguided revolt.
More Than a Cute Little Verbal Maneuver
In the past, when people have asked me what my religious objection to something like Social Security might be, I have responded by saying that I belong to an obscure religious sect that has adopted “Thou shalt not steal” as one of its tenets. Talk about off the beaten path. This is then regarded by my interlocutor as a joke or an evasion, and not as a serious point, which shows just how far we have fallen. But when Ahab stole Naboth’s vineyard, it would not have been justified if he had done it through land reform, or a zoning change, or a revision of the tax law. Stealing is stealing.
So is there such a comparable foundational issue when it comes to these vaccine mandates? Yes, there is. I object to being enslaved, and I particularly object when I am asked to cooperate with that process of enslavement. I might not be able to do anything about the chains, but I don’t have to sign the papers. I don’t have a sign a release form saying that I am submitting to all of this willingly, or somehow claim that it was all my idea in the first place.
First some Scripture, and then some reasoning from it.
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
Galatians 5:1 (KJV)
It is not a sin to be a slave, but it is a sin to cooperate with those turning you into one. It is not a sin to be captured, but it is a sin to sign up for it. It is a sin to go into slavery willingly. Of course I do not say that it is a sin to walk into a trap unknowingly. That would be a wisdom issue. A man might be foolish for not seeing the tell tale signs of the trap, but that is not the same thing as sinfully acquiescing to the demand for slavish obedience. Those are in two different categories.
To bring it back to this issue of masking and vaccines, I believe that a lot of ministers have sinfully disgraced themselves by simply accepting the chains. I also believe that there have been many others who were foolish, but not rebellious, Some ministers have revealed that they were themselves wolves. They think the slavery is good for us. Other ministers foolishly failed in their calling by not recognizing the wolves in sheep’s clothing. They do not see (yet) that it is slavery, and that the slavery is really bad. They ought to see it, but they don’t.
Here is another relevant passage.
“Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it.”
1 Corinthians 7:21 (NKJV)
In this verse, Paul tells slaves not to be concerned about their servile condition, but he does add that they should take full advantage of any opportunity that arises to free themselves.
Now the passage from Galatians is talking about becoming spiritually enslaved to the doctrines of false teachers, and the passage from 1 Corinthians is talking about actual physical enslavement. Two different kinds of slavery, I know. But in both instances, the principles we may derive from such passages do apply to our situation. We should not willingly become any kind of slave, and we should avail ourselves of any lawful opportunity to free ourselves from any sort of slavery we find ourselves in.
But keep the framework in mind. Submitting to lawful authority is not slavery (WCF 20.4). Nor is it slavery to submit to an erroneous decision by a lawful authority, as the Warhorn statement points out. Some really need to learn this. At the same time, disobeying an unlawful order is not rebellion (WCF 20.2). Others need to learn this. Do you see the tension? Do you feel the tension? So here is the screaming question. Who adjudicates all of this? Ultimately God is the one who judges, because He alone is Lord. But who has to make the decision about what you will do? Well, the answer to that question would be you.
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and so every last one of us is going to answer to God for all the decisions we made while appealing to conscience. So in making those decisions, we should want to study the Scriptures thoughtfully, refuse to rush to judgment, read both sides of the issue, weigh carefully what our critics say about what we are thinking about doing, and we should also give weight to the opinions of those we respect.
Some will say that we have the right to make our conscience-driven decision, but that we must then be willing to take our lumps for it. But this is actually one of the things we are debating. If we were arguing about whether or not it was lawful for Christians to buy something on the black market, it would hardly make sense to argue that this was all right to do, provided you turned yourself in every time you did it.
And so this leads to the next thing, which has to do with my judgment regarding what is actually going on in all of this chaos. If you trust my judgment on this kind of thing, here it is.
A Matter of Judgment
The secular mind has a dark totalitarian streak that runs right down the middle of it. The idea of a genuinely free people, with every man under his own fig tree, is an idea which gives them the jimjams. It is misguided to assume that we all share a common commitment to liberty. Some people actually detest it. They don’t want it. They want their idea of an orderly society. They don’t like freedom. They want you to learn how to live according to their dictatorial whims. Now of course they don’t call it slavery. They don’t call it prison. It is sort of dry terrarium, well-lit, with white sand on the bottom, and you are the lizard.
Given that we have been comparatively free in the past, these secularists of the ruling class, in their positions of influence and power, want to get us from where we were to where they want us to be. In short, according to my lexicon, they want to enslave us. They would not put it that way, of course. They would say they simply want us to become more cooperative, civilized, and urbane, by which they mean far more docile.
They really do want a great reset. They are not appalled at all by what is going down in Australia, and the only negative thing about all of that for them is that they think they might not be able to get away with the same kind of thing here. But if they could, they would. They want the emergency powers that they have seized in the name of this pandemic to remain in their hands forever so that they can shut down or steer whatever they want to whenever they want to. They want to have full control of the governmental mechanisms that would enable them to declare a climate change emergency, for example, and to require you to shut down your business—because who needed your business anyway? Or perhaps they command you to go live down in your basement, with fear dripping on you from the ceiling.
And they also want to send compliance monitors to your church in order to check on your humming of A Mighty Fortress. They kept the mask mandate going after government scientists discovered that singing in church actually amplifies carbon emissions, unlike shouting at BLM rallies. So they still come to check on you and yours, and they kind of like the ironies of that song. They particularly enjoy it when you get to the line we tremble not for him, which comes out hmm humhum hum hmhim!
So objecting to the vaccine at this level is a religiously grounded resistance to a massive power grab. And objecting to a massive power grab is fully justified on scriptural grounds. This is an objection grounded in our belief that Caesar is not Lord, and that he cannot be, because Jesus is Lord. Not all Christians are resisting like we are because not all Christians see it as a power grab. This is naive, in my view, but not necessarily rebellious. Not all good men are shrewd. Jesus had to speak sternly to the children of light about this kind of thing (Luke 16:8).
In short, our ruling class has behaved throughout this crisis in a way calculated to get thinking individuals to doubt absolutely everything they say. And hats off to them—they succeeded, at least with me. From the CDC flip flops, to the political convenient double standards that maintain that there is no viral spread at left of center rallies, but that right of center events are super spreaders, to the personal double standards on display at Obama’s birthday party or the Met gala event, to the Orwellian commitment to censor any expression of contrary views, any person who wants to cooperate with these people in the hope that sweet reason will eventually prevail is a person who should not be disturbed in their daydream, for they are clearly having a pleasant one.
On top of all that, never forget who these people are who are lecturing us about “following the science.” We have a medical establishment that will cut up babies for money, and who will also (again, for money) cut off a teenager’s breasts, or penis, and all on the basis of an adolescent emotional storm. Remember, you can’t have a corrupt establishment and not have it ooze corruption. In fact, it has been oozing so much that many in the church have gotten some all over them.
So when we say that we want a religious exemption from the vaccine, we are not saying that we object to taking the vaccine the way a Quaker objects to joining the Marines. All these issues present us with a range of options, depending on the circumstance. They are not all the same.
Worshiping God and going to the airport are not similar activities. Wearing a mask voluntarily is not the same thing as wearing one in obedience to an illegal order. Complying with a requirement of a private business is not the same as complying with a totalitarian government. Complying with a private business that sincerely wants you to wear a mask is not the same as ignoring their sign because you know they are just keeping the government off their backs, and don’t really care about your masklessness. Liberty of conscience is not a one-size-fits-all sort of thing.
I have worn a mask before in order to get a haircut. The action of wearing a mask is not the issue. Didn’t like it, but it wasn’t a matter of conscience for me. I have worn a mask in order to fly on airplanes in order to get somewhere that I believed was important to get to. Didn’t like that either, and I fly a lot less than I used to because I don’t like it, but it is not a matter of conscience. On a recent trip I had the pleasure of hearing the flight attendant actually say something like . . . “Please replace your mask in between bites or sips. We will warn you if you do not comply. Failure to comply may result in civil or criminal penalties. If there is anything we can do to make your flight more enjoyable . . .” This is all beyond tedious, but it is not a matter of conscience for me. If it were, I wouldn’t do it. For others, it may be a much bigger deal, for medical reasons, or perhaps because of conscience. This can vary because I am not in charge of what is an issue of conscience for others. God alone is Lord of the conscience.
What is a matter of conscience for me—on the same foundational level as the Quaker illustration above—is the demand that I worship God in a mask, required by civil authorities and enforced by elders and pastors. As a pastor, I would rather die than to require healthy parishioners to be vaccinated or masked in order to worship God. This is a first order conscience issue for me, and it is both principled and visceral. I would rather die than accept masks as a condition for coming into the presence of God (2 Cor. 3:18).
Also, incidentally, there is no problem with the elders asking contagious folks to keep their hacking and wheezing at home. We have Scripture for that.
Not only would I rather die, but if I were a member of a church that for some reason required this of me, I would rather be excommunicated than comply with it. I would seek permission to leave peaceably, and if that were denied, I would be excommunicated. I would then ask the next church I attended to review the facts of the case, and to welcome me back to the Table. This would not be a sign of my rebellious spirit, but would rather be an example of my strict subscription to WCF 20.2. The elders who require this kind of thing of their people have not weighed the character of those who have this kind of scruple. And the issue is not whether they agree with the scruple—the issue is whether they have any understanding of WCF 20.2.
The saints who appeal to WCF 20.2 are not appealing to liberty of conscience in order to cover for their fornicating ways, or their cocaine habit, or their fits of rage. No. They simply do not want to be complicit with the creation of additional “admission” requirements for the worship of God, requirements that are based entirely on the doctrines of men. To do so is to destroy liberty of conscience.
Suppose I were a pastor who believed that COVID was a lot more serious than I do, and a lot more like the Spanish flu than it is. Suppose that the session had recommended masks for worship (note that golden word recommended). What would I do if I had fifty people who would not wear masks in worship, but who knew that if they came to the main service unmasked it would be disruptive? The obvious thing would be for the pastor to hold a second service for the unmasked, and to go preach to them unmasked. If men of God can preach the gospel in leper colonies, as they have done, then they certainly could take on the risk of preaching to a crowd of unmasked saints full of antibodies, and who, even if they were all crawling with COVID, would only be able to pass on a sickness with a 99% survival rate.
In our community of believers here at Christ Church, our elders do not mandate or require anything with regard to masks or vaccines. Believers are free to come to worship God in a mask if their conscience permits or requires it. Our members are free to get vaccinated, and they are free to refrain. Nobody bothers anybody. Hardly anybody wears a mask, but our people are under strict admonitions not to give the stink eye or any kind of grief to someone who does.
So we believe in liberty of conscience and we practice liberty of conscience. Some people have gotten the vaccine because international travel really is a necessity for them, and they can’t do it without the vaccine. I don’t look at them sideways. I wouldn’t look at them sideways even if I thought that they were making the wrong decision. And why?
“Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.”
Romans 14:4 (KJV)