As a number of you have no doubt seen, we were taken to task yesterday by Joseph Bayly and Brian Bailey, and given the nature of the criticism, I thought a response was necessary. I hope to keep the response centered on what I believe to be the central issue, and so perhaps this post won’t be as long as normal. But we shall see. Perhaps it will.
One Qualification Up Front
One of the concerns that was expressed in the article was that we were painting with a broad brush in such a way as to lead people to assume the worst about absolutely anyone who differed with us. In other words, do we think it is impossible to be on the opposite side of this masking issue without being a coward, an agent of compromise, etc.? In a word, no. We don’t believe that at all.
Toby Sumpter and I have had two phone conversations total with Warhorn men about all of this, and as regards the issues addressed by this article, we thought we had done what was needed. Prior to the publication of this piece, as far as we knew, we thought we had done exactly what they asked us to do, which was to make it clear that we thought their position was a principled stand, not subject to the same criticisms we were leveling elsewhere. We did that in various ways and places, and were disappointed that they decided this response was necessary. We have been on the same page with them for so long that we have labored to avoid a direct collision with them over this issue. Now that we have obviously failed in that endeavor, I would like to address the central issue in such a way that we can still be comrades in arms after this is all over.
To spell it out, we do disagree with the decision to require worshipers to mask up in God’s presence. We also believe that many of the churches across the nation that are imposing this requirement on their people are doing so because of their general feckless approach to everything. But we don’t believe that about Warhorn, and we don’t believe it about some of the churches in our own communion that have taken this same approach. We make a clear distinction between the two.
We have made this very point while encouraging individuals who have been banned from worship unless they have a mask. If your leaders have been otherwise faithful — clear on LGBTQ issues, not woke at all, faithful in their exposition of Scripture, etc. — do everything you can to work with them as dutiful members. If they have not been like that, then maybe this is the Lord’s indication that it is time for you to go.
Another Important Observation
If you wanted to make a juicy Venn diagram, one with lots of overlap, you could draw two circles representing a Moscow constituency and a Warhorn constituency. But because we have more or less come down on opposite sides of the masking issue, this has created a problem. The article mentions that there are a number of parishioners in their circles who are sympathetic with what we have been arguing, and this has been creating big problems for them on the ground. More on this shortly.
Now I do not know whether any of these parishioners who are in sympathy with our arguments have behaved disrespectfully toward their elders. I do know that is a possibility, but I have no idea whether or not it is so. We have counseled parishioners who are caught in this dilemma to make a distinction between elders who have been otherwise faithful and counter-cultural, and elders who conform to this because they always conform to the prevailing winds. This distinction truly matters.
But if anyone has popped off disrespectfully to respectable elders, this was not our desire, not our counsel, and not what we would have advised at all. But with that said, disrespect is not the only reason why a church might be in turmoil. It is possible that churches are disrupted because we have been using inflammatory language and it has been fomenting unnecessary trouble. But it is also possible, as I will argue below, that the turmoil is baked into the very nature of a mandatory masking order for worship services.
The Heart of the Issue
The issue is not masking up, all by itself. I put on a mask earlier this week because I needed a haircut and couldn’t get a haircut without one. That is a nuisance, of course, but not the end of the world. I was starting to look like a chrysanthemum, and steps needed to be taken. The issue that is roiling churches is the mandatory masking for worship.
The difference of opinion we have is not over whether to wear a mask, with some saying yes, and others saying no, but with each agreeing that wearing the mask is a minor inconvenience. We don’t just have a difference on whether to wear a mask. We differ on the nature of this mask wearing in worship. For some, it is a minor inconvenience, just like when you go to CostCo, only you are going to worship. But for others, including me, it is an affront to the conscience, at a visceral level.
And I cheerfully acknowledge that it is a conscience issue that I never knew existed until all of this came up. I never had occasion to work through any of it. For other matters of conscience, like sabbath observance, or alcohol use, or entertainment standards, and so on, I have been thinking about them for decades. But in this case, a medicine ball was thrown at everybody’s heads by the archangel Gabriel, along with a peppy “think fast!”
I have no problem acknowledging that good men, like the men of Evangel Presbytery, had to make a swift decision on what to have their congregations do about masks. I have no problem agreeing that these are trying times. But given the fact that there are many Christians out there who had the same visceral reaction to the idea of worshiping God with a veiled face, I believe that such leaders had the responsibility to be more flexible with their people instead of simply mandating.
I can understand Christians reading our stuff in order to clarify thinking and to hunt down arguments. But I don’t believe that what we have been producing is responsible for the existence of the visceral reaction in the conscience that numerous believers have had. And I believe the turmoil exists because of a head-on collision between that reaction in the conscience and a mandate from the elders.
So say that in Church X we have a man who sincerely believes that his life is in real jeopardy because of COVID. He has faithfully attended church for years. If we forbade masks in worship, we would be putting him in a terrible position. We would be forbidding what to him is a minor inconvenience, an inconvenience which he believes is important to his health. We would be making his acquiescence to our mandate a prerequisite to meeting with Christ’s people, hearing Christ’s Word, and partaking of Christ in the sacrament.
But say that in Church Y we have a man who sincerely believes that to require him to cover his face when he goes to worship God is an insult to his status as an image-bearer, and he also believes (conscientiously) that a play from the broader culture is being run on us all. He also has been a faithful member of the church for years. To require him to mask up would be to place him in a terrible position, just like Church X did with their guy.
At Christ Church, we welcome anybody, masked or unmasked. No one is turned away over this issue. We have repeatedly instructed our people not to give the stink eye to anybody. Don’t assume that a mask-wearer is a coward, and don’t assume that a non-mask-wearer is a devil-may-care stunt parishioner. Church officers may wear a mask, and church officers may go without. In order to bind the conscience, there has to be actual binding, which would be an act of authority.
On this issue, we have resolved not to get in between anybody’s conscience, on the one hand, and Christ’s people, Christ’s Word, or Christ’s sacraments, on the other.
And ironically, if a church makes conformity mandatory, the turmoil is increased if the church has been a faithful one.
By laying out these and similar arguments as we have done, we have not bound anyone’s conscience. We have not required anything of anybody. The only authority we have is the authority of having said true things, if indeed we have. But that is not an authoritative act. If any of the men with whom I have this difference were to visit Christ Church, they would be welcome, with or without a mask, and they would also, despite agreeing with the Warhorn article, be welcome to sing with us, pray with us, confess with us, hear the Word with us, and partake of communion with us.
One last thing. I mentioned flexibility earlier. If the elders of the church believe the pandemic is far more serious than I do, there are many ways they could still accommodate those believers who can’t stomach the idea of approaching God with a mask on. They could recommend masks. They could ask everyone to mask up during the fellowship time before and after, but say you are free to remove your mask while worshiping. They could hold a second service for those who don’t feel right in their spirit about masking for worship. They could treat the issue of masking with something other than a command. Is this view of masking that we hold really an offense that deserves de facto suspension from the Table?
And we could also make sure that as we love one another, we continue to talk through the issue. In that spirit, the comments for this post are open.