For some months now, Toby Sumpter and I have been blogging about the challenges posed by the mask mandates issued by various civil governments, and it has been very apparent that we have taken a dim view of that whole enterprise. But one of the downstream consequences of our very public position on this has been various levels of disruption in different churches around the country, where disagreements have arisen over this issue. In some of those disruptions, some folks have appealed to things we have written in defense of their stance or actions, and so a friend has asked me to address some particular questions as directly and clearly as I can.
This is long distance, and every church situation is different, as are all the personalities, but here are a handful of snapshot answers that I think get at the basic issues. At the same time, I am simply setting out general principles here, and cannot vouch for how judicious any application of these principles might be on the ground. More on that later, and here goes:
If the elders of an otherwise faithful church require parishioners to wear a mask in order to participate in worship, and if they refuse to make any accommodations for those who do not wish to wear a mask (e.g. sitting in the back of the balcony), and if this is the only issue on the table, I do not believe members should leave a church over this issue. I believe that to leave over this issue only would be foolish and unwise.
If someone has left a church under these circumstances, and if the only reason for doing so was this issue of masking, then I believe it would be proper for them to return to the church in order to be reconciled to their elders.
At the same time, if the elders require masks in order to participate in worship, and if they also require attendance at worship — not allowing their dissenting members to visit other churches during this time, or to worship at home, then I do think it would be possible to leave the church on that account without being rebellious. This is because the issue of mask-wearing in worship really is a matter of conscience for many, and such a decision by the elders would leave absolutely no room for conscience. Under such circumstances, a member could then leave without sinning.
But in such a case, the reason for leaving would not be “the mask thing,” but rather the fact that the elders responded to such cases of consciences in an authoritarian manner, leaving the individual concerned with no real options. That is not how cases of conscience are handled in the New Testament.
Leaving a church is not synonymous with rebelling against that church. If it is lawful to leave a church because it is a 45 minute drive to get there, and a new church was just planted 10 minutes in the other direction, then it should also be lawful to leave a church because you and the elders are no longer of the same mind. Changing churches is not to be identified with schism.
Some people change churches without schism, while others remain in the same sanctuary in the most schismatic manner possible.
But the fact that something could be done without rebellion does not mean that it was in fact done without rebellion. My father was fond of saying that there is a deeper right than being right, and a person could be right about the masks, say, and entirely wrong in attitude. As we work on maintaining unity, or on restoring fellowship, we need to examine our hearts, and not just our arguments
There was one situation where someone was leaving a church because, while the elders were not mandating masks, they were allowing them. In this dispute, our writings were being appealed to, which was odd because we allow masks at Christ Church also. It is strange for elders to be accused, in our name, when we could be accused on the same grounds. This illustrates how tangled these things can get.
If someone has left a church, and is claiming that they are doing so with my blessing, they really need to stop making that claim. This is because I have no idea what they have done, or how they have done it. For another obvious example, I have written a lot on marriage, and yet I know that there are overbearing husbands who can point to passages in my books to “justify” their continued sinning. There are unsubmissive wives who can do the same thing. I set out the principles that I believe are biblical, and yet a host of problems can still creep into the application.
If a church used to be okay, but there has been a visible slow drift leftward over the years, with various danger signs in evidence, and the members have consequently considered leaving before all this, and then the elders imposed a masking mandate, leaving can and should be a real option. But this departure would be for a cluster of weightier reasons, and not because of the last straw.
But leaving a church must be done well, and the people leaving need to be eager to answer to God for two things — both the noun and the adverb. What did they do, and what was their manner in doing it?