One of the stranger controversies to emerge in the broader Christian community and within congregations in the course of the Covid-19 pandemic has been over masks, whether the state has the authority to require citizens to wear masks, whether the church as institution should submit to that rule, whether the church’s submission to that rule is an infringement upon Christian liberty, and whether the rule itself is effective.
The whole matter has been made needlessly complicated by the paternalism of the federal and state government, who, being caught short of PPE (personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks) for medical personnel, declared, through the Surgeon General of the United States and other authorities, that masks were of no value in preventing the spread of viruses and that Americans should not try to buy them nor should they wear them.1 The media echoed this message endlessly. Then, once the authorities began to secure enough PPE, the messaging changed 180 degrees, emphasizing the value and even the necessity of wearing masks with as much vehemence as before they had rejecting the wearing of masks by the public. This is confusing and creates understandable mistrust of the media, were it possible for the public to mistrust the media even more than it does, of public officials, and health regulations.
Nevertheless, public health authorities and private businesses across the USA have imposed regulations requiring the public, typically while indoors, to wear masks to prevent or slow the spread of Covid-19. How should congregations respond? This is not a merely theoretical question since three pastors have reported to me that their congregations are divided over this matter.
The Weaker Brethren
The Apostle Paul faced a similar issue in Corinth, in the mid-AD 50s. This was a cosmopolitan port city and the congregation there seems to have been composed of both Gentile converts and Jewish converts. These groups had different experiences and histories with meat offered to pagan gods. We take it for granted that food is secular, i.e., that it is not religious or it has not ordinarily been set aside for religious use (with the exception of Kosher and Hallal food) before we buy it. Things were not quite that way in the Greco-Roman world. Paganism was the state-religion and it was pervasive. The pagans had claimed every square inch for the gods and they dedicated the food to them. In other words, there was no ordinary, secular food.
Everyone in the Corinthian congregation all would have been familiar with the practice of making offerings to the gods. The Jewish converts probably had avoided meat offered to idols as unclean. Almost certainly, some Gentile converts in the congregation had personal experience, as former pagans of participating in pagan religious meals involving meat offered to idols. Clearly, for some in the congregation, the idea of eating that meat now, as a Christian was complicated. What was the Christian to do? Is it permitted to eat food that had been offered to idols? If so, when and if not, when? For some, to see a brother buying or eating meat that had been offered to idols threatened to lead them back into paganism. This was such a serious problem that the Apostle Paul spent three chapters in 1 Corinthians (chapters 8–10) discussing it and helping the Corinthian congregation navigate the problem.
We know that he addressed food offered to idols because he begins chapter 8 by saying, “Now concerning food offered to idols…”. After that the passage becomes more difficult. Some, he seems to say, had knowledge, i.e., they understood that the idols do not actually exist and thus when the pagans made an offering to such non-existent gods, they were offering them to nothing. Paul agrees with this doctrinal point. He says so.
“Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
This true doctrine, this knowledge, however, must be wielded carefully and with love. Knowledge, which is beneficial in itself, can “puff up” but “love builds up.” Those who are known and loved by God ought to be marked with love for one another.
To further complicate the matter, not everyone in the congregation has reached the same understanding yet. Because of their past, when they ate such food, they thought of it as “really offered to an idol” and because their conscience was “weak” (that was Paul’s language) their conscience was defiled. In itself, Paul said, food is nothing. It neither commends us to God nor leads us away from God. With two exceptions, Paul taught that it is a matter of Christian liberty whether we eat or not. The first exception is when eating such food would lead a brother to stumble, to leave the faith and go back to paganism. The second exception, which he outlined in chapter 10, is when we are invited to a meal with pagans and they declare that it is really a sacred (not secular or common) meal. At that point the Christian is not free. He must thank his hosts for their hospitality and politely decline to participate. We are united to Christ. We have a a sacred meal, the Lord’s Supper.
His chief concern was how the Corinthians treated one another over the matter. Paul says, “take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” The stronger brother is not free to exercise his freedom in such a way as to “destroy” his brother “for whom Christ died.” The stronger brother is not free to sin against his brother and to “wound” his conscience and thereby “sin against Christ.” If the choice is between exercising Christian liberty thereby making a brother stumble or restrict his liberty, thereby preserving his brother, Paul says: “I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
The whole of chapter 9 is a discourse on how we ought to restrict our liberty for the sake of the brothers. Paul gives himself as a prime example. He is an apostle. He had seen the risen Christ. The Old Testament law (and the general equity thereof) testify to his right to require the Corinthians to support him. He had the freedom and the right to demand that the Corinthians support him financially but, for their sakes, he did not exercise that right. Instead, he worked for a living as a tentmaker and supported himself. This was extraordinary. The other apostles did not do this. As he says, “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?” “Nevertheless,” he explains, “we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” This is his guiding principle in the church. What advances the gospel? This is why he says, in chapter 10,
‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ’the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’
Christians should not be unduly scrupulous. This is the mature Christian position but we are to exercise our freedom always while loving our brothers and forsaking our rights for the sake of our bothers and sisters in Christ.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
The Corinthian controversy over food offered to idols is a helpful analogy in the mask controversy.
A Mask Is Nothing
For the sake of discussion, let us say that the ordinary masks worn by most Americans (as distinct from the N95 masks, personally fitted and worn by trained medical professionals) are utterly ineffective agains the spread of Coronavirus and are nothing but a salve, a sop to make worried Americans feel better. In other words, let us say that, like the strong Christians in Corinth, the anti-maskers are right on the substance of the issue, that like the pagan gods, a mask is nothing.
In light of that truth, should the anti-maskers say to their worried brothers and sisters in the congregation, who perhaps have friends, relatives, or co-workers who have died from Covid, or who have vulnerable people in their house: “Man up! Stop being such a sissy! Masks are utterly ineffective. Trust God. Get over your unreasoning fear!”? Granted the analogy between masks and the gods and between maskers and the weaker brothers in Corinth, we know what the answer is. No.
Just as the stronger, carnivorous Corinthian Christian was, in the absence of the weaker brothers, free to eat meat offered to idols but restricted in his freedom in the presence of those who are genuinely struggling (not over-scrupulous busy-bodies) so too the anti-masker, the stronger brother, owes it to his weaker brothers and sisters to forgo the exercise of his liberty for the sake of his weaker brothers.
Paul might have insisted on being paid by the Corinthians but he did not. He earned his own way because they were not spiritually mature enough to support him and it would have harmed them spiritually to do so. So it is with masks. We always put our weaker brothers and sisters ahead of our own liberties just as Christ did. As Paul says, these are people for whom Christ died. This is how we are to regard them. The stronger are not free to lord it over the weaker.
Leave The Church Out Of The Culture War
We are certainly in the midst of a culture war. We are in the midst of the third sexual revolution since the beginning of the twentieth century. Late Modernity has rejected all fixed norms (except the axiom that there are no fixed norms), nature, the distinction between gender and sex, and the God who instituted those norms. Radicals rampage in the streets with impunity, setting public facilities on fire and attacking and killing law-enforcement officers. Obviously the current President is a lightning rod and whatever he touches becomes electrified politically and culturally. Thus, sadly, the argument over whether to meet indoors, in defiance of public health orders (see below) or whether to mask or unmask have become battles in the culture war.
This is not a plea for Christians to disengage with the culture (see the resources below). Rather, it is a plea for Christians on both sides to stop trying to use the visible church as a lever in the culture war. The visible church, the institutional church, is not a soldier in the culture war for the right or the left. It is Christ’s embassy to the world, whose ministers and ambassadors are charged with three essential functions:
- Preach the gospel purely;
- Administer the sacraments (holy baptism and the holy supper) purely;
- Administer church discipline faithfully.
The Reformed churches confess that these are the “marks of the true church” (Belgic Confession, art. 29). We do not confess a position about masks and viruses. This means that Christians are free to take different positions on the question. Christians are free to form groups and to advocate for any social position within the bounds of the moral law. They are not, however, entitled to draft the visible church into their army. They are not free to revile those in the church that disagree with them nor they free to split the church over such questions.
It is the spirit of the culture war rather than the Spirit of Christ that splits churches over the question of masking. That the mask controversy might split congregations, who are united to the same Lord, by the same Holy Spirit, the same faith, the same God and Father, who have the same baptism, and who come to the same communion table is nothing less than tragic and entirely avoidable.
Whether the anti-maskers or the maskers are materially correct is beside the point. What matters is how we treat one another.
Love one another as Christ loved the church. Anti- maskers should wear a mask during services or while indoors, in church, for the sake of their brothers and sisters and those weaker brothers and sisters should be grateful that their stronger brothers and sisters love them as Paul loved the Corinthian church and as Christ loved himself and gave himself for his bride.
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1. I am personally ambivalent about masks. I am happy to wear them for the sake of my brothers and sisters, in submission to the civil magistrate, and in the hope that they may do some good. My goal here is simply to ascertain and preserve the truth about what happened between mid-March, 2020 and mid-April, 2020. Here is the evidence for my claim that the federal authorities intentionally dissembled regarding masks.
. “…U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on “Fox & Friends” Tuesday that “the data doesn’t show” that wearing masks in public will help people during the coronavirus pandemic.”
“…“What the World Health Organization [WHO] and the CDC [The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] have reaffirmed in the last few days is that they do not recommend the general public wear masks.”
“On an individual level, there was a study in 2015 looking at medical students and medical students wearing surgical masks touch their face on average 23 times,” Adams explained. “We know a major way that you can get respiratory diseases like coronavirus is by touching a surface and then touching your face so wearing a mask improperly can actually increase your risk of getting disease.” Source: Talia Kaplan, “Surgeon general: Data doesn’t back up wearing masks in public amid coronavirus pandemic,” FoxNews.com March 31,2020. See also USA Today.
Of course, today we hear nothing from the same authorities about the dangers of face touching or overconfidence in masks etc. We need not speculate, however, as to whether the federal authorities lied. Dr Fauci admitted it on June 17, 2020:
This is no slight to health care workers. On the ground, health care workers across the globe and in the USA have worked tirelessly to save lives, even at the expense of their own health. I am deeply grateful for all they have done and continue to do. We pray regularly for everyone on the front lines, cops—the number of line of duty deaths (LODD) is up 50% over last year and it’s due to Covid—medics, nurses, docs, prison/jail staff—a high percentage of law-enforcement LODDs this year comes from deputies/guards working in prisons and jails.