Disputes About Masks Reveal Our Cracks in Christ

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Wearing masks has revealed the cracks in our faith. In the COVID era, I have noticed Christians to be deeply divided about a matter that just one year ago would have seemed very trivial: wearing masks. I have encountered many believers in my circles who feel strongly, both for and against wearing masks. Both sides have their impassioned arguments and experts to cite. After hearing many speeches from both sides, it is striking how different sources of information will lead to different conclusions.

While most experts agree wearing a mask is more effective than not wearing one in curbing the spread of COVID-19, there is some disagreement about exactly how effective they are. And nations around the world have given different guidelines. Further complicating the matter, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has changed their directives and given different guidelines than the World Health Organization along the way (although they now seem to be more aligned). That views on masks tend to correlate with political leanings during an election year only aggravates tensions more.

This debate has become vicious and sometimes violent. I expect to catch heat from some friends for giving any credibility to the other side. People I’ve known for years have unfriended me on Facebook over mask comments I have made.

Most disappointing are the Christian discussions on wearing masks. Instead of talking to one another as members of the same body of Christ, we talk to one another as the threats to our security according to the sources we mine for our information. We dig in our heels and raise our voices as we repeat information from CNN or Fox News. In the process, we destroy unity in Christ. I lament that I can name pastors whose ministries at their churches will likely end in large part over whether to wear masks at worship. When a congregant is sobbing because the minister wore a mask to the pulpit, the mask carries meaning.

Masks are a visible symbol with two potent interpretations. On the one side, masks are a symbol of stopping a deadly virus from spreading. Wearing one signifies care and concern for our neighbors and their health. On the other side, masks are a symbol of fear about sickness and death, as well as acquiescence to government overreach that is beginning to put restrictions on worship. When the topic arises between Christians in the same church, the familiar rhetoric is produced. The same lines of argument you would hear in a town hall or school board meeting are exchanged by people who follow Christ above all else. These debates about masks show we are defined by the world and its tribalism more than we are defined by Christ.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ lived the ultimate example of not seeking personal good but the good of others (Phil. 2:1-11). As our Lord, we follow him and obey him in all things. The Bible does not mention masks as a moral or doctrinal matter. Nowhere does the Bible command us to wear or not wear masks. However, among fellow believers in Christ, we are called to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification" (Rom. 14:19). Therefore, the discussion on mask-wearing among fellow believers should take a different tone than one where there was a direct challenge to sound doctrine.

What if instead of insisting on our way, we would "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21)? Perhaps each one would express his or her concerns surrounding the wearing of masks, while others listened patiently and carefully. Once everyone’s concerns were on the table, people on both sides would offer to defer to the other:

  • "I can't stand wearing a mask but if wearing a mask makes you feel safe to join for worship, I will happily wear one."
  • "I think we need to do what we can to stop the virus from spreading, but I don't want to force you to wear a symbol of fear, so I would happily worship in a designated mask area."
  • “I think the government has no business telling us how to worship by requiring masks, but the concerns of brothers and sisters are my business because we are one in Christ.”
  • "Most important is we include everyone so we can worship and serve in unity.”
  • Whether the masks are effective or not is beside the point. Whether the government is going beyond its constitutional authority is beside the point. The economy of God’s kingdom does not rise or fall on the correctness of rulers or medical experts. God’s kingdom does rise and fall on the way brothers and sisters in Christ handle disagreements about disputable matters (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8-10).

As with eating foods that are “unclean,” who is right does not matter. “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble” (Rom. 14:20). In other words, Yes, you are correct that the food is clean, but that is beside the point. Being correct does not matter. What does matter: “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died” (Rom. 14:15).

When you are in a three-legged race, attached to someone else by the ankle and tasked with crossing the finish line before the others, there is no time to squabble about which set of feet should go first. If one is going too slow for the other, there is no sense demanding they work harder. Either you slow down so the other can keep up, or you fall and lose the race.

Since fellow believers are attached to one another in one body of Christ (Rom. 12:4; 1 Cor. 12:27), our priority is not to win the argument on a matter that the world’s tribes dispute. What’s important is how we treat one another in spite of these differences.

About the Author

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is pastor of North Blendon Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Mich.

See comments (8)

Comments

Thank you, Pastor Aaron.  There is much wisdom in what you offer here.

Thanks, Aaron, for your thoughts on mask wearing.  Whether you make this a religious argument or a common sense argument, it stands up to reason.  Thanks.

"Designated mask areas"? "Whether the masks are effective or not"? It's one thing to avoid unnecessary partisan conflict. It's quite another to trivialize expertise about a severe public safety threat. The necessity of masks isn't just "something I heard on CNN," and if you watch a different channel it doesn't apply. Being civil and deferential shouldn't require accommodating willful ignorance about health.   

I thought this was a wonderful article, thanks for posting. My only trouble with it was this line, "I would happily worship in a designated mask area." We share the same world and the same reality; in terms of Covid, that means that we need to pay attention to the disease experts and take what they say into account in our discussions. I agree that it is important to value relationship over being right, yet that doesn't mean we need to deny what is true. Rather we should be able to talk openly about what's happening and what our options are. I remember restauraunts with both smoking and non-smoking sections. The trouble is the smoke didn't know to stay in it's section, not sure the virus would know that either.

Aaron, interesting article but the plain fact that a classis would not act responsibly in dealing with this pandemic is frustrating to say the least.  Christians especially should follow government guidelines and CARE more about the physical well-being of others.  That almost every church in a certain classis would not mandate masks is, to me, extremely irresponsible at the least and at worst, a horrible witness to our unchurched community. Masks SHOULD NOT be a political issue at all and the pastors and leaders of each classis have a responsibility to proclaim that message.  I am glad we are out of that classis and have found options for CRC's in our area that follow ALL of the guidelines.  

Thank you, Bonnie. I am not attached to the wording of the line with which you have trouble. The question I wanted to raise is why are we as Christians having a different sort of conversation, maybe going something like this. I hear your point about smoking sections. I am actually old enough to remember them and being able to smell a hint of smoke in the non smoking sections. In my circles, both sides of the mask debate have their experts and sources. Each side will undermine the credibility of the opposing experts and sources. I am no scientist and do not wish to get into credibility debates. It simply occurred to me that as Christians, it is disappointing that our conversations about this are the same as those everywhere else. Nastiness reigns in the church as much as everywhere else. I wish we were different. 

Too often believers act no different from the secular pagan world. The friction over mask wear would quickly disappear if only Christians truly believe the word of God in Scripture. Does the average Christian unwaveringly believe Psalm 91:5-7 saying: You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

It is such a contentious issue.  In Canada McMaster University (a very well regarded school for medicine) had a team conduct a study into over 100 years of masking research, and they gave justification to both sides of the debate. 

On the one hand they affirmed what many already know, that there is no direct evidence supporting the theory that masks protect either the person wearing one or others, but on the other hand they suggest that there might be a modest benefit, and that the benefit likely outweighs the potential harm.  The potential for harm comes from a study published in 2015 in the British Medical Journal that found health care workers wearing cloth masks all the time over the four week study period had a thirteen fold increased risk of developing a respiratory infection.  

Here is their conclusion as reported in the 'Annals of Internal Medicine'.  

No direct evidence indicates that public mask wearing protects either the wearer or others. Given the severity of this pandemic and the difficulty of control, we suggest that the possible benefit of a modest reduction in transmission likely outweighs the possibility of harm.

https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M20-2567

I myself have serious doubts as to the efficacy of masks.  Here in Ontario case numbers have been on the rise ever since the province legistlated mandatory masking.  Would they have gone up even more without the masking laws, or would they be lower?  There is no way to know obviously.  

Given that it's a law now, like almost everyone I am complying with the rules, but when I see the rare person without a mask on (the laws allow some exemptions) I give the person a thumbs up because I respect their right to not wear one.  I've been very saddened at the anger and vitriol being vented on people who don't wear one.

Three Denmark hosptials as well as a technical universtiy have conducted a large scale Randomized Control Trial into community masking, and RCTs are considered the 'gold standard' of science.  The trial has 3,000 masked particpants and a control group of 3,000 who are unmasked, and they've measured the infection rates in both arms.  They are reportedly having difficulty in getting their results published however because the results are said to be controversial.  Personally I don't understand that, science isn't supposed to be political....the results are whatever they are.  

This has been a very trying time, worship services cancelled....and even churches that are now open, it's not the same worship as before.  

 

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