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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.
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