I argued here and here that we may submit to civil government regarding COVID practices that impinge upon the church. What I am taking up here is the question of whether the elders of the church may require masks to be worn by their members during congregational worship.
In considering the question at hand, we might look at the “general equity of the law” principle (WCF 19.4), and how it relates to the broader application of the 6th Commandment (WLC 134-136).
1. We may not take innocent life. But the Westminster standards also teach under the 6th Commandment we are to strive to preserve innocent life. Not only may we not murder, we must also seek to preserve innocent life at all cost. The latter precept is an inferential application of the explicit command not to murder, without which pharisaical legalism would set in. (It would be pharisaical to suggest that it is not criminal to intentionally look the other way while an infant laid on a windowsill near an open window seven stories high and then fell to the ground.) Whereas the application of the commandments comes with qualifications, the commandments simpliciter have none. We may never murder at any time. However, we need not police for babies on windowsills or actively pursue all our waking hours the life of the unborn outside abortion clinics.
The relevant question as it relates to COVID is where are we to draw the line between (i) loving precaution and (ii) violating liberty of conscience by placing unbiblical expectations or demands upon worshippers? Surely wearing masks will preserve more lives than not wearing masks. But does that mean we may impose the wearing of masks upon worshippers in order to fulfill the spirit of the 6th Commandment (or simply the law of love for neighbor)? We can just as easily consider, should we never drive a car, so that, out of love, we might guard against vehicular fatality?
2. There is something intuitive about not setting-up extreme precaution as a necessary condition for loving one’s neighbor. Obviously we may drive automobiles (even though we might kill someone if we do). And I hope it is equally obvious that we needn’t always wear masks (even though masks can save lives). We might call this common sense. It’s a result of the light of nature. However, what the light of nature won’t detail for us are the principles of equity that we find in Moses.
3. With respect to the general equity of the law, the Bible distinguishes between the potential for doing another person harm and the evidence that it can reasonably be expected that the potential for doing harm actually will result in harm. A classic biblical example is found in Exodus 21:28-29. Oxen have the potential to kill, but not all oxen evidence a killing instinct. Under Moses, if a man’s ox were to kill another man, the ox was to be put to death; yet the owner of the ox would not be held liable. Presumably that was because there would have been no evidence the ox was violent. Consequently, there would have been no negligence on the part of the owner in such cases. Putting the ox to death would keep the ox from ever taking innocent life again. However, the mere potential of owning a killer ox would not have warranted caution in the form of preemptive restraint upon the ox. The point being, it could not be righteously deemed unloving of the owner not to have safeguarded against his ox killing another man.
However, had an ox actually killed a man a second time, both the ox and the ox’s owner were to be put to death. In such cases, not only would the ox have had the potential of killing a man, it would have also evidenced its lethal potential after the first fatality. Therefore, the ox’s owner would be negligent for not having safeguarded against a second fatality given the evidence from the first fatality that his ox actually was deadly.
4. We may apply the general equity of Exodus 21:28-29 to COVID practice. With respect to masks and COVID, we may not impose restraint under the pretense of love based upon the potential of one carrying the virus. That people have the potential of infecting others with the virus is one thing. It is quite another thing for one to be found unlovingly negligent for not wearing a mask apart from evidence that one has the virus. Accordingly, it is not a matter of biblical precept that the most loving thing to do is to wear a mask because one has the potential of being asymptomatic.
Therefore, on what biblical basis may one be required to wear a mask to worship God? The potential of an animal, car or virus killing others is not sufficient to establish the imposition of precaution under the guise of love. There must be evidence that one is in fact dangerous. Without such evidence, the law of love is not the basis upon which masks would be required. Something else is. What is that something and does it fall under the ministerial and declarative function of a session of elders?
(I won’t develop an equity principle of leprosy as it relates to COVID other than to say that taking the temperature of attenders would at least establish some basis for evidence.)
5. We are commanded to love our neighbor. Yet we are forbidden to expect others to love in same manner in which we show love (or desire to be loved). In a word, we may not impose a law of love upon others in a way that would impose expectations that they show love in a manner not prescribed by God’s word. Indeed, we have the personal liberty to express love according to conscience in particular ways not prescribed by God’s word, but we are forbidden to expect others to do the same apart from biblical precept. That I might choose to wear a mask out of love does not imply others ought to do the same. And if I’m required to wear a mask by man made edict, my freedom of doing it out of love for neighbor as unto God is eclipsed. Whereas keeping God’s commandments can be done freely as the Spirit works in us both to will and do God’s revealed pleasure. Jesus’ yoke is easy. The yoke of the Pharisees is not.
Furthermore, what if an individual oughtn’t wear a mask out of love? Or is that somehow an unfathomable Christian ethic, that an individual, for instance, should for conscience sake feel led to protest the possible idol of health by choosing not to wear a mask? If that is not objective sin, how may church rulers quench that expression of Christian love?
6. When we listen to the many voices of the age, don’t attend to the sufficiency of Scripture, or idolize health (or whatever), we run a greater risk of teaching the commandments of men for the doctrines of God, a clear violation of the latter. Jesus calls such practice vain worship (Matthew 15:9).
“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholdscasting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:4-5
I think this piece from the OPC website is relevant. It cites their BCO:
3. All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (Confession of Faith, XX, 2).
4. All church power is wholly moral or spiritual. No church officers or judicatories possess any civil jurisdiction; they may not inflict any civil penalties nor may they seek the aid of the civil power in the exercise of their jurisdiction further than may be necessary for civil protection and security.OPC BCO
The author exegetes: “Please note that all church power is ministerial and declarative… Notice that it goes on to say that “no church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority” (see also the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20, on Christian Liberty). This means that governors in the church can only apply the commands of the Lord and may not promulgate canon law or legislate matters of wisdom, like whether one should have ice cream, take this job, or marry this person. Church governors may certainly give advice and counsel, which should always be thoughtfully weighed and seriously considered. But they may not command without explicit warrant from the Word.”
Bold emphasis mine