I’ve had fruitful discussions with various teaching elders and pastors from various churches. There seems to be a common thread that runs throughout. If I may summarize, here is how I assess the current landscape. The context is the state is not enforcing masks in churches but the overseers are doing so.
1. In our discussions it is established up front that not wearing a mask when masks are being “required” is not a censurable offense. (Whew!) Without exception, at the outset of these discussions it is hoped that the church would never make it a matter of policy to sanction a member for not masking in worship.
2. There is general agreement that a requirement implies some sort of sanction that may be imposed if the requirement in question is ignored or habitually ignored.
3. If we establish that we may not (and should not) exercise “the keys of the kingdom” for not masking, then to imply that we are “requiring” masks during worship is factually not truthful. Elders aren’t typically willing to declare one outside the fellowship of the church for non-compliance to masking.
4. Not all non-truths are lies. I don’t believe sessions are lying to their congregations. I’m unaware of elders in this regard intentionally speaking non-truth.
5. However, in the face of having undergone this mental exercise, which shows that current practices of requiring masks for worship is irreconcilable with a commitment to the intuitively sensible principles found in points 1 and 2 (1. we oughtn’t censure non-maskers and 2. requirements presuppose sanction), such informed sessions are now under moral obligation to inform its members that they are no longer “requiring” masks for worship.
6. If sessions maintain the sensibility of 1 and 2 yet decide not to drop the “requirement” of masking for worship, then a session would now become culpable of willfully promulgating to its sheep the falsehood contemplated in 3. Sessions would be doing so with premeditated intention.
There has been various responses to this line of reasoning. Three pertinent responses are listed below.
Censure is under good regulation
A. After considering the irreconcilable premises of (i) requiring masks of congregants and (ii) a session not being permitted to sanction non-conformity to masking, it has been posited by some that perhaps we should, even must, exercise the keys of the kingdom after all in cases of non-compliance. To remain consistent, some actually maintain it’s absolute sin not to mask and that love requires masking.
Regarding (A), I think what we are seeing by such a response is an unwavering pre-commitment to masks that is driving some to question, if not abandon, what was initially an intuitive and sensible position – that not to mask does not constitute behavior worthy of ecclesiastical censure. The commitment to masks, in the end, simply trumps the common sense instinct that we oughtn’t censure for masks. The commitment to a masking preference coupled with the pressure for logical consistency leads some to make masking an intrinsic moral requirement. Terrifying. (I guess dead men do bleed.)
Having been part of the courts of the church in my seventeen years as a ruling elder, I am confident that no session (or elder) would dare declare one outside the church for a principled reason not to mask in perpetuity. Therefore, I must interpret the reversal of common biblical sense not to censure as a mere attempt to remain at least logically consistent in order to salvage a pre-commitment to masking. But no elder I know would actually vote in such a case to turn one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that the soul might be reclaimed. That would be preposterous, even under the guise of contumacy. It’s at most a theoretical bluff with no practical teeth.
Going along, if we still wish to maintain it is censurable sin not to mask, then we must argue from Scripture that God requires masks as part of the moral law, or that God has empowered the elders to enact this religious rite, which may be elevated to a test of true faith and practice if resisted.
The church is requiring masks
B. This one caught me by surprise. It was said that a church is in fact “requiring” masks if its Deacons have been instructed and trained to ask non-conformists to leave the sanctuary for not masking. (I hadn’t heard that before, but it’s easily addressed.)
Regarding (B), to ask a non-conforming congregant to leave the sanctuary for not masking is not the same thing as requiring her to wear a mask. We’ve only pushed the question back one step. The question has merely shifted from:
(i) Do we enforce the requirement to mask?
(ii) Is session prepared to enforce a Deacon’s “request” of a congregant to leave the sanctuary for not masking.
At the very least, by definition a Deacon’s request is not a requirement. Moreover, there is no relevant distinction between a Deacon’s request and the policy requirement he seeks to enforce. If session is not prepared to sanction one who does not acquiesce to a Deacon’s request, then it’s not true that session is requiring masks.
Censure by analogy example
C. Some reason that we require many things that if defied would disrupt the peace and unity of the church. For instance, someone without approval approaching the platform and playing banjo during the worship service. Such an outburst could be met with censure and if done often enough, severe censure. So, why not apply this principle to not masking?
Regarding (C), the relevant distinction should be obvious. Scripture commands worship to be conducted in decency and order. Such an outburst would undermine the responsibility of session to ensure an intended form of worship. It would also impinge upon the liberty of others to worship according to the principles of Scripture as set forth by session with respect to a particularly intended form. Whereas a unmasked worshipper does not alter the intended form of worship nor undermine the session’s responsibility to conduct worship as they deem proper according to the Word. Masks don’t pertain to worship element, circumstance or form.
Either deceive, censure or lift the impression of requiring masks
In the final analyses, after having been made aware of the logic that seemingly unearths the inconsistency of requiring masks, (now brace yourself), “requiring masks” cashes out for a session as intentionally employing a manipulative phrase that is actually deceptive. In other words, if a session now knowingly may not require masks because it believes it may not censure for not wearing masks, then to try to effect the practice of wearing masks in that enlightened context becomes a manipulative tactic that would intentionally put forth a falsehood in order to control behavior with implicit threat of sanction, which is a deception.
Now, of course, one might argue that a decision not to mask may be met with not just ecclesiastical censure but a restraining order against attending public worship without a mask. That would at least relieve the tension of deception but at the expense of spiritual tyranny. One may not be removed from church or excommunicated for peaceably worshipping God without a mask (when the state isn’t requiring it), especially when there can be pure motive of expression for such sacrifice of praise.
Of course there are elders and sessions that believe that masks may not be mandated.
Understanding makes one more culpable than unintended ignorance. Ignorance can be bliss, but truth must never be masked.