Masks In Worship

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. This post is particularly relevant in locations in which civil magistrates declare that masking is not imposed on houses of 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 the 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

Addendum:

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

COVID-19 and GCC

I was asked by a PCA minister whether I might publish a new post based upon a comment I made in the original post. That comment is #2 below. At his recommendation I expand a bit upon the original comment. I have also taken the opportunity to contextualize comment #2 by including in this new post another comment (#1) from my original COVID-19 post.

#1 [Grace Community Church (GCC) deems it sin for their doors not to be open for congregational worship. They must offer the opportunity to assemble but to my knowledge they don’t suggest member non-attendance is sin.] If the obedience to God premise is somehow now unwittingly off the table as it relates to congregants attending worship, then the entire GCC argument hangs on the premise that the government “overstepped its bounds” yet without requiring worshippers to disobey God. Given that the church is not the ecclesiastical magisterium but those who profess the true religion along with their children, who does GCC leadership believe is in a position to disobey God by submitting to civil authorities?

Granting the validity of the GCC premise, which I don’t subscribe to, that’s a pretty weak hand to play given that Scripture teaches we are to submit even to tyrannical government unless it would be disobedient to God to do so. [Note: Disobedience would have to be considered not just in light of the objective law that binds objectively, but also in light of he law of love that leaves room for taking civil abuse for a season yet also affords room for defying an oppressor lest one sins in non-action.] If the leadership at GCC has abandoned, or never held to, an obedience to God premise as it relates to congregants having to assemble lest they sin, then what’s their case? Even if our government would one day overstep its bounds in this regard, it would be difficult (though not impossible) to build an argument that begins with the government violating two other lawful spheres of government (ecclesiastical and family government) to the conclusion that: we must break the civil law (based upon a subjective wisdom-driven application of the moral law of God) but aren’t objectively required by the moral law of God to break the civil law. That would take a bit more finesse than I believe I’ve seen. And as noted in the original post, the command not to forsake assembling may not be used here in that wooden way. The church hasn’t been forsaking its first love for the charms of this present age. Hebrews 10:25 does not apply. Neither does Acts 5:29.

#2 What I have found most striking about the debate is that neither side distinguishes an edict from the consequent of an edict. The consequent is derivative, not immediate. For instance, imagine a radioactive leak near a community. The civil authorities ban assembling (malls, schools, churches etc.) within an x mile radius. Churches are within that radius. The edict is the ban. The resultant effect is the church may not assemble in its building. Or imagine road construction involving explosives on a main artery that runs by a church. The work is only done on the weekends. The government forbids traffic for months. In both scenarios assembly would be forbidden as a result of the edict. Is the government regulating worship or is it mandating safety that in turn impinges upon worship? That seems relevant. In such cases the government would not be directly regulating worship. Rather, the government would be operating within its divinely appointed sphere. The result would in turn impinge upon the practice of another sphere. That’s common place. Fire codes can impinge upon worship assembly. If a government feared evening bombings during war time, it could ban evening lights in a city, which in turn would impinge upon worship. 

The government may not overstep its bounds and directly regulate worship. If it tries to, the church need not submit (though it may be wise to for a time) even if submission would not require objective sin as it relates to law proper or simpliciter; though in such cases not to submit would have to be predicated upon a personal conviction that to submit would be a violation of liberty of conscience against the law of love and a greater cause for Christ. But that is not what is going on here. The government is impinging upon our comforts but only as it operates within its rightful jurisdiction. Our discomfort is a byproduct of the government exercising its lawful mandate to rule in a divinely instituted sphere, as apposed to a result of the government assuming unto itself the church’s sphere of government and attempting to influence the church directly. It’s simply naive and hazardous to think that divinely appointed spheres of government (civil, ecclesiastical and family) can or should operate in hermetically sealed silos. Not only do spheres impinge indirectly, they may also directly interfere. Can’t fathers lawfully be removed from the home? Can’t abusive priests lawfully be locked up?

If government were actually to overstep its sphere and in doing so directly impinge upon ecclesiastical government, we would then be placed in the unhappy situation of determining not the government’s sin (that would be a given) but rather our personal sin with respect to acting or not acting, defiance or acquiescence. That must be determined on a case by case basis (and person by person), which without question would require delving into binding aspects of the law of love as it relates to personal application. The point is simply this. We must be mindful, should we ever find ourselves in such a dilemma, that in an objective revelatory sense we don’t have to wage non-spiritual activist-type war against oppression, though we may and sometimes should in a wisdom non-revelatory sense. The oughtness in such cases would be a matter of spiritual discernment and not a matter of objective black and white law. A more common example would be when should a wife exercise the liberty to put away her unfaithful husband for his abuse of his governing role as her head? Although God’s revealed law allows divorce, it doesn’t require it. In some instances it’s imaginable that a woman should divorce as unto the Lord, even for the sake of her children and her personal service to God. We are often required by God to act when there is no objective command to do so. Discernment and wisdom presuppose these normative aspects of life.

COVID, Government and Assembling

Some have tried to justify civil disobedience by pointing to Hebrews 10:25, the charge to the church not to neglect or forsake assembling. Mistakes done in ignorance are one thing, but when the learned do such things it comes dangerously close to finding a proof-text for personal

pretext. That is not how teachers are to handle the Scriptures, let alone oversee the flock of God. (James 3:1 warns that not many should become teachers in the church. For teachers will be judged more strictly.)

The Ten Commandments have no exceptions. However, from a Confessional perspective there are numerous applications for each of the Ten Commandments. In principle, the Ten Commandments are exhaustive in that all true transgressions fall under them, but not each commandment is one of the Ten Commandments. For instance, adultery is sin. There is no case in which it is not. However, the Seventh Commandment in application includes the sin of immodest apparel and the undue delay of marriage. What constitutes immodest apparel and undue delay of marriage is not always obvious. Adultery simpliciter is always obvious. Another principle to keep in mind that has wide reaching implications is that one can possibly know that someone has dressed immodestly without knowing here on earth where the modest-immodest line is drawn in heaven. In fact, I’m quite sure there isn’t just one line for immodesty. It’s obviously situational. It’s potentially infinite. (e.g. A wife in her swimsuit in a jacuzzi with only her husband is not the same thing as wearing a swimsuit to congregational worship.) But such finitude regarding our knowledge of the stark lines of demarcation does not make anyone less responsible to remain modest, or less culpable for immodesty.

The point is simply this. The command not to forsake the assembling of the church is not one of the Ten Commandments but an application of both tables of the law – love for God and love for man. Though no less binding in its true meaning, it is exceedingly more difficult to parse in application. Yet again, one needn’t know the precise line in order to know it hasn’t yet been crossed. Like all applications of the moral law, it’s multi-faceted. When it’s time to disobey we can potentially know it without being able to define the line of demarcation, as if there were only one line to discern! We don’t always need theoretical understanding in the present given that God is often pleased to give us the grace of practical understanding at the time of testing (Luke 12:12). As with cases of immodestly, so it is here; there is no single line for disobeying God’s sovereign ordination of civil magistrates (even evil Caesars). The variables that make up the philosophical states of affairs are infinite. Also, applications of the law are not to be imposed as binding in the same way as the Ten Commandments. For instance, the Eighth Commandment forbids stealing. Whereas an application of the commandment is moderation of earthly goods. A wife may not submit to her husband if he tells her to steal. Yet a wife, after making her case to her husband not to incur an extravagant expense, may in good conscience co-sign a loan and in good faith thank God for the providential benefits of the unwise financial decision of her husband (perhaps a suitable home for her and her children). However, it would be hard to see how she could thank God for her stolen jewelry. Again, there is a relevant difference between the law proper and how it binds, and an application of the law and how it binds. (Fundamentalists conflate the two without even wincing. In doing so they bind the consciences of the sheep by establishing a righteousness of their own. Whereas the Reformed are generally more theologically nuanced and careful.)

Although we might not know such lines, we aren’t ignorant of certain defining principles. What we do know is that if we are being required to sin, then we must disobey (which in turn complicates things further because of the innumerable considerations of how we might best disobey as unto the Lord). We also know that we may forgo our rights, even our religious freedoms, if our motives are according to other biblical precepts. After all, Jesus did. Not all injustices must be fought. Jesus called Peter “Satan” for wanting to fight the injustice of Jesus’ imminent murder by crucifixion. We also do well to remember that the assembling of the church is not an end but a means to many things, not the least of which is the encouragement of believers. Christians are to provoke each other unto love and good works. A primary way (but not the only way) of doing that is by public assembly on the Lord’s Day. The charge of Hebrews 10:25 is contextualized by the principles set forth in Hebrews 10:24.

Inconsistency can sometimes expose pretext

On occasion congregational Lord’s Day worship is cancelled due to inclement weather. It is also true that on occasion congregants feel too sick or are in too much physical pain to venture out to worship. Such decisions are at least based upon considerations that pertain to personal and public safety, welfare of others and personal comfort. Yet in all such cases, a choice is being made, whether corporately or individually, not to assemble. Therefore, if decisions not to assemble do not necessarily entail sin, then we may not simply point to Hebrews 10:25 as a text requiring Christians to assemble regardless of circumstance. In other words, if not all decisions not to assemble equate to the sin of “forsaking” assembly, then we must work harder to apply the Scriptures to this current age as it applies to COVID and government.

We must forsake hijacking the meaning of forsaking

In Hebrews 10:25 the “forsaking” (“neglecting” or “giving up”) of assembling is an outright willful desertion by some. Forsaking entails a willful exchange of spiritual things for earthly things. Unlike Demas who had “forsaken” (or “deserted”) the Apostle Paul for this present age, the church is not forsaking her assembling for the charms of deceit, the glitter of the age. The church is not forsaking heavenly worship for earthly pleasure. Quite the opposite. The Bride of Christ longs to assemble as the congregation of God. Far from forsaking congregational worship (as is the manner of some) – the church militant, whose weapons are spiritual not carnal, is instead patiently waiting upon the Lord her God to deliver her from this present providence. That is not sin. That is sanctified hope, which is always under good regulation before God.

If one thinks we are sinning in the face of an absolute command not to forsake assembling together, then it’s incumbent upon such a one to explain how it was not sin on day one and what has changed in principle to make it sin today. (Beware of those who cite differences that are not relevant distinctions.) How have things now become a willful abandonment of the spiritual for the earthly? (Play close attention, Bothers and Sisters. As soon as one’s decision is based upon the supposed absurdity of the CORONA statistics or anything that resembles “enough is enough” or even the imposition of tyrannical rule(!), he has made the criteria to break the civil-law, which is ordained by God, reasons other than personal sin. If that is acceptable, then it must be nuanced from Scripture.) There is a place for reasoning with and even expressing opposition to the civil magistrate, but when the criteria for civil defiance becomes our rights, even our Christian rights purchased by Christ, which Christians have throughout the ages have been willing to forgo as unto the Lord even under severe persecution (which this is not), the criterion fails to be a biblical one unless it can be shown in Scripture. (The law of love is relevant, which I touch upon here.) If we were required not to teach in the name of Christ Jesus, then that is something we must disobey. We have Bible for that (Acts 5:26-29). But by the mercies of God, whatever the criteria, I dare say we aren’t close to being forbidden to invoke the name that is above all names.

Moreover, we must distinguish between a direct imposition upon the church that comes from without and an imposition that is the indirect byproduct that comes from another lawful sphere of government that’s acting within its boundaries, even if unwisely. We are suffering under the latter, not the former.

(As an aside, if it has been determined that it is absolute sin for a church not to assemble, then there’s no relevant reason regarding the decision at hand to consult attorneys, for the consequences have no bearing when sin is being required. There can be other biblical reasons to consult legal counsel but they shouldn’t pertain to the consequences of the decision.)

God is providing…

Even during the trial of the pandemic, in God’s mercy and grace he has provided other ways to fulfill the law of love set forth in Hebrews 10:24. Moreover, a little reality check might be in order. We are by no means suffering even close to the first century elect exiles of the Dispersion (i.e. the Christian Jews – the strangers scattered throughout regions of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia). The extended first century promise to us should require less faith than the faith of the Apostle Peter’s immediate audience. We have it on good authority that after we have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called us to eternal glory in Christ will restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us. Amen and Amen.