Unless you’ve lived under the proverbial rock over the past few months, you’ve probably heard all sorts of responses concerning the mask debate in relation to COVID-19. Masks have become yet another issue added to the long list of topics that Americans (and others) divide over.
- “I’ll never wear a mask.”
- “Masks don’t prevent the spread of the virus and are harmful to the wearer over time.”
- “Wear a mask. What’s the big deal? It’s just a simple way you can protect yourself and others.”
- “You want people to die. That’s why you aren’t wearing a mask.”
Some responses from either side can sound rather reasonable and others are clearly over the top and irrational. There is enough video evidence to show that people can easily get carried away. Perhaps you’ve also watched an overly zealous individual ranting at unmasked adults or children about their alleged desire to kill others.
I’m not an expert on infectious diseases or constitutional law, so I’m not giving out health or legal advice. I will simply state that I’m not opposed to private businesses requiring masks or not requiring masks at their establishments. Beyond that, I’m not getting into the politics of this issue in this post. So if you’re thinking about leaving a comment about how everyone needs to wear masks or why the government is being tyrannical by requiring masks, please don’t bother. That is not the point here. I’m a Christian who has long been deeply concerned about how the Bible is frequently misused to support one side or the other on contentious issues (see my ongoing series on Commonly Misused Bible Verses), and that will be my focus here.
Obey Your Governing Authorities
One of the responses to the mask issue that I keep seeing on social media or hearing from others is that Christians are commanded to obey their governing authorities. Thus, if you’re a Christian living in a state under a mask mandate, then you’re told that you need to obey it or risk damaging your Christian testimony. And for good measure, you might be accused of not loving your fellow man.
To be sure, Christians are commanded to obey their governing authorities. Let’s look at a few passages that provide this instruction.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13:1–2)
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. (Titus 3:1–2)
Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. (1 Peter 2:13–14)
These passages seem to be quite clear. Both Paul and Peter, two of the leading apostles, instructed their readers to obey governing authorities. Paul goes as far as saying that those who resist these authorities are resisting an ordinance of God and bringing judgment on themselves. Could this be any clearer? Well, yes, actually it could be. If you think this settles the matter on whether Christians must always follow their governing authorities, you need to read some more about the men who wrote these verses.
Is there ever a time when it’s right for a Christian to refuse to comply with certain governing authorities? Must we always follow whatever our government commands? There are at least two important issues to consider before you cite one of the above verses as proof that Christians are obligated to follow a mask mandate.
First, the men who wrote these verses did not always comply with their governing authorities. These actions were not hypocritical, because in these various situations they had an obligation to follow a higher law. Most Christians would agree with the idea that we should follow the laws of the land unless they directly conflict with one of God’s commands. For example, if your governing authority tells you that you are not permitted to tell others about the gospel of Jesus Christ, Christians generally agree that in such extreme situations, we must obey God rather than man.
That was how Peter and John responded to their governing authorities when they were given this order.
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, “Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man’s blood on us!”
But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:27–29)
Notice, Peter and the other apostles (Paul was not an apostle yet) told their governing authorities that they would not refrain from telling the people about Jesus because the Lord had commanded them to preach the gospel. Thus, if they were to obey these men, then they would be guilty of disobeying God. In fact, Peter and John had previously informed the “rulers, elders, and scribes, as well as Annas the high priest, Caiaphas…” (Acts 4:5–6) that they needed to follow God’s commands instead of the council’s orders.
So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:18–20)
Peter, John, and the other apostles certainly believed there was a higher law than the one set forth by the council, and so they refused to obey the council’s order and continued to teach in the name of Jesus. They were also willing to face the consequences for their “civil disobedience,” which in this case involved being arrested, imprisoned, and beaten (Acts 5:18, 40).
After being beaten and imprisoned in Philippi, Paul and Silas were miraculously freed from prison when the Lord caused an earthquake to open the prison’s doors. After Paul led the Philippian jailer to Christ that night, the civil authorities sought to send him and Silas away privately and sent officers to convey that message. So Paul and Silas were told by governing authorities that they needed to leave the city quietly, but Paul refused to do so. Instead, here is what happened next:
But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out.” And the officers told these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Romans. Then they came and pleaded with them and brought them out, and asked them to depart from the city. So they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed. (Acts 16:37–40)
Paul could have quietly obeyed the orders sent to him from the town’s rulers, but he knew his rights as a Roman citizen had been violated the previous day and he insisted that the town’s leaders recognize those rights before he left on his own terms. He went to Lydia’s house to encourage the believers there, and then he departed from the town.
A similar event occurred in Jerusalem as a mob sought to kill Paul near the temple (Acts 21:30–31). He was rescued by a Roman commander who brought him to the barracks and ordered that he be scourged. Paul once again appealed to his Roman citizenship, asking if it was lawful to scourge a Roman citizen who had not been found guilty of a crime. Upon ascertaining that Paul was indeed a citizen, the commander relented.
Paul later used his rights during a trial to appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11). We see at least three different times in Acts when Paul appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen to prevent local magistrates from carrying out illegal orders.
Two Sides of the Modern Mandate Debate
You might be wondering how Paul’s example ties in with the mask mandate. In some cases, it may not be applicable, but in others it is directly applicable. Again, I’m not a legal scholar, but I do know that the U.S. Constitution is a higher authority than local rulers when it comes to the laws of the United States. Thus, if the Constitution guarantees certain rights, then local authorities do not have the power to override those rights. Furthermore, if mandates from lesser authorities contradict the rulings of higher authorities within that jurisdiction, then those mandates are not binding.
Before you jump to conclusions, I’m not claiming that the U.S. Constitution tells us whether we must wear masks or that we can never be made to wear them. That isn’t my point. There are certain states where governors have overstepped the authority given to them by the people of their state. For example, when the coronavirus shutdowns started across the nation, Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, issued a “safer at home” order in the middle of March, and eventually he attempted to extend that mandate until May 26. The problem was that Wisconsin laws only permitted the governor to issue such emergency declarations for a maximum of 60 days. Thus, assuming for the sake of argument that it was legal for him to issue such a shutdown in the first place, the legal basis for Evers’ mandate expired on May 13.
Let’s assume that the Wisconsin Supreme Court had not stepped in and overruled Evers. Would Christians have the right to disobey their governor beginning on May 13? Some believers surely would cite Romans 13, claiming that we need to obey our governing authorities. The problem in this particular case is that the higher authority, the law in Wisconsin, was crystal clear that Evers had no authority to extend such a declaration beyond May 13. Thus, Christians in Wisconsin who defied the governor once the 60 days had passed would actually be following their governing authorities. Similar cases can be found in other states. When governors issue orders that are contrary to the laws that they are supposed to uphold, then Christians and non-Christians alike have every right to stand against unjust mandates. To follow Paul’s example, they are appealing to higher authorities and their rights as citizens.
I have seen numerous people telling others that they need to obey the law and wear the mask, but in many of these cases, there is no law requiring masks. These are often temporary mandates issued by certain authorities, and they were never passed by the state’s legislature. Thus, they are not laws. However, the legislatures in some states have given their governors the authority to enact such policies. So, unless those orders do not conflict with higher laws, such as the Constitution, then Christians (and others) in those states would be obligated to comply with the mandates.
Let’s try to summarize this. Just because a local authority issues a mandate, it does not necessarily mean that all people are instantly obligated to follow it, regardless of whether you think the policy is good. In this nation, we have different levels of authorities, from municipalities all the way up to federal. For the most part, local authorities have the right to enact laws for the people in their jurisdiction, unless those laws contradict the guaranteed rights under a higher law.
Appeal to Christians
Jesus taught His followers to love one another, love your neighbor, and love your enemies. That pretty much covers everyone. These principles must guide us as we attempt to discern how to properly respond to mask mandates and other changes that seem to attack the freedoms we cherish. One side will claim that wearing a mask is a form of loving your neighbor because you are trying to prevent the spread of the disease and are potentially saving lives. But on the other hand, there are certain health risks associated with frequently wearing masks, especially for some individuals. So, in these cases, to truly love these neighbors would mean not requiring them to wear masks. Additionally, mental health issues, drug overdoses, and suicides have reportedly skyrocketed during the shutdowns.
So, those who favor the shutdowns in order to love and protect our neighbors from the coronavirus are not always being very loving when it comes to those who have suffered greatly as a result of the shutdowns and mandates. In other words, issues like these are often quite complex, and if someone happens to disagree with you, it isn’t necessarily because they don’t care about people. It’s possible that they care deeply about people and have very good reasons for holding an opposing view. In fact, they might hold a position that is more in line with Scripture and with science.
Keep in mind that there are complex legal dilemmas at play in some cases. In other cases, the laws are rather clear. In all cases, Christians should seek to understand where people are coming from, show love and kindness to those who disagree, and refrain from misusing the Bible by quoting biblical passages that may irrelevant to the current situation.