There have been several articles out of TGC recently that betray an astounding naïveté and a serious lack of hermeneutical discernment. As a test case, I’d like to interact a little with their recent article titled, “Are Masks a Conscience Issue?” by Erik Raymond. I’d like to begin by echoing one of Raymond’s opening lines: “Navigating the mask conversation can seem like walking on ice (thin ice, with roller skates, and perhaps blindfolded).” Indeed, this is one of the (perhaps the?) most emotionally-loaded topics of the past ten months. After that point though, the article is truly abysmal.
My goal, in giving a few critiques of this article, is not really to make a positive argument for anti-maskers, nor to defend those happily masked. My goal is simply to sharpen our ability to reason through these issues, by pointing out a couple of deficiencies and gaps in Raymond’s argument.
Raymond begins his article by commending Naselli and Crowley’s book, “Conscience: What it Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ.” I second his commendation. It really is a helpful book.
Thus says Raymond,
“I found a number of their categories useful for framing up these considerations.
They define the conscience as ‘your consciousness of what you believe is right and wrong.’ The consciousness here refers to your awareness or sense of the right and wrong. God blessed every human with a conscience. There is an internal moral awareness.
But our conscience is precisely that, our conscience. It’s personal based upon individual moral standards. This is why no two people will have identical conscience convictions on every issue at every time.”
After a good summary like that, you would expect Raymond to say something like, “therefore, while two brothers’ consciences can be differently calibrated, and thus genuine disagreement can exist in these difficult conversations, I cannot tell someone that this thing that they believe to be morally right or wrong, is not in fact a conscience issue (thus claiming the moral high ground for myself).”
But, of course, that’s not what he says; and he goes on to do that very thing. His claim is that those who say their conscience will not allow them to wear masks are simply wrong—their conscience is not at play.
Raymond continues with another fair point:
“It’s important to keep conscience in its proper place. The conscience must never trump Scripture. Christians believe in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16–17). The Bible is over everyone—even our individual consciences. Therefore, if someone believes that their conscience supports them disobeying the clear teaching of the Bible, then the conscience is out of line and must be brought in subordination to the Word of God. Our conscience is not more authoritative than the Scriptures.”
No kidding. This is the most important and fundamental aspect of understanding the conscience. It’s a prominent and helpful emphasis of Naselli and Crowley’s book; and nobody disagrees with this. Now, Raymond’s point is going to be that those who say their conscience will not allow them to wear masks are elevating the authority of their conscience above Scripture, which is not only a straw-man, but betrays an atrocious misunderstanding of the argument “anti-maskers” are making. Christians who believe their conscience forbids them from wearing masks (either at any time, or in certain contexts, such as in church), are not seeking to (and often successfully do not) elevate their own feelings above the authority of God’s Word. Rather, the ability to read God’s Word, read our modern context, connect the dots, and reason to a particular application of the principles of God’s Word to our lives leads them to believe that wearing a mask in certain contexts amounts to something that Christians are, for one reason or another, not to be a part of.
Not to mention the “purely” political side of things, and the legitimacy of, as American citizens, thinking through the overreach of our constitutionally delegated and subordinate representatives, and responding appropriately and strategically. That is not an illegitimate angle for Christians to think through. Broad swaths of popular evangelicalism have sought to separate out our spiritual Christianness, from the lives we have to live as citizens of the body politic in which we find ourselves. And you can’t, and don’t need to, really make such a radical distinction betwixt and between our concerns as Christians, and as husbands, fathers, neighbors, and citizens, who live in America—never the twain shall meet. No, that way lies gnosticism.
You can disagree that someone’s conscience is calibrated correctly. You can believe they are mistaken—that they are ignorant of the Scripture’s clearer teaching on the issues. And you can, graciously, lovingly, and patiently, seek to persuade them. But that’s different than telling someone their conscience has nothing to do with it. And you may not push someone to violate their conscience, while they still believe their conscience is warning them correctly. In other words, because Christ alone is Lord of the conscience, if we become convinced “by Scripture and by plain reason” (to quote Luther) that our conscience is improperly calibrated, then we are to submit to the authority of Scripture—even before our conscience really catches up (and there usually is a lag time). But until we are thusly persuaded, “to go against conscience is neither right nor safe” (Luther again).
Now, there are times we are able to say, “no, your conscience is not at play here.” For instance, Raymond points out the important clarification Naselli makes that your conscience is your conscience. Your conscience cannot bind others to a particular course of action. That’s simply not what the conscience is. You can be convinced someone else is doing something unwise. You can even be convinced someone else is sinning. But your conscience is simply that faculty of the soul that accuses you of having sinned, or excuses you of having not sinned (Rom. 2:15). That means if a group of people is doing something you believe to be sinful, they are not violating your conscience. Your conscience only comes into play when you consider whether you should join them. Additionally, the conscience is not at work in debates about the wisest, or most effective, strategies. The conscience has to do with sin.
I’ve described the conscience elsewhere in this way:
The conscience is the moral faculty of man that passes judgment on one’s actions, condemning those actions one believes to be wrong, and approving those actions one believes to be right. What that means is that your conscience can be calibrated incorrectly. This is what Paul refers to as the weak conscience (Rom 14). We can have an overly-sensitive conscience—we can think some things are wrong, even though Scripture does not condemn them. And we can have a hardened conscience—we can think some things are permissible, though Scripture condemns them. Our duty then is to constantly feed our souls on the truths of Scripture so that our conscience is calibrated to the standards of Scripture.
So then, back to the TGC article. Raymond makes another fair point, that he again fails to properly apply.
“Our conscience is for us. We must be careful not to impose our personal convictions of conscience upon others. By nature, conscience is something personal. It may be something not directly addressed in Scripture or even something contrary to Scripture. Therefore, we must be careful not to bind other people’s consciences. For example, the Bible permits eating meat, but if someone believes it would be sin for them to eat meat, then they should abstain (Rom. 14) not force others to the same position.”
Right… And similarly, you may believe that it’s entirely a matter of indifference whether one wears a mask or not; but to “force others to the same position,” or to bind the conscience of church-goers by requiring masks, when they may (rightly or wrongly) view it as something they cannot in good conscience do, is to go directly against the point Raymond is trying to make here (and yet that’s exactly what Raymond argues for).
So, Raymond gets into the three basic reasons he believes masks are not a conscience issue—and it’s at this point that, really, I start to lose my patience.
His first reason he doesn’t think Christians can appeal to the conscience when it comes to masks is that “Masks are not fundamentally a moral issue.” I don’t know what to say other than, you’re kidding me, right? This is childish theology.
Raymond, again, gives an important reminder: “When a Christian says conscience forbids them from doing something, this means that for them to do it is a sin (1 Cor. 8:7 ff; Rom. 14:20–23).” Indeed, many don’t grasp that, and it’s a crucial point to emphasize. But then he goes on…
“But, generally speaking, wearing a mask is not a moral issue. A person is not sinning if they wear a mask. It’s not a sin to be a dental hygienist, welder, or scuba diver. If a Christian is fortunate enough to get drafted by an NFL team to play football, his crisis of conscience would not likely be about wearing a facemask or a helmet but rather playing on Sundays.
If the mask itself is not moral, then the so-called moral objection is actually an implication of one’s reading of the scientific data or understanding the government’s jurisdiction. In other words, the objection to masks is not fundamentally a conscience issue. It may be a health or a political objection, but it’s not fundamentally a moral objection supported by a Christian understanding of conscience.”
What? Is he serious with this? I have friends who shared this article excitedly, urging others to read and consider the solid argumentation. So I don’t mean to be offensive or overly emotional in my wording. But I genuinely think this is absolutely pitiful hermeneutics and applied theology. Raymond’s argument is that wearing a mask, in and of itself, is not forbidden by Scripture (not sinful), therefore wearing a mask in any context is not sinful. He points to dentists, welders, scuba divers, and football players as examples of people appropriately and justifiably wearing masks or face-shields. His argument is that because wearing something on your face is not inherently sinful, “the objection to masks is not fundamentally a conscience issue.”
Hold on. Let’s go back to the fundamental biblical example of a conscience issue in the context of Paul’s teaching on the conscience—eating meat sacrificed to idols. Will Mr. Raymond please try to convince us that since eating meat is not inherently sinful, it’s not only never sinful (which is basically what he’s arguing), but you can’t even call it a conscience issue? We can go a step further. Paul makes clear (which was not clear until he wrote it to the Christians in Corinth) that even meat that’s been sacrificed to idols does not have anything inherently wrong with it… it doesn’t automatically defile you… you can meat sacrificed to idols without sinning. Okay, so does that mean we can always eat meat sacrificed to idols? Allow me to help out here—no. Paul makes clear that, first, even in those contexts where it is not sinful (in the temple restaurants, and at home with meat you bought from the market), where you do have liberty to enjoy that steak that was first offered by the pagan to a false god, you may not push a fellow believer to eat it if he thinks it would be sinful to do so. Secondly, Paul makes clear that while eating meat from the market, and even sitting down in the restaurant to eat it, is not inherently sinful, he also warns sternly against Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols when it is part of a pagan religious festival or ritual, because to do so would be to participate in an idolatrous activity—even if the individual Christian is not actively worshiping false gods (see Naselli’s helpful explanation here).
It is astoundingly naive that Raymond tries to argue that because something is not in and of itself sinful, that means it can’t be a conscience issue. He says that since “the mask itself is not moral,” the objection based on conscience isn’t really a conscientious objection; it’s a scientific or a political objection. Now, again, it’s fair to push people to make the distinction, and to work to discern whether their objection is really because of their conviction the masks don’t work, or are even harmful (in which case, the conscience could easily come back in), or if it’s actually because of their political convictions about the government’s proper jurisdiction (which, I remind you, cannot be fully disentangled from your theological beliefs). But Raymond is showing the complete inability—which has been plaguing evangelicalism for some time now—to connect dots.
If I hear an argument about masks truly being a conscience issue (and I believe the theological-political arguments are rather quite solid as well), it has to do with either the issue of lying, which Raymond brings up (and which ought not be disregarded… “Live not by lies”), or with the issue of what masks are becoming associated with, and the concern to avoid association with idolatry—which (remember 1 Corinthians) can be distinct from actually worshiping idols. The concern is that what this virus (and, really more so, the media and politicians’ response to it) has brought to the surface, is humanity’s desperate desire—and, at times, I think it has been shown to be idolatrous lust—for safety, health, and security, at any cost… and our ultimate reliance on and trust in the state to provide it.
If… and Raymond and others will have to suspend their disbelief for a moment and enter into someone else’s perspective here… If people’s response to this virus and the ensuing crisis (because, again, those are distinct—at least the latter being almost entirely man-made) have reached a point of idolatrous worship of safety, or of the state, or some variety thereof… then the symbol—the flag—of that response is clearly the masks. Is it possible for a Christian to wear a mask without being one of those people who have succumbed to an idolatrous worship of health and security and of the power and omnibenevolence of the state? Absolutely. As an example, when I walk into Chipotle to grab my bag of food and walk out, I wear a mask—I’m too hungry to deal with the drama. When I’m sanding drywall in my house, I wear a mask, and goggles. But I am becoming persuaded that the masks are becoming, more and more, the symbol of one side of the narrative, and a symbol of compliance with almighty Caesar. So if you allow that premise—that masks are becoming more and more closely associated with the idolatry of a culture that lusts for health and security, and thus will bow down to the state in a way that should only be done before God (learn more about what I mean by idolatrous lust here)—then can you honestly not see how some Christians would be concerned about doing something that to them is associated with something that has become idolatrous?
(Allow me to insert here a snippet from another upcoming post I’m working on):
Opposition “because we are Christians” does not always come in the form of explicit self-conscious hatred for Christianity. We usually imagine persecution arriving in the form of political leaders, who, entirely self-awarely, seek to harm Christians, simply because those people are Christians, and we don’t like Christians. The reality is that persecution almost always comes because the laws of the land, or the social expectations, are such that Christians cannot participate in the expected functions and activities of society… and thus face repercussions. The easiest political example in the ancient world was the pinch of incense offered to Caesar. A seemingly innocent sacrament of loyalty to the emperor, the Christians were convinced that to offer a pinch of incense, or even to participate in the drink offering in honor of Caesar, was to partake in something that had become idolatrous, and so most, though not all, Christians, refused to participate in that rite. This was the reason Christians taught against joining the military in the early and middle Roman empire… The issue was that of participating in the offering to Caesar and saying an oath which involved acknowledging Caesar as the highest authority: “Caesar is Lord.” And the Christians’ refusal to do that caused a myriad of problems for them.
But Raymond states that, “The basis for the mask requirements is because of the spread of COVID–19,” and it’s really as simple as that for him. This a prevalent problem in evangelical churches today—an unwillingness to connect dots, a willing blindness. And I have more to say on that; it’s in the works.
Raymond goes on:
“If someone maintains, based on conscience, that they won’t wear a mask to come to church, but then they wear a mask to buy groceries, they would be inconsistent. But the conscience is not so easily set aside. Think about the biblical examples. If it’s a sin for you to eat meat (it violates your conscience), then you can’t just set this aside if you get hungry. This is not how the conscience works. If it’s a sin to wear a mask, then it’s a sin whether you are at church or the deli. We can’t turn off our conscience when we’re hungry.”
Wait a second… Let’s remember Raymond’s important point from earlier in the article though: “no two people will have identical conscience convictions on every issue at every time. One may have a standard for the types of entertainment they consume that is more restrictive than another. Three years later, based on knowledge and experience, the gap may widen or decrease.”
So there’s at least a possibility that someone’s conscience is calibrated fairly precisely for different contexts, right? Is it possible to have a conscience that believes it is perfectly fine to eat meat sacrificed to idols in my home, but not in the temple restaurant? Or not during a pagan feast? Or not as the meat we use during the agape feast? Paul seems to think that’s possible. Again, I’m astonied (that’s a fun old alternative to “astonished”) that Raymond tries to make the argument that, “If it’s a sin to wear a mask, then it’s a sin whether you are at church or the deli.” This is pitiful, guys…
As a related aside, I would make the argument that the most important place to not comply with the mandate is in worship with Christ’s church. Abide by the mandates strictly everywhere else if you like (which in my state includes in your own house, but, fortunately, not the church right now), but the one place we should not be doing anything associated with idolatry is the church—a truly independent institution, not subject to the jurisdiction of the civil magistrate.
I appreciate Toby Sumpter on this:
“All of this is a challenging moment to live in. The temptation for most Christians is to break in one of two directions simplistically: either toward revolutionary revolt or compliant apathy. But turns out faithful courage looks a lot more like being cheerfully difficult. The thing they are counting on is either belligerence or servility. But we need to be gracious and uncompliant. It’s certainly not necessarily a bad witness to get a citation and pay a fine, but I believe the tip of our spear, the point of our fiercest resistance is worship. If we are to practice straight forward civil disobedience it ought to be in obedience to God in worship. We have been patient with the virus scare and deferred to our magistrates for several months, but now that it is clear that the statists only approve of gatherings that are violent and anti-Christian, it is high time for Christians to gather peacefully for worship to protest the insanity. And if they try to interrupt us, or require us to put something over our mouths to muffle our praises, we should cheerfully refuse. And if you live in a state (ahem, California) that has explicitly prohibited singing in worship, you need to attend worship tomorrow and sing at the top of your lungs.”
Raymond’s final reason masks cannot be a conscience issue is that “It causes disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture.” He says gathering for worship is a command, and so we cannot use our conscience as an excuse to forsake the assembly. Sure, which is why churches must be vigilant not to bind the consciences of their members such as, for example, requiring everyone to eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols. It doesn’t matter how much you’re convinced it’s fine—you don’t require that of your church.
Raymond then says holding this position requires someone to sin by disobeying the civil authorities. He says “Disobedience to the government is reserved for when the Christian is commanded to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands. It’s hard to argue that masks fall into this category reasonably.” Again, there’s a legitimate argument to be made about idolatry, in which case masks can fall into this category… but of course I would also disagree with his simplistic (though common) summary that “Disobedience to the government is reserved for when the Christian is commanded to do something God forbids or forbids something God commands.” Even the historic confessions usually word it as Christians being required to obey the civil magistrate “in all things lawfully commanded by them.” What about when a governing official does something unlawful? As John Gill put it: “Out of his legitimate sphere, a magistrate ceases to be a magistrate… An unconstitutional law or commandment is a nullity; no man sins in disregarding it. He disobeys, however, at his own peril.” To learn more about this issue, I urge you to consider this, this, this, and this.
Raymond then says,
“God requires church members to submit to their elders. Failing to do so is a sin against God. There’s obviously a bevy of caveats here, but in this conversation, if the elders believe it’s right to submit to the government by wearing a mask, then there’s not a provision for the conscience to disregard them. There may certainly be principled disagreement, but there is no conscience clause that allows a perpetual lack of submission. The solution would be to either submit to the leadership of the church or find a church where they could worship according to their convictions and joyfully submit to the elders of that church.”
Now, read that paragraph again… because I think it’s very well written, and I have no qualms anywhere. I’ll simply add that I believe the implication of this is that elders ought then to be judiciously cautious about binding the conscience of their members. As church leaders, I think it extremely unwise to mandate one side of the disputable matter. That’s just not how you deal with issues of conscience. Elders need to focus on helping their churches think through these challenging matters with clarity, wisdom, and humility (and there is much to consider), and help them understand how to interact with fellow believers (whose consciences are differently calibrated) with grace, patience, and charity. What elders should not be doing, I believe, is deciding which variety of conscientious conviction they are going to decree everyone in the church abides by. That, in fact, seems to go directly against the principles of 1 Cor. 8 and Rom. 14 (not to mention Jesus and Peter’s warning not to lord our authority over our flock). The solution isn’t for the elders to forbid the entire congregation from eating in the temple restaurants and appeal to 1 Cor. 8. That’s the opposite of Paul’s point on how to deal with these matters.
Next, Raymond says that maintaining this position—that your conscience won’t allow you to wear a mask—necessarily means you will fail to love your neighbor, which I think is narrow and shortsighted. He says, “Christian love requires a willingness to follow Jesus and set ourselves aside. Christians should be eager to do this.” I agree. But there are limits; and there are a variety of ways this could be done, which may be perceived in different ways. The standard by which we know we are loving others is not whether they feel properly loved, but “when we love God and obey His commandments” (1 John 5:2).
Raymond’s final point is that it harms our testimony with the world. But this is an argument based on wisdom and prudent strategy, not really a point in support of why masks are not a conscience issue. For more on the particular point, I refer you here, here, here, and here.
I’ve struggled to find a proper way to conclude this post. I suppose I’ll just reiterate my severe disappointment with the poor theology, exegesis, and logic on display in this TGC article. I’m disheartened not primarily with TGC—what did you expect?—but with the amount of praise and exposure this article has received. Even if you think masks are not a big deal at all, even if you think those who won’t wear them are wrong, this is not the argument to be made. This is laughable.
Don’t worry, if I think of more thoughts, I’ll share them:)
For those who have made it this far, I applaud and thank you. If I can be so bold as to ask one more thing of you: I urge you to consider the following articles for further reading/edification.
Masks and a Lesson in Narnian Civics
Breaking the Law and Cases of Conscience
How Masks Became the Flag of an Arrogant Ignorance
(And, for the really ambitious, here’s my comprehensive list of the best resources on the virus, lockdowns, and Christians’ response: The Best Articles Written on Rona.)