Now that Covid is resurging and our cultural fixtures continue to promote fear above all else, Christian congregations are naturally considering whether to re-impose masks and even vaccine requirements at their services.
Last year, most churches blindly stumbled their way through the shut-downs, mandates, and various attempts at tele-worship because we were caught off-guard and afraid. Our entire country opted to shut down and mask up, so it’s unsurprising that most churches followed suit in their uncertainly.
But this is no longer our first rodeo. And while merely following the crowd is understandable (though not laudable) in uncertain times, its entirely inappropriate once we’ve had opportunity to reflect. The Church is not of the world; we have been set apart–made holy–by Christ. We also have a very different set of responsibilities as compared to civil government. Accordingly, while we should submit to that government when it does not interfere with our God-given duties, we should also be constantly skeptical of following the world’s lead in fulfilling them.
Confessional Lutherans usually sum up the Church’s primary responsibilities in two words: “Word” and “Sacrament.” It’s our job to 1) rightly teach and disciple our people and ultimately the entire world with what Christ has taught us and 2) to properly administer the Sacraments which He has given to the Church. Those responsibilities are precisely why Christ has given the Church authority. Whatever else we may do, it should be in service to those fundamental responsibilities in some way. Whatever traditions we have should facilitate those responsibilities. And so, whenever we consider trying something new or making changes, we need to ask ourselves how they serve those responsibilities.
So how do mask mandates serve those responsibilities? Last year, I and many others thought they would actually facilitate Word and Sacrament. From the beginning, I’ve seen masks as a superstition–offering peace of mind to the gullible, but little if any actual protection. Nevertheless, many of my fellow Christians were too scared to worship or approach the altar if people weren’t wearing one. So I thought it best to accommodate the weaker brother and mask up. Then more of us would be willing to come to the Divine Service, and people would be less inclined to once again shut down services out of fear.
In my ignorance and naiveté, that rationale made sense to me at the time. It no longer does. So what changed?
First, I came to experience first-hand that masks are not harmless superstition. I found out the hard way that because of my chronic sinusitis, masks actually make me ill. If I wear a mask for a few hours, I have about a 50/50 chance of developing a sinus infection. I spent a large portion of 2020 on antibiotics because of this. And so I asked myself, how many of my brothers and sisters were in a similar position?
And how many were in less severe circumstances? How many didn’t need to be medicated because of masking, but merely felt like crap because of them? While my own health challenges make me more susceptible than average, spending all day breathing in your own exhalations isn’t exactly healthy. When our body expels things, it usually has a reason–we don’t typically just put it right back in.
And what about our children? They were always known to be at the least risk from Covid, and yet we slapped masks on them without a second thought. We know so little about the adverse effects of bacteria-laden masks, breathing in their own CO2 all day, and so forth. We likewise denied them the ability to see facial expressions for the better part of a year–a potential detriment for any child and a major setback for those children with disabilities which already make social cues and interaction a challenge.
Second, I finally realized exactly what we’re actually doing when we mandate masks: we are withholding Word and Sacrament from faithful Christians unless they submit to the rules we invent. We are burdening their consciences with man-made laws and withholding God’s peace from them unless they comply.
The realization came to me late last year. My ENT and I had recently figured out the mask connection, and had suggested that I wear a face-shield instead wherever masks are required. I really dislike face shields, but I bought a couple since I’m fortunate enough to work in an environment where masks are not required, and figured I could put up with them when I went to other places.
So I sat in church holding my new face shield, about to put it on, and I found that I was ashamed. Not embarrassed, but ashamed. There I was, about to put a plastic dog cone around my face, but why? All it was going to do was redirect my breath to exactly the same place my nose puts it in the first place. And what exactly was I protecting my neighbors from? I had already recovered from Covid less than a month earlier. I was about to use a technology that doesn’t work to prevent myself from spreading a disease I couldn’t spread because I had been sacrificing my own health to make people feel better about theirs.
I couldn’t bring myself to put it on; and I was hit by the reality that on paper, I was consequently unwelcome in my congregation. According to the policy (which I myself had had a hand in shaping,) I shouldn’t even be there anymore. How many other faithful brothers and sisters in Christ had we burdened in exactly the same way? How many had we told to stay away from the Sacrament?
I knew then that I had failed to ask a very important question: By what authority does the Church require masks or (now) vaccinations? These are matters of health for the families in our congregation. Whom has God appointed to govern the welfare of families? Fathers. Whether to mask or vaccinate their families is their decision, not the Church’s. It is a matter of the left-hand kingdom established by the 4th Commandment–not a matter rightly administering Word and Sacrament. We have no right to tell fathers what is best for their own families. And we certainly have no right to set the 4th Commandment aside and use the Divine Service to coerce them into doing what we think is best. Masks and vaccinations are not criteria we can use to determine who is fit to receive Communion.
Now some might then argue, “Well, if it’s a matter of the left-hand kingdom, then churches should just do whatever the government recommends regarding masks. That’s their domain, right? And our government recommended–and in most cases, even mandated–masks.”
Mask recommendations and mandates might be within the government’s purview (although there is an excellent case for vocational disobedience on the matter) but the Sacraments most certainly are not. Administering Word and Sacrament is not within the government’s authority. Remember what these mandates do: tell certain Christians to stay away from Word and Sacrament. Caesar does not get to tell us who we do and do not allow to approach the Lord’s altar–or what Christians have to wear in order for us to admit them. On the contrary, my own denomination exists precisely because we would not accept the civil government’s ruling in how we administer the Sacrament.
Christian fathers will need to consider for themselves whether to mask and vaccinate their families in accordance with government mandates, or whether their vocation demands that they obey God rather than man on the matter. They’ll need to make that same consideration on whether to follow such mandates when they take their families to church. But that’s the government’s business, not the Church’s. Let Caesar enforce Caesar’s mandates; our congregations have no business doing it for them–especially using Word and Sacrament as leverage.
Many congregations overstepped their authority last year. I grieve when I remember my own part in that and consider how many faithful Christians were mistreated as a result. We must not sin in this way again. Will that mean that some Christians will bar themselves from the Divine Service out of concern for their health? Probably; but that’s their choice made according to the wisdom God has given them–not a rule anyone is wrongly imposing on them. That imposition is the problem because it is a misuse of the Church’s authority. When churches withhold Word and Sacrament from members for governing their family’s healthcare according to their God-given vocation, they are doing the work of Satan rather than of Christ.