Further reflections and clarifications regarding mandatory masks in church



August 12, 2020

By André Schutten

On July 23rd I released a 20-minute video on the ARPA Canada Facebook page. In it, I gave some reflections on the bylaws that many Ontario municipalities have adopted which mandate the wearing of masks in indoor spaces, including churches. I argued that there is some unfairness in requiring people to wear masks in church and questioned whether the civil government had authority to do so. I also tried to explain why church leadership ought to wrestle with the question of jurisdiction (church or state authority on the question of masks inside church – more about this later). I then highlighted the importance of the exceptions within the mask bylaws, before closing with a call for grace to be shown to Christians who will, with good reason, be wearing masks and Christians who will, with good reason, not be wearing masks.

The video attracted quite a lot of attention and I personally received plenty of feedback, some positive and some critical. I am thankful for everyone who asked insightful questions, pushed back respectfully, and gave me reasons for why they disagreed with my position. I have taken all this to heart and recognize that some of the comments were generated because I was unclear in my communication, and I failed to address other aspects of authority that should have been addressed. I was also unhelpfully simplistic in my analysis of sphere sovereignty. Through all this I caused confusion and I apologize. I hope and pray that what follows is clearer.

I suspect that this article won’t satisfy everyone. But we start from a place of loving the Lord Jesus Christ. We recognize that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and we want to honour his lordship over all. And we love his bride; we want her to be fearless, compassionate, truthful and gracious. And finally, we respect the civil government, recognizing that it is instituted by God for our good. How all of that works together in today’s COVID context is a complicated question. Good, Bible-believing, Christ-honouring, neighbour-loving Christians will reasonably disagree on the specifics of how the church should respond to various restrictions. I pray we will have the grace to understand each other.

What follows is a list of questions raised in response to the video and my attempt to flesh out more fully my answers to them. I’m thankful for the helpful review by my colleagues. We continue to welcome sharpening (Proverbs 27:17) and if you still think I am missing the mark, or want further clarity, feel free to reach out. Some questions were more straightforward to answer. Those questions are addressed below in Part I. Some questions (pertaining to office and jurisdiction and authority) were much more difficult to work through, and at time of publication of this article, we are still struggling to work through them. We hope to address those in a second part, to be released soon.

        1. Isn’t public health properly within the sphere of the state?
        2. Why is ARPA wading into this matter anyway? ARPA has no medical expertise.
        3. How does the call of Romans 13 to respect and obey the civil government, play into this? That aspect seemed to be missing from your video.
        4. What do you mean by “church” anyway? Does the state not have jurisdiction over church members at all?
        5. Is it anarchistic to criticize government policy, or even to disobey certain government laws?
        6. What did you mean when you said that churches aren’t “open to the public”?
        7. Is advocating for freedom during a pandemic selfish?
        8. Is the mask bylaw a form of religious persecution?
        9. Why and how should churches accommodate those who can’t wear masks?
        10. What about conscientious objectors?
        11. Isn’t it hypocritical to be both pro-life for preborn children, but express reservations about a face mask bylaw?
        12. What are some suggestions for disagreeing well?

Isn’t public health properly within the sphere of the state?

The civil government has not, historically, administered health care. Actually, for most of the last two thousand years, hospitals were run by the church, as an outworking of the ministry of mercy. However, when it comes to pandemics, epidemics, and plagues, the civil government certainly has an important (and even leading) role to play. Already back in 1864, the framers of the Canadian constitution (in a document called “The Quebec Resolutions”) outlined that the federal government “shall have power to make laws for the peace, welfare, and good government of the federated provinces [including] laws respecting … quarantine” (see Resolution 29.16). Those constitutional framers were steeped in the Christian tradition and they saw that, in exceptional times of public danger due to an outbreak of a highly infectious disease, it is good and right that the civil government has the power of quarantine.

A legitimate concern today though is, how far should that go? What level of risk justifies a quarantine? How long should quarantine last? Should quarantine include isolation of the healthy or only of the sick or areas of significant outbreak? What data should we collect? How do we test that data? What role should non-state institutions play during a pandemic? Reasonable Christians will come to different answers on these questions.

Why is ARPA wading into this matter anyway? ARPA has no medical expertise.

ARPA Canada has never pretended to have medical expertise, nor have we opined on the medical aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when dealing with a pandemic, it is not merely a medical issue. A national response to a pandemic is too complicated to be determined only by what epidemiologists think may slow the spread of a virus. Of course we should listen to epidemiologists! But we should also listen to other medical experts like pediatricians and psychologists (the impact of the lock-down on children and on mental health has been staggering and under-reported), and emergency doctors (drug overdoses and suicide attempts are way up) and to economists, political scientists, civil liberties lawyers, and pastors. To suggest otherwise would be akin to saying that during a time of war we should only listen to military generals or during a time of economic recession we should only listen to economists.

My education as a lawyer specializing in constitutional law and civil liberties certainly influences how I approach the issue of mandatory mask by-laws, caps on church attendance, and so on. My expertise is limited, but I believe God has given me opportunities to contribute to the discussion on what a balanced national, provincial, and municipal response should be – primarily as a Christian lawyer who is concerned about the rule of law, civil liberties, good public policy, and the freedom of the church. We all (doctors, lawyers, economists, pastors, etc.) have important perspectives on the pandemic. Interdisciplinary dialogue is absolutely required.

How does the call of Romans 13 to respect and obey the civil government, play into this? That aspect seemed to be missing from your video.

This question is a good and fair one and I admit that this was a deficiency in the video. I should have interacted more with scripture and the command to submit to the civil government. ARPA has covered this more extensively elsewhere. In April, I interviewed pastor Ken Wieske, who argued that submission should be a starting posture for Christians. We also recently published my colleague John Sikkema’s interview with Professor David Koyzis on office, authority, and obedience. You can read part 1 and part 2 on our website. I also did a webinar on sphere sovereignty and fundamental freedoms with Dr. Joe Boot and Christian lawyer Derek Ross which touched on these principles too which you can view here.

What do you mean by “church” anyway? Does the state not have jurisdiction over church members at all?

It is not that members of the church are only under the jurisdiction of the church, but that in some things (eg: church discipline) they are under the jurisdiction of the church and in other things (eg: following speed limits) they are under the jurisdiction of the state. It is worth noting that, in everyday life, we are usually under multiple authorities making simultaneous claims on us. Take speeding in your car, for example: yes, you are under the authority or jurisdiction of the state, but if you’re a teen in your mom’s new Dodge Caravan, you could also be under your parents’ authority (perhaps they have a rule that if you get a speeding ticket you lose car privileges), or you could also be under your employer’s authority (speeding in company vehicles could have repercussions in your job), or maybe even under church authority (e.g. repeated reckless driving might call for pastoral intervention, or might indicate that you’re not suitable for the office of elder).

It is important to note here the biblical sense of office. We don’t get to pick and choose who and what to obey. We are all under authority at all times and often authority is overlapping. Ultimately that authority is Christ’s (“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” Jesus said in Matthew 28:18). And He delegates different responsibilities to different spheres. Christ makes this clear when he addresses Pontius Pilate in John 19:11 (see also Mark 12:17).

Much more can and should be said about this, and we hope to delve into this further in the coming weeks. What I want to emphasize is we must avoid a wrong view of the relationship between the church and the state: a hierarchy of spheres/institutions, such that state authority trumps church authority (or vice versa). I believe we need to be on guard against that.

Is it anarchistic to criticize government policy, or even to disobey certain government laws?

It is not at all anarchistic to criticize a particular policy as unhelpful or counterproductive. Our political system is designed to ensure that policies are scrutinized and criticized. We have a “loyal opposition” and we protect “freedom of the press” and “freedom of expression” generally. Labelling criticism as anarchistic is not only misguided, it is inflammatory and divisive. Part of respecting the civil government is to engage in civil debate and constructive criticism. It’s not just a right of citizens, it’s actually a responsibility.

There is a reasonable case to be made against using law (a blunt instrument) to compel mask wearing by the general public. All measures have varying costs and benefits. The fact that some municipalities have not mandated masks and that others have carved out reasonable exceptions for churches (e.g.: Haldimand County, which requires masks while moving within the building but not while seated or standing in one place, or the city of Guelph, which only mandates masks in commercial space), demonstrates that there are reasonable alternatives to the blanket application of the bylaw. To argue in favour of a looser masks bylaw, or even no masks bylaw, is not anarchistic or disrespectful of civil government.

What did you mean when you said that churches aren’t “open to the public”?

I should have clarified in the video that churches are and should still be open to the public during the pandemic, but in a way that is significantly different to restaurants, stores, and other commercial spaces that are open to the public. At the church that I attend, for example, guests may attend, but we register them for potential contact tracing, and a majority of space is taken up by members, not walk-ins from the general public. This is very different than stores and restaurants, where visitors are a random assortment of people coming in and out throughout the day, every day.

It is important to consider each bylaw on its own, which I could not do in the video. For example, the region of Huron Perth’s official instructions for masks state that they apply to:

 … premises that are openly accessible to members of the public and are used for the purposes of offering goods or services to members of the public, including, but not limited to, a mall or other structure containing business or organization premises.

This same document often mentions “employers” and “customers” as it outlines how to implement hygienic practices. The overall context seems to suggest that churches are not “openly accessible to members of the public” in the way it talks about.

Is advocating for freedom during a pandemic selfish?

Maybe or maybe not, depending on what we mean by freedom and what our motives are in advocating for it. Advocating for freedom from mere inconvenience at the cost of serious risk to the wellbeing of others would be selfish. But advocating for freedom of peaceful assembly, for example, even if assembling people together entails some risk (it always has), can bring many benefits to society. Free assembly makes gathering for worship possible, but it also allows for peaceful protests against injustice, for celebrations, for education, and so on.

Exposing violations of the rule of law today assists in maintaining the rule of law tomorrow. The church has a history (albeit imperfect, certainly) of pushing against unjust laws and tyranny and encouraging social institutions like the family, the church, the academy and the marketplace to freely and properly play their part. This has been a massive blessing to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Is the mask bylaw a form of religious persecution?

No, the mask bylaw is not a form of persecution. In fact, ARPA Canada has been very careful throughout this pandemic to never describe the limitations placed on churches as persecution. That said, these bylaws do restrict religious freedom. Compelling all people to wear a mask inside church hinders corporate worship, though people experience that hindrance to different degrees. While all persecution violates religious freedom, not all limits on religious freedom amount to persecution. Whether a limit on religious freedom is “justified” is (though not exclusively) a legal question requiring a legal analysis. In our country, all such limits must be “demonstrably justified” by the civil government. The constitution demands it. For citizens to require accountability of their rulers to the constitution is not insubordination, it is good citizenship. Judges might uphold a mask bylaw as a justifiable limit on religious freedom, but the stricter the law, the less likely it would be upheld, especially if other towns with similar demographics and risks used less restrictive laws. If churches are subjected to stricter limits than other facilities, (e.g. allowing restaurant meals but not allowing Lord’s Supper, or limiting church occupancy to 30% building capacity but having stores or theaters at 50%), there would seem to be unjust differential treatment meriting review by a court for its constitutionality.

Why and how should churches accommodate those who can’t wear masks?

Every mask bylaw I reviewed (over a dozen from Ontario alone) includes exceptions for health reasons. So, one reason churches must accommodate those who can’t wear masks (assuming the church is following the bylaw) is because the law requires it. But there is also a compassionate reason to do so: those with health concerns are already at a disadvantage due to the messaging around masks. They need encouragement that, despite a disability or limitation that makes them unable to wear a mask, they are still welcome at church.

Now, I failed to indicate in the video that there are also those who feel they can’t come to church because many people are not wearing masks. Perhaps they have a compromised immune system or provide care for such a person. Church members and church leadership need to accommodate these members too. Perhaps making this perspective known to the church would help. It might also help to assign seating to accommodate those with medical exemptions to wearing a mask to have entrance and exit priority, for example.

What about conscientious objectors?

A strong preference to not wear a mask is not a conscientious objection. A belief that the mask bylaws are ineffective is not a conscientious objection. For a Christian, a conscientious objection to obeying a civil law arises when someone says, “Being captive to scripture, I cannot do what the civil government demands because I am convinced it would be sinful.”

In C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian (book four of the Narnia series), as the four Pevensie children are hiking across Narnia looking for Prince Caspian, Lucy sees Aslan momentarily and she knows, instinctively, that he wants them to follow him. But the others did not see Aslan and decide that Lucy was just seeing things. They vote against following Aslan. Instead, all four descend into a gorge where they nearly die. Later, Aslan appears to Lucy and without a word convicts her that she ought to have followed him, even though the others had voted not to. She realizes that, somehow, if she had followed Aslan, things would have turned out alright. It was because she didn’t do what she knew was right that they ended up in the gorge. As Martin Luther once said, “To act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

Applied to the mask bylaws in church, I suspect that true conscientious objectors would be few. But they do exist. One friend has worked it out that to wear a mask would be to participate in a lie. She is very open to being convinced otherwise, but until she is convinced, she dares not sin against the ninth commandment. Another friend believes that wearing a mask in church is a form of idolatry, showing an ungodly deference to the state during worship of the only true God. He and his family refuse to wear a mask in church for that reason. Unless he is convinced otherwise, he dares not sin – or cause his children to sin – against the first commandment. The Christian community should understand the importance of protecting conscience. Even if we don’t see a lie or see idolatry, if a brother or sister is convinced that to wear a mask is to sin, I believe we should respect that. Conversely, a person who is healthy might nevertheless feel it would be a sin against the fourth or sixth commandment to not wear a mask. Paul talks about our mutual respect for conscience in his discussion about eating certain food in Romans 14:13-23.

Respecting freedom of conscience should not lead to the situation in Judges where “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It does not mean ignoring sin just because the person sinning believes it is not sin. Freedom of conscience is grounded in a person taking personal responsibility to follow what Scripture requires.

Isn’t it hypocritical to be both pro-life for preborn children, but express reservations about a face mask bylaw?

Abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human being. It is plainly immoral. But in the case of the government’s response to COVID, we are debating the merits of policies that may mitigate (but cannot eliminate) the risk of contracting a virus that has a small (for most people) risk of death. But these policies (closing workplaces, sending workers home, incurring massive public and private debts, travel restrictions, etc.) have negative consequences too, and are connected with increases in mental health problems, drug overdoses, suicides, delayed medical care, macro-economic supply shortages and other problems. So, to suggest that support for government policies on COVID is the only pro-life position is a stretch, at best.

We do what is reasonable to protect our neighbour’s life. But we cannot do everything. Draconian safety measures may be counterproductive. Focusing on a single measure (keeping the number of infections down) is reductionistic and can blind us to other negative effects. We still have to live our lives, celebrate weddings and births together and mourn at funerals together (Romans 12:15), visit the sick(!) and lonely (Matthew 25:31-46, James 1:27), work hard so that we can give to those in need (Galatians 6:9-10, Ephesians 4:28) and so on. All of this always has and always will come with some level of risk.

What are some suggestions for disagreeing well?

I want to encourage Christians to talk about this issue with people they disagree with. One witness of the church to our currently fractured society can be in how well we disagree with each other. Let us try to be models in humble debate, correcting each other gently, repenting and forgiving when we fail. Here are some tips that I’m still learning for myself that others have passed on to me:

  • Avoid the use of unnecessarily extreme adjectives
  • Watch carefully for phrasing that could be interpreted as threats. Threats make it much more difficult to respond, because it adds a level of complexity to the respondent’s analysis: “Am I clarifying or apologizing because I actually think it’s helpful, or because I don’t want the threat to be carried out?”
  • Ask questions, rather than making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. Questions break down walls because they initiate and invite conversation and dialogue.
  • Point out what you agree with first and then move to asking questions about what you think you disagree with. By finding common ground with the person you are dialoguing with, they won’t feel attacked and will take your question seriously. Finding common ground is an essential skill for evangelism and apologetics.
  • Try to remember that, when arguing about ideas, you are arguing with a human being. Engage with that person as a person. The more personal you can be, the more gracious you will be. Some people would never dare to say to a person’s face what they type in a public comment. Say what you’ve typed out loud. If it sounds too harsh, it probably is.
  • One great example I came across of respectful disagreement is this one from Jonathan Leeman. He disagrees with the bold statement from pastor John MacArthur and the elders of Grace Community Church. But he does so without ever besmirching the character of MacArthur and he outlines the things he agrees with in the Grace Community Church’s statement. I learned a lot from Leeman’s example.
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