Our current civil estate and its disruptions have presented much opportunity for thoughtful reflection upon ethics. As I have attempted, with varied success and failure, to reflect upon what a Christian ought to do in these days, especially concerning the proper attitude and behavior regarding the current pandemic, several things have come to the fore in my thoughts, some new, and some old. I present these thoughts to a wider audience as a Pastor and Teacher in Christ’s Church, His Kingdom, in humble reliance upon Him that these thoughts and expositions of Scripture doctrine might be of service to others with that same profession of Christ as Lord, as we all desire in our thoughts, words, and deeds, to please and glorify Him.
These thoughts naturally present themselves to us when we hear many of our fellow professors telling us that this action is moral, and that action immoral, or even more confusedly, voices simultaneously declaring the same action to be both moral or immoral. It can be grievous to those who share our profession to hear such contradictions, and I hope this article will be of assistance in these frustrating times to my beloved friends in the Lord.
I approach these questions as one who confesses the old doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. This belief is ensconced in the Scripture itself, speaking of itself in several places. Note the following quotations:
2 Timothy 3.14-17: But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17 That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
Psalm 119.98-100: Thou through thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies: for they are ever with me. 99 I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. 100 I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.
We note briefly here that the man of God is “throughly furnished” unto “every good work” by his knowledge of the Scripture. And as we read the portion of Psalm 119 cited above, we remember that many portions speak to this same principle, although we have quoted only a few verses, that the wisdom of God found in the Scripture alone is desirable to make one wise. The Scriptures are, by the Scriptures themselves, accorded this unique utility, standing as they do separately from all other writings because they are the very Word of God, as that which has authority from God to regulate the thoughts, words, and deeds of all mankind. This principle is augmented regarding the people of God, who by profession have received the Scriptures as the very Word of the Living God, whereas the balance of unbelieving humanity has by tacit rejection of the Bible as God’s Word sought out their own ethical and doctrinal foundation.
This principle is also ensconced in our Church’s Standards, the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as sound expressions of Bible doctrine. Note the following quotations from these subordinate standards:
Westminster Larger Catechism Question #3: What is the Word of God? Answer: The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.
After naming all the books of the Bible so as to identify objectively what the Word of God is, the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 1.2) declares, “All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.” And, while much more could be said on the sufficiency of Scripture, please allow a few brief comments. First, in receiving the Scriptures as sufficient, we have not meant to say that there is nothing useful apart from the Scriptures. We affirm that Scripture is not a textbook for physics, other scientific discipline, calculus, or any such endeavor, although the Scripture does speak foundationally, epistemologically, and sufficiently to the conditions necessary for such disciplines to obtain. Further, the Scriptures speak ethically with authority and sufficiency to all who would undertake such disciplines, and any others, no matter how advanced (or not) in current knowledge or theory.
The Scripture provides the foundation for all lawful callings as being service to God, whether or not the one plying the particular craft acknowledges the Lord. And as service to God, they are done “before Him” and therefore come under His righteous judgment as to how they have been prosecuted. But more than that, we may speak not only of callings, but of every endeavor, yea, every good work, that it is informed either explicitly or implicitly from Scripture. There is no neutral morality. Although this seems strange to the ears of even many professing Christians, there is no other way to slice it. Either the Scriptures speak to all of ethics or they do not, and they do claim for themselves this unique, universal ethical address, as we saw in 2 Timothy 3.16.
In times past, the people of God would come to their pastors with what they called “cases of conscience” (today we would call them ethical dilemmas) as the ministers of the Gospel were engaged much in helping folks who desired to please the Lord with “every good work” as they lived in this world and came across situations where they could not ascertain the upright path of action. The Great Puritan minister William Ames wrote an entire treatise on the conscience, calling it, “Conscience, with the Cases and Power Thereof.” This most useful volume is divided up into five books:
- The Definition of Conscience
- The Cases of Conscience, which concern the State of Man
- Man’s Duty in General
- Man’s Duty Toward God
- Man’s Duty Toward Man
The entire volume is quite useful, but especially that portion concerning the Scripture foundation of ethics, and how the Scripture forms the basis of our action, either by explicit statement, or by some exposition of Scripture which draws out those good and necessary consequences from Scripture to the illumination of the hearers. Note this statement from Book 2, chapter 1.6:
Because that Law which is written and ingraven in nature, containing the rules of honesty and naturall justice, is in a manner wholly buryed by originall corruption, and almost totally over whelmed by custome in sinning, as it were with some heape of evill lusts laid upon it; and because also the light of the understanding is involved, and obscured with manifold darkenesse, so that neither those rules of honesty, which are within the booke of the mind, are fully and perfectly legible, nor can our understanding read any thing therein, distinctly and plainly: Hence it is, that God, in his mercifull providence hath given us three helps, viz. The light of Scripture, the assistance of his Grace, and the helpe of teaching.
It is to the light of Scripture that we now turn, and ask the Lord for the assistance of His grace in the proper presentation of Scripture’s teaching on a particular ethical dilemma.
The current ethical dilemma, argued over social media, around “socially-distanced” tables and furniture, (or not), and trumpeted by the news media has to do with the Christian and the 6th Commandment responsibility to protect the life and well-being of others. What is our duty? Do the Scriptures have any input, or are we to look to one another, medical professionals, statesmen, and other experts in social science and infectious disease science? The arguments run along the lines of a few widely accepted beliefs. I say “beliefs” because these circumstances I am about to describe are not universally true, and whether or not they obtain the status of “fact” is disputed, and that reasonably so. For a professing Christian desiring to obey the Lord in all things, the conflicting information, limits of observational or empirical science, difficult relationship between “cause” and “effect” all conspire to create such a case of conscience.
The 6th Commandment and Implications
Should I stay home? Does the Lord require this to preserve lives?
Should I wear a face-mask in public? Does the Lord require this to preserve lives?
We all agree on the standard, relating to the 6th Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” (Exodus 20.13) When we turn to our confessional standards, especially the Larger Catechism, several things come to our notice. The first thing is that the statement of the command itself is not exhaustive of our duty. As we study the value of human life, the treatment of human life, physical injury and protection against it, and many other ideas relating to the health and well-being of our fellow man, we find that the idea or theory of the Sixth Commandment is much broader than “Thou shalt not kill.” Throughout the Scripture, this idea is drawn out in many different applications as the Larger Catechism helps us to understand. Please forgive, but also note, the lengthy quotations from the WLC below:
Question 135: What are the Duties Required in the Sixth Commandment?
Answer: The duties required in the sixth commandment are, all careful studies, and lawful endeavors, to preserve the life of ourselvesa and othersb by resisting all thoughts and purposes,c subduing all passions,d and avoiding, all occasions,e temptations,f and practices, which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any;g by just defense thereof against violence,h patient bearing of the hand of God,i quietness of mind,j cheerfulness of spirit;k a sober use of eat,l drink,m physic,n sleep,o labour,p and recreations;q by charitable thoughts,r love,s compassion,t meekness, gentleness, kindness;u peaceable,v mild and courteous speeches and behaviour;w forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil;x comforting and succouring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.y
Question 136: What are the Sins Forbidden in the Sixth Commandment?
Answer: The sins forbidden in the sixth commandment are, all taking away the life of ourselves,a or of others,b except in case of public justice,c lawful war,d or necessary defense;e the neglecting or withdrawing the lawful and necessary means of preservation of life;f sinful anger,g hatred,h envy,i desire of revenge;j all excessive passions,k distracting cares;l immoderate use of meat, drink,m labour,n and recreations;o provoking words,p oppression,q quarreling,r striking, wounding,s and whatsoever else tends to the destruction of the life of any.t
As we can see, the Westminster theologians saw many implications concerning the Sixth Commandment. This is good divinity, and we all ought to make those “careful studies” described in question 135. The question before us is what kind of implications and their associated actions are actual violations of the Sixth Commandment? For instance, at the end of question 136, we see that whatsoever tends to the destruction of the life of any is forbidden as a necessary consequence of the Scripture statement, “Thou shalt not kill.” So, sinful anger is forbidden, along with excessive passions, immoderate recreations, and the connection between these brief descriptions and how they might endanger the life of ourselves or others is clear. Thus far on the use of implication and regard for the life of others.
The Principle of General Equity
The other principle that we ought to discuss in our inquiry is general equity, and how it applies to our morals. The principle of general equity asserts that there are ethical requirements recorded in Scripture that pertained to the Jews of old, that were founded upon moral principles that underlie different but parallel actions in all societies. For instance, as an application of the 6th Commandment, seeing that it was a common practice for an Israelite to have a flat roof, and often an outdoor area for eating, relaxation or sleeping on his roof, Moses, speaking by inspiration of the Spirit of God, required a parapet to be built around that roof, to prevent someone from falling over the edge. (Deuteronomy 22.8) The stated reason for this is that blood not be brought upon the house through an accidental death facilitated by homeowner negligence. Notice that this was not an absolute standard for all houses, but for the building of a new house.
A commonly accepted application of the same general equity principle in this case would be the requirement to build a fence around a backyard swimming pool, to protect against accidental drowning. As Bible expositors and theologians study the Old Testament, many such applications come to light. For instance, the Westminster Divines saw the general equity principle in the command, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn” (Deuteronomy 25.4) as they compared this text to the Apostle Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 9.3-14. In this passage Paul uses rhetorical questions to call upon the Corinthian Church to think not about oxen, but about their responsibility to their ministers, for “the laborer is worthy of his hire,” and finally stated in this context (v14) “they that preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” Paul uses a piece of general equity reasoning, explicitly declaring that God is not legislating in this way because He cares for oxen—that is, the Law is not given to insure that oxen are fed—but to teach the principle of remuneration for those who labor in Word and sacraments.
With this as background and introduction, let us consider our current situation, in which we have heard that various activities are related to the Sixth Commandment, and that they ought to be done by Christians in obedience to the Lord. We have been told to stay at home to save lives, and to wear masks to save lives, or that these actions potentially will save lives. We have also been told to obey the Civil Magistrate in his executive declarations to stay home, stop doing business, close your Church, close your business, worship online, (which is no real substitute for Public Worship as ordained by the Lord) stop singing in worship, stop performing or receiving elective surgery, and the list goes on, all in service of the 6th Commandment, in order (potentially) to save lives. And while this brief article cannot address all these commands and situations, we do hope, by God’s grace, to set out some general principles from Scripture to assist the Church with any cases of conscience that might arise.
As an application of the Sixth Commandment, we are required to do much to protect life, as we saw above. The parapet around the roof and the fence around the pool are clear indicators as to the value of human life. There are other times in Scripture where death is required, such as in the case of just war, after due process in criminal or capital crime, and in these instances while we continue to value human life, we also see the magnitude of the crime or conflict, such that it warrants the death of the person. The list of civil, capital offences in the Old Testament is long, and in these crimes we must see, at very least, the heinous or abominable nature of the crime such that the offender must die. In addition to this, the Scriptures distinguish between murdering by “lying in wait” or because of hatred, and accidental killing, when the offender and victim were alone, with none to testify as to the nature of the death. In the former case, the offender must be put to death. In the latter, the Lord provided the city of refuge as a place to which the offender might flee. However, even if within the bounds of that city, it is discovered that he entertained malice toward his neighbor that had died, he could be brought out and suffer capital punishment.
There are other kinds of cases where the Sixth Commandment comes into notice, and I would like to focus upon one of those now, as I believe it provides some general equity input to our current “moral dilemma,” or case of conscience concerning wearing masks, staying home, closing businesses, and gathering for worship. Let us take up the case of Exodus 21.28-32.
Exodus 21.28-32 and General Equity
In this passage we have a very real situation, which might be considered common among an agrarian society, in which an ox that has left its confines, wandered about abroad and killed a man. Although the situation of the ox running loose is not mentioned in the first part of the case, it is in verse 29, where the owner, Moses says, “kept him not in.” The inference here is that this ox has left the property of its owner, and has gone abroad, to the detriment of the health of a man. Nothing is said here of the ox that is properly corralled.
In the circumstances of the case, there are two descriptions given. Both descriptions speak of an ox that has killed a man. The difference is in the disposition of the owner of the ox, and whether he is guilty of some neglect, being rightly charged with some guilt in the matter. In the first instance, he is not to be charged, and in the second, he is guilty of what we might call “criminal negligence,” and is convicted and must suffer the punishment of his crime (we will speak about his punishment later). The difference between these two instances is clear enough and ought not to confuse us. In the first, he was unaware that his ox was a danger to others. Although every ox is potentially a danger to men, not all oxen are, and the owner is not required to treat his ox as if it was. In fact, there is other legislation in the Mosaic code, pertaining to loving your neighbor properly, that requires one, if he sees his neighbor’s ox go astray, to bring him back to the owner, or if that is too far, to take him back to his own property and notify the owner of the ox, so he might come to collect him.
So then, we understand that while all oxen are potentially dangerous, not all of them are, and the assumption is that if an ox has gotten loose, its owner is not chargeable with guilt, even in the extreme case that it kills a man. Note that if this tragic event does take place, the ox is to be stoned, to prevent this from ever happening again, the owner suffers the loss of his ox, but he himself is guiltless of any crime. In this we learn a few things: Because not all oxen are dangerous, the law takes into account the “just ignorance” of the owner regarding the violence of his animal. He is not held guilty of criminal negligence simply because his ox left his property and injured or killed a man. This is not the rule of oxen—they are not normally dangerous to people, and the owner receives the benefit of that natural estate of the ox.
However, there is another situation described by Moses in which the owner is guilty—that is, if he had prior knowledge of the tendency of the ox to attack people. There are a few things to note here. First, this is unusual—the assumption being that it is not natural nor a common danger concerning oxen. But in this second case it has been testified to the owner that the ox has this tendency or habit. That is, it must be proven that the owner had prior knowledge of the dangerous nature of this particular ox. And, if this can be shown, the owner is judged guilty of criminal negligence, and suffers one of two punishments: The first is that he is stoned along with the ox. It is a proven fact that he knew that his ox had violent tendencies toward men, yet he refused to protect others—he is to suffer the same fate as the ox. The other punishment described has to do with amercing the owner of the ox with a sum of money, in the case that the man killed by the ox was a provider for a family, or a son or daughter that contributed to the well-being of the family (or might in due time) to provide for that which was lost in the death of the victim. If he is amerced a sum of money, this is received as a ransom for his life.
So we have a situation that involves guilt, innocence, and punishment regarding the 6th Commandment, protecting and valuing human life. What is the general equity principle that can be drawn from this passage?
The first principle is that it would not be in keeping with this description to punish the owner of an ox for every circumstance in which the ox went out of his confines and injured someone. The owner is not held responsible if there is no evidence that his ox was “wont to push with his horn.” Even if this ox kills a man, if there was no reasonable expectation that he was dangerous, the owner is not guilty, according to the Lord, via his servant Moses. The mere potential of any ox being dangerous is not enough to convict the man of negligence. This is an important Biblical principle from which we ought to learn. In our day those who have no symptoms of illness and no evidence of disease are told that they must behave as if they do, because they can be potentially sick, asymptomatic carriers of a disease, and therefore guilty of some kind of negligence for going out of their homes unnecessarily, or going abroad without a face mask.
This is contrary to the general equity principle enumerated here in Exodus 21.28-32. The principle enumerated is that if there is reasonable ignorance of any danger, there can be no guilt. We therefore ought not to charge one another with recklessness, endangering others, or otherwise violating the 6th Commandment based upon the potential of disease carried asymptomatically. If one is well, displaying no symptoms of infection, the Scriptures do not charge him with guilt, even if he was an asymptomatic carrier, just as the man who had no idea that his ox was a danger to others is not chargeable with any guilt.
Conversely, if the man knew that his ox was a danger, and this can be proved by testimony, only then is he judged guilty before the Lord, and as we saw above, was either stoned with the ox, or caused to pay a ransom for his life, upon the judgment of the aggrieved family. The principle of testimony is very important, for the man is not required to incriminate himself. In our day, this would be like one who is displaying the symptoms of the disease, and has testimony from others warning him that he could be a danger to others, (perhaps he has a positive test) and still goes out and infects others—this man is then guilty of recklessness at best, and if his endangering others comes to some kind of fruition by which another is injured or killed, then he is liable, as was the man who knew his ox was “wont to push with his horn.” The operative difference between the two situations is that in the first case, the man exercised a reasonable, natural ignorance regarding the danger his ox (or in our case, his breath) posed to others. In the second, he was informed as to the danger, and still did nothing. In the former, the man is passed over as innocent, in the latter, he is guilty.
There are a few differences in the circumstances, although the general equity principle remains intact, between the ox and his owner on the one hand, and the wearing of masks and other orders by governments on the other. While there is in our day suspicion from those who are convinced that not taking precautions against the potentiality of infection among the asymptomatic is somehow blameworthy or recklesss, Moses tells us that it is not. The universal wearing of masks, or stay-at-home orders for the well and asymptomatic would be tantamount to legislation in ancient Israel preventing the owning of oxen altogether because of the potential loss to human life, or universal capital punishment for any ox that injured a man having broken free of his confines. But neither of these obtain in the Mosaic legislation, and we ought not to be wiser than God. And while this does not prevent an individual from his own conscientious declaration never to own an ox of any kind, or even putting an animal down on his own property after he realizes its violent tendency, it does prevent that man and his conscience from dictating the terms of behavior for other Israelites. The general equity principle is clear, that reasonable ignorance of danger or harm is not chargeable with guilt.
Note that the Lord does not forbid a man from owning a dangerous ox—he is guilty only if the ox breaks through its confines and injures another man or animal. (See Exodus 21.35-36) We will also note here that nothing is said if the ox is on the owner’s property, and a man trespasses and is injured by the ox. This would be considered the price of his trespass. The owner is guilty only if his ox was known to be violent, escaped his confines, and injured or killed a man. All other situations are free from guilt for the owner. So, the prescription to wear a mask because one might potentially spread a disease, while well or asymptomatic, is beyond what the general equity of this legislation requires.
Leviticus Chapters 13-14 and Leprosy
There is another general equity principle that affects our current situation as well. Some have called it the law of quarantine, pertaining to leprosy and how it was handled in ancient Israel. And, while I am not certain that this is legislation designed for handling medical pandemics, I do believe there are a few principles to be learned from it pertinent to our current situation. This legislation pertaining to the leper is found in Leviticus 13.
Verses 1-4 describe the initial presentation of leprosy, and the responsibility the “patient” has to present himself to the priest. The priest, for his part is to look over the symptoms and make a pronouncement, if suspicious, that he is to be shut up seven days, to await any further developments. Verses 5-8 describe the man being shut up for successive periods of seven days each, if the signs of infection persist, or his being pronounced clean, if they do not. The controlling circumstance here is whether or not the man has some symptoms, or signs of disease. Apart from that, he is not to be denied his ability to go out and come in among his people, to go to Church, or to work abroad in his district. It is not necessary to cover all the particular descriptions of the leprosy—it is enough to note that the assumption of illness is based upon symptoms, and only then is a man “shut up.” We will not be the first in this paper to note that this is not the procedure our civil and health authorities have followed regarding the current pandemic. Rather, we have treated the well and asymptomatic as if they were ill, requiring all of them to wear masks, stay at home, and in many cases close their businesses almost indiscriminately, for fear of potential contagion from well and asymptomatic “carriers.” Again, this is not what the Lord has laid down in His Word, and again, we ought not to be wiser than God.
The ceremony for the cleansing of the leper is also important to consider in this discussion, described in the next chapter. When he is cleansed, there are two doves used. One is killed over running water, and his blood gathered. The second bird is bound to a hyssop and cedar branch by a scarlet thread, dipped in the blood of the first bird, and this blood is sprinkled upon the leper as a part of his ritual cleansing by the priest. The second bird is then let loose in the open field, signifying that the man is now free to roam about among his people freely, truly a sign of death and resurrection—death to sin and its power, and of resurrection and “walking in newness of life.” This is a great indication of how much the Lord values the freedom of His people to conduct all that He has commanded them—to worship Him, to work and serve Him in their callings, etc.
This was also implied in the successive periods of seven days of isolation and examination—to provide a buffer against a precipitous declaration and deprivation of this freedom. The performance of duty can only be done if people are free to do so, and to deprive them of that freedom, apart from good reason, due process, some criminal judgment, or evidence of illness, is to deprive them of their God-given duty to serve Him in the way He has commanded. When a civil magistrate forbids well and asymptomatic people from worshipping, working, or other lawful activity, he must have good reason for so doing, because he takes away God’s gift from the man or woman. Ecclesiastes 5.18 speaks to the labor of a man as God’s gift to him, and more, “it is his portion.” To prevent well or asymptomatic persons from working, or in their forced isolation, to keep them from doing business or regular commerce with others, is to deprive them of their God-given portion. And we might add here that it is great wickedness to pay them for not working, according to the wisdom of the Apostle Paul (2 Thessalonians 3.6-15). Further, when the magistrate closes down churches (we say nothing here of the proper response of churchmen to such orders) he deprives the Lord of His portion, which is His people and their service to Him. See Exodus 5.1; 19.5; Deuteronomy 32.9, and understand that the Lord has a right to His Worship, the service that belongs to Him for “His portion.”
In order for the people of the Lord (and all men) to operate as the Lord has commanded, this measure of liberty must be protected—they must be “free to obey the Lord” in these duties, which are God-given. But when well and asymptomatic people are treated as those who are ill, and deprived of their rights of going abroad among their society this is a great evil, an immoral use of civil authority, and an unrighteous restriction of their liberty to serve the Lord and others in their callings, avocations, and religious service. We must remember that “freedom” in modern parlance is most generally license, not freedom, and often reveals bondage to sin, and to our baser nature. Biblical human freedom is not indiscriminate license, but freedom to obey the Lord, to serve Him, and in serving Him, serving others as well. When Biblical “human freedom” is impaired, the Scriptures require that this be done only according to good reason or some due process where this right to serve Go/d is rightly curtailed. Only then is this an upright use of authority.
Shall we have Utopia?
There is another matter that troubles me, observing our civil and societal response to this pandemic that bears mentioning, for again, we fail to give the Lord His due, and in some way have thought ourselves wiser than He. The utopian ideal is not a Scriptural ideal. The eradication of disease, war, poverty, and all affliction is a deceit, spawned from the thoughts of the enemy of our souls, and used throughout the ages to deceive many. The promise of a utopia is a godless promise, most often founded upon the failed notion of the ability of humanity (I will remind us here—fallen, corrupt humanity) to overturn the curse, and provide peace and prosperity for all. This is at the foundation of every political slogan, every perceived need for change, whether it be for “hope and change” or “making America great”.
This was the temptation of the tempter in the garden of Eden—there is something you lack, you can reach out and take it, and all will be well—this same strategy was upon his lips in the wilderness with Christ—here is the crown without the cross; You’re hungry? You can make bread, depend upon your own power, reach out and do it for yourself, you ought not to have to suffer hunger. The quest for peace, provision and security has led to much mischief, deceit, and even to its opposite, death and destruction, strife and peril. The campaign to eliminate this current disease, and others, plays upon this deceit and desire on the part of fallen man for an illicit peace and security in this life, apart from a Savior, or another savior in place of the true. In the push to eradicate a disease (placing the best construction on the actions of our civil and health officials) we have trusted in means, made false promises, overreached in the exercise of civil power, and all apart from a sound reliance upon the Lord, calling upon His Name, in national repentance from sins. Truly, our response, in the main, has been to rest upon even these overreaching and excessive means in the quest to eradicate a disease that the Lord has brought upon us for our sins, rather than humbly to submit to His Word and His Law, and cry out to Him in repentance for civil, societal, and national sins, seeking relief from the only One who is able to give it.
Note how far this has gone—we would rather close businesses, lay off workers and send them government checks (an egregious violation of the 4th and 8th Commandments) wreck our commerce and businesses, all in the pursuit of some disease free utopia, rather than to call upon the Lord. The Scriptures are clear: Safety is of the Lord: Psalm 4.8; Proverbs 21.31. Health is from the Lord, as an encouragement to obedience: Isaiah 58.1-9. Wealth is also of the Lord: Deuteronomy 8.17-18. Security, peace, and prosperity are of the Lord: Leviticus 26.1-13. Beloved, we cannot erect a utopia in this world—that is designed by the Lord to come to its fruition in Christ in the next world. In this world we shall have tribulation: John 16.32-33. Yet, the Lord does encourage us through temporal blessing, and brings temporal affliction when we are in need of correction.
We can expect no utopian society as long as mankind, and the creation itself, groans under the bondage of corruption. But if the Name of the Lord is our refuge, we need not to have this debilitating fear of illness or any calamity. We desire to mollify human suffering, work against disease, give our strength to support the weak, provide relief, etc. but not apart from an acknowledgment of the Lord and His providence, but along with those spiritual realities that we learn from His Word as to why suffering and afflictions come. Our efforts then must be in accord with the Word of God, in acknowledgement of His sovereignty, displeasure, and mercy, with prayer and humility, and not with the arrogance of false promises to alleviate all affliction.
The 5th Commandment
There is one other point to consider, and this is the relationship of these orders from civil authority, and the 5th Commandment. How much authority does the civil magistrate wield, and must he be obeyed at all times? In understanding this from the Scriptures, we all are familiar with the principle of civil, or ecclesiastical overreach. The Apostolic example under such overreach was to reply that they had no choice but to continue preaching in the Name of Christ—that is, they were under command from Him. (Acts 4.18-31) Later, interacting with the same authorities, and being called to account for “disobeying” them, they responded with the famous phrase, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5.29) That there are limits to civil and ecclesiastical authority should not surprise any who profess the Name of Christ. In the last few months, we have had what might generously be called an unusual exercise of civil authority. We have seen the closure of businesses, stay-at-home orders, masking orders, Church closures, outdoor parks are closed, national and state parks have also been closed; there have been demands placed on doctors and other medical personnel, including large medical facilities to treat some, and not treat others, until we have “flattened the curve,” or until released from restriction by that same civil authority.
In all of this, we must affirm that this does not diminish our duty to honor, pray for, and to obey all lawful commands of our civil magistrates, placing the best construction on their edicts and orders, believing the best concerning their motivations. Yet, the Scripture does not give our magistrates carte blanche over our consciences, as they are God’s ministers for good, the understanding being that as God’s ministers for good, that it is God speaking in His Word who defines what is good and what is evil. Magistrates, and men in general, are not left to work out a morality on their own, but all will give account according to their obedience or disobedience to the standard of morality God has revealed to men. (Romans 13.1-9).
The Scriptures, in many places, give sound direction to civil rulers that they will be judged by God as to how they have ruled, as His ministers. One such passage is Psalm 82, where civil rulers are even called “gods” because they hold, under God as His ministers, the power of life and death over their constituency. But note that God directs them, commands them, for they are not a law unto themselves, but will give account to Him who is the true God. The Psalm begins by declaring that God, the true God, stands and judges among those who in the earth are called gods on account of their derived authority. So, while God has given them much by way of authority (the right to act) still, this is under Him. The True and Living God, who is over all, is not diminished in His authority and power (right to act, and ability to act) by His establishment of civil government.
Rather, He claims authority over all civil magistracy. As such then, in verse 2 the True God brings accusation against civil rulers. In verses 3-4 He commands them to righteous behavior, to reformation of the behavior He condemned in verse 2. In verse 5 the Lord speaks concerning their rebellion against Him, and its consequences, as these civil rulers “walk on in darkness” and in so doing, remove the foundations of proper social order. Note here that when civil leaders, who are God’s ministers, behave contrary to the Lord and His ways, the foundations of that society are put out of their proper course, and will eventually crumble. If righteousness exalts a nation, and sin is a reproach to any people, the nation that is led into sinning by her civil leaders cannot ordinarily survive, for God will bring it into judgment, she having left the “foundations” of proper social order. All civil leaders must learn to acknowledge this spiritual reality.
The Psalmist advances the thought now with irony from the mouth of the Lord. “I said ye are gods”—this is what the Lord declares. I have called you gods, I have given you the power of life and death, I have placed you as my ministers, in a dignified and honorable position upon the earth to judge after my Law, after my Word. But, because you have rejected my commandments, and turned away from the True God in your position as gods, you will die like men, and fall like one of the princes. How opposite is this to the declaration concerning Christ:
“The king shall joy in thy strength, O LORD; and in thy salvation how greatly shall he rejoice! 2 Thou hast given him his heart’s desire, and hast not withholden the request of his lips. Selah. 3 For thou preventest him with the blessings of goodness: thou settest a crown of pure gold on his head. 4 He asked life of thee, and thou gavest it him, even length of days for ever and ever. 5 His glory is great in thy salvation: honour and majesty hast thou laid upon him. 6 For thou hast made him most blessed for ever: thou hast made him exceeding glad with thy countenance.” (Psalm 21.1-6)
Historically of David, and prophetically of Christ, note that instead of “dying like men” Christ, because of His obedience, and righteous reign is the Author of eternal life.
With that foundation laid, we now turn to the orders of our magistrates of late and try to make some application. First, if civil leaders ought to lead according to the Word of the Lord, it should be clear that they cannot rightly forbid that which God commands, and command that which God forbids, as we saw above. The Apostles were commanded by Christ to preach, and no civil or ecclesiastical authority could forbid that which Christ had commanded them to do. So, forbidding Churches to gather, apart from compelling reason, is contrary to the commands of Christ. We must remember that our Lord Jesus Christ is King of His Church, and this Kingdom is not governed by earthly, civil authority, although the subjects of Christ’s Kingship in His visible Church are also members of civil society and have a true and proper civil responsibility to the leaders in that kingdom or nation as well.
There have been Churchmen in times past, and today, that would accede to the civil authority this right to close churches in times like, or especially worse than ours. For our part, we are interested in a seat at the table with our civil authorities in such decisions, as Ambassadors of Jesus Christ rather than being excluded from such decision-making processes, and a right exercise of the coordinate authority Churchmen have alongside civil leaders. In theological language, civil leaders do not exercise authority “in sacris” that is, in the holy things themselves, but “circa sacra” that is, around the societal circumstances of the Church. Our leaders need to be informed as to what it means to forbid the worship of God, and the slight they do to Him when they make such pronouncements, and the price of His displeasure against any nation or community that would unnecessarily forbid God’s worship.
Further, Churchmen need to hear the perceived dangers of meeting in times like these, so we all can make a decision together, with prayer, and humility before one another, and especially before the Lord and in obedience to Him. This is not to say that it is always unlawful to cancel worship services, but it is to say that bare, unilateral, civil authority does not have that right to act in the Kingdom of Christ in that way. That being said, we are not to be rebels, but should attempt to satisfy the commands of both authorities, civil and ecclesiastical, and where we cannot, our ecclesiastical authorities must be ready to advise according to God’s Word, and to improvise with creativity regarding the circumstances of our worship, (never the elements of God’s Worship) so as to continue to gather whenever possible with these circumstantial modifications. The command from Christ to His Church is to gather to worship. Let us then expend every ounce of strength and circumstantial creativity to obey Him.
With regard to orders by the civil authorities requiring the donning of face-masks in public, it is not the purpose of this paper, nor within the expertise of its author, to speak to the scientific/medical/hygienic efficacy and use of the face-mask, whether surgical, cloth, rated, or unrated. As we have said above, not wearing a mask for those who show no symptoms is no violation of the 6th Commandment. Also, as we have seen, the civil authorities are required, as God’s ministers, to legislate in keeping with His Commandments. The conclusion to these premises is that universal masking orders for asymptomatic and well people are an illicit use of civil power. This does not mean, however, that these orders must be resisted among the well and asymptomatic in every instance. The asymptomatic Christian is free, according to his own conscience and circumstances, to wear or not wear a mask. This may mean facing civil consequences for not wearing it, and adjudicating those orders and consequences in civil or criminal court for those who have a conscience exercised toward civil authority and its proper bounds.
It may also mean wearing a mask only when necessary to receive services adjudged important enough to don the mask in the public square. It should always mean showing grace and patience one toward another whether one wears, or does not, a face mask. Regarding doubtful orders by authorities to wear a mask during a worship service, this becomes a circumstance of worship, one of those things that facilitate, but are not the substance of that worship of God that He has commanded. Other such circumstances, which are common to any human action or society are things such as a time of meeting, what kind of building or whether a building is at all used, what kind of seating, and other circumstantial things that facilitate, but are not part of the substance of that worship. Our Confession of Faith (1.6) speaks to those circumstances as needing to be ordered by “the light of nature, Christian prudence, and the general rules of the Word, which are always to be obeyed.” Shall we consider whether a mask meets these criteria? In the opinion of this writer, it does not. It is contrary to the light of nature to sing unto the Lord through a mask. It is contrary to Christian prudence for well or asymptomatic worshippers to hide their faces one from another, with the attendant reduction of encouragement and affection which accompanies this action. And, it is contrary to the general rules of the Word for the well to behave as if they were ill, covering their upper lip like the leper of old.18) When authority commands the wearing of masks, it becomes a circumstance of worship. Others may disagree. Let us be respectful in our disagreements.
There will be those who object to our thesis above, and I will try to anticipate some arguments against it in the spirit of brotherly discussion.
One objection could rise from a misunderstanding of the weaker brother argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans 14, and in 1 Corinthians 8. Seeing that there is more detail pertinent to the situation in 1 Corinthians 8, we will begin there. The argument would run something like this: Cannot we be required to wear masks for the sake of our brethren in the Church who would be caused to stumble if we do not? If they would be grieved over my practice, shall I not then in charity change that practice? The difficulty in this argument is over misunderstanding the term “stumble.” It is assumed that the practice of one can, considered alone, be a stumbling to another. Of course, this is not what it means, and the Apostle is clear to address the true definition of stumbling in 1 Corinthians 8.7-13. The weaker brother stumbles when he is emboldened by imitation to follow the stronger brother into a practice he is not yet ready to undertake conscientiously—with approval of his conscience. In the case of 1 Corinthians 8, it is eating meat sacrificed to idols. Some in Corinth were not yet ready to partake of this, seeing it was too near in time to their days of idolatry, when “going to church” (attending the idol-house service) meant having a steak dinner (along with more heinous practices) as a part of that religious system. The Apostle Paul was never that kind of idolater, and understood clearly that an idol is nothing in the world, and so eating that meat was an indifferent practice both considered absolutely, and according to his own conscience. However, if he were to invite someone to go with him from the Corinthian Church, and through his relationship and example move the weaker brother to violate his own conscience, by eating that meal with him, this would be the stumbling of which the Apostle speaks. Note that it is not the difference in practice that is the occasion of stumbling, but the weaker brother proceeding to participate in a practice against his conscience, and thereby stumbling—arresting his forward motion in the race we are all to run (see the end of chapter 9). So stumbling is not being grieved over the actions of another, but participating in an action apart from the conscience to do so, and as Paul will say in Romans 14.23 “whatsoever is not of faith, is sin.” In other words, what cannot be undertaken faithfully, conscientiously, with a clear conscience, is sin. If you believe it to be wrong, do not practice it, causing yourself to stumble.
Another objection might be to emphasize some of the disparities between the stay-at-home orders, or wearing of masks, to the legislation concerning the goring ox. Admittedly, there are some differences. The ox is a valuable piece of property, and so the loss of the ox is something of a deterrent naturally to letting him run free. There would be a presumption that the owner desires to keep it in because of its value. And, while this is a good observation, it does not have bearing on the principle of the owner’s ignorance of the danger as it relates to his innocence. In either case the owner loses his ox if it commits an act of violence. He might also have confidence in owning a docile animal that if it escapes its confines, someone will return it, as was cited above, yet this bears not at all as to whether the owner was criminally negligent, having no knowledge of the animal’s violent tendency.
Another objection might be concerning the “small matter” it is wearing a mask—it is but a small thing to don a face covering, so it is said. Nothing in this article should be understood as hindering one who desires to wear a face mask in public from doing so. The general equity principle we are pressing here is that if there are no signs of illness or infection, such well or asymptomatic persons cannot rightly be required to stay at home, or required to wear a mask as if they were not well, in order to go about in public. The potential of being sick, and not knowing it, does not rise to the Biblical criteria of guilt—the owner who was ignorant of his ox’s violent tendency is innocent of all charges. Nothing in the Scripture prevents one who desires to wear a mask (Or a full-body infectious disease suit with personal air supply for that matter) from doing so. Every Christian will make this choice, we trust, conscientiously, but we cannot rightly, according to Exodus 21.28-32, accuse one of breaking the 6th commandment, being reckless, endangering others, etc. for not donning a face mask if well or asymptomatic, and we should cease from doing so. The principle is clear—if there is no evidence of illness, there is nothing for which to be accused. Wearing a mask is going to mean different things to different people, pertaining to their own health, or perceived physiological, psychological, or spiritual response to wearing it. Let each be convinced in his own mind (Romans 14.5) and let us not descend to “doubtful disputations” in such matters (Romans 14.1-2) but behave with love, patience, and grace toward others with whom we differ as we navigate these difficult times.
Another objection might be raised considering those of our population that are at higher risk for severe illness from exposure to the virus, and what the Christian’s response ought to be to them. Should we not “mask up” because we might come into contact with one that is more particularly vulnerable? The answer to this thoughtful concern is manifold. First, we should protect the vulnerable. This is why surgeons and other operating room personnel wear masks, and other PPE because of the greater vulnerability of infection being introduced in patients through their open surgical wound. How are patients protected from such vulnerability? They are confined to a particular room, that room is sterile (we hope), everyone involved with the vulnerable patient takes precautions themselves to be sterile. However, even with all these precautions, and more not mentioned, infections still can take place. But we do not perform the operation in public and require all who pass by to take those same precautions. The ones who are vulnerable accept a limitation to their ability to move about freely during that period of vulnerability. We ought to protect the more vulnerable by taking steps when we visit our loved ones and others who are at greater risk. They also ought to accept that greater risk themselves, by understanding limitations upon their freedoms. Further, they ought to be able to go about freely as they desire, accepting that greater risk, without requiring the public to behave as if they were in the operating room with a surgical patient, or moving the operation into the public square.
A further objection might be leveled that runs something like this: “The potential of falling off a roof is enough to legislate for building a parapet. So, the potential of being an asymptomatic carrier ought to be sufficient for universal masking orders.” The difference here is that in the case of the well and asymptomatic, there is no evidence or indication of threat. The presumption ought not to be that they are potential infectors, but that they are well. There is however no doubt that to fall off of a roof, an evidenced and real condition, is to be injured, and so steps must be taken against that real, not potential threat. The parallel would be never to have a roof patio, because of the potential for someone falling.
In conclusion, what we have attempted in this article is to provide some direction for conscientious Christians, in our current situation concerning the pandemic. We have attempted to show that the Scripture speaks by way of general, or moral equity, with sufficiency, to every area of our lives. In the application of these principles, we have concluded the following things:
- The 6th Commandment to preserve life is far-reaching, with many implications.
- There is a presumption of innocence given to the ignorant, regarding placing others potentially at risk. The potential of harm is not the same as evidenced threat. Although all oxen are potentially harmful, only those about whom it can be testified that they pose a threat can be rightly used to infer the guilt of the owner.
- So we concluded that it is not endangering to lives of others for well or asymptomatic people to remove their masks in public, or simply not wear them.
- We looked at the leper, and his isolation from the community, and the due process that was required for his isolation, and then restoration. We saw that it was based upon observable signs of potential harm to others, not potential in the abstract, or in the absence of such signs. We also looked at his restored liberty as God’s gift, that freedom to serve the Lord in worship and calling, and that this liberty is never to be taken away lightly, for it is the gift of God.
- We looked at the modern, godless efforts toward a disease-free utopia, and how atheistic or agnostic efforts arrogate to human beings what belongs to the Lord only. Under this heading we saw that “in the world we shall have tribulation” so we seek a resolution in the One who has “overcome the world”, in His commands and counsels, and the way He has ordered society as King and Lord over it.
- Finally, we saw the just limits of civil power as an ordinance of God, and therefore answerable to Him. We observed that there is such a thing as overreach in civil and ecclesiastical power, for all power is held rightly only when exercised in accord with the Governor of Nations, the Lord God of all the earth. We saw that civil authorities will answer to the Lord for their judgments and overreach, and for their failure to protect the innocent, and especially in their oppression of the Church. We observed that there are two kingdoms in any civil estate, and that in the case of the Kingdom of Christ, the civil magistrate has no authority there, although the citizens of that kingdom have allegiance to both Church and State. We provided conscientious direction for Christians when there is civil overreach, and how it may be resisted, but never as rebels or disturbers of the peace. Two instances were taken up, that of the command (and therefore not indifferent activity) to the Church to gather for worship, and the indifferent activity of wearing a face-mask by well or asymptomatic Christians.
Finally beloved, make sure we all are taking Biblically reasonable measures in these times. From what we have covered above, the following points can be rightly deduced:
- If you are sick, stay home to avoid infecting others, as much as it lies within you.
- If you are afraid of getting sick due to some physical condition, “co-morbidity” (My, how our common vocabulary has changed!) advanced age, or simply do not want to run the risk of becoming ill, do not move beyond what is conscientious—stay home and limit your contact.
- Be courteous, kind, and loving to others who do not share your greater or lesser sensitivity to our times and the management of this pandemic. Be ready to curtail some of your liberty, apart from compromising on essential duties, out of love for others. Further, be reticent to limit the liberty of others for the sake of your own conscience.
- As we have assayed to do in the foregoing, reason from the Scriptures—keep the conversation going.
It is our prayer that the Church might be a Godly and holy witness to the society around us, no matter how costly. There is much afoot these days that ought to give Christians cause to spend extra time in prayer for our nation. This brief paper addresses some of the foundational principles of Scripture by which we are enabled, the Lord helping us, to press the claims of Christ to our generation. May the Lord give light, strength, and courage to look to His Word as the only rule of faith and obedience, as that Word addresses every area of our lives being declared by the Psalmist, “exceeding broad.” Dear reader, may the Lord inform your conscience by the light of His Word as you endeavor to obey Him in everything, and may He settle all your cases of conscience thereby.
Rev. Todd Ruddell, Pastor, CCRPC
2 Timothy 3:15-16
1. See Exodus 5.1-2 cp. Exodus 9.16; Romans 9.17
2. William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof Devided into V. Bookes. Written by the Godly and Learned, William Ames, Doctor, and Professor of Divinity, in the Famous University of Franeker in Friesland. Translated out of Latine into English, for More Publique Benefit, Early English Books Online (Leyden and London: Imprinted W. Christiaens, E. Griffin, J. Dawson, 1639), 2.
3. a. Eph. 5:28–29. b. 1 Ki. 18:4. c. Jer. 26:15–16; Acts 23:12, 16–17, 21, 27. d. Eph. 4:26–27. e. 2 Sam. 2:22; Deut. 22:8. f. Matt. 4:6–7; Prov. 1:10–11, 15–16. g. 1 Sam. 24:12; 26:9–11; Gen. 37:21–22. h. Ps. 82:4; Prov. 24:11–12; 1 Sam. 14:45. i. James 5:7–11; Heb. 12:9. j. 1 Thess. 4:11; 1 Pet. 3:3–4; Ps. 37:8–11. k. Prov. 17:22. l.&n