If we have discovered anything about Christians during this pandemic, it is that so many are ready to divide with other believers on the basis of their opinions over face coverings. The better part of ministers I have spoken to are exhausted–not simply from trying to lead a congregation through the challenges and logistics of when and how to gather for worship, but from dealing with the explosive personalities and opinions of many members over convictions about whether or not other members should have to wear a face covering to worship. Laying aside legitimate questions related to the government (since in most States religious organizations are rightly exempted from any face covering mandates), it will be beneficial to consider this subject in light of the Scriptural teaching about individual liberty of conscience among the members of the same body of believers.
On the one side are those who are adamantly opposed to wearing face coverings for a whole host of reasons–not least of which is the fact that they believe that those who disagree with them are sinfully seeking to bind their consciences to something God has not bound them. On the other side are those who insist that no one should have a problem wearing a face covering, and that it is actually unloving not to wear a coverings for the safety and well-being of your neighbors. Both sides believe that they are right in their assertion. In most cases, neither side is sincerely seeking to understand the rationale behind the arguments made by those on the opposite side. This is the impasse at which we find ourselves at present.
Debates related to liberty of conscience in the fellowship of believers has long plagued the church. In matters related to liberty of conscience in what believers eat or drink there is no argument about where the Lord Jesus and His apostles stood. Jesus brought the strongest condemnation against the religious leaders of Israel for binding the consciences of others with man made rules and regulations (Matt. 15:1–9). On numerous occasions, the Apostle Paul refuted the erroneous insistence among members of the body that they had to abstain from eating or drinking certain foods and drinks. Jesus and Paul stood firmly in support of the biblical principle that believers are free from the doctrines and commandments of men. The Westminster Confession of Faith could not make it any clearer, when it states,
“God alone is Lord of the conscience, (Jam 4:12; Rom 14:4); and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship, (Act 4:19; Act 5:29; 1Co 7:23; Mat 23:8-10; 2Co 1:24; Mat 15:9). So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience is to betray true liberty of conscience, (Co 2:20, 22-23; Gal 1:10; Gal 2:4-5; Gal 5:1): and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also, (Rom 10:17; Rom 14:23; Isa 8:20; Act 17:11; Jhn 4:22; Hos 5:11; Rev 13:12, 16-17; Jer 8:9).”
Though it may be overly reductionistic to conclude that the face covering issue may be easily divided into weaker and stronger consciences, it does seem to me that the issue of whether or not Christians should have to wear face coverings in worship falls within the realm of liberty of conscience in a “matters of…worship.” We must ever be on guard against “destroying liberty of conscience”–especially in matters related to worship.
However, in the context of the fellowship of believers, the Apostle Paul insisted on dealing with those who may not have the same informed conscience in both a wise and loving manner. Addressing the belligerent way in which believers with strong consciences may assert their opinion in such a way that they harm those with weaker consciences on a matter, Paul wrote, “do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” The gospel comes to bear on the most mundane of matters in the life of the church. Paul does not simply say, “Christ has died for you so you are free to eat and drink (a truth of which he was decidedly in defense).” But, in turning to those who understood their liberty of conscience, Paul essentially says, “remember that the weaker brother with whom you disagree was purchased with the same blood of Christ as that with which you have been purchased.” Paul doesn’t tell the stronger brethren to adopt the conscience binding practices of the weaker brethren. Rather, he tells them that their spiritual consideration of the identity of the ones with whom they disagree on matters of conscience ought to come to bear in this situation. Perhaps the same principle applies to how we deal with those who oppose and those who insist upon face coverings in the church.
At the same time, the weaker brother may not bind the stronger brethren with an injunction to love him and submit to his own preference. Paul warned that there is a very real danger for weaker brethren to “judge” those who better understand the gospel freedom they have in Christ. Paul sets out this opposite error, when he writes, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Rom. 14:3). One may not assert a mandatory action onto the conscience of another believer, when God has not done so, under the auspice of a call to act in love toward other members of the church. The call to love the weaker brother, by not eating or drinking in his presence, does not give the weaker brother a right to lay an extra-biblical command on the conscience of another. Rather, it is a call to remember those around us. The Apostle Paul is essentially calling both groups to remember that they are dealing with those “for whom Christ has died.” Christ’s death has set our consciences free from man-made rules and regulations. At the same time, Christ’s death has bound us together with all other believers so that we are to deal with them in the most wise and loving manner possible.
So what is the way forward for churches? I am not sure that I have a clear and definitive answer. In many congregations, sessions have opted to have one service for those who feel most comfortable being around others who are taking precautions by wearing a face covering, and another service in which face coverings are optional. This may not be ideal, but it may be a temporary solution to the problem. However, whatever a congregation decides on this matter, we must never forget the principles set out by the Apostle. When you look at the person in the seat next to you at church—or online while viewing a worship service—do you see one who for whom Christ died; or, do you see one who is either living up to or failing in your personal expectations? Do you see other believers as those who are indwelled by the same powerful Christ by whom you are indwelled; or do you see someone who should agree with your strong opinions on any given matter? The secret to the Christian life is in remembering your identity and freedom in Christ. It is also in remembering the identity of the brethren in Christ. If you focus only on yourself, you will begin–albeit, inadvertently–to either judge, despise, and disregard the other members of the body. Commit to praying that the same powerful blood that redeemed us from our sins would again unite us together in Christian love and fellowship regardless of our opinions on this matter.