A white pastor I know was recently hospitalized with COVID-19, but not until after he had served communion to his mostly African American congregation — a population that has suffered more severely from the disease due to ongoing racial disparities in U.S. health care and society. Leading up to that fateful morning, the pastor had expressed skepticism about restrictions related to the pandemic and had appeared in public without a mask. Consequently, 200 of his parishioners and church staff were ordered to quarantine for two weeks.
Research data show masks significantly reduce aerosolized saliva that emits from a person while speaking, coughing, or sneezing — and keep those droplets from carrying the virus to someone else. Why, then, do certain people, including conservative Christians, object to masks or outright refuse to wear them?
John MacArthur, one of several California evangelical megachurch pastors who have defied the state’s ordinances restricting religious gatherings, led an indoor service on July 26; the church’s livestream showed congregants sitting close together and very few people wearing masks. MacArthur, along with the church’s pastors and elders, defended their decision in a statement, saying that civil leaders “have exceeded their legitimate jurisdiction” and asserting that “faithfulness to Christ prohibits us from observing the restrictions they want to impose on our corporate worship services.”
If mask-wearing prohibited anyone from being faithful to Christ, MacArthur’s pastors and elders might have a valid point — but masks, along with other reasonable precautions to stop this virus, are actually all about being faithful to Christ’s commands.
When Jesus, the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2 KJV), was asked by a religious legal expert what was the greatest of all God’s commandments, Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, ‘Love others as much as you love yourself.’ All the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 CEV).
John MacArthur may think the most important thing he and his congregation can do in this crisis is assert their doctrinal beliefs and legal rights — but that’s not what his Lord and Savior says. For Jesus, assertions of personal rights never even make it to the honorable mention list of priorities.
Instead, Jesus says that everything in scripture depends on these two top commandments — love God and our neighbor — for their moral authority and proper interpretation. He also said these two commandments are “like” one another. The New Testament Greek word translated “like,” homoios, means “same as, of equal rank.” We must read these commandments not as first and second in position, but inseparably linked in the same supreme position. All we say and do as Christians must conform to loving God and loving people.
Loving God is fairly clear, but how do we love our neighbors as ourselves? The answer is in Christ’s Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12a ESV). We must behave toward others in the same way we want them to behave toward us. So, if we don’t want people to sneeze or cough on us, we must not sneeze or cough on them. If I don’t want someone to transmit disease to me, then I must do whatever I can to avoid transmitting disease to them. Asserting rights is all about me, but wearing a mask is all about my care and concern for the feelings and well-being of others.
Face coverings don’t protect the wearer as much as they protect the people the wearer encounters. The apostle Paul summarizes the practical implications of a Christ-like ethic toward others: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4 ESV).
A simple mask is all about protecting loved ones, especially the weak and elderly, front-line medical personnel and their families, and whole communities. Wearing masks reduces the need for shut-down orders as fewer people become sick; an open economy keeps businesses from failing, workers from losing their jobs, and, by extension, preserves the security of households dependent on those paychecks.
Wearing a mask is a small cross to bear for all the good it does. After all, most of us will wrap a scarf around our faces in the winter to keep our own lips from becoming chapped. If we’ll do that to protect ourselves from something so minor, surely we can wrap something else around our faces to spare someone from severe suffering — or worse.
Wearing a mask is not only considerate and polite; wearing a mask is biblical.