I’ve expressed my opinion on masks many times, most clearly in a mock dialogue several months ago (see here). I would like to provide a straightforward, dogmatic, boring rendition of that position below. This position represents my current, state-of-the-art opinion on the mask ordeal. This article is primarily for those in the back of the room who haven’t caught-on to my game-plan. It’s a position that has deepened and developed somewhat over the past year, but I think the substance has always been the same.
Republishing my position is helpful in part because the evangelical church needs to continue dialogue on the matter. Last year, for example, I read a TGC article that argued how wearing masks was permissible because football players wear masks. The author made other points, but that was a legitimate principle raised – and I walked away from that life-changing bit of information reinvigorated in sound reason. Much reasonable. So logic.
The issue (in case anyone has missed it) is whether a Christian should wear a medical face mask to guard against COVID-19, what circumstances appropriate such a decision (if any), and what responses to mask mandates are appropriate. Visualizing this issue as a box, with God ruling at the top and myself subservient to His law at the bottom, we should notice the following four sides: the peripheral, the biological, the theological, the civil. This is the state of the issue in May 2021, but it is bound to change eventually.
First, the mask issue is peripheral in that it does not create a fundamental, essential dichotomy in the church. This is an issue that should remain “on the edge” or at least “non-central” to the life of the church. The Lordship of Christ is an essential matter, but not every matter is essential. I concur with the sentiment that the error of liberalism is the nullification of essential matters, while the error of fundamentalism is the multiplication of essential matters. Some things are adiaphora. The ecumenical creeds are a good place to start for determining what truths and principles are essential to the faith (and conveniently, The Bruised Reed has published a booklet containing said creeds).
Disagreements on peripheral matters should not bring into question the faith of either party. Further, they should not provoke inquisitions into the motivations of others. When you see someone walk into the sanctuary with two masks on their face, make no assumptions about why their face is covered. You don’t know everything about their familial situation, their work environment, what has happened that morning, etc. If anything, assume the best about their motivations for wearing a mask. The same goes for naked faces. When in comes to the peripheral side of mask-wearing, my position is that a person should have the freedom to wear or not wear a mask.
Second, the mask issue is biological in that it entails physical, anatomical variables. I would put any material health factor into this category. The major caveat I need to make is that I have no formal training in any medical field; I can slap a combat tourniquet on your thigh and plastic-seal a .50 cal. hole in your chest but that’s about it. However, people often confuse expertise in a particular field with reasonableness. Niche familiarization is not interchangeable with logic, and scholarship is something you do, not something you are initiated into. I may not know how to make bologna, but I sure do know what a Bologna Sandwich tastes like, and so marking BS on a Ziploc bag falls within my purview.
I know that medical “authorities” turned on a dime one year ago on whether mask mandates were helpful, and that dime was not the scientific method. BS. I know that medical “authorities” continue to encourage mask mandates despite data that demonstrates them to be at best ineffective. BS. I know that, before March, 2020, “mask science” was a conflicted, debated area, but suddenly it is unarguably in favor of mask mandates. BS. When it comes to an individual, cross-contamination is the king mole you have to dig up, or else your mask-wearing is doing more harm than good. Is that possible? Yes. Is it reasonable for the average person? No. Instituting a face mask as the image of public safety, in this context, seems like clear-cut propaganda. So, when it comes to the biological side of mask-wearing, my position is that a person should have the freedom to wear or not wear a mask.
Third, the mask issue is theological in that it touches on the image of God, the sufficiency of Christ’s death, and the worship of local churches. I’ll tackle these three points in order.
The Image of God
Regarding the image of God… We are created in the image of God, and that means (among other things) that we are relational creatures. We by nature reflect God, like a mirror. This design demonstrates that God created man for the purpose of knowing and relating to him. We are made to know God, and consequently other people, who likewise image Him. God looked at Adam and said that it is not good for man to be alone. The image of God in us longs to know and be known by other image bearers.
Now, consider this: relationships emanate from and pivot at the face. God knew Moses “face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10), which means He communicated “clearly, and not in riddles” (Numbers 12:8). Paul equated face to face interaction with rich, relational knowledge: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). To see face to face is to “know fully,” which implies that hiding from the face is to separate, to obscure, to place impediments in the relationship. Throughout the Bible, hiding one’s face from another is considered a sign of a broken relationship. “Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!” (Psalm 27:9). Reconciliation of a broken relationship culminates in face to face peace, such as with Jacob and Esau: “Jacob said, ‘No, please, if I have found favor in your sight, then accept my present from my hand. For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me’” (Genesis 33:10).
God created us to see one another’s faces. What would happen if, say, everyone started covering their faces? We are living that right now. Extra barriers have been erected between people. That sickening feeling you get sometimes when you look out into a massive crowd of masked Americans? That is the image of God in you kicking and screaming. That wave of disappointment you experience when you visit a loved one but never actually see below their eyes? That is the image of God within you longing to know and be known.
I’m not saying that we can’t know anyone at all while we wear masks. I’m saying that the mask is a substantial barrier, not the trivial piece of cloth it is made out to be. If we use it, we should be very careful about how and when we do. There are relational side-effects that run far deeper than we care to admit – right down into our very soul.
On this note, it is often argued that, while wearing a mask is not ideal, it is the best way to love your neighbor. You sacrifice some intimacy for the sake of keeping people safe. If COVID-19 had a high death rate and masks had a high preventative rate, then that argument would hold true. But as it stands, neither the virus nor masks are very effective – at least not nearly enough to use that argument. More perplexing to me is the position that if people feel safer when I wear a mask, then I should wear it to give them that peace of mind. I reject that argument because it is an empathy monster.
The Sufficiency of Christ’s Death
Regarding the sufficiency of Christ’s death… On the cross, Christ suffered the penalty for our sins. My disobedience is credited or imputed to Him, and His obedience is credited or imputed to me. So, remarkably, Jesus took the curses I deserve and I take the blessings He deserved. This is the wondrous, baffling grace of the cross. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Because of this, we can be justified. We place our faith in Christ, and God declares us righteous. Because of Christ’s atoning death, we are set free from the power of sin, which is guilt.
Throughout Scripture, we are told that one of the differences between guilt and innocence is that the former prefers darkness and the latter prefers light. The guilty prefer to hide because they don’t want their deeds exposed. This is a pattern established from the beginning, when Adam and Eve hid from God after they sinned. Natural and special revelation, outside of and within man, brings shame upon his head for the rebelliousness and twistedness of sin. A sinner will either be crushed under that weight, or (more often) will let it harden his heart by embracing dishonor (e.g. think of a pride parade).
For a society brimming with the need to dispose of shame, masks can be something people wear because they feel guilty. That doesn’t mean everyone who wears a mask feels guilty, but it can be a gauge as to the state of a people before God, depending on how they are disposed towards masks. Notice how quickly and happily our society has accepted the perpetual wearing of masks. I suspect that many people find wearing a mask quite freeing. As stated before, it closes you off from other people. The mask keeps intimacy at bay, and if no one can be well acquainted with you, then no one can be well acquainted with your sins. I don’t think this is something people consciously think about, but I suspect it is at work in the background. Before you comment: no, I am not saying that wearing a mask is evidence of being unjustified before God. I’m saying that some people who wear masks are enjoying the added benefit of hiding guilt.
The Worship of Local Churches
Regarding the worship of local churches… The assembly of Christ’s body on Christ’s Sabbath is a time for worship in spirit and in truth. We bring our sacrifice of praise to the Lord, and we minister to other image bearers, who are being conformed into Christ’s image. Masks are inescapably a barrier to these ends. They are not a solid barrier – as surely as that face diaper cannot stop the virus, so surely can it not stop your prayers. “Hindrance” might be a better word to use. Building off of the theological points made above, that mask is a hindrance to the intimacy you need on Sunday morning. This is to be a time of exposing oneself before the Lord.
I clearly have a lot to say about the theological side of the mask issue, but I can sum it all up like this. Wearing a mask is not a trivial thing. Masks have serious theological implications that must be factored into the equation. However, until and unless the above theological points become accepted and taught in a body of Christians (local church, denomination, or church catholic), a person should have the freedom to wear or not wear a mask apart from the binding of his conscience by the church.
Fourth, the mask issue is civil in that mandates are handed down by civil magistrates. Senators, presidents, mayors, counsels, etc. have made and are making decisions about whether, how, and where to mandate masks. These decisions are scrutable because all civil chairs sit below the throne of David. Every politician presides as a steward over people and places that belong to Jesus Christ. Paul goes so far as to call them ministers of God (Romans 13). Therefore, it is always appropriate to ask, “Has this ruler behaved honorably as a minister of Christ?” or, “Is this order congruent with the law of God?”
Unfortunately, mask mandates and economic lock downs are one of many unlawful encroachments we have seen recently from the civil magistrate. The latter category is actually worse. To take the means of livelihood from a man is to take his life, and God forbids it (Deuteronomy 24:6). Masks themselves have become a calling card for godless, totalitarian agendas. Masks, though promoted as a sign of health, have become a sign of tyranny. This has nothing to do with a civilian’s decision to wear a mask. This is about whether a civil magistrate has the authority to close down businesses, cancel Thanksgiving, and put a diaper on your face.
In the event of an emergency, I would say the same thing, only a bit more gracefully. Despite propaganda to the contrary, we are not and have never been in a COVID-19 emergency. Track the worldwide death rate from 2015 to now. To make the lethality of COVID-19 anywhere close to worrisome, administrators have had to twist mortality-reporting procedures to including all manner of ludicrous conclusions. In fact, by the “medical standard” for C19 fatalities, George Floyd was a victim of the pandemic, not white supremacy. Someone should tell that to the judge before Chauvin’s trial ends.
When I consider these four sides of the COVID-box, I walk away with a few distinct convictions. First, I have the freedom to wear a mask if I need to. Second, as the head of my household, I am responsible for keeping my family safe, which means keeping diapers off their faces when possible. Third, I am obligated under God to resist tyranny and godless philosophies embodied in mask mandates and emblems.
Practically, this boils down to my wearing a mask only when an immediate need or responsibility cannot be fulfilled otherwise. For example, if parents realize at 10pm that they are out of formula and their infant needs it pronto, then the husband should get in the car to buy formula. If he knows of a store that will let him purchase the formula without wearing a mask, then that is the store he should go to. However, if he knows of no such store that is open, then he should put a mask on his face and buy the formula with a good conscience. He has a higher responsibility that trumped any obligation he has to resist tyranny and godless philosophies, or any health concerns behind wearing a mask.
Built into my position is the freedom to push back against the mask culture by testing the boundaries of such mandates. By walking into stores, restaurants, malls, etc. with a naked face, I move the Overton window of the mask conversations away from it being a normal thing. Basically, I’m trying to keep us from the assumption that masks are normative.
This simple conviction (i.e. wearing a mask only when an immediate need or responsibility cannot be fulfilled otherwise) allows me to easily extend grace to others, because I don’t know what Random Ryan walking down the side walk has to get done today, or who Cellphone Sally riding the bus is en route to meet.