“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” –1 Corinthians 13:6
Over the past two years, Christian churches have faced a myriad of challenges in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. From church closings to mask mandates to vaccine requirements, Christian communities have been forced to navigate incredibly difficult problems on how to respond to the global crisis. At the heart of these problems was the question of exactly how Christians should fulfill the biblical imperative to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Prominent evangelicals have argued that following the guidance of health officials to stop the spread of COVID is a demonstration of love for one’s neighbor. This theme has been promulgated throughout evangelical communities over the past two years with great controversy. Some see the connection between neighborly love and conformity to COVID policies as hand-in-glove. Others see it as a misuse of a theological category, one that undermines legitimate concern about COVID policies and their lasting impact.
This paper intends to challenge the argument that the doctrine of Christian love should demand an acquiescence to three major COVID-19 policies: lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine requirements.
The central question to be answered is whether the Christian principle of “loving thy neighbor” demands that we support three prominent COVID narratives or whether Christian love requires us to oppose them. In the end, the paper concludes that Christian love does not require conformity to these COVID policies, and that arguments that try to link Christian love with these policies ultimately fail.
Love for neighbor requires many things. Reverence for God. Respect for others. Self-sacrifice. Patience. Humility. But does love for neighbor require Christians to stay home, wear masks, and take the vaccines? Does Christian love require that we conform to the social expectations placed on us by the urgencies of COVID-19?
Christians should not view conformity to social expectations or non-conformity to the same as inherently evil. Conforming to social expectations can be wise, loving, and good at times. Likewise, non-conformity can do just the same. Social conformity can also reveal weakness and fear. Conformity can be a mask for moral cowardice, self-preservation, and lack of critical thinking. Similarly, non-conformity can be selfish, imprudent, and destructive. It can be shameful, arrogant, and counterproductive. Christians should prize neither conformity nor non-conformity as goods in themselves, and we should not gauge the dictates of Christian love by one or the other. Rather, we should look to the fundamental pre-condition of love to determine our social responsibility: namely, truth.
Truth is the pre-condition of love. Love requires truth before anything else. Without truth, there can be no love. Christians have an obligation to seek the truth, to study it, to defend it, and to allow it to confront our preconceived biases and falsehoods. We know that if our actions do not conform to what is true, then it is impossible for us to act in a loving way toward our neighbor. We must first act in accordance with truth before we can act in accordance with love.
Whether or not Christian love requires our conformity to social expectations and political mandates depends first on whether these expectations and mandates align with truth. If they do not, then Christian love requires that we oppose them, not conform to them. Hence, the demands of Christian love for our neighbor requires a commitment to truth, even if that commitment entails non-conformity to COVID restrictions.
Sometimes the most loving thing we can do is resist social conformity for the sake of truth. By refusing to conform to falsehoods (or at least what we believe are falsehoods) and acting in accordance with the truth, we are able to establish the precondition of loving our neighbors. Conversely, if we act against the truth (or what we believe to be the truth), then it is impossible for us to love our neighbors. For it would not be loving to perpetuate narratives that are not true or that we do not believe are true. Nor would it be loving to remain silent when we believe the culture promotes what is not true. This principle is amplified when such non-truths have adverse burdens on our neighbors such as economic, mental health, or social trials.
The connection between truth and love applies whether we find ourselves supporting or opposing COVID restrictions. It applies to masks, vaccines, lockdowns, and every other aspect of the pandemic. The goal of this article is to assess the merits of COVID restrictions and their connection to the Christian doctrine to love our neighbor. It will focus on the general argument made by prominent evangelical leaders, namely that following the three major COVID narratives are a way for Christians to demonstrate love for their neighbor. Conversely, they argue that Christians who oppose these COVID narratives are acting in an unloving way toward their neighbors. By COVID narratives, I refer to a broad support, justifications, and policies for official COVID-19 responses. Specifically, these narratives include the three most controversial aspects of the pandemic response: lockdowns, masks, and vaccines. With each narrative, the article addresses the question of whether Christian love demands conformity to that specific narrative.
In March 2020, the world came to a grinding halt. Cities, states, and entire countries closed down over fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses ceased operations. Schools stopped holding in-person classes. Churches shuttered their doors. The global economy shut down. Never before had humanity responded to anything with such drastic measures–and so suddenly. In the first few weeks of the lockdowns, it was unknown whether a response of this magnitude was warranted. For all anyone knew, this virus could kill hundreds of millions of people. Health authorities had very little knowledge of COVID’s mortality rate and virulence. Political leaders feared a shortage of medical supplies, hospital beds, and ventilators. Something had to be done, right?
The initial plan was a two-week lockdown period that would give the nation enough time to prepare for the first wave of infections. Just “two weeks to stop the spread” we were told. Two weeks to “flatten the curve.” Well, the two weeks came and two weeks went. Two weeks turned into four weeks, then two months, then several months, then all year. The slogan “stop the spread” morphed into “slow the spread.” Two weeks morphed into two years.
Rising from the chaos was an unquestionable moral imperative to “Stay Home and Save Lives.” The way to stay home and save lives was to keep society locked down indefinitely. What started as two weeks to stop the spread became a semi-permanent feature of American life. Worse yet, public health authorities gave little to no indication of when society could return to normal. The lockdowns were made worse by the arbitrary definitions of “essential” and “non-essential” activities. From state-to-state and country-to-country, there was very little consistency in terms of what activities were permitted, which businesses and activities were essential, and why.
At the center of the Christian world was the question of whether church gatherings were essential or non-essential. Each state seemed to take a different approach to this issue. The severity and duration of the lockdowns, along with the criteria for what constituted an “essential” activity, seemed to change from week-to-week. A few brave pastors questioned the wisdom of the lockdowns, especially when it came to places of worship. They asked simple questions like, Why are liquor stores and casinos allowed to remain open while places of worship are not. Why, are drive-thru restaurants permitted to serve food, but churches cannot hold communion services? Many Christians looked for answers from political leaders and public health officials, but none were forthcoming.
The confusion and frustration was exacerbated by political unrest during the violent summer riots of 2020, a period when public officials repeatedly equivocated on the meaning of “essential.” BLM political protests were deemed “essential” because racism had become a public health crisis. At the same time, churches were deemed non-essential and told to close. Worse, churches that continued to gather were criticized by political leaders, public health officials, and even fellow Christians. These churches were attacked as dangerous instigators, irresponsible, selfish, and unloving. They were accused of making the pandemic worse for being disobedient to authority and for harming the witness of the Gospel. The only way to act responsibly and lovingly toward one’s neighbor was to “trust the science” and do what the authorities said. Accepting indefinite, perpetual lockdowns was the true measure of Christian love.
Despite the inconsistencies, there was no shortage of articles from prominent evangelical websites, blogs, and podcasts on how Christians could demonstrate love for their neighbors during the lockdowns. In order to fulfill the demand of Christian love, in order to demonstrate love for one’s neighbor, it was imperative that everyone stay home and save lives. After all, according to one New York Times editorial, staying home and saving lives was the proper Christian response to coronavirus. Evangelical writers responded shortly thereafter with theological arguments for why staying home during the pandemic fulfilled the command to love thy neighbor. One evangelical writer even suggested it would be best for churches to remain closed in order to avoid making the culture war worse than it already was.
Rather than question why churches had been labeled “non-essential” by secular authorities, many evangelicals resigned themselves to “making the most” of this new classification. Writing for Relevant Magazine, Ryan Sidhom suggested that the designation of church as non-essential was not all that bad. Rather than challenging the assertion that physical church is non-essential, Sidhom suggested that we instead redefine church in a way that makes physical gatherings unnecessary. The evangelical rationalization of lockdowns as an act of love found widespread support among Christians and non-Christians alike.
Are lockdowns really a demonstration of Christian love? It does not seem so. Nearly two years after the initial lockdowns, we are only just beginning to comprehend the magnitude of economic devastation wrought by the narrow focus on stopping the spread of COVID. Through this overly narrow focus on COVID, mass lockdowns have created a cataclysm of poverty, mass unemployment, inflation, mental health issues, and preventable diseases. Since the lockdowns began, the world has witnessed a six-fold increase in people suffering from famine-like conditions. Hundreds of millions of impoverished people have been pushed to the brink of starvation as supply chains were broken. Due to the food shortages, economists now believe that COVID-19 lockdowns will potentially kill more people than the virus itself.
Lockdowns have also had a devastating impact on mental health. On the west coast, suicide rates have begun to outpace COVID deaths. Globally, mental health experts have warned that suicide has become a “pandemic within a pandemic.” In December 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services even issued an advisory for youth struggling with mental health issues caused by the pandemic. Sadly, as many as 53 million new cases of depression have been caused by the pandemic, most due to social isolation from the lockdowns. Finally, the amount of people needing mental health treatment in the U.S. is now outpacing available mental health resources.
Overall public health has also suffered from the lockdowns. Drug overdoses hit historic highs in 2020. Ironically, a recent 2021 study showed that lockdowns had little to no effective on overall mortality rate. According to Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford University, lockdowns also did little to reduce mortality rates in the elderly and other vulnerable populations.
The lockdowns also devastated small businesses and the working class, something economists warned about early in 2020. Thousands of small businesses close every year, but in the first year of the pandemic alone, an additional 200,000 small businesses closed permanently. Millions have been bankrupted and forced to start over.
Recent data from the World Bank shows that COVID-19 policies directly affected poor and middle-income populations more than any other group. Prior to the pandemic, global poverty rates were largely on the decline. Tragically, that trend has now reversed as poverty rates are increasing in the wake of lockdowns. There is no question that the poorest and sickest among us are the greatest victims of our collective decision to stay home and save lives.
Sound economic reasoning has wide-sweeping implications for what it means to love one’s neighbor. Economics is not just about consuming things or making money. It is not just the nerdy science of GDP, national budgets, stock markets, and big banks. Economics is the story of human action. It is the way human beings allocate their resources in order to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Economics is how human beings live and how they love one another.
A proper understanding of economics and economic policy is essential for understanding how Christians can best love their neighbors. We need good economic policies so that we can love our neighbors well through work, production, sound money decisions, and distribution of goods. We need good economic policy to make food cheap and widely available for the poor. We need good economic policy to allow businesses to flourish and, therefore, to help people find meaningful work and a means to survive. We need good economic policy to make healthcare and medicine widely available. We need good economic policy to help Christians love their neighbors.
Evangelicals who supported lockdowns in spite of the obvious devastation they were causing seemed to miss the connection between sound economic reasoning and the Christian imperative to love one’s neighbor. Rather than supporting the lockdowns, evangelicals should have been asking whether lockdowns reflected sound economic thinking. In other words, they should have been asking if the lockdowns were the most loving thing to do?
Is it loving to knowingly destroy the means of work and production that help the weakest among us to survive? Is it loving to ignore the devastating effects of lockdowns on millions of starving children in the developing world? Is it loving to disregard the rise in suicide rates, depression, and undetected cancers? Is it loving to cast aside the spiritual needs of one’s community by allowing church to be classified as “non-essential?”
Were lockdowns a demonstration of Christian neighborly love? Clearly, they were not.
As the pandemic grew worse, public authorities imposed mask mandates on the general public. It was asserted on several occasions that mask mandates would drive down COVID transmission, save millions of lives, and put the pandemic behind us.
Mask mandates received widespread support among many influential evangelicals and were generally accepted as a temporary, but necessary, policy for churches to accept. Mask wearing quickly became a way for Christians to show solidarity with the wider community. According to a 2020 editorial published by The Gospel Coalition, loving thy neighbor was the No. 1 reason Christians believed they should wear a mask.
As the months wore on, however, resistance to mask mandates and mask-wearing began to increase dramatically among evangelicals. In response, academics explored creative ways to reduce mask resistance among these groups, the most effective being the “love thy neighbor” argument. Others attacked evangelical mask resistance as a “perverted sense of individual freedom.” Some went so far as to question the faith of those who opposed mask-wearing. The topic even extended into discussions of what it meant for evangelicals to be pro-life. For evangelicals supporting mask mandates, the argument was quite simple. Masks save lives. Saving lives is a loving thing to do. In order for Christians to demonstrate true love toward their neighbors, then mask compliance was a moral imperative and a Gospel issue.
The logical move from Christian love to mask compliance seemed obvious to many within the evangelical community, but the move was not as obvious as many claimed. Most of the arguments about mask compliance and Christian love assumed at least one of two propositions that were actually the central points of contention. They assumed that either 1) mask mandates worked to stop the spread of COVID, or 2) even if the mandates didn’t work, there was little to no harm in complying with the mandates. The problem for supporters of mask compliance, however, was that they simply assumed these propositions were true when in reality these claims had been greatly contested from the start of the pandemic. These claims about the mask mandates were not shared assumptions among those opposing mask compliance.
If the first premise is true, that mask mandates work, then perhaps a strong case can be made for (temporary) mask compliance as a demonstration of Christian love. If the second premise is true, that there is low risk in complying with mask mandates even if the mandates do not work, then the case for mask compliance as Christian love is still viable, just weaker. However, if either premise turns out to be false, then arguments about Christian love are not only wrong, they can be damaging to the unity and witness of the church. Thus, in order to launch a theological counterargument against mask compliance as Christian love, opponents of mask mandates should deal directly with these two propositions.
Consider the first proposition: mask mandates work to stop the spread of COVID.
If mask mandates worked, what kind of evidence should we expect to see? For starters, we should expect to see a clear correlation between mask mandates and the reduction in COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, these correlations should be immediately obvious to everyone, but are they? If not, why not?
In a recent book, Unmasked: The Global Failure of Mask Mandates, researcher Ian Miller shows that the most common justifications for mask mandates used by authorities over the last two years are now completely defunct. For example, Miller shows that the famous Kansas study promoted by the CDC purportedly showing the effectiveness of mask mandates was later found to be invalid. Upon further scrutiny by researchers from the Heritage Foundation, the Kansas study was exposed as only having observed timescales which favored one outcome; namely, showing that mask mandates reduced the spread of COVID. As the timescales were increased, mask mandates showed no correlation with COVID cases in the state of Kansas. It was not just mask mandates in Kansas, however, that failed to correlate with a reduction in COVID cases. Mask mandates from all over the world failed to reduce COVID-19 cases. From Europe to Asia to South America, and throughout the United States, mask mandates failed to correlate with a reduction in COVID-19 cases. Even the recent N95 mask mandates have shown little effectiveness against COVID, certainly not enough to justify their imposition on an entire population.
Given the lack of correlation between mask mandates and COVID cases, is mask compliance really a demonstration of loving thy neighbor, or is it possible to love thy neighbor while opposing mask compliance? If there is no correlation between mask mandates and saving lives, why would there be moral link between wearing a mask and loving thy neighbor?
Given the inconsistencies above, and the failure of mandates to live up to their promise, it seems clear that Christians can legitimately love their neighbors while opposing mask mandates and mask compliance. They can do so because loving one’s neighbor, in a broad sense, means more than merely keeping one’s neighbor from dying of a disease. Loving one’s neighbor encompasses an entire array of life goods, including normal human interactions, community, healthy childhood development, political freedom, fellowship of the body of Christ, the respect for conscience, and the right to live as human beings were made to live. Christians can object to mask mandates precisely because they love their neighbors, because they value this array of other goods that life offers. It would be one thing if mask mandates definitively worked against the spread of COVID-19, but such is not the case. The failure of mask mandates, along with their continued abuse by authority figures, should actually lead us to reject the connection between Christian love and mask compliance. If mask mandates do not work, then wearing them is certainly not a dictate of Christian love.
What about the second proposition in the “love thy neighbor” argument? Recall that the second proposition asserts that even if masks did not work, there is little or no harm in complying with them. After all, better to be safe than sorry. Does the assumed low risk of harm from mask mandates establish the connection between Christian love and mask compliance? It does not seem so. For we could ask, what exactly are mask mandates accomplishing if they are not reducing the spread of COVID-19? Do they give people a false sense of safety? Do they create a dangerous precedent for abuse of power? Do they encourage people to play along with social activities of questionable credibility? Do they divide the church? Do they cause unknown physical or mental harms? In other words, do we actually know that mask mandates are harmless, or should we consider the possibility that they can lead to harm?
It is certainly plausible that mask mandates create social harms on various levels. For starters, consider that human beings are naturally predisposed to trust authority figures. When authority figures make public statements, there is a considerable portion of the public that will accept what the authority says at face value. They will not naturally question the authority figure, even if the authority is wrong. This is a problem for mask mandates. If an authority imposes a mask mandate while claiming the mandate will stop the spread of COVID, the general public will be inclined to accept this claim even if it is false. In this case, even if masks did not actually work against COVID, the mask mandate would perpetuate a false belief in the minds of the general public that mask mandates do work against COVID.
The tendency of the general public to believe what they hear from authority figures highlights the importance of truthful communication. It also highlights why it is incumbent upon critically thinking Christians to ensure that authority figures are, in fact, communicating truthful information. We must ask ourselves whether Christian love permits us to tolerate and promote noble lies told by authority figures. If loving one’s neighbor requires a commitment to truth, would the doctrine of Christian love demand conformity to false narratives about masks, or would Christian love dictate that we challenge these narratives and the authority figures who promote them?
Speaking of authority figures, consider another potential harm from supposedly harmless mask mandates. There seems to be no clear limiting principle for their imposition on the general public. Imagine that an authority figure has convinced the general public that wearing a mask is effective (even if it’s not). Having established a precedent for mask mandates with COVID-19, the authority figure could impose mask mandates for all kinds of reasons. Why should mask mandates stop with COVID? After all, if they are possibly effective against COVID (so the public thinks), is it not reasonable to believe masks are effective against other viruses? If so, another mask mandate could save lives. The seasonal flu kills an estimated 50,000 people every year, according to the CDC. Why should we tolerate this loss of life? Imagine the lives that could be saved through perpetual mask mandates. Why would society ever return to normal life?
Obviously, this scenario seems absurd, but so did COVID mask mandates at the time they were originally implemented in 2020. Few of us believed we would still be wearing masks to work, school, grocery stores, in church, and on planes two years later. Yet here we are. Is the prospect of universal mask mandates for other viruses any less plausible? Clearly, the horror of living with mask mandates for the rest of our lives should tell us something about the dangers of current mandates. If we are not sure that they work, if the data suggests they do not work, should we accept these mandates or oppose them? If Christian love requires a commitment to truth, would it not require us to raise concerns about the dangerous precedents being set right now?
In addition to the hypothetical harms mentioned above, consider also the real-world harm caused by mask mandates. A late 2021 study from Brown University showed that mask mandates pose great risk for the emotional, social, and psychological development of children, yet mask mandates continue to be imposed in public schools, even though, according to Harvard Medical School, children have an extremely low risk of being seriously harmed by COVID. Should Christians accept the argument that loving thy neighbor means we should accept these mandates? Of course not. To the contrary, it is becoming increasingly clear that opposing these mandates may be a moral imperative.
Lastly, consider the potential harm done to the church body. Mask mandates continue to divide church congregations along masked and mask-less lines. Yet, the dominant sentiment in the evangelical mainstream is for Christians to wear masks as an act of love for their fellow Christian. For example, Brett McCracken of The Gospel Coalition uses the Romans 14 principle of stronger and weaker brothers to argue that Christians should wear masks in order to honor the “weak” in their midst. The weak Christians in this context are those who feel the need to wear a mask in church. Weak Christians, McCracken argues, are in danger of being judged by stronger, mask-less Christians and in danger of being pressured to de-mask in church against their wishes. It would be wrong, McCracken concludes, for stronger Christians to pressure weaker Christians into de-masking. Stronger Christians would fail the command to love their neighbor. Therefore, stronger Christians should elect to wear masks in order to avoid divisiveness in the church.
What McCracken overlooks, however, is that divisiveness cuts both ways. Christians opposed to mask-wearing may be in just as much danger of being judged and pressured by the weaker Christians to wear a mask in church. In fact, the danger of judgment and pressure seems to be predominantly coming from the “pro-mask” crowd, not the other way around. One would be hard-pressed to find a church that does not allow congregants to wear masks voluntarily. Most churches allow this without question. In contrast, it is much easier to find churches that require congregants to wear masks and, in these contexts, to find Christians who pressure other Christians into wearing masks. It should be clear that divisiveness is not a one-way street. Is it not possible, as Romans 14 commands us, for each believer to respect the choices of others without casting judgment? In the name of Christian love for one’s neighbor, should we not allow each Christian to decide what is best for themselves and their family?
Given these potential harms, it is dubious to claim that mask mandates are harmless and that Christian love calls for compliance. The most likely and the most charitable position is to respect the decision of each person. That would be an act of love.
At last, we come to the most controversial of COVID policies: vaccine mandates. Just like mask mandates and lockdowns, vaccine mandates have been imposed in almost every country, and just as evangelical influencers have been quick to frame lockdowns and mask mandates within the doctrine of Christian love, they have also been willing to do the same with vaccine mandates.
Although there is a wide disparity in the restrictions for unvaccinated individuals, many politicians and public health officials have expressed little concern about the moral legitimacy of vaccine mandates. Evangelical leaders have fared no better. Only a few voices crying in the wilderness have shown the courage to challenge the moral legitimacy of these mandates. Opposition has largely come from working class communities and more conservative evangelical thinkers. Sadly, many of the most vocal, famous, and influential evangelicals have done little to resist these mandates or show an awareness of their dangers.
Two issues — vaccines and vaccine coercion — should not be conflated. While they are related, they are morally distinct. It should go without saying that opposing vaccine mandates does not mean one opposes vaccines. Christians have historically supported advancements in medical science, including the miracle of vaccines. The morality of vaccines is not in question. What are in question are the theological arguments used by evangelicals against other evangelicals who express concern about the COVID-19 vaccines.
The distinction between vaccines and vaccine coercion seems to be lost or ignored by many prominent evangelical publications. Instead of noting this distinction and recognizing the possibility of favoring vaccines while opposing mandates, they have framed the issue almost exclusively as a question of Christian love. The basic proposition put forward in these arguments is a simple one: Love thy neighbor, get the vaccine. There are numerous versions of this argument, but the basic structure is the same: The vaccines are safe and effective and getting the vaccine is a demonstration of love.
When the vaccines first received FDA emergency authorization, several evangelical pastors quickly and publicly called for Christians to take the vaccines as an act of love. Christianity Today ran several articles explicitly calling for evangelicals to take the vaccines in order to “demonstrate their love for neighbors, care for the most vulnerable, and protect their own bodies.” However, as vaccine mandates were imposed at the state and local levels, many of these evangelicals went silent on the ethics of vaccine coercion, even while prominent churches imposed vaccine requirements as a condition of church participation.
They also became apoplectic when a large swath of the evangelical community showed “vaccine hesitancy” deep into 2021. In their attempt to counter this opposition, prominent evangelical leaders promoted the official message of the federal government, even strategizing with public health officials on how to coach pastors in advocating for the vaccines in front of their congregations. Notable theologian Russell Moore posited that support for the vaccines and federal COVID policies was a way to “fight conspiracy theories,” as if conspiracy theories were the most common reasons for vaccine hesitancy. They were not the most common reasons, not even close. Similarly, David French suggested that vaccine refusal in evangelical churches indicated “an information problem and a spiritual problem.” The information problem was a lack of education and knowledge about the safety of vaccines. The spiritual problem was a lack of trust in authority and love for one’s neighbor. The implication of Moore’s and French’s arguments are clear: Loving thy neighbor means getting the vaccine and encouraging others to do the same.
Ironically, what Moore, French, and other notable evangelical leaders failed to recognize was their own willingness to be manipulated by the federal government. While attempting to frame the debate around the issue of Christian love, they overlooked how the federal government had exploited their platforms to promote a particular message about the vaccines to evangelical churches. The federal government did so while simultaneously marginalizing religious objections against the government’s narrative. Consequently, the desire of these evangelicals to promote vaccines with confidence on behalf of the government without addressing the religious problems of the mandates revealed a shocking lack of awareness or acknowledgment for the No. 1 contributor to vaccine hesitancy among evangelical congregations. It was not conspiracy theories that led evangelicals to resist the vaccines; it was the coercive tactics used by the government.
By failing to address this concern, by not defending the right of conscience, these prominent evangelical voices missed the mark. Instead, they became unwitting conduits of government propaganda.
Propaganda is an inflammatory term, one that conjures images of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It is not a term that should be used flippantly in reference to evangelicals engaging in public debate. However, the current situation demands strong consideration for its use. For two years, evangelicals have watched politicians and public health officials construct a narrative that looks more like something out of a dystopian novel than what we should expect from a healthy, functioning liberal democracy.
Consider, for example, the shifting definitions about vaccines as more data has come to light. Prior to the pandemic, the definition of vaccine was widely understood to mean something that conferred immunity against a virus — flu, smallpox, measles, Hepatitis B, and so on. In 2021, however, the CDC conspicuously changed the definition of vaccine as it became evident that the COVID vaccines did not confer immunity, or prevent infection, or stop viral transmission. Instead of conferring “immunity,” the COVID vaccines only conferred “protection.”
As if this move wasn’t strange enough, the definition of “fully vaccinated” also began to shift. Initially, “fully vaccinated” initially meant two shots from the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and one shot from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Public health officials either were not aware or chose not to make known the possibility of waning efficacy and the need for a third (and perhaps a fourth) booster shot. The authorities admitted this possibility to the public only after it became impossible to deny. At that point, the definition of “fully vaccinated” shifted from two shots to three, and possibly more.
It gets worse. Not only did the two-shot mRNA vaccine not confer immunity, it also declined in its efficacy to protect against COVID after only a few months. Thus, the term “efficacy” also shifted in meaning. An “effective” COVID vaccine did not strictly refer to the prevention of infection, illness, or transmission as previously thought. Rather, it referred to the vaccine’s ability to reduce hospitalizations and deaths. Combine these strange shifts in meaning with the unsurprising discovery that vaccines immunity was found to be inferior to natural immunity and that vaccines were found to be less effective against new variants. Consider also that vaccinated individuals could spread COVID just as well, sometimes at higher rates, than unvaccinated individuals.
By now the original messaging about the effectiveness of vaccines has become so incongruous with the data that authorities have all but abandoned it. Instead, they have turned to hypothetical counterfactuals like, “If we hadn’t had the vaccines, it would have been much worse.” This seems like an obvious ploy to maintain the credibility of public health measures and those who imposed them. That credibility, however, is certainly now in question. As comedian Bill Maher quipped in response to a recent study showing the ineffectiveness of COVID measures, “How much wrong do you get to be while still holding the default setting for people who represent the science?” For the Christian community, we can take it one step further. If loving thy neighbor means conformity to the COVID-19 “science” — and by science we mean politics — then it is increasingly clear that loving thy neighbor amounts to little more than acquiescence to absurdities.
Now consider all of this vaccine confusion in light of the totalitarian nature of vaccine mandates. Is it a surprise that vaccine hesitancy skyrocketed as governments began to deny basic human rights by imposing vaccine requirements on the general public? All over the world, governments imposed vaccine requirements for access to basic human goods like transportation, commercial activity, socializing, or even leaving home. In the United States, President Biden attempted to impose a de facto vaccine mandate through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but he was stopped by the Supreme Court. Had he been successful, Americans would have been required to vaccinate simply to work and earn a living.
Predictably, these vaccine mandates have been met with severe backlash by the public. Entire countries have been thrown into chaos as the working classes object to government overreach. The public backlash should not surprise anyone. After all, when have free countries ever tried to impose such broad and totalizing requirements on a population? Lest all of western civilization become a biomedical security state, a public backlash was predictable and necessary.
Given the controversies about vaccine coercion, we should ask serious questions about the tendency among prominent evangelical leaders to link the doctrine of Christian love with vaccine propaganda and coercion. We can rightly ask whether or not it is loving to condone or overlook this coercion. Is it loving to dismiss the concerns of evangelicals who oppose vaccine coercion? Is it loving to ignore questions about long-term data, effectiveness against future variants, inferiority to natural immunity, and newly discovered side-effects?
These questions are not intended to discredit the COVID-19 vaccines or to discourage anyone from taking the vaccines. To the contrary, individuals can have good reasons to take the vaccines, but each person should be free to decide for themselves. The conscience must be free. Christians can recognize that modern medicine, including vaccines, represent achievements that reflect the glory of God through humanity’s cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28). Christians can celebrate these advancements as gifts from God (James 1:17). At the same time, Christians should acknowledge that medical advancements are good insofar as they glorify God, but not when they detract from His glory by marring and defiling His creation or by usurping humanity’s trust in Him (2 Cor. 16:12). Whereas the former attitude is good and right, the latter attitude constitutes idolatry and, therefore, sin.
If a Christian fears sinning in anything, he has a duty to refrain on the basis of conscience. Concerning the COVID-19 vaccines, if a Christian has full trust in God and freedom of conscience to take the vaccines, it is his right to do so. However, some Christians believe — for various reasons — that taking the vaccines reflects hasty moral judgment, or that the vaccine mandates wrongly (idolatrously) elevate certain aspects of life over others. On this basis, they fear that taking the vaccine gives moral ascent to procedures and policies they believe are wrong. Each Christian has the right to object to the vaccine on this basis. Each Christian must be free to trust God with his or her personal health choices, including COVID-19 vaccines.
Christian love should not place demands on the Christian individual in either direction. Christian love requires respect for the conscience. Christian love precludes the use of guilt-based and moralistic platitudes. Christian love demands humility and patience, not guilt trips. If evangelicals misuse the doctrine of Christian love in their promotion of COVID-19 vaccines, they may end up doing more harm than good.
There are several reasons to think this is likely. For starters, the vaccine mandates have divided communities and fomented political unrest. Amidst such political divisions, it is extremely unwise to attach the virtue of Christian love exclusively to one side of the debate. Second, attaching the notion of Christian love to controversial vaccine mandates runs the risk of pressuring individual Christians to violate their conscience. It also runs the risk of radicalizing and dividing church congregations. Third, the totalitarian nature of vaccine mandates has established a dangerous precedent for government overreach into the life of the church. It is difficult to estimate the gravity of what has taken place over the last two years. It is equally difficult to predict the length to which governments will go to impose their will on churches during the next public emergency.
Considering all of these factors, does Christian love demand conformity to the COVID regime, or should Christian love require a humble search for the truth, even if that truth is uncomfortable, unpopular, and perhaps in opposition to the COVID regime?
In public policy, there is no such thing as a free lunch. There are always trade-offs. Our decisions are not risk-free; they always carry risks and rewards. The collective decisions in response to COVID-19 are no different. There are trade-offs to lockdowns, mask mandates, and vaccine requirements. Some of these tradeoffs are immediately known; others will take years to fully comprehend. Some are seen; others are unseen. Whenever societies take such drastic and unprecedented measures, there is always a heavy price to pay.
The full impact of COVID policies remains to be seen. The evidence certainly suggests that the “cure” for COVID may end up being worse than the disease itself. The price for “trusting the science” may result in far less trust for science overall, not because science is flawed, but because “the science” has been politicized and weaponized by technocratic bureaucracies and used to divide and coerce the public. The quest for monomaniacal public health goals (and the measures used to achieve those goals) has exacted a heavy toll on the credibility of public health experts and politicians alike.
The damage wrought by COVID policies is why “love thy neighbor” arguments should be used sparingly and with humility toward what we know and what we do not know. Public policies, especially those as divisive and controversial as COVID, must be evaluated on the basis of their correspondence with truth, not on Christian sentimentalism. Unlike sentimentalism, which is based in feeling and easy to project onto any debate, the truth is often hard to come by. It may take years to finally find “the truth” about COVID policies and their lasting impact. Christian love demands we exercise humility in these matters.
This is why public health measures should always be tested for their soundness and validity before evangelicals reinforce them with a doctrine of Christian love. Hubris convinces us that we know more than we actually do. Humility demands we admit what we do not know. It is hubris, not humility, which can lead evangelicals to weaponize Christian love on behalf of coercive policies, policies that, in hindsight, may end up being a demonstrable failure of love. Thus, Christian love demands that we understand of the consequences of public policy and that we respect the right of conscience. Christian love requires truth, not conformity to the COVID regime.
Tim Yonts, Ph.D.
Dr. Tim Yonts is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Liberty University where he teaches courses in ethics, theology, apologetics, and worldview. He holds a Master of Divinity from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Theological Studies: Christian Ethics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His specialties include metaethics, political theology, economics, natural law, worldview, and cultural engagement. His interests include social justice, critical race theory, natural rights theory, and the intersection of Christianity with emerging technologies, particularly the role that blockchain, cryptocurrency, and decentralization can play in the preservation of political, religious, and economic freedom.
While earning his M.Div and Ph.D., he also served as a Chaplain Assistant for the U.S. Army National Guard. He is currently a writer and contributor for various outlets, including the Center for Apologetics & Cultural Engagement and the Standing for Freedom Center.
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 See the recent interview Ian Miller gave on “The Tom Woods Show.” Miller goes into great detail on the ineffectiveness of the N95 masks and charts from Europe showing that they failed to contain the spread of the Omicron variant. “The Tom Woods Show,” Ep. 2051, “The Definitive Masks-Don’t-Work Episode,” accessed February 6, 2022, https://tomwoods.com/ep-2051-the-definitive-masks-dont-work-episode.
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 CDC is now considering extending the gap between vaccine shots over concerns of side effects. See Michael Erman, “U.S. Considers Lengthening Gap between First 2 COVID Shots to 8 Weeks,” Reuters, February 4, 2022, sec. United States, accessed February 9, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-considers-lengthening-gap-between-first-2-covid-shots-8-weeks-2022-02-04; See also, Alexander Tin, “CDC Plans Meeting on Rare Heart Inflammation Following COVID-19 Vaccines,” CBS News, last modified June 4, 2021, accessed February 9, 2022, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/covid-19-vaccine-cdc-meeting-myocarditis-heart-inflammation.
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