Facemasks and shielding – can Romans 14-15 help us make decisions about in person church?

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Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen churches increasingly returning towards a situation similar to pre-COVID normal. We are a long way from reaching that situation yet for a few reasons. First of all, the summer months meant that many churches had reduced attendance due to holidays anyway. Secondly, many churches have continued with some measures to seek to reduce the risk of transmission including contact tracing and mask wearing.

It is worth noting that churches are no longer under any legal compulsion regarding the wearing of facemasks. Even in so far as there was advice for people to wear them on a voluntary basis, this advice was specifically regarding what to do in crowded venues with poor ventilation.  Many churches will gather in well ventilated venues and are unlikely to have capacity issues in the short term that would lead to crowding.[1] Therefore the issue here is primarily about how the congregation feels about mask wearing. I suspect that most congregations will include a spectrum of views and feelings from those who are very anxious about meeting without masks and those who are frustrated by having to wear them.

Another issue churches are going to need to consider is whether or not and how long to continue with the providing online content for those who are not yet ready to return to in person worship.[2] Again, there are some people who remain extremely concerned about returning to in person worship but willing to engage through ZOOM, Facebook or YouTube. Yet the work involved in preparing such content creates pressure on other believers.  How long then should we continue with such content?

Applying the Gospel to ethical deisions

Can Romans 14-15 help us with such decisions?  These chapters are part of the practical outworking of Paul’s Gospel – or Pauline Theology as presented in Romans 1-11. In those chapters, Paul shows that the Gospel is good news and necessary news for Jews and Gentiles alike because all have sinned and defied God’s revelation.  We are all unrighteous, deserving the penanlty of death and we are all without excuse.  Therefore Jew and Gentile alike need the good news of Jesus’ atoning death that leads to forgiveness and to justification -we are declared right with God. The assurance and security this gives should not lead to ongoing sin nor to rivalry and division but to sanctification and unity as we are conformed as a body to Christlikeness. That’s where Romans 12-13 take us, our response to the Gospel is sacrificial worship expressed in love, respect and honour for each other, preferring each-others needs and using our gifts to serve one another. 

Paul applies this to a specifical example that a number of churches were experiencing in terms of the relationship between Jewish and Gentile believers.   Some of those from a Jewish background still felt strongly that they should observe the kosher dietary laws -there was an added concern that the meat on sale in the local markets had first been offered for sacrifice at the pagan temples. It would be very hard to avoid idol sacrifice meat and to ensure kosher provision. Therefore, their practice would be to follow Daniel’s example and stick to vegetables and water (some may have even seemed physically weaker as a result).  Others, particularly Gentile believers will have argued that under the New Covenant such restrictions did not apply and so they were free to eat whatever they chose.

Paul’s advice/teaching was as follows.

  • That their motivation should be love leading to a humble concern for the rights of others.
  • That their conversation should be marked by grace so that there was no condemnation for those who disagreed and acted differently.
  • That the aim should to see one another built up (as opposed to torn down) leading to maturity
  • That their goal should be to bring all believers together in unity to honour and worship God.

And how were they to do this?  Well Paul says that the strong should bear with the weak. Those who didn’t feel under compulsion to observe the dietary laws were theologically correct. The New Covenant lifted that burden. This meant that, on this specific issue, they could be considered strong in their faith and those refusing to eat were weak on this matter. The world encourages us to take advantage of our strength but Paul said that the church in Rome should not be like the world. Instead, those who were strong, rather than forcing their position on the weak should bear with the weak, forgo their own rights and be willing to abstain from non-kosher meat when eating with those who could not.

Why were they to do this?  Well, I think there were two reasons. The first is explicitly stated by Paul. If they forced people to go against their conscience then they would be causing them to stumble and sin. We don’t disciple others by forcing them to do something they don’t agree with, rather we disciple them by carefully teaching God’s Word so that it corrects them.

The second is more implied than explicitly stated but I think we can infer it from elsewhere in Scripture. Consider how Paul handles the circumcision issue on Galatians.  There, some were refusing to eat together with uncircumcised believers. Table fellowship was important to the culture it marked out who belonged and who was welcome. By saying you could not eat with someone, you were saying that they didn’t belong. A secondary issue (circumcision) was becoming a primary issue because it was limiting the effect and inclusion of the Gospel. 

In the same way, I think this is what happens here in Romans, by insisting that people must go against their conscience in order to be welcome at your meal table, you exclude those who stick with their conscience from table fellowship and therefore declare that they are not welcome, not included, that they don’t belong. The secondary issue of eating pork becomes aa primary issue of salvation.

Is Romans 14-15 relevant to our context?

So, what about our situation now with COVID?  Well, there is a slight issue here with applying Romans 14-15 to our decisions about face masks and in person worship.  The issue is explained by Andrew Bunt here.  First of all, can we be sure about who are the weak and strong in our situation?  Is the issue clear cut?

As Paul looked at the different opinions among the Roman Christians, he knew that the position of the strong was actually correct. He makes this pretty clear (Romans 14:20), and yet doesn’t go to any length to convince those who disagree.

Our situation seems quite different. The matter is not clear-cut. The evidence on masks is not clear-cut. The potential outcomes of different choices we make and the development of the pandemic over the coming months are not and cannot be known. And different circumstances and situations mean different ones of us are understandably inclined to take different levels of risk. Unlike Paul’s situation, this is not one in which we can isolate a clear, one-size-fits-all right answer, and yet also unlike Paul’s situation, some seem rather clearly to claim – or at least strongly hint – that there is.”[3]

I agree that Blunt has a point here.  The “weak” in Romans 14 were refusing to do something that Scripture permitted. Paul gave explicit Apostolic revelation on this.  There isn’t a Scripture saying that we are free to wear facemasks or not wear them nor one saying that we are under compulsion during the pandemic. So things are not as clear cut. 

And yet, I think there is a bit more guidance and revelation here.  We know what Scripture intends for us in terms of being able to come together for worship, we know that there is an importance to this so that we want to be able to minimise barriers to this.  We know that we have instruction to listen to love our neighbours and to respect our neighbours.  We also know that we have responsibility to subdue and fill Creation. Finally, we have Scriptures such as Romans 1 that point to General Revelation, Common Grace and Common Wisdom.  Whilst none of that gives clear commands on whether or not to wear masks and how far to stay apart, I think it does give us a bit more instruction than we sometimes assume. It instructs us to act wisely, responsibly and in a loving way to the best of our abilities with the best information available to us.

May I say even so gently that when we rush to the extreme of complete COVID denial, when we see some of the reckless behaviour of ignoring guidance and regulations, when conspiracy theories spread that we are out of line with what God says. But that runs the other way too, when we allow scare stories and suspicion of authority to come together so that we are paralysed in fear then we are equally out of line with God’s revelation to us. In both those cases, it’s about weakness and fear overwhelming us. In both those cases I think that simply enforcing something on people won’t help.

So at the moment if the evidence points to a situation where things are a little mixed and uncertain then that’s how we should rightly respond in our actions with appropriate responses that show we understand the uncertainty.  If things become more certain one way or the other then it would be right to respond by either removing or introducing restrictions.  Staying in line with Scripture here is about applying wisdom to our contexts -not all Scriptural instruction comes in the form of commands.

I have another challenge to Bunt’s argument and it is this.  I think it applies generally  to most issues that come under weak/strong application today. The reality is that Paul at one level was addressing a very specific issue in salvation history at the very point when we were moving from the Old Covenant to the New, when the Gentiles were being ingrafted in and when the revelation of Scripture was incomplete. So no pastoral situation today is going to be an exact fit with that.

Indeed, we will often be uncertain about who the weak are and who the strong. So, I tend to run with some good advice I was given many years ago.  The best thing to do in such situations is to assume that you are the stronger brother and to respond to Paul’s instructions by putting the needs of those you consider weak first.  That prevents a situation where someone uses spiritual strength to override others but it also guards against churches being held up by someone playing the “weak brother card” in order to exercise a veto. 

Bunt also suggests that:

“The Roman believers were divided over the matter of how best to honour God in the way they lived their lives. Their differences of opinion were based on different levels of ability (‘the weak’ in Romans 15:1 is literally ‘the unable ones’) to accept the wonderfully all-encompassing impact of what God has done in Christ. This is why Paul specifies in his first reference to the weak that they are ‘weak in faith’ (Romans 14:1). They are not people who are just generally cautious or sensitive or uncertain, they are struggling to accept one particular element of truth about the work of Christ.

The Roman situation was in this sense a matter of faith. I would argue our situation is a matter of wisdom and love. The question is not whether we have the faith to go without restrictions – as if God has promised to protect us from illness, including its potential long-term effects and death. The question is whether it is wise to do so at the moment and whether it is loving to those who are more vulnerable – whether that be a physical vulnerability to the virus or a mental health vulnerability to anxiety after a year which has been incredibly hard on the mental health of many people.”[4]

I’m not fully convinced by this. First of all, I think there are faith/trust issues at stake here. Sadly, I have heard the suggestion that people wearing masks are not ready to die and be with Christ or lack faith for protection.  Then there’s the challenge for those of us who are worried about getting back to normal. Are we ready to trust God to look after his church and to love us the same when we can’t meet as usual? 

Secondly, what is this about if not about “how best to honour God?”  A lot of the discussion over the past year has been about whether we honour God and are good witnesses by our compliance with COVID measures or by challenging them.  Furthermore, our desire is, or should be to encourage maximal praise by drawing all of God’s family together to worship both by making melody in our hearts and by, as far as possible joining together in song. 

Conclusion

Therefore, I think the guidelines I drew from Romans 14-15 apply well to COVID-19. As you think about how to respond as a church to the next stage of this present crisis, I would encourage you to ask:

  • Are we motivated by love leading to a humble concern for the rights of others?
  • Is our conversation by grace so that there was no condemnation for those who disagreed and acted differently?
  • Is our aim to see one another built up (as opposed to torn down) leading to maturity?
  • Is our goal to bring all believers together in unity to honour and worship God?

[1] If you are likely to experience crowding then that suggests that even regardless of COVID you have a capacity issue that needs tackling if you don’t wish to constrain growth.  I would recommend that you therefore use this as a push to bite the bullet and tackle the capacity issue by planting, multiplying services or addressing your physical venue size.

[2] There may well be other reasons for providing online provision because there are other factors that restrict the ability for some people to access in person church services.

[3] Is It Really About the Weak and Strong? | Blog | Think Theology

[4] Is It Really About the Weak and Strong? | Blog | Think Theology