Monday, August 17, 2020

On the Validity of Mask Mandates, Obedience to the State, & Christian Liberty

 by Michael R. Burgos

By means of several executive orders, my state (Connecticut) has required its citizens to wear masks whenever they are closer than six feet from someone who is not in their family. The latest order (7NNN) requires those who have medical conditions that preclude mask-wearing to produce documentation of such from a medical professional. The state justified this order upon the basis of “the effectiveness of using masks or face coverings in preventing the transmission of COVID-19.”

Several phenomena have arisen simultaneously: Most retailers claim that all who enter must wear a mask due to the government’s requirement and most have posted employees at entryways in order to ensure compliance. Such a claim is, in fact, completely erroneous since the government’s order does not require masks at all times in retailers but instead only when one is within six feet of a non-family member. Admittedly, if a private business requires masks from its customers, that is their prerogative. Any that desire to do business there ought to abide by the owner’s stipulation or find another business to patronize. However, to pin the blame for masks-at-all-times on the state is a deceitful—as that is simply not what the state has required.

Additionally, many Christians have argued at length upon the basis of a variety of biblical passages, that compliance with this requirement is our Christian duty. The typical trope argues that 1.) the Bible states that we are to obey the governing authorities upon the basis of Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17 and 2.) in keeping with the apostle Paul’s teaching on Christian liberty in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, we ought to wear masks since we might offend a weaker brother. Both of these claims suffer from an invalid application of the relevant biblical texts. However, prior to addressing these, let us consider the state’s justification for it's order.

Masks & Facts

Do masks prevent the transmission of COVID-19? One might assume as much given the constant barrage of mask exhortations from virtually every media outlet, politician, and even many churchmen. The evidence tells another story. A 2009 study that evaluated mask use with regard to H1N1 influenza concluded, “There is little evidence to support the effectiveness of face masks to reduce the risk of infection.”[1] Another 2009 study concluded, “Face mask use in health care workers has not been demonstrated to provide benefit in terms of cold symptoms or getting colds.”[2] A 2015 study concluded that the “penetration of cloth masks by particles was almost 97% and medical masks 44%.”[3] Further, researchers found that the use of cloth masks may increase one’s risk of infection: “Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.”[4] A 2016 study determined that there is “insufficient data” to show that even N95 respirators prevent respiratory infections.[5] A 2019 study showed that “N95 respirators vs medical masks…resulted in no significant difference in the incidence of laboratory-confirmed influenza.”[6] A study completed in February of 2020 concluded “The use of N95 respirators compared with surgical masks is not associated with a lower risk of laboratory-confirmed influenza.”[7]

But wait! Wasn’t there a study just published in July that claimed the opposite, namely, that universal masking leads to a lower infection rate?[8] The Wall Street Journal and other news sources pounced on this study in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of mask mandates. The study, which focused upon front line health care workers, attributes masks to a lower infection rate but then notes that this “could be confounded by other interventions inside and outside of the health care system.” That is, the lower infection rate may be due to other factors (e.g., interventions such as hand washing, social distancing, etc.). The point here is that there is no evidence that masks preclude the transmission of COVID-19. Rather, the best the state and others can point to is research that observes correlation and not causation. Add to this sordid state of affairs the statistical probability of healthy people suffering from a debilitating case of COVID-19: People under 65 years of age make up only 2.6 % of COVID-19 fatalities.[9] As one immunologist put it, “Those young and healthy people who currently walk around with a mask on their faces would be better off wearing a helmet instead, because the risk of something falling on their head is greater than that of getting a serious case of Covid-19.”[10]

Masks & Obedience to Authority

Does Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 require Christians to obey the government at all times? Clearly, that isn’t the case since Peter and John demonstrate that there are times when obedience to the state is immoral (Acts 4:19-20). Imagine for a moment that the state mandated that the entire citizenry wear masks in their homes at all times. Would we object to such a requirement? Rather, ought we object to such a requirement? Of course. On what grounds? The state does not have the authority to mandate what we do in our homes.

I hear many voices cry out, “Wait, aren’t we supposed to abide by Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2?” Certainly, as the highest authority in our land is the constitution and it is that document that precludes the state from infringing on our personal liberty. Mandating that we wear masks in our homes or in our churches is an infringement upon liberty as the state does not have the authority to do so. For that reason, our Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 duty is to uphold the authority of our land (i.e., the constitution) and to reject the tyranny of the state. Furthermore, Romans 13, despite the assumption of many to the contrary, is a prescription of what the state ought to do and not a description of what the state was in Paul’s day or our own.

Lest you think that I’ve gone off the rails and into some libertarian quagmire, consider an analogous situation in the church. Say your local board of elders begins to mandate that everyone believe that Jesus wasn’t really born of a virgin and that the celebration of Christmas is wrong. Meanwhile, the Bible explicitly states that Christians ought to obey their elders and submit to their authority. Ought we believe wrong things merely because the elders told us to? Certainly not. Rather, a higher authority prohibits our obedience to the elders in this specific area. Moreover, the elders derive their authority from the Scriptures. Similarly, when a governor is elected into office, he places his hand upon a Bible and swears to uphold and defend the constitution. Like elders, his authority is derivative and dependent upon a higher authority. Whereas we ought to disobey our elders when they go against the Bible, we also ought to disobey the governor when he acts like a tyrant and treats the constitution as if it doesn't exist. This ethos is what our nation is built upon.

Masks & Christian Liberty

In 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle taught that Christians may exercise their liberty to engage in non-sinful activity so as long as this exercise does not confound the conscience of a brother. The example provided in that passage is that of meat offered to idols. While new believers, having come out of paganism, may associate that meat with what they left behind for Christ, other Christians viewed idols and paganism as illegitimate and essentially fake (i.e., “An idol has no real existence” in v. 4) and thus looked at this meat as a mere meal. Paul concluded this scenario by asserting that we ought to curtail our liberty if it may lead to wounding the conscience of a weaker brother (v. 12).

Are masks a legitimate application of this principle? Note first that the meat in question was associated with idolatry. Masks are not associated with idolatry nor any sin in particular. Second, the weak conscience of the immature brother in 1 Corinthians 8 was due to his new faith and background in paganism. Those who might be offended at resistance to mask mandates don’t have a background that associates non-mask-wearing with sinful behavior and their offense is not due to a recent conversion. Rather, the likely reason for people to become offended at non-mask-wearers is fear. These folks fear that if everyone doesn’t wear a mask, they too will become sick and possibly die. Not only is that fear misguided, it is predicated upon a worldview that places life and death in the hands of men. Christian liberty isn’t the issue and thus the application of 1 Corinthians 8 to masks is unwise at best.

How then ought we deal with our brother who is offended at our lack of masks? We ought to inform him that there is no evidence that masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and that it is unreasonable to expect everyone around us to do something merely because we want them to. There is no law against a difference of opinion in the church. Further, we ought to point him to a sovereign God who holds life and death in his grasp. 


[1] B. J. Chowling, Y. Zhou et al, 12/16/2009, “Face masks to prevent transmission of influenza virus: a systematic review,” Epidemiology and Infection.

[2] Jacobs JL, Ohde S, Takahashi O, et al, 02/12/2009, “Use of surgical face masks to reduce the incidence of the common cold among health care workers in Japan: a randomized controlled trial,” Am J Infect Control.

[3] C Raina MacIntyre, Holly Seale et al, 04/22/2015, “A cluster randomised trial of cloth masks compared with medical masks in healthcare workers,” BMJ Open.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jeffrey D. Smith, Colin C. MacDougall et al, 05/17/2016, “Effectiveness of N95 respirators versus surgical masks in protecting health care workers from acute respiratory infection: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” CMAJ.

[6] Lewis J. Radonovich Jr, Michael S. Simberkoff et al, 09/03/2019, “N95 Respirators vs Medical Masks for Preventing Influenza Among Health Care Personnel: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” JAMA.

[7] Youlin Long, Tengyue Hu et al, 02/03/2020, “Effectiveness of N95 respirators versus surgical masks againstinfluenza: A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Wiley.

[8] Xiaowen Wang, Enrico G. Ferro, Guohai Zhou et al, 07/14/2020, “Association Between Universal Masking in a Health Care System and SARS-CoV-2 Positivity Among Health Care Workers,” JAMA.

[9] 08/12/2020, Weekly Updates by Select Demographic and Geographic Characteristics, CDC.

[10] Beda M Stadler, 07/01/2020, “Coronavirus: Why everyone was wrong,” Medium.

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