Churches should respect individual liberty by not regulating or restricting worship. Churches should neither forbid nor require masks. They should not forbid elderly people from attending service. They should not be paternalistic. They should treat people like responsible adults and trust them to make wise decisions. And through their preaching they should encourage members to do the same: to respect the decisions of others, whether to wear a mask or not, so that we might worship together in love and unity.
It was early May of 2020 and our session was considering how to reopen responsibly. The big question being discussed was: “should we require people to wear masks?” I couldn’t believe we were considering this. At that time mask wearing was not very popular in our region and there was still a lot of mixed messaging from health institutions about the widespread use of masks. Many people did not wear them because they did not believe they were effective or did not believe that the virus was a serious threat. In my mind, for a church to mandate parishioners to wear masks in worship was, at worst, forcing some to comply with a medical rationale that they did not accept in order to participate in public worship. To put it negatively, we would be saying that unless you comply with a certain medical rationale then you are forbidden from worshipping at our church. I did not believe that any church had a right to do this.
When I had the chance to speak against adopting such a policy, I raised one question. I asked: “Suppose that we have this mandate in place until a vaccine becomes available. Will we then mandate that parishioners become vaccinated in order to participate in worship? How far are we willing to go with these medical mandates?” At that time, not a single person on session believed that a mask mandate would ever be in place for that long. It was believed that this policy would be fairly brief. Within a few weeks, we would be able to lift it. With this rationale, the motion to mandate masks passed unanimously.
Since then the political and social situation has changed. With rising case numbers across the country, masks are being mandated by churches, businesses, cities, and even entire states. And there is no end for these mandates in sight. I continue to oppose mask mandates in general, but especially in the context of public worship. This position is widely demonized and, I believe, misunderstood. So I write this to provide three rationales for opposing mask mandates and conclude by reflecting on what I think churches should be doing instead.
Rationale # 1 – Mask mandates violate personal autonomy and informed consent
Anyone familiar with medical ethics will recognize these terms. The principle of personal autonomy is “the moral right on the part of the [individual] to self-determination concerning one’s own health care.” This principle is generally accepted when it comes to healthcare more broadly.
For example, suppose a certain doctor believed strongly that all people should get the flu vaccine. But they know that a sizable number of their patients will refuse this vaccine. So suppose this doctor devised a method of administering this vaccine to all of his patients without their knowledge or consent and does this with hundreds of patients. We would consider this to be unethical. Why? Because the doctor has violated the personal autonomy of his patients. He has overridden their ability to make this decision for themselves.
Because people have personal autonomy, a doctor must practice informed consent with his patients. “…informed consent is a reference to a patient’s agreement to, and approval of, any recommended treatment or procedure that is intended to be of therapeutic value to the patient but only on the condition that the patient has an adequate understanding of all of the most important and relevant information concerning the treatment or procedure in question.”
Is personal autonomy a biblical concept? A certain understanding of it is. As creatures of God who are under God’s authority, no human being is absolutely autonomous. That is to say, we do not have the right to do whatever we want to do with our bodies because our bodies belong to God. We may only do with our bodies what God permits and commands us to do. We do not have the right to commit suicide, for example, because our lives are not our own to take. But just because we are not absolutely autonomous does not mean that we have no autonomy over our bodies. This is especially true in relation to other people and to governments.
We might pose the question another way – under what circumstances do other people or governments have the right to command my body? The Bible clearly forbids kidnapping. Exodus 21:16 says – “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” So there is certainly some sense in which others do not have rights over my body and this is the kind of bodily autonomy I am interested in here. I at least want to argue here that when it comes to making responsible medical decisions, individuals have personal autonomy. Every adult has the right and the responsibility to evaluate health threats, consider health care options and precautions, and make their own decisions about what kinds of health care they will pursue.
Mask mandates violate these principles because they assume any number of the following things: 1) People are unable to properly evaluate health risks for themselves, 2) If people do evaluate health risks, they will come to the wrong conclusions, 3) It is necessary for governing bodies to play a paternalistic role and mandate the medical decisions that they believe are best.
Rationale # 2 – Mask mandates amount to a violation of conscience
There is a minority of people who would choose not to wear a mask for conscience reasons. Upon researching the issue, they do not believe that masks are meaningful in terms of reducing spread. They furthermore believe that the risk of contracting COVID 19 and dying from it is low enough to be an acceptable risk. And so they have come to a different conclusion and choose not to wear a mask. There are many other items of potential concern such as the politicization of masks, not wanting to participate in virtue signaling, and concerns about government overreach which would incline them to refuse to wear a mask.
However we may evaluate their views and the dictates of their conscience, to mandate the wearing of masks would be to force them to act against their conscience in order to participate in society or in the church. It is within the rights of a private business to mandate that their customers wear masks because it’s a free market. If customers don’t like that policy, they may shop somewhere else. But I do not believe it is within the rights of churches to make similar mandates. Why is this?
First, a biblical reason. The Bible says that we should make room in worship for people with various views. In Romans 14:1ff Paul lays out principles for Christian liberty and says: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” Paul is dealing with disagreements in the church concerning matters that are not essential to the gospel. In doing so, he clearly makes room for differing views and implores both parties to welcome one another and not to impose their views on the other. The wearing of face masks in public is a personal decision and a conscience issue. It would be wrong for a church to step into the arena of either mandating the wearing of masks or forbidding the wearing of masks. People should be free to act according to their conscience on this issue.
Second, a reason comes from the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). The first Preliminary Principle listed in the PCA’s Book of Church Order (BCO( states that “God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men…which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable.” Since the wearing of face masks is not clearly required by the word of God, even in the careful examination of the sixth commandment, it should not be required by any church in order for people to engage in public worship. Furthermore, BCO 6-4 states that communing members of the church are entitled to all the rights and privileges of the church. To forbid a member from participating in worship or the sacraments because they are not wearing a face mask unconstitutionally deprives them of these rights.
When a church mandates masks it is essentially forbidding anyone who has a conscientious objection to masks from participating in worship. The church has no right to require this.
Rationale # 3 – Mask mandates open the door for government interference
If the church accepts a government mask mandate, then it is unclear to me where a church would draw the line on how much they will allow the government to regulate their worship. In more liberal states like California, the government has forbidden churches from singing, celebrated communion, and even from assembling altogether. When a vaccine is made available it’s likely that in some states – if not in all – that this vaccine with also be mandated. Will the church then attempt to enforce or support a mandate like this?
If we are willing to accept these kinds of mandates then what other mandates will we be willing to accept? When states determine that it is illegal hate speech to say that homosexuality is a sin, will churches comply? Of course, this is a slippery slope argument. And I generally try to avoid slippery slope arguments because they can be fallacious. Just because a church accepts a mask mandate does not necessarily mean that they will accept a mandate against celebrating the sacraments. But I am concerned nevertheless. The state does not have any right to regulate worship and we should be cautious to accept any steps in that direction. It’s much easier to fight this fight over small matters than over larger matters. It’s easier to take the keys out of the ignition of a tank before it is rolling than to try to stop a tank that’s rolling toward you.
What should churches be doing?
There are three guiding principles for churches that I would suggest – safety, pastoral wisdom, and individual liberty.
Churches are responsible for creating safe and healthy environments for their members and neighbors. So I support any measures that churches would freely choose to take in this regard. This could include making hand sanitizer and PPE readily available, taking extra measures to clean the environment, and attempting to create space to make social distancing possible. Churches might consider meeting outdoors or opening up multiple spaces in their buildings to that people can feel free to spread out. What people choose to do with the resources and space that the church makes available is up to each individual. But what the church can do here is promote and facilitate safety.
Churches should also be pastorally wise. Whatever decisions are made on these issues are going to be alienating to someone. Churches will likely be losing members no matter what kinds of decisions they make. But pastors and churches do need to be aware that their congregation contains a diversity of people, views, and situations. Churches have young people who aren’t vulnerable as well as old people who are vulnerable. Churches have people who refuse to wear masks as well as people who want masks mandated. The divides are not just societal but exist within the church. It’s the responsibility of the church through its preaching and its policies to create space for as many kinds of people to worship as possible. This is another reason why churches might even consider creating many different worship options for people to worship according to their conscience during this season.
Finally, churches should respect individual liberty by not regulating or restricting worship. Churches should neither forbid nor require masks. They should not forbid elderly people from attending service. They should not be paternalistic. They should treat people like responsible adults and trust them to make wise decisions. And through their preaching they should encourage members to do the same: to respect the decisions of others, whether to wear a mask or not, so that we might worship together in love and unity.
Billy Otten is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Assistant Pastor at Faith PCA in Cincinnati Ohio.
 1 Corinthians 6:19, Romans 12:1, Psalm 100:3