In July, New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian — Tim Keller’s theologically conservative church, firmly embedded in the mainstream of American evangelicalism — quietly posted a statement to its website regarding service attendance: “Individuals who are fully vaccinated … are welcome to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary without social distancing and masks will be optional … Individuals who are not fully vaccinated … are welcome to sit in the balcony …”
The language of the announcement was understated but the import was not — Redeemer Presbyterian had effectually segregated its church body based on vaccine status.
Redeemer, at least, is trusting the honor system to enforce its (literally) divisive policy. Anyone over 12 years of age who wants to attend Episcopal worship at St. Peter’s in Rockland, Maine; St. Luke in the Fields in New York; or Grace Cathedral in San Francisco will have to show vaccine passports.
So will anyone looking for fellowship at Atlanta’s Piney Grove Baptist. Those not prepared to provide proof of vaccination will be asked to provide a doctor’s note explaining why they can’t get the shot. They’ll also need to reserve a place in the sanctuary online and sign a waiver to enter. Oh, and that bit about “suffer the little children to come unto me”? That’s out too. Because the FDA has yet to approve COVID inoculations for youngsters, anyone 11 and under isn’t allowed in the building.
It’s hard to reconcile such onerous requirements with a Jesus who loves the little children, ministered to lepers, and tells the world, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” But such is religious practice in the pandemic era, when the idol of safety far outweighs any command to welcome the stranger, make disciples, or avoid partiality by seating some visitors in favored places.
Grace Cathedral’s pastor told Deseret News that even though no government regulation compelled his church to require vaccines, he ultimately wanted to emphasize “health over accepted traditions.” By that he evidently meant traditions like those found in Romans 15:7: Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.
Given how often progressive ministers baptize leftist rhetoric with out-of-context Christianese, it would be easy to assume mandates are only cropping up in churches that proudly fly rainbow flags and hang Black Lives Matter banners in their sanctuaries. But that is hardly the case.
No one could accuse Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina — one of the largest non-denominational Evangelical churches in the country — of leaning left politically or theologically. Yet last month, in a memo shared with The Daily Wire, chief of staff Jordan Shaw announced that for the safety of preschoolers, employees in the Child Development Center would be required to get the vaccine.
His announcement minced no words, saying, “For those who choose not to comply with the vaccine requirement and those who refuse to disclose their decision by October 8, we will consider that you have voluntarily resigned.”
Despite the fact that children face extremely minimal risk from COVID exposure, Calvary offered no exceptions for the young, female teachers who made up approximately half the staff, some of whom had objections based on the new vaccine’s still-unknown, long-term impact on fertility and pregnancy.
The result of this gauntlet throw? Dozens of families who relied on Calvary for childcare were left in the lurch due to caregivers who quit rather than comply. “Is this a joke,” one mother wondered when told she’d have two weeks to make other arrangements at a time when daycares have miles-long waiting lists. “How in the world can they treat us like this?”
So much for vaccine requirements providing a loving Christian witness to a watching world.
While the public has been busy arguing over whether individuals of faith can credibly claim a religious exemption to government or employer vaccine mandates, many churches have moved well past that stage and have already taken on an enforcer role.
Regardless of one’s feelings on the efficacy and safety of COVID vaccines, Christians must ask whether, in this uniquely unsettled time, where the need for fellowship has arguably never been greater, God would have his shepherds draw this dividing line through his flock.
Love Your Neighbor, Get Vaccinated?
Many of the pastors mandating vaccines are doing so based on Mark 12:31: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
They’ve been bolstered in this logic by several influential Christian thinkers, foremost among them Christianity Today editor (and former Ethics and Religious Liberty Center president) Russell Moore and political pundit David French.
Both, in their constant insistence through multiple articles, podcast interviews, and social media posts that neighbor-love equals COVID inoculation, have reinforced the sort of spiritual social credit system some churches are adopting by separating vaccinated Christians from unvaccinated.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Moore equated believers who get the shot with the friends of the paralyzed man in the Gospel of Luke, who dropped his bed through the ceiling by ropes. “Similarly,” he argued, “evangelical Christians should join with other Americans in holding the ropes for those who are in danger of serious illness or death.”
What Moore’s metaphor didn’t grapple with is the fact that if ropes (vaccines) are effective, the rope-holders (vaccinated) should face no additional danger from the rope-less (unvaccinated). Nor did it address the fact that, like breakthrough infections, having a rope in your hand won’t necessarily prevent you from falling through the roof onto someone else’s head (i.e.., spread the virus). It just means you likely won’t hit the ground as hard.
But if Moore went for a rather tortured analogy, at least it was a positive one. French, for his part, has gone to extreme negatives, lumping Christians who choose not to get the vaccine in with corrupt leaders and gross sexual abusers and accusing them of not knowing their Bibles.
In a reference to the scandal-ridden former head of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., and the late evangelist Ravi Zacharias, who has been credibly accused of rape, French wrote in The Dispatch: “[If] I’m concerned for the health of the church, then corruption at the highest levels of the world’s largest Christian university, sexual predation by arguably Christianity’s most influential apologist … and disproportionate disregard for the health and well-being of neighbors do more harm than the worst of Joe Biden’s culture war regulations …”
Is this how one Christian shows love to others who have a different point of view on a medical issue — comparing them to depraved and abusive hypocrites? French has given believers who want to violate Romans 14 and despise their brothers and sisters over disputable matters no shortage of ammunition.
In a separate essay in September, he wrote that the only reason “white evangelicals” have been resistant to getting the vaccine is because of “partisan politics” and because they “don’t have much clue about any of the teachings of the church.”
French makes no distinction between skepticism over vaccines in general and the new COVID vaccine, and he offers no evidence that hesitant Christians are guilty of scriptural ignorance. Is it any wonder, given French’s outsized influence over high-profile pastors and Christian leaders (as evidenced by the many op-eds, interviews Christian media affords him) that so many churches feel justified in separating these “lesser believers” from others?
In yet a third essay in August, French asked rhetorically, “What does the anti-vax Christian seek? The liberty to risk both the lives of others (through the physical danger of COVID and/or the danger of swamped medical facilities) and their pursuit of happiness …”
His concluding argument was repeated ad nauseum on Twitter as a defense for mandates: “Such an extreme and dangerous assertion of individual autonomy at the expense of colleagues and neighbors is not a legitimate exercise of religious liberty.”
In making such arguments, French, Moore, and their acolytes have created a false moral caste system that puts one group in the loving and selfless category and the other in the unloving and selfish. At no point in their writing on the subject have they seriously considered whether those who choose not to get the vaccine can do so unto the Lord, convinced in their own minds of the rightness of their decision and at peace with their own consciences.
Yet the possible, rational arguments for delaying or refusing the vaccine are numerous.
Some young women might naturally worry about the adverse effects this new treatment could have on a future or current pregnancy. Parents of teen boys may look at the latest studies showing higher rates of myocarditis in that group compared with the likelihood of their son contracting a life-threatening case of COVID and decide the vaccine isn’t worth the risk. Adults with known heart issues might also fear the side effect of heart inflammation. Some pro-lifers may object to the fact that it was developed from fetal cell lines initially obtained from an abortion. And, of course, many may have weathered a bout of coronavirus and concluded, based on sound scientific evidence, that they already possess all the protection the vaccine might convey (if not more) thanks to natural immunity.
All of these reasons, too, can be motivated by love: love for an unborn child or hoped-for child, love for a young man, love for the family that needs you, love for the cause of life, and, yes, love for the liberty of the country you call home.
Few pastors bring as much depth of understanding to the vaccine mandate issue as Kirk Milhoan, who, along with shepherding a church in Maui, also happens to be a pediatric cardiologist and was a medical missionary to Liberia during the most widespread Ebola outbreak in history.
He tells me that given that the vaxed are nearly as infectious as the unvaxed once they contract COVID; it’s nonsensical to claim the first group is putting the second at risk. The only people who are really safe to be around, he says, are those who have recovered from COVID.
“They’re the only ones who have very good, very durable immunity,” he explains, “And that has been shown over in 84 studies.”
Based on this, Milhoan believes this “love your neighbor” messaging to push mandates stems not from a theological or scientific rationale but a social one. “I’m afraid the church is just mirroring our society right now as opposed to being led by Jesus Christ. We’re afraid of Facebook posts. We have become pleasers of the world, as opposed to pleasers of God,” he says.
The driving force of this failure? Shame.
“No disease, not even HIV, has been attached to this much shame,” says Milhoan. “If you get Covid, people will say things like, ‘How did you get it? Were you having fun? Did you go to a party, go to church, what did you do? What spreading event did you go to?’ There’s so much shame associated with it.”
The fear that has driven ministries to look for ways to baptize mandates with religious language comes in part, he believes, from government pressure. And he’s witnessed firsthand health departments inexplicably zeroing in on churches as risk spreaders.
One nurse in his congregation, for example, became infected while working on the COVID floor, yet health department officials insisted the man must have contracted the virus at church. “‘They said [to the nurse], ‘Do you go to church?’” Milhoan recalls. “He goes, ‘I was working on the Covid floor.’ The health department still responded, ‘Well, we think you got it from the church.’”
Milhoan believes government officials have focused on observant Christians out of a desire for control. “They wanted everybody to isolate. The churches didn’t want to isolate. So public health came up against the churches and vilified them.”
Now, the desire to prove such vilification wrong may, ironically, be leading ministries to fail to love their brothers and sisters in the faith.
In a move even their more liberal counterparts in the United Methodist Church have so far resisted, the International Missions Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention recently announced that any missionary or member of a missionary family over the age of 16 must be vaccinated against COVID. (Originally it was 12 until outcry prompted IMB leadership to raise the threshold).
Yet there is emerging evidence that for younger males, the risk of heart inflammation from the vaccine is higher than the risk of COVID hospitalization. Due to research like this, four Scandinavian countries have stopped administering some COVID vaccines to younger demographics.
Despite new studies like this, the IMB has offered no exception for teen boys or young adult men to its vaccine mandate.
A Witness to the World
According to the CDC’s latest data, only 57 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. Meaning 43 percent, nearly 100 million people aren’t. After two years that have witnessed massive social upheaval, unprecedented isolation, and increasing economic uncertainty, how many of those 43 percent may be suddenly hearing a still, small voice in the back of their minds reminding them of a long-forgotten Sunday School lesson? Perhaps a lesson about the one who offers a peace that passes understanding.
And when those people come to the church doors in search of balm for their bruised and battered souls, should the pastor’s response to them be, Show me your papers?
What of brothers and sisters who have long gathered together as one, unified body in Christ. Should these temporal, disputable matters separate them, creating a caste system in God’s house between clean and unclean?
Romans 16:17 has a warning about such behavior: Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.
As Phil Johnson, Pastor Executive Director of Grace to You, one of the most popular sermon broadcast ministries in the world, told me when I asked him about church vaccine mandates:
When a congregation gathers to offer their collective praise, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Any policy that creates a class of untouchables and imposes physical segregation has deliberately erected a middle wall of separation in the church. It’s hard to imagine anything more inappropriate—or more at odds with the biblical principles of church unity and fellowship.
In a later email, he added:
“All of these rules have one thing in common: they erect barriers that hinder authentic displays of biblical-style love and Christian fellowship. That same aberrant notion of “love” has consigned countless elderly people to virtual seclusion, and it has left multiple thousands of terminally ill people to die in isolation, cut off from loved ones. That is not at all how Scripture says authentic love works.
The New Testament book of James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction”—not to find as many ways as possible to obstruct Christian fellowship and service to one’s neighbors.
Precluding Christian Liberty, Binding Consciences
In an article for Public Discourse, three prominent evangelical ethicists followed the argument of loving your neighbor to make an argument for Christians getting vaccinated. Yet unlike French and Moore, Andrew Walker, Matthew Arbo, and C. Ben Mitchell allowed for freedom of conscience.
“Despite our own convictions about the rigorous protocols to ensure safety and efficacy,” they wrote, “we believe that Christian liberty requires that each person be free to choose whether or not to receive these new vaccines.”
And that should ultimately be the crux of the matter.
That ubiquitous word “science” itself shows this isn’t about safety so much as it’s about Christians deeply embedded in the higher ranks of secular culture burdening their fellow believers with man-made standards for Christian fellowship. It’s about heaping Pharisaical judgment on the Body of Christ.
Back to Romans 14, it contains a message that seems as applicable to COVID vaccines as it is holy days and dietary restrictions:
The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt for the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall…
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind …You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister[a]? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister… So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.
Milhoan tells me that as a pastor and a Christian doctor, he is far more afraid of the forces trying to separate the church than he is of COVID or the unvaccinated.
“You know,” he says, “the one who goes about like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour always wants to separate us from the herd. We’re much more vulnerable that way. God has called us to minister to others and meet together. He never called us to a risk-free fate.”
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.