You may know that my denomination has put out a statement on the religious foundations for medical exemptions. The early returns are quite encouraging; many report successful requests for exemption. There have been a few rejections, but it seems that the majority are being approved. At the same time, a number of reasonable questions and concerns have arisen regarding the basis for requesting religious exemptions. It’s one thing to object on constitutional or medical grounds, but is it proper for Christians to object on religious grounds? This is not a direct reply to anyone, but a general defense of my denomination’s statement and using religious exemptions in general against vaccine mandates.
Is a sincerely held belief that the vaccines were rolled out in medically dubious or irresponsible ways a “religious objection?” Is the sincerely held belief that mandating any kind of health care is immoral and unbiblical count as a legitimate “religious objection?” And if we press our Vantillian sword to the corners and insist that there is no moral neutrality anywhere in the universe, have we thereby turned every sincere conviction into a “religious” one, one that is so inherent to our Christian religion that every true Christian must have the exact same conviction or else be considered unfaithful? On the other hand, if a religious exemption request is denied and a conscientious Christian determines to comply with the mandate and get the vaccine, has he or she essentially undermined their religious exemption request?
Defining Our Terms
Part of the challenge with these questions is that some of the discussions on these matters assume a definition of “religious objection,” rather than defining, explaining, and defending the definition carefully. For example, is a legitimate “religious objection” only registered when an individual believes that compliance will necessarily cause them to sin? I agree that such a situation certainly qualifies as a legitimate religious objection and that it is the strongest objection, but is it the only legitimate ground?
The concern is that elevating a deeply held personal opinion to the level of “article of faith” opens the door to at least two possible problems: either binding Christian consciences’ by one man’s personal conviction, or effectively reducing central articles of faith to the level of “strongly held personal opinions.” In one scenario, you might end up prosecuting Christians for drinking wine in moderation, and in the other scenario, you might fail to prosecute Christians for denying the Trinity because, after all, they have “strongly held personal opinions.” I want to state my unequivocal agreement with this concern. We must not allow that to happen.
However, the only sure way to avoid those scenarios is complete fidelity to Scripture. So let us agree that Scripture teaches that the highest, purest, clearest religious objection to any commandment of men is that God expressly forbids it (e.g. worshiping other gods, bowing down to statues, participating in murder, etc.) or that God expressly commands what a commandment of men forbids (e.g. gathering for worship, praying to the Triune God, providing a thoroughly Christian education for your children, etc.). The book of Daniel makes this clear. We must not bow down to the statue when it is commanded by the king, and we must not cease from praying when it is forbidden by the king. “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20).
Secondly, and below that, but still significant, would be the scenarios where there is some disagreement but which an individual is convinced that for them personally, some action would be sinful. Paul covers this in Romans 14, and he expressly teaches that even though there may be differences in conscience over holy days, unclean food, or drinking wine, Christians should not cause one another to sin against their conscience. On the one hand, those who believe they are free in these areas are admonished not to cause their brothers to stumble, and on the other hand, we really must recognize the danger already present in this scenario that those who have scruples with wine (for example) will elevate their personal conviction to the level of an article of faith.
With regard to the vaccine mandates, I would put the use of aborted fetal cells here. There is a strong argument to be made that it would be sinning to participate knowingly in the development and testing of these vaccines on aborted baby cell lines. Those who are convinced of this believe that this falls into the first category: they believe they are being commanded by the government to participate in or at least in some measure condone or support the murder of the unborn, regardless of how many generations of cell lines removed from the original. Nevertheless, the case is not so clear and airtight to me to justify bringing charges against brothers and sisters who think or believe differently. Clearly those who view holy days, food, or wine differently cannot bind one another’s consciences, and that would include not bringing one another up on charges of sin. Here you already have some measure of protection both for differing convictions and therefore also against elevating different convictions to an article of faith.
Where The Rub Comes
My third tier for legitimate religious objection/exemption to mandates is when someone else is manifestly sinning against us. Scripture is clear that when others sin against us, varying degrees of compliance and resistance are acceptable. Joyful submission of slaves to harsh masters and gracious submission of wives to disobedient husbands would fall into this category (cf. 1 Pet. 2-3). Arguably, even here, there is a subtext of resistance, of overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21). But even if that were not the case, there are other clear texts that invite varying responses: Abigail was a wise and godly woman when she went behind her husband’s back (1 Sam. 25), and slaves are not ungodly for seeking their freedom (1 Cor. 7:21). So related to this would be the general exhortation to obey civil authorities (Rom. 13, 1 Pet. 2) with many examples of submitting to unjust treatment (Israel in Egypt, Paul and Christ submitting to arrests), alongside the examples of godly civil disobedience: Ehud assassinating Eglon, Gideon evading taxes, David and Paul evading capture, and Rahab and the Hebrew midwives lying their heads off to their kings.
In other words, we see multiple examples of other people sinning against God’s people, and they in turn have the freedom to submit and endure that or resist, object, or appeal it. And the question here for our purposes is whether or when that objection or appeal may be made expressly as a “religious” appeal.
Jesus actually speaks to this question: “‘What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?’ When Peter said, ‘From strangers,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the sons are exempt. However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me’” (Mt. 17:25-27).
Jesus says that His disciples are “exempt” from paying unjust taxes, taxes levied on conquered slaves. And Jesus expressly grants this exemption to those who are “sons.” Jesus says that His disciples do not owe this tax (it would not technically be a sin to evade it) because in fact they are “sons” (of God, presumably), but He says that it would be tactically unwise and unhelpfully offensive to resist at this point (and could therefore be a sin on other grounds).
Elsewhere, Jesus teaches that some taxes are due to Caesar, but He famously relativizes that authority: what bears God’s image must be rendered to God (Mk. 12:17). This is none other than an appeal to jurisdictions. People bear God’s image and therefore belong to God, and God in His wisdom assigns specific and limited jurisdictions to which His people rightly submit.
These jurisdictions are not merely deeply held personal convictions. They are objective moral (religious) absolutes, reflecting the image of the Triune God. But notice that there is religious freedom to submit to or resist jurisdictional overreach, depending on particulars. The authorities exceeding their God-given authority are always sinning, and God’s people are therefore always free to appeal that jurisdictional overreach on religious grounds, on the basis that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, and we are sons of God through faith in His name. But depending on the context, likely outcome, and various tactical details, Christians have the religious freedom to submit to sinful overreach (appealing to God for justice) or they may appeal directly for justice. This justice would ideally be available for all, but a religious exemption is a legitimate stop-gap measure.
For example, God expressly commands Christian fathers to bring children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). This is a biblical standard going all the way back to the Mosaic law, wherein parents were charged to teach their children to love God with all that they are, all day long (Dt. 6:4-9). This task of enculturation was both spiritual and physical, moral and vocational. In fact, one of the words Paul uses is paidea, which was often translated “culture.”
Therefore, if a mandate came down from Resident Biden that because of “health concerns” and the “common good” all K-12 students must attend one of the government-approved education centers (it’s for your safety, after all), I would urge everyone to object strenuously and on religious grounds. What religious grounds? Ephesians 6, Deuteronomy 6, and Mark 12 for that matter — our children bear God’s image and therefore they are not to be rendered unto Caesar. And this religious objection is not in any way delegitimized by the fact that somebody in Bullrush, Kansas may have the freedom to comply with the mandate because in their little town of 15, everybody at the government school attends Bullrush Christian Church.
It could rightly be pointed out that the Christian religion has not suffered in its essence by a government school mandate. There’s nothing in the Apostles’ Creed about government schools after all. Christ is still Lord, and if we have been faithful, resisting as much as possible, then even in all these things we will be more than conquerors (Rom. 8). It has been said that the Christian religion is antifragile, and so it is. Nevertheless, it is unhelpful and sub-Biblical to relegate this objection to having children forced to attend government schools to merely a “strongly held personal opinion.” No, the parents that object are objecting on strong Christian grounds, going all the way back to Deuteronomy 6.
It is no stretch at all to apply the same principles to the life, health, safety, and medical care that parents are required to provide for their children. We are not Gnostics. While we admit that Darwinism has been a far more virulent virus than COVID-19, and Statism has far more lethal side effects than anything on the VAERS site, we are nevertheless required by God to do all that we can to preserve the life and health of our neighbors, especially those under our care, those that we are responsible for (Ex. 20:13, Eph. 5:28-29). To fail to provide for our own is to be functionally apostate and worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:8).
It is true that we must not elevate a private, personal decision to continue or discontinue cancer treatment to the level of article of faith. We must not elevate a private, personal decision to homeschool or use a local private, Christian school to the level of article of faith. But those subjective, personal applications are responses to immoveable, objective religious standards that *are* articles of faith. The fifth and sixth commandments are not extraneous matters of personal opinion. They are binding on all at all times, and when some authority is sinning against these commandments (or others), those being sinned against have the freedom to submit, resist, and/or appeal on thoroughly religious grounds.
Paul describes another element of this religious liberty in Galatians: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery… For you were called to freedom, brethren, only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:1, 13).
Here, we are taught that Christian liberty is freedom to serve others in obedience to Christ. Christian liberty is for husbands and fathers providing for and protecting their families. And for Christian men to give up that liberty easily is for them to fail in their religious duty to God. Christian men may stand on explicitly Christian principles when they resist statist overreach. They may make different decisions in the particulars, but they are not free to abandon their responsibility. They are religiously exempt from government mandates because their religion requires them to be the first line of defense in protecting the life and health of their families, not the state, not the FDA, not the CDC. And as Jesus said, they are exempt, and yet, depending on many particulars, may legitimately make different decisions,
So when a relatively Christian government begins treating you like a conquered slave, Paul says that we should not go easily back into bondage, whether the bondage of Judaizing or the bondage of any other form of legalism, including every form of statism. Of course, if we find ourselves enslaved in Egypt, we ought to be faithful there until God raises up a new Moses. The Christian faith is antifragile. We will only grow stronger. We will be more than conquerors. We are to suffer cheerfully. But it is not faithfulness to surrender our responsibilities casually.
A PostMillennial Thought Experiment
Let me close with an analogy I used with a friend: I can imagine some very different world in a postmillennial future where the Kingdom has come a lot more, and some plague hits a land, and it really is something closer to the bubonic plague. But let’s say it’s not quite that bad. In other words, it’s a lot more deadly than Covid, but it definitely falls on the line. I can imagine having a straight up honest disagreement over a vaccine/quarantine mandate but agreeing that in this case it is not a religious liberty matter (given all the particulars of the context). Everyone confesses that Jesus is Lord, congress is debating the matter with Bibles out and open, and all of them are faithfully married, church members, with faithful kids and grandkids. In that scenario, I would grant that the disagreement is a wisdom call that does not directly impinge on religious liberty. Both sides of the debate would be genuinely trying to obey Christ, even if honestly disagreeing over the particulars.
But in our current situation, the vax mandates are most certainly a religious liberty matter because of the context: mass government shut downs for a flu-like virus, mass media corruption, censorship, cancel culture, arrests for psalm singing, fines for holding worship services, mask mandates, and all of that with a backdrop of doubling down on abortion, sodomy, fiscal insanity, woke-pharisaism, sexual anarchy, and drunken socialism shoved down our throats. When Baron Bomburst sends out the Child Catcher in his black hat and carriage offering everyone candy, do not begin explaining to me the moral-philosophical nuances of sweet treats. This is not a polite debate between honest Christians; this is a collision of entirely different religions.
This is because if western civilization is a plane, the engines run on the jet fuel of Christian faith. If the decisions being made are a matter of 2 degrees to the west or 3 degrees to the north, I would be willing to grant that we are not debating religious liberty directly. This is because no one is openly considering rejecting the Christian faith. But when the leaders begin to nose the plane of our civilization down toward the ocean, giving every indication that they intend to crash it into the sea, they are impinging on religious liberty. And if the stewardess comes down the aisle insisting that everyone put on their snorkel masks (work with me here), that mandate most definitely is part of the overall plan to crash the plane. And so it should be resisted on moral, religious grounds, not merely a difference of opinion on politics, medicine, or tactics.
Of course, if the terrorists in the cockpit succeed in crashing our plane, Jesus is still King. They cannot impinge upon His sovereign reign. But it most certainly has impinged upon our practice of our religion in earthly history where we have been commanded to disciple the nations, protect and provide for our families, and worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Of course the gospel will still go forth under the blessing of God, even under persecution, as it has many times before. We serve the One who knows the way out of every grave. But we are not allowed to retreat from our duties and call that faithfulness.
To those who insist that religious exemptions may only be granted for those things that would clearly require an individual to sin, my concern is that you may not see the ditch on the other side of the road. Yes, we do not want to elevate personal opinions to articles of faith, but we also must have the ability to recognize and resist new manifestations of idolatry. In the early church it was a pinch of incense for the emperor. There’s no verse in the Bible that says thou shalt not offer a pinch of incense to the emperor, and to the contrary, there are several passages that speak about giving honor to kings and emperors. While we have the clear scenarios found in Daniel, the tests rarely come in such obvious ways.
Paul said that receiving circumcision was a false gospel (Gal. 1) and returning to the ceremonial codes was going back to false gods (Gal. 4:8-10), and all of it was returning to bondage and slavery (Gal. 5:1). And he refused to have Titus circumcised despite all the pressure of the Jewish Christians (Gal. 2). And then he had the audacity to go right ahead and circumcise Timothy anyway (Acts 16:3). Was it a sin to get circumcised? It would seem that in many instances it was, but not always. It was certainly sinful to mandate circumcision. Surely Paul would have been in favor of religious exemptions to Jewish circumcision mandates, and yet, on occasion, Paul would recommend going through with it and not to worry about it, while still resisting the broader Judaizing regime at the top of his lungs.
This seems to me to be where we are with vaccine mandates. The broader project is a false gospel of statism and turning back to a whole host of false gods. The mandates should be resisted in every possible way, including with the use of religious exemption requests, even if the decision to vax is ultimately a matter of personal freedom and wisdom.