Masks, Mandates…and the Mission of God

There has been a lot of frustration recently over the imposition of various restrictions due to the Coronavirus. Masks, vaccines, quarantines, social distancing, limitations on gatherings, canceled sporting events and the list goes on. All this and more have created anxiety, fear, frustration, and a longing to just get on with life. I get it, it’s been a pain. In the country where we live, there have been very strict restrictions, and due to travel limitations, we haven’t been able to get ‘home’ for almost four years to see family. That’s been tough on us, the kids, and the grandparents.

What has been interesting (and sad) to see is the polarizing response from Christians. Some rallying around “freedom,” others rallying around those “at risk.” Others quietly doing their own thing trying not to get caught up in the crossfire.

The Bible doesn’t say much about what to do in a pandemic, but in what ways might it speak to this situation and to government mandates today?

The Bible and Government Mandates

Jesus and the disciples lived during a time of a very heavy-handed government. The Romans were not known for their democratic ways or for upholding human rights (to put it mildly). During the times of Jesus and the apostles, the Roman Empire was ruled by Tiberius, Caligula, and then Nero – they were brutal and sadistic, killing enemies, family members, and innocent onlookers alike (a simple google search will prove the point). It was a time of terrible abuse and brutality. Which makes one wonder…why didn’t Jesus or the apostles do more to oppose the government?

In reading through the Gospels, we see that Jesus gave a very unexpected response to such government overreach. In one of His most famous statements (one that even most non-Christians would know), He called people to “go the second mile” (Matt. 5:41). The context of that statement was the ruthless treatment of people by the Roman soldiers who could force anyone to carry something for them. It was a mandate that imposed a harsh burden on just about anyone, at any time. Yet rather than stir up the disciples to a political protest, Jesus did just the opposite. He did not confront the authorities by shouting: “You are not treating us fairly, God wants to give us liberty! I came to set the captives FREEEE!” Instead, Jesus taught, “if they ask you to go one mile, go with them two.” In other words, the disciples were to submit to the harsh government mandate, model a loving, serving, self-sacrificing heart, and go an extra mile with them. Perhaps in that extra mile they could even share the reason for why they were doing so. Maybe the soldiers would get curious as to their different attitude…perhaps the mandate could be an opportunity for mission.

Perhaps the mandate could be an opportunity for mission.

This of course is in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount—a series of teachings that is quite out-of-step with our modern world today. In Matthew 5:39 Jesus taught the disciples to “turn the other cheek” rather than retaliate when slapped. He insisted that they “love their enemy and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). Earlier He had taught that it was the “meek,” the “pure,” the “peacemakers,” and the “persecuted” who were blessed (see the Beatitudes in Matt. 5:3-10).

I think that in this present pandemic, Jesus would call us to arm ourselves with the same attitude (and not with picketing protests). What if the response from followers of Jesus was, “You say I should wear a mask to protect from the virus? Sure, I’ll do that—plus, I’ll volunteer to help somewhere.” Or, “You want me to get a vaccine? No problem—and I’ll open up my church as a drop-in center to help as well.”

In this way, we turn the mandate into an opportunity for mission.

Now, this doesn’t mean we personally agree with vaccines or the mask mandate (any more than the disciples were to agree with the Roman “mile” rule). But what the Biblical pattern seems to be is obedience to the rule, while working to change the hearts of the rulers through Gospel witness and advocating righteousness.

In another instance Jesus gave this teaching regarding the religious rulers who had mandates of their own: “obey them…but do not do what they do” (Matt. 23:1-3). In other words, submit to their leadership, but when it comes your turn to lead, do it differently. Lead in a Christlike way.

What about Paul?

Paul the apostle encourages this same heart attitude, summarized by his statement “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21). In fact, Paul’s teaching in this context (Rom. 12:9-21) very much parallels Jesus’ – blessing those who persecute, helping those who oppose you, and so on. Interestingly, he says all this just before his statements in Romans 13:1-7 to submit to the governing authorities—again, despite the fact that those authorities were harsh and ungodly.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God, and those that exist have been appointed by God. (Romans 13:1)

But what about Paul resisting the government by claiming his right not to be beaten (Acts 22:25), someone might ask? That does not erase either what Jesus said, or what Paul himself wrote. In fact, what Paul was doing in that instance was merely following the local laws: he knew the laws, and he knew his rights—though he didn’t always insist on his rights. He had served jail time and received many a beating before! But in this instance, Paul was neither rude nor provocative. He reminded them of his rights and then got on with the task of testifying of Jesus. (Not expounding on personal liberties or the negative characteristics of those in government).

The Call to Deny Ourselves

Once again, despite living in one of the most repressive governments, neither Jesus nor the apostles gave a call to protest or revolt. In fact, running through the New Testament is quite the opposite – a call to deny your own rights, to lay down your own life, to put the needs of others before your own. This laying down of our rights is what Loren Cunningham, the founder of YWAM, used to call “Winning God’s Way” (I’d recommend that book, by the way…now republished as “Making Jesus Lord“).

But rather than denying ourselves, in many of our churches we have been taught that we can come to Christ and hold on to our selves, our desires, our wants. “You can follow your dreams, and get to heaven too!” We like our middle-class way of life, our freedom to do what we want, to enjoy a rather untroubled existence…and we don’t like anything that gets in the way of that. We have turned the teachings of Jesus around so that we think life, liberty, and happiness are somehow the end goal of the Scriptures. But the opposite is true: Jesus clearly stated, “if anyone wants to follow me they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

If you’re not willing to deny yourself with the little act of putting on a mask, how will you deny yourself in big things? Yes, a mask is annoying…but so is going the second mile. So is turning the other cheek. Yet as Christians we are called to “follow in his steps” in the path of suffering (1 Pet. 2:21), not retaliating, but trusting our Father in heaven as we serve and love and witness. Not worried about mandates, but focused on our mission.

When to Disobey?

So is there ever a time to disobey or protest? Well, we see the disciples refusing to be silenced in regards to witnessing about Jesus. Our mission as believers is to make Jesus known (not to advance middle-class liberties, as nice as they are). If a government tells you that you cannot talk about Jesus, then you have a Biblical case for continuing to speak about Him (see Peter in Acts 4:19). Not to picket or protest for personal rights, but to witness of Jesus. So, for example, when my family and I lived in China, we witnessed as creatively as we could during the years we were there, despite government restrictions against religious activity. We brought Christian literature in, taught believers, and so on. And we prayed for a groundswell of Christians who, over time, would bring change to the way things are done.

The apostle Peter himself, though he would not keep quiet about Jesus, did not advocate rebellion. Rather, he wrote:

13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17, NIV)

For more on the Bible and civil disobedience, see this post.

What to do about Injustice?

This does not mean that Christians sit back and let sin and injustice go unchecked. We stand up for truth, for human rights and freedoms. After all, it has often been Christians at the forefront of pioneering change, bringing an end to such things as slavery, suttee, and many other injustices. In our work in Asia we advocate for change—in regards to refugee rights, child trafficking, the care of orphans, and so on. But we do so through proper channels, and always attempt to do so in a Christlike spirit.

So during this stressful season, where we all want to get back to “normal” life, let’s remember our Master. Let’s “spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume” (2 Cor. 2:14, NLT). Don’t get sidetracked by mandates, but serve in our mission: to make Jesus known through word and deed, in the love and power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s do what Jesus said and go the second mile, revealing to a surprised and watching world the reasons for our faith, hope, and love – even in the midst of difficulty.

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