22 September 2021

COVID Masks and Congregational Worship

by Phil Johnson

We regard the wearing of masks in worship first of all as a matter of conscience—and since we are forbidden by the teaching of Christ not to make extrabiblical religious rules that bind men's consciences (Matthew 23:1-7; 15:1-9), we neither mandate nor forbid the wearing of masks in worship.

Veils and face coverings have profound religious significance in many world religions. Indeed, much of the rhetoric surrounding COVID masks (even among evangelical Christians) describes them as symbols of personal piety. Serious questions about the usefulness, effectiveness, or medical necessity of masks are routinely dismissed or swept aside, and people are told to wear them simply because they are a tangible, visible means of showing love for one's neighbor. This rationale is pressed on people's consciences regardless of whether it can be proved statistically that they really safeguard anyone from the virus, and irrespective of the fact that masks can cause other medical problems. But COVID masks have become, in effect, secularism's substitute for religious vestments. No one can reasonably deny that face coverings have become the chief symbol of popular culture's sanctimonious devotion to the secularist credo.

But one of the distinctives of Christian worship is face-to-face fellowship. Koinonia is the Greek expression the New Testament uses to describe it. The word conveys the idea of community, close association, and intimate social contact. Thus the apostle's instructions: "Greet one another with a holy kiss" are repeated four times in the Pauline epistles (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:22).

The importance of face-to-face koinonia is stressed repeatedly. Paul writes, "We . . . were all the more eager with great desire to see your face" (1 Thessalonians 2:17). "We night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face" (3:10). The apostle John writes, "I hope to come to you and speak face to face, so that your joy may be made full" (2 John 12). "I hope to see you shortly, and we will speak face to face" (3 John 14).

Worship, in particular, is best seen as an open-face discipline. Covering the face is a symbol of disgrace or shame (Jeremiah 51:51; Job 40:4). Concealing one's mouth while praising God suppresses the visible expression of worship. The Psalms' calls to worship are filled with the words "tongue," "lips," and "mouth." "Sing aloud unto God our strength: make a joyful noise" (Psalm 81:1). " Wholehearted worship cannot be sung as intended—unrestrained and unmuted—from behind a state-mandated face covering. We see "the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (4:6), and our faces were designed by him to reflect that glory back to heaven in uninhibited praise.

It is true, of course, that for now, "We see in a mirror dimly, but [someday] face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:2). That speaks of a face-to-face encounter with Christ himself, when we will be brought into the fullness of knowledge and moral perfection. John the apostle says, "We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is" (1 John 3:2).

Despite the temporary limitation of seeing heaven's glory as if we were looking in a dim mirror, we nevertheless are privileged as Christians to have a view of divine glory that is superior to what Moses and the Israelites enjoyed at Sinai. We see God's glory revealed in Christ—"glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Unlike Moses, who was shielded in the cleft of a rock from seeing the full display of divine glory; and unlike the Israelites, who only saw the fading reflection of glory on Moses' face (and even that was covered with a veil) we see Christ so clearly revealed that it is as if we are looking in the very face of God's glory. "We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory" (2 Corinthians 3:18). Again: we see "the glory of God in the face of Christ" (4:6).

Yes, the language of that biblical passage is symbolic. We don't literally see the face of Christ physically. For now, we see him as he is revealed on the pages of the New Testament. But the symbolism embodied in Paul's description of seeing him with "unveiled face" is important, and the wearing of masks—especially government-mandated masks that serve as the vestments of secular religion—feels like a covert attempt to erase one of the core truths that makes Christianity unique.

Those are my personal convictions about masks. It's not a dogma we teach. It's certainly not a rule we expect people in the church to swear fidelity to. Again, we don't want to bind anyone's conscience with manmade restrictions. We especially do not want to shame the person who wears a mask purely because he or she genuinely believes the current orthodoxy about masks as an effective shield against viral transmission. People in the church are free to wear masks if they choose. But people who share the above view are likewise free to worship, sing, pray, and proclaim God's Word without a face covering—even if that goes against the vacillating, sometimes arbitrary, and frequently heavy-handed dictates of government officials. It is simply not the church's duty to enforce executive orders based on a politician's whimsy—particularly when those edicts impinge on our freedom of worship.

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Sharon said...

An excellent, precise post on a rather controversial subject. I agree!

P.S. Also love the picture of you peeking over the top of your glasses with that silly, ineffective face cloth covering what probably is a sly smile.

Eric said...

As a pastor, I simply cannot force people to wear face masks. There is simply no possible way to biblically justify mandating clothing over people's faces without becoming legalistic and undermining the unity of the body while forcing people to cover a vital aspect of their personhood. My conscience won't let me mandate masks. Therefore, according to Romans 14, my brothers and sisters should care about my convictions and not force me to go against them.

I don't understand why Romans 14 seems to only apply to pro-mask believers. Unity of the Body means we respect each other's convictions and allow each other the flexibility to live out those convictions faithfully as God works maturity in us. I respect and love those who choose to wear a mask. And in return they should show the same respect and love for those who choose not to. There is simply too much at stake to let masks divide us right now.

Pastor Eddie said...

We are a Church in Liverpool UK, we have not worn masks from day one of this whole episode, our people have been safe, and nobody has died, we have also enjoyed singing and close fellowship and the Lord has greatly blessed us as a Church. Keep up your faithful stand brother.

Mac said...
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Mac said...

Thanks Phil.

I share the same biblically-principled view as yourself here on this masking matter. Let each be convinced in their own minds. While also endeavouring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

It truly has been eye-opening regarding how Church leaders and Pastors, en masse, have so easily acquiesced to Governments intrusive demands into how the church should conduct worship of her Lord. Clearly affording Government, a principal, authoritative say in regulating church matters.

And all things considered, I think the blanket use of "Love thy neighbour" mixed with Romans 13, to affirm these over-reaching Government diktats into the church has been a disturbing mis-handling of scripture.

It should be startling to see a lack of strong, biblically-grounded and discerning, Church leadership across the Western world.

CMSC said...

The issue looking at it from a British perspective is that everything in the USA is SO politicised! In my church we DO wear masks as in the UK it is seen as a purely medical issue not a political one. I am having to wear a mask right now in a university linked library. I should say I hate wearing masks! They are so constrictive! But our Conservative government in the USA requires them in restricted places such as on train rides - I have just had a near 3 hour train ride having to wear a mask: YUK! Each to their own conscience of course but it would be nice if Christians in the USA tried to see things from a global rather than from a simply American perspective! And by the way: TEN CHEERS FOR PHIL AND DARLENE JOHNSON! Phil and Darlene have been two of my very favourite fellow believers for nearly 40 years now. On this issue Phil and I differ but lovingly among Christian brothers in Christ - it would be wonderful if other American Evangelicals were as eirenic as Phil.

Unknown said...

Phil, thanks for writing and providing a context to have a good conversation about this issue. While I agree with your main point that being free not to mask is preferable in church, especially now, I'm not sure the Scripture you referenced makes your point. 1.) Often times the pastors requiring masks are wearing them in their church and thus not being hypocritical. 2.) While some may see it as personal piety I know a lot of pastors who simply wore the mask to make others feel comfortable. 3.)I don't think I've ever kissed someone at my church besides my wife and kids, but I am still able to hug, shake hands, etc... 4.)I knew that photo shopped picture of you wasn't Bernie Sanders because I could still see your face and the point of those passages is not to commend the literal display of my physical face to one another, it's an expression referring to being together, which we are even with masks. 5.) Many churches used their lips, tongue, mouth, and loud voices to worship God. 6.) I believe unveiled face is referring to the veil over our eyes that shades our view of God's glory. It has nothing to do with our face being exposed but our sight being clear. Again, I share your conviction/preference but I think we need to be more careful with the text than you are in this article. Would love some pushback if you think I'm off base somewhere.

Nilo Engada said...

I agree with you brother though I love Phil and grace community church. May God give us wisdom in doing things through this times.

Bryant Underwood said...

Thanks so much Pastor Phil. I agree greatly regarding all you have summarized.
Especially the comment regarding vestments.

If, and to the extent, there was any meaningful benefit to the panoply of surgical wardrobe and rags we are asked to drape on our face, the question and exegetical answers would be wholly different. However, there are none.

Let us just clearly say what we know-this is a lie.

I am being asked to use my God-given face as a brand to advertise power from those wielding evil desires. We are being forced to bodily and visibly assent to this new form of an ancient religious system.

The Baptism is the jab.
Like all idols, it offers no real protection or any change.
The mask is just the counterfeit of Pentecost to provide an outward and visible sign.

As a saved creature of God's Son, I will not allow what He has saved to be used to promote pagan symbology. Unity in Truth, for His glory and unto good works.

Paul said...

Remember when Paul said he wished those who preached circumcision would go ahead and emasculate themselves? Well, in the spirit of St. Paul, I wish those who preach masking would stop mucking about. It's time these apostles of masking and mandating would demonstrate for the rest of us their absolute commitment to eradicating COVID. Let them cast off their chintzy paper masks and the cutesy, homemade cloth ones. Let's have solid black plastic bags they could fit tightly over their heads and zip-tie in place around the throat. It's the only mask absolutely guaranteed to eliminate not only COVID but every other disease on earth. Their commitment to their masks has not gone far enough.