No Moral Obligation: Mask Mandates and Christians

If you are a Christian who is struggling with feeling conscientiously compelled to wear a mask on account of a governor’s mask mandate and the Bible’s teaching about obeying governing officials, this brief piece is written to set your conscience at ease and to help you see why you are not morally obligated to obey such an order. This piece also applies to a Christian who may be tempted to judge the decision of other Christians to disobey a mask mandate on account of their refusal to submit to their governing authorities on this issue.

To be clear, this piece has one main purpose–to address the question of conscience with regard to mask mandates that stems from God’s establishment of our governing authorities: Do Christians have a moral responsibility to obey such an order on the basis of the order alone? This question is also relevant in light of the presidential election in November because Joe Biden has made clear that should he be elected, “on day one,” he would impose a national mask mandate.

This piece is not intended to address any other questions regarding Christians, masks, and Covid-19 such as: Is wearing a mask the loving thing to do? Is this a weaker brother issue? (I do not believe that it can be categorically framed as such because there are weaker brothers on both sides and because weaker brother applications are inherently situational and discretional.) Can it be proven that mask mandates and other restrictions make a statistical difference in the spread of the virus? Are mask mandates more politically driven than well-being driven? Does the harm created by all the government restrictions with regard to this virus outweigh the benefits? (This one is not even close in my view. You may read my thoughts on this question here.)

I have already written specifically about “Mask Mandates: Eleven Problems.” In that piece, the first problem I mention pertains to our intimate, personal right to govern our own faces which is the underlying issue in this piece as well. But at that time I was still somewhat unsure about whether Christians should obey such mandates on the basis of the Bible’s teaching to submit to our authorities. Since that time, upon weeks of contemplating the issue, I have become convinced that the current mask mandates in place all over the country fall outside the scope of legitimate governing authority and therefore are not morally binding for Christians to obey. 

The bottom line is that a state governor (or national president) does not have legitimate jurisdiction over your face. God has not given him this authority. Therefore, you are not morally obligated to obey a mask mandate coming from a governor’s office.

The reason that this is even a question is that the Bible teaches that people, Christian and non-Christian alike, should have a basic disposition of submission to their governing authorities (which I do embrace). The clearest place that this principle is taught is in Romans 13:1-5 where the Apostle Paul says that Christians should submit to their governing authorities’ rightful exercise of power.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”

The reason I include the phrase “rightful exercise of power” in my description of what Paul is teaching is that the Bible consistently demonstrates that there are many non-rightful exercises of power that people are not morally obligated to obey and that this passage itself demonstrates that a “rightful exercise” is in view. For the sake of brevity, I will just offer three basic observations about this passage. 

First, the passage teaches that men in authority have been appointed by God to their domain of authority, nothing more. This means that a state governor in his capacity as governor with authority over the operations of the state was providentially put in that position by God. It does not mean that he was ever put in a position outside of the state’s jurisdiction by God. So if a governor steps outside his legitimate domain of authority and attempts to act, he cannot claim that God gave him the right to do so. 

Second, the passage describes a governing authority’s domain with regard to moral issues of right and wrong and the related upholding of law and order. It does not ascribe authority to morally neutral matters of personal prudence. There is no way that a governing authority can legitimately bring “wrath” upon a “wrongdoer” if the matter at hand is not an issue of good and evil. Further, Paul’s exhortation to “do what is good” is a call to live upright, holy lives that obey God’s clearcut moral standards and to stay out of immoral activity. The issue of whether or not to wear a mask everywhere does not fall under this category and is not appropriately framed in terms of moral-versus-immoral behavior. (This same observation applies to the Apostle Peter’s treatment of this subject in 1 Peter 2:13-17.)

Third, the passage ascribes ultimate authority to God, not a governing official. So if a Christian were to perceive a conflict between a human authority’s order and a biblical, moral priority, the Christian’s conscience should lead him to disobey the human authority for the sake of upholding God’s moral order. For many Christians, including myself, a subjective mask mandate given by one man is an assault on a profound moral priority, that of freedom. There are numerous examples of conscientious disobedience to over-stepping, human authorities in the Bible that are upheld as morally virtuous decisions. I need not list them here.

So though Romans 13 does command us to submit to our governing authorities when they are making decisions within their legitimate domain, it does not command us to submit to them when they step outside that domain.

For example: If the Ohio Governor were to issue an order for the residents of Tennessee, the residents of Tennessee would not have to obey his order. The reason is that the Ohio Governor has not been given that authority by God. Should he appeal to Romans 13 as the basis for obedience, his appeal is flagrantly flawed and obviously ridiculous. The Ohio Governor would be misapplying the Bible in his attempt to act way outside his jurisdiction, and no one would say that there is any moral obligation for the residents of Tennessee to obey him. 

A governor’s authority is not absolute. It is limited in many respects. It extends to legitimate matters of governance with regard to law and order in his particular state, but it does not extend to all kinds of other domains. He does not have authority over the residents of other states, over the convictions and worship priorities of religious groups within his state, over the legitimate choices of parents with regard to the raising of their children in the home, or over a person’s own face. 

If an authority issues an order requiring people to wear masks in public, he is way outside his jurisdiction. He is not the governor of your face. You are.

Every person’s face is his or her own jurisdiction, not anyone else’s. Period. This principle would also apply should a governor mandate that all citizens shave their heads due to a lice scare, that no one is allowed to have tattoos from the neck up, that everyone must wear sunscreen on their faces due to harmful UV rays, that men are not allowed to have beards, or that women should never wear makeup to save the whales. It would all be overstepping the rightful bounds of his power and carry zero moral import for obedience. 

A person may or may not believe that everyone should be covering their faces due to the danger of spreading Covid-19, but this is not the point. The point is that whether a person likes it or not, no one has the right to tell everyone else that they have to cover their faces in public simply because he thinks they should. That basic fact of human jurisdiction applies to your neighbor and your governor just the same. And this is especially true when an issue is so politically, emotionally, and personally charged as to how we should all respond to the challenge of Covid-19. 

Someone may object that laws requiring clothing for the purposes of basic modesty are legitimate. I would agree, but the legitimacy comes from a moral principle concerning right and wrong–that modesty with regard to sexual organs is a foundational expectation for citizens in a just and sane society. It does not come from one person deciding on behalf of millions how they should live their lives in light of a difficult challenge. And besides, even modesty laws are about as scant as can be. Surely the reason is that people are the rightful stewards of their own dress and appearance.

Someone may also object that there may be exceptional instances of imminent danger in which a facial covering may be legitimately required of a person by a governing authority. My response to this objection is simply that if an instance were truly exceptional and the danger truly imminent, it would be obvious to the public and readily agreed upon by a vast majority. Our current instance with Covid-19 on the contrary is a hotly-debated, widely-disagreed upon situation. Indeed, it seems in many cases that the desires and concerns of the majority are being held captive by the decisions of the one. 

Someone may also object that there are certain environments where masks are clearly prudent and should be required, such as nursing homes and hospitals. I would also agree, but as I just said above, in such exceptional environments, there is wide-spread agreement concerning the need for masks. These institutions would likely have requirements in place during this time whether the governor ordered a mandate or not. These environments do not represent normal, daily, public life. I believe that by-and-large free citizens would willingly act responsibly in such instances even as free institutions would have prudent measures in place.

To conclude, none of this means that there are not necessary risks and potential consequences related to one’s free choices or that people should not take very seriously their individual decisions. The point is simply that there is no moral obligation for a Christian or anyone else to obey a governor when he is acting outside his rightful authority and violating people’s legitimate domain of personal freedom.  

Now, a governor may pile wrong upon wrong and choose to overstep his bounds further by seeking to punish those who disobey his illegitimate mandates. This possibility is real and certainly part of the equation for deciding whether or not to capitulate to illegitimate power assertions or not. But obedience due to prudence with regard to consequences is not the same as obedience on account of conscience due to a governor’s order. Further, a governor doing such will have to answer to God for his abuse of power, so he should take care and think twice.

Christian, you are not morally obligated to obey a mask mandate simply on account of the fact that a governor signed it into law because he does not have authority over your face. Of course, God does. So before him, you should make wise and loving choices pertaining to various situations, but morally speaking, you do not have to bow to this oppressive pattern of rule that is violating the great ethical priority of freedom and over-running our country.