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Not a hill to die on: should we be civilly disobedient in the face of vaccine mandates for churches?

Tuesday, 16 November 2021  | Nathan Grills


Should the church accept vaccine passports or actively oppose them?

Mandatory (temporarily) vaccination, in certain settings, is based on good public health evidence. It will likely be effective in minimising spread, decreasing disease and death from Covid, and facilitate safe opening up and a quicker return to normality. But being effective doesn’t automatically mean it’s ethical or theologically correct or that the church should support it.

However, for the church to seek to intervene on a morally disputable issue like mandatory vaccinations (where most Christians do not agree with the stand of the vaccine hesitant) is to compromise its identity and to distract from its real mission and calling. That mission and calling is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The dilemma

The issue of mandatory vaccination has caused serious divisions in society and in the church. Some Christians (and non-Christians) have strong and genuinely held convictions about vaccinations to the point that some will sacrifice their employment rather than submit to mandatory Covid vaccinations. The spectre and impending reality of vaccine passports has caused great stress, anxiety and suffering for such people. This is likely to increase in the months ahead.

This suffering is real and lamentable. It has led some Christians to feel abandoned by their churches. They view themselves as a persecuted and marginalised minority and believe that the church should be advocating for their cause more strongly; the actions of the government in mandating vaccination for certain areas of employment and in public worship are to them unjust and evil, and so the church should stand with those who experience negative outcomes and should fight the state, for the sake of Christian conscience. For the church not to do so is, for them, to betray its calling and abandon its God-given mandate.

However, this argument goes beyond advocating that the church should care for all who suffer. Churches have always done this, irrespective of the circumstances of those who are suffering and the cause of that suffering. Few Christians would disagree that those who suffer job loss or vilification or marginalisation for any reason deserve our love and support and care. It does not, however, follow automatically that the church should advocate for the cause that led them to this suffering. More than that, not every issue on which a Christian may form strong opinions can be considered an issue of Christian conscience.

An issue of political and/or medical convictions or an issue of Christian conscience?

In the scriptures, conscience is the inner conviction about what is right or wrong before God. It is not infallible, but provides a good guide to Christians on how they should live. The Bible strongly upholds the conscience of the Christian as it relates to public worship. Disputable matters of what food we eat or clothes we wear or what days we celebrate are seen as non-essential issues. Yet the church is commanded to respect and honour the convictions of those who hold these convictions, though Paul never suggests that the church should be held hostage by them and in fact he himself may disagree with the basis on which the convictions of his brothers and sisters have been formed.

For some Christians, the issue of vaccinations and the consequences of their refusal to get vaccinated equate to an issue of Christian conscience. they believe the original use of the cells of an aborted baby to develop the vaccine make the Covid vaccines inherently morally compromised. This is an issue of genuine ‘Christian’ conscience and it should be respected by the church. But even then, conscience is not sacrosanct and those who hold convictions such as this should be open to input by other Christians who don't hold the same convictions. We are all often wrong and theology is always best done in community.

However, most Christians who are hesitant regarding Covid vaccinations are not so for reasons relating to public Christian worship. Indeed, most who are vaccine hesitant are not Christians and yet hold to the same convictions. The reasons for this hesitancy vary markedly (and there are some truly weird theories advanced), but for most it flows from a mistrust of vaccines in general, doubts about the speed of development of Covid vaccines, fear of negative side effects, belief in a low risk of harm from contracting Covid-19 and/or a principled refusal of the right of the state to mandate or incentivise medical procedures of any kind including vaccinations.

Most medical experts maintain that Covid vaccinations are safe and effective in preserving life and slowing the spread of the disease. Nearly all doctors in Australia and the USA are vaccinated. Those who are vaccine hesitant are generally so because they disagree with the medical consensus on the scientific data and favour opinions from ‘experts’ who rely on fringe data or non-mainstream interpretations. But the truth and validity of these conclusions is not my concern here. Rather, the question I want to consider are is theological. If the reasons given by those who are vaccine hesitant are not specifically Christian reasons, is it then a moral imperative for the church to join battle against the state on behalf of the vaccine hesitant who face being marginalised from society for a time?

Paul commands first century Christians to be in submission to the emperor and the Roman state. This was a state that was far more coercive and anti-Christian than our current governments. The Bible does not give Christians conscience reasons to opt out of areas in which they disagree that are not related to public worship (such as taxation) and never calls on Christians to fight the state on things even as important as the loss of personal freedoms. Even in those areas where Christians are called to steadfastly resist the dictates of the state (like freedom of worship or the purity of worship of God alone), they are called to do so respectfully and submissively.

A comparison: conscription and speed limits

What about things that might cause physical harm, such as vaccines with their side effects? Surely that is solid ground for the church to fight the state. But take, for example, conscription, where the state forces some of its citizens into the armed forces to defend the state and its interests. Conscription clearly can and often does result in physical harm for those conscripted that is far more immediate and long-lasting than that of any Covid vaccine. The church has historically responded to the issue of conscience by upholding the legitimate conscience grounds for those Christians for whom the scriptures seem to teach pacifism. But rarely has it been argued that the state does not have the right to conscript some of its citizens in order to protect and promote the welfare of the whole.

Let's take another, more hypothetical, example: speeding. The government mandates that all drivers adhere to speed limits because medical and scientific research shows that speed limits reduce road deaths. Let’s say that some Christians dispute this research. They argue passionately that speed limits can actually cause harm as they distract drivers and even limit one’s ability to efficiently undertake essential work. They insist on their right to ignore speed limits to avoid this harm. When they are repeatedly fined by the police and have their license taken away, they insist that they are being persecuted for their sincerely held beliefs based on conscience. When some companies insist that their drivers obey speed limits, some will lose their jobs. The result is deep and genuine suffering caused by the application of deeply held convictions to a particular situation.

This would be sad - even tragic - but is this is an issue of the state committing evil? Is this something the scriptures address? Are speed limits sinful and is being free to travel quickly a matter of righteousness? Should the church be lobbying the state for exemptions and standing publicly with those opposed to speed limits?

Perhaps some in the church might argue 'yes', and there can be no doubt that these decisions were made after much prayer and soul searching and are deeply and genuinely held. There is also no doubt that speeders are suffering for their beliefs. However, others might point out that the convictions of those who oppose speed limits have nothing to do with scripture and actually result in a greater burden to the hospital system, causing a greatly increased risk of death to them and to others in their care, such as their children.

Now the issue of obedience to speed limits is of course not at all the same as the issue of vaccines. Few Christians would argue that speed limits are a moral issue requiring civil disobedience by the church, despite the restrictions the government imposes on our personal freedoms. Why then is the issue of mandatory vaccines in some workplaces and temporary vaccine passports seen as a moral issue? It is not (for most Christians) an issue of specific Christian conscience, nor is it a moral issue of sin or righteousness, no matter how stridently those who are hurting or suffering right now believe it should be.

Why the issue of mandatory vaccinations is different

It is not clear that mandatory vaccinations, as controversial as they are in many Australian churches today, are any different to the examples of conscription and speed limits. Indeed, the argument made by states that these actions are being taken for the protection and well-being of society seems to be well within the bounds of the states' right to make. This is especially so as vaccine incentives are being applied in a non-discriminatory manner to all its citizens, not just Christians. Those who are currently suffering from the implementation of these decisions have every right to publicly advocate for their position, and to use the apparatus of the state to make their concerns known. And, once again, the church should care for those who suffer for their beliefs. But this does not seem to be a matter of the state committing evil; rather, it seems to be an area of the state's legitimate jurisdiction, and as such the church should be wary of extending its reach or power into the state's domain.

The point is that medical and political matters are generally the purview of the state, not the church. It is of course the right (and obligation) of every democratic citizen to hold the government to account. Indeed, there is much in these Covid years with which I do not agree and for which governments will likely be held to account. For example, although I have received three Covid vaccinations, I have serious concerns about widespread mandatory vaccinations or vaccine passports, especially in churches. Yet from a public health perspective they make sense – they will almost certainly protect and promote public health. Also, the continued harsh lockdowns needs to be assessed against the damage they have caused to society, especially the young. Another issue of concern is the increased and sustained powers of government and their heavy-handed implementation. These are conversations that surely need to be had and individual Christians have just as much right to speak into these issues as anyone else.

However, all these issues are undoubtedly complex and unenviable matters for those in government. Therefore, I think it is right (and biblical) that most Christians have so far been generally supportive of (or at least submissive to) government attempts to protect its citizens during the pandemic. I may passionately disagree with the government on some of its actions, but this does not mean it is necessarily acting outside its jurisdiction, committing evil or ‘sinning' against God. Such a view seems to me to be overly simplistic and lacking in grace.

We in the church need to love the people, both Christian and non-Christian, who are suffering at this time. The Church of Jesus Christ is a body and when one part hurts we all hurt. But the point remains: vaccination is an open-handed issue for the church on which Christians can legitimately agree to disagree. It is not (for most Christians) an issue of specific Christian conscience, nor is it a moral issue of sin or righteousness, no matter how stridently those who are hurting or suffering right now believe it should be.

Prof. Nathan Grills is a Public Health Physician and NHMRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne, and Senior Research Advisor to the Australia India Institute.

 

Acknowledgement: I wish to acknowledge inputs from a number of senior pastors.


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