Good morning. This is working theology.
Many Americans feel that the government should not be able to force its citizens to wear masks to flatten the curve. From what I understand, it’s a matter of individual liberty. Face freedom, if you will. Last week, in fact, the governor of Texas Greg Abbott banned such an enforcement even as mayors pleaded.
“I make clear on a daily basis around the entire state of Texas that wearing a mask is very important, and local officials send that message,” he said, according to the Texas Tribune. “Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach for this thing.”
As a budding libertarian, I quite agree. But perhaps the apostle Paul can weigh in on this question of liberty.
This is an important point because in southern states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia, cases of COVID-19 continue to rise at record levels.
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, written around AD 55,† Paul wrote an argument for why Christians should wear masks, except in that day wearing masks was equivalent to abstaining from eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Let me explain.
The Corinthian church, recently founded by Paul during one of his missionary journeys, had become divided. Members of the church were arguing about all kinds of things: sexuality, different lawsuits among believers, food sacrificed to idols, and many more. It’s this last bit that draws a parallel to wearing masks today.
If you’d like more notes on this and other books of the Bible, I recommend Chuck Swindoll’s overviews from Insight for Living as well as Thomas Constable’s notes in the NET Bible.
The Ancient Near East had many different religions with many different gods. Some of these gods called for food to be sacrificed, like a fatted calf or lamb. After Jesus’ sacrifice, however, this became unnecessary for Christians, yet other religious sects continued the practice.
Some Christians believed it was wrong to eat food from these rituals, while others in their freedom believed it was okay. In their “freedom” and “enlightenment,” this latter group ate food sacrificed to idols in front of these “weaker” believers, apparently with a little arrogance as they ate. Paul was not happy with this “knowledge.”
“But you must be careful,” he wrote, “so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. For if others see you—with your ‘superior knowledge’—eating in the temple of an idol, won’t they be encouraged to violate their conscience by eating food that has been offered to an idol?” (1 Corinthians 8:9–10 NLT).
Many modern Christians believe they have a “superior knowledge” when it comes to politics and constitutional freedom. They don’t have to wear a mask, they argue, because it infringes on their individual liberty.
Paul wouldn’t argue with you there. In Christ, you’re free to do as you please. “It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat,” he wrote. “We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do.”
“However,” Paul argued, “not all believers know this.”
Other Christians—and non-Christians, of course—believe that wearing a mask is the appropriate thing to do. They want to protect themselves and others from getting Covid-19, and so they cover their mouths in public.
First Corinthians 8 and 9 make the case that even if you believe you have superior knowledge about wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, you should wear the mask for the sake of others. It’s for the sake of love, not knowledge:
Yes, we know that “we all have knowledge” about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes. (1 Corinthians 8:1–3)
Paul continued his argument in the next chapter by doubling down on how insignificant his “rights” were for the sake of love. “That’s why I never demand my rights when I preach the Good News,” he said.
Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ. When I was with the Jews, I lived like a Jew to bring the Jews to Christ. When I was with those who follow the Jewish law, I too lived under that law. Even though I am not subject to the law, I did this so I could bring to Christ those who are under the law. (1 Corinthians 9:19–20)
We’re living in a divided time. It’s easy to look at those on the other side of your political views and think they’re wrong or stupid or elitist. It’s easy to think that you have a “superior knowledge” that your opponent doesn’t.
However, the words of the Bible remind us that there is something more important than knowledge, more important than being right or wrong—there’s love.
So, even if you feel that wearing a mask is against your political religion, consider wearing it for the sake of others, knowing it is the one who loves whom God recognizes.
Thanks for reading.
† Technically this was Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, at least of those we know. Paul mentions that he had written them before in 1 Corinthians 5:9, and some scholars believe there were more letters to the church there, perhaps as many as four or five.