We’ve been meeting in church since restrictions on meetings were lifted. Since last Sunday, at which point we knew face covering were soon to mandatory, we also asked those coming to the building to meet to wear one. There seemed little point in not implementing the measure for the sake of a week.
A number are unhappy at the thought. Some seem to believe that the advice is not based in the best evidence. There are those in the MSM who have been making that case. Others just don’t like the thought of sitting for an hour and a half with a mask on. And, truth be told, all things being equal, given the choice between wearing a face covering or not, I would obviously prefer not to do. But, of course, all things are not equal and there are other things to take in account than my personal comfort wearing one.
But I struggle to get all that worked up about wearing a face covering. Surgeons, who have to conduct complicated medical procedures wear them for hours at a time in settings where infections are a serious concern, seem to manage. I already wear face masks in the winter when I’m on my bike anyway. All things being equal, I would rather not wear one on my bike either. But all things are not equal and the thought of stone cold rain hitting my face at 30mph or more – which stings – does tend to outweigh my slight discomfort in wearing one. Sitting for an hour and half in one as I sit and listen in church doesn’t feel like a major imposition in the grand scheme of things.
But I don’t want to get into the medical evidence. Despite the claims of many, few of us are actually in any position to judge which epidemiologists are correct. I sense many of us have a preference one way or the other and then seek out ‘experts’ and media outlets who happen to support our position. I, frankly, don’t know who is right (I suspect nor do many other and wish they would just admit it). As such, arguments to ‘the best evidence’ which are not coming from epidemiologists, and that have been weighed by those with the expertise to interpret one study from another, don’t really swing the argument. It is a case of you show me your epidemiologist and I’ll show you mine!
But what I want to do is consider, from a Christian perspective, why – despite my preference not to have to wear a mask – I think we should. My arguments here are not reliant on which studies are correct or specifically where the evidence points on the efficacy and value of face coverings. Whether wearing masks makes a significant difference or not, we should still wear one.
The bottom line here is that face coverings are now a legal requirement in places of worship. Most folks are au fait with the biblical passages regarding obeying the government and the various tensions that temper them, so I won’t rehearse all that here. Suffice to say, unless we are convinced that wearing a face covering, of itself, is inherently disobedient to the Lord, we are obliged to wear one. Few Christian doctors, dentists and nurses have ever considered this to be a tension and pastors haven’t tended to counsel them against it. Given the government require us to wear them, and there is nothing in scripture stating or implying that wearing one is a problem, biblically that would obliges us to wear them regardless of what we feel about it.
Love of neighbour
As has been stated a number of times, Christians are commanded to love their neighbour. Loving one’s neighbour, most recognise, extends to not coughing coronavirus on them so far as you are able to reasonably avoid doing that. Face coverings do not particularly protect the wearer but make transmission by carriers – including those who are asymptomatic – considerably less likely.
Now, that might appear a bit like it does rest on the value of the evidence. But, regardless of whether wearing a face covering is genuinely effective, lots of people believe they are. If we are loving our neighbour rightly, whether we think face coverings are effective or not, we are helping other people – the majority of whom do accept the government’s evidence – feel safe by wearing one.
When Paul addresses the question of Christian freedom, he encourages the stronger believers (those who believe we are free to do or not do a thing) to bear with the weaker believers (who think we are not free to do a thing). Neighbourly love would push those who believe they are free to wear, or not wear, a mask to bear with those who do not believe we are so free and think everybody should. In 1 Cor 8:13, addressing the question of eating meat offered to idols, Paul says, ‘if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.’ If we extend that principle to face coverings, if our not wearing one is likely to cause those who think we all should be wearing them to stumble, we are best to err on the side of love and wear them for the sake of our weaker brother and sisters.
There is a wider issue at stake here too. We may be in a church where everyone in the congregation is dead set against face coverings and so there are no Christian neighbours to upset in not wearing one. But we mustn’t forget that we live in villages, towns, cities and regions where a lot of our neighbours are not believers. So whilst nobody in the church may care, our unbelieving neighbours may well have a view on the matter. Minimally, that view could be, ‘if I have to wear one, so should you’ but it could also include real a genuine fear that it is dangerous not to wear one. Again, this has nothing to do with the direction in which the evidence points one way or the other and everything to do with being wise and taking account of what our non-believing friends believe.
Just imagine the potential impact your refusal to wear a face covering in your church might have on your neighbours who are duly wearing theirs. If you live in an area with a large number of Muslims (as we do), what does it say to them that they are – despite not particularly wanting to do – they go to the mosque in face coverings but we refuse to obey the authorities. Is that likely to foment gospel opportunities or is it more likely to cause division? Is that more likely to make them want to engage with us or is it likely to lead to resentment?
I appreciate most of our churches are not in Muslim areas, but the question is no less pertinent. White British Middle Class people are notoriously difficult to engage with the gospel. When many are convinced that wearing face coverings is vital, are we likely to help or hinder our gospel outreach to them by openly bucking the government guidelines?
The issue isn’t a short-term one either. If we are viewed within our community as a threat to life and limb (which is how some are viewing the non-wearing of masks), as cavalier toward the health of others and as those who gladly disobey the authorities without (in their view) just cause, the effect on our gospel witness long term could be catastrophic. That doesn’t mean there are no circumstances under which we might wear such potential consequences for an issue that is serious enough, but the question is whether wearing a face covering for an hour and a bit is it? I’d gently suggest, probably not.