The pandemic of 2020—21, caused by a coronavirus named COVID-19, will take its place in history books as one of the world’s most dreaded contagions next to the influenza pandemic of 1918—20 and the bubonic plague of 1346—53.
As a means of controlling the spread of COVID-19, many medical and governmental leaders have insisted that citizens wear masks covering both the nose and mouth. Since the virus spreads through tiny water droplets released from the mouth when a person speaks, coughs, or sneezes, masks are meant to lessen the spread of germs. Although many people who test positive for the coronavirus have no or few symptoms, governments still mandate mask-wearing for everyone in many regions of the world. Those who do not wear masks are often refused service or penalized in some way. Since Christians are citizens of another kingdom (Philippians 3:20), should Christians wear masks in compliance with society’s demands?
The short answer is a qualified “yes,” but the question deserves discussion because some objections have merit. Of course, some people have medical reasons for not wearing a face mask, but this article will deal with other reasons Christians give for not wearing masks. Some Christians’ objection is that, by wearing a mask, they are giving the government unauthorized control over personal decisions. They argue that masks are not proven safe or effective and that, in issuing mandates, the government is overstepping. They see acquiescence to the mask mandate as a slippery slide into further governmental control and often cite Peter’s words in Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than man.” Are these Christians correct in their objection?
While it is fair to debate the effectiveness of masks in mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a misapplication of Scripture to cite Peter’s words in the matter. Peter’s civil disobedience was a refusal to stop preaching the risen Christ even when local authorities warned him to shut up. He had a directive from Jesus Himself, and disobeying that directive would be sin (James 4:17; Acts 1:8). Mask-wearing has nothing to do with spreading the gospel, so Peter’s example does not apply to this situation.
Furthermore, one could rightly argue that the Bible’s command to obey governing authorities has more weight in this situation than any other passage. Romans 13:1–2 says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. Consequently, whoever resists authority is opposing what God has set in place, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
Christians can and should voice their objections in appropriate, lawful ways. Simply because society pushes an idea does not mean the idea is the only acceptable one. Christians who oppose certain ideas can and should lobby for change, create petitions, and garner support for an opposing position. We are not to be blind sheep following any and all government mandates, but wearing a mask is not a moral issue. Requirements for wearing masks are not in themselves sinful, so Christians should submit, even though they may be correct in their assertions that masks are ineffective or unnecessary.
A second reason Christians should follow local ordinances and wear masks during the pandemic is for their testimonies’ sake. Wearing a mask can be a way of considering others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). As earthly ambassadors for God’s heavenly kingdom, Christians should be the first to voluntarily lay aside their own desires to better represent the King. Jeremiah 29:7 gives instruction to God’s people living in a foreign land: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” God told the Jews in Babylon to get involved and help their communities thrive. If the communities in which we reside have ordered masks for the good of all, Christians should not defy those orders simply because they have a personal disagreement.
Right or wrong, millions of people live in terror of the COVID-19 virus. They’ve been convinced by the media and peers that they have one foot in the grave, and this fear has altered their entire world. While it is wise to exercise caution, fear is not of God (2 Timothy 1:7). Christians should lead the way in living without panic because we believe the promise that God is still in control, even when it appears that everything else is out of control (Isaiah 46:9–11).
However, just because a fear may be unfounded—or at least the level of fear unwarranted—Christians have no right to be dismissive of the fearful. We should be considerate of those wrestling with anxiety. This brings us to a third reason Christians should wear masks during a pandemic: for the sake of the weak. Paul gave instruction on deferring our rights to not offend those whom we serve. Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” If wearing masks gives comfort to someone gripped with fear, we should do so willingly for his or her benefit.
First Corinthians 8 is a model for Christians wondering how to handle the mask mandates. the specific issue in the Bible concerns a Christian eating meat sacrificed to idols, but the principle easily applies to mask-wearing. Verse 9 says, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” If a Christian offends an unbeliever or someone weak in the faith by rebelling against the mask mandate, he has sinned. Jesus said, “Woe to that person through whom offenses come” (Matthew 18:7). It is a serious offense to God when we carelessly offend someone by flaunting our own liberties in Christ.
If wearing a mask were offensive to God, there would be no question about what to do. Acts 5:29 would be our banner. However, the only ones offended by the mask are those told to wear it, and Scripture is clear that we must defer to the needs and preferences of others (1 Corinthians 10:23–24). Jesus adhered to dozens of laws and traditions of man while He was on the earth (Luke 2:52). It’s likely that many of those traditions were foolish and unnecessary. Yet there is no record of His defying cultural tradition unless the tradition pertained to the worship of God. Giving offense unnecessarily is foolish. Female missionaries in Muslim countries wear head coverings in deference to the culture. Ambassadors conform to the customs of the nation in which they reside to foster goodwill. Christians are ambassadors on assignment from our Father, the King (2 Corinthians 5:20), and should make decisions that advance kingdom goals while on earth.
Paul gave us clear instructions in 1 Corinthians 9:19–22: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
The COVID-19 pandemic raises other issues, of course, besides mask-wearing. Churches today face decisions about whether to close buildings, practice social distancing, or forbid corporate singing. Those decisions belong in a different category than the decision to wear masks because of Hebrews 10:25, which says to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Church leaders must grapple with the application of that passage to today’s pandemic.
In the end, Christians who choose to wear masks and those who do not should treat each other with mutual love and respect. We must "make every effort to live in peace with everyone" (Hebrews 12:14). Jesus was not afraid to challenge error when it had eternal significance (Matthew 21:12–13, 23:13; Luke 11:52). But He refused to become entangled with political, cultural, or personal disputes (Acts 1:6–7; Luke 12:13–14; 22:24–26). He kept His eye on what really mattered all the way to the cross (Hebrews 12:2), and He is our example. As Christians, we must keep the main thing the main thing and not get caught up in earthly disputes that have no eternal value (Philippians 2:21).