It has been nearly a year since our world was turned upside down from the novel coronavirus. The church in which I serve has gone through a familiar process of returning to some type of normalcy. We initially canceled our church services and went solely to online; we opened back up mid May; and we have slowly gained about 70 percent of our regular attendees to date. It has been weird, frustrating, and complicated.
Speaking of complicated. . . one of the most difficult issues to discern and lead through has been the one concerning masks and social distancing regulations. Some churches have led a more strict and conservative approach. Masks are mandated, chairs have been appropriately separated to secure proper social distancing, and even the singers on the stage must wear masks the entire time (some churches don’t even allow singing to be done by the congregation). Other churches have taken a more liberal approach and allow attendees to decide for themselves whether to wear a mask, seating is not manipulated to promote social distancing, but each person is to use common sense and respect each other’s individual space. Singing is encouraged and without masks.
The church I serve in has taken the more liberal approach. The elders along with a select few in the church met, discussed, and came up with a plan that involved allowing each member to use common sense when gathering for worship. We however, did not see it necessary to mandate masks or make seating fit social distancing protocol. We called upon the church as a whole to use their own discretion and discernment, and to respect others as they did the same. The majority that attend do not wear masks, a few do. It should be said as well that we are a small church (less than 100 attendees) and we acknowledged that churches larger than us would have to make different decisions depending on their space and how many were in attendance. For us it became a Romans 14 issue. As Paul says,
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”Romans 14:1-3
Though this has been our position it has not been resistant to complaint and disagreement. When an issue like this arises there are always individuals across the whole spectrum of perspectives. Some think we still take it too seriously while others are frustrated we take such a lackadaisical approach. When this happens what is a church to do?
I think the answer is simple—we don’t despise and we don’t judge; we simply respect each other’s consciences and live in unity despite the disagreement. Isn’t this what Paul says in Romans 14? When the one who thinks masks and social distancing are to be mandated, begins criticizing those who don’t feel the same way, they have moved beyond their authority. To do this is to wrongfully judge another. However, if those who think they are free to not wear masks and social distance, begin criticizing those who do wear masks, they likewise, have moved beyond their authority.
Paul says in Romans 14 that “one believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables…” It could be modernized by saying this, “one person believes he doesn’t have to wear a mask while the other says he must…” When we have polar opposite opinions on matters such as these the answer is to respect each other’s opinion. We are to live in harmony.
Some will argue, “but if you don’t wear a mask you are not loving your neighbor!” We must be careful because to take this position runs into the danger of what Jesus admonished the religious leaders of his day:
They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.”Matthew 23:4
When we take a hard stance on mask wearing and begin requiring it of our other brothers and sisters in Christ, we come dangerously close to legalism, and legalism always begets hypocrisy.
The other side counters—“if you wear masks you are living in fear; I have faith over fear!” It sounds pious but it definitely isn’t holy. When we slander our brothers and sisters who feel convicted to wear masks we are equally guilty of sin. When we do this we are in danger of Jesus’ words elsewhere: “Do not judge lest you be judged (Matthew 7:1).”
I don’t know where you stand on these issues. What I do know is that you stand somewhere. You have convictions and opinions about it all. That’s good, we are reasonable human beings who have opinions on all kinds of matters. My encouragement is that we don’t make these strong opinions quarrelsome issues. Let’s hold our personal convictions on matters of opinion while simultaneously respecting those who differ.