Take your pick as to which familiar axiom best fits with President Joe Biden’s controversial and sweeping COVID vaccine mandate last week: “He bit off more than he can chew,” or, “He just poured gasoline on the fire.”
With much of the United States having been embroiled in a debate over whether or not coronavirus mitigation protocols and policies are appropriate and helpful to a nation that has been dealing with a pandemic for more than a year and a half – so far, Biden announced his plan to force companies with more than 100 employees to vaccinate workers against the coronavirus or test them weekly.
Immediately that announcement sent shockwaves throughout the country to a citizenry that has been divided from the onset of the virus, as to the best means of balancing public safety with personal freedom.
The President sparked a firestorm when in his speech, he indicted the tens of millions of unvaccinated people in the nation as being most responsible for the pandemic’s continuing presence when he said, “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin and your refusal has cost all of us.”
If that wasn’t an inflammatory enough comment, he added, “Many of us are frustrated with the nearly 80 million Americans who are still not vaccinated, even though the vaccine is safe, effective and free.” He continued, “You might be confused about what is true and what is false about COVID-19.”
One thing is true, the President’s condescending rhetoric not only acknowledged but furthered the division inherent in our country and unfortunately, some of the evangelical church, which has been wrestling with this season of the pandemic and God’s painful providence.
Americans have lost or will lose jobs for failing to vaccinate and some others like evangelical pastor and ministry leader Dan Darling last month, will, for publicly supporting COVID vaccines.
Furthermore, a number of large public-school districts have again recently mandated masks, if not vaccines as well, in the wake of the Delta variant spike, while elected officials (e.g. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis) are opposing them. Perhaps as many as half of the country’s state governments may be taking on the President’s federal vaccine mandate in court. The partisan political impact on the coronavirus issue has sadly pervaded personal relationships, causing division even among families.
Illustrated by the ultimate form of social distancing, a new survey reported that one in seven vaccinated Americans have ‘dumped friends’ over COVID shots. Nearly one in five “broke up” with at least three friends since the pandemic began in March of 2020. If that survey is true, the results are not only troublesome, but unacceptable for any ‘neighbor-loving’ professing believer and follower of Jesus Christ.
My Vaccine Journey
Should churches be splitting, fellowships and families dividing over the issue of COVID-19 mitigation protocols and vaccine mandates? What does our Lord think of all this?
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.… (Colossians 2:16)
Before you skip further down on this post for my own testimony as to how with some fear and trembling in this disclosure, I went from being a personal, ardent, die in the wool, anti-vaxxer for well over a year of the pandemic, to becoming a recent, personal convert to getting the ‘Fauci ouchie,’ I will first engage you in some theological triage to lay a foundation for my personal decision.
Being a Christian man, husband, father and pastor, I was compelled to not only read and research much on this topic, but to study the scriptures first and foremost in looking for biblical guidance as to how to think about the vaccination in particular, in the midst of the government, health agencies and mainstream media’s push for the shot.
Borrowing from that medical method of ascertaining emergency medical care or determining priorities among needs, theological triage, is a skill in which the disciple of Christ prayerfully studies to find where an issue of the faith and practice of the Christian life fits theologically in wishing to determine and follow the will of God. My findings?
To no surprise, there are no direct or explicit commands- precepts to be found in scripture dealing with pandemics, masks and vaccines. Therefore, in practicing theological triage, we must appeal to biblical principles, practices and patterns which may inform and influence our thinking, in order to make a biblically grounded decision on what to do or not to do- particularly with contemporary issues of our day which are not always dealt with in black and white terms, but rather in gray.
This means that the worldview and decisions a Christian makes with respect to vaccine mandates and masks, must be made with wisdom and by individual conscience, as believers in the early church did in wrestling with issues of conviction like eating meat offered to idols, drink and the observance of Sabbaths and special days.
On those gray issues above, the apostle Paul spent a good deal of time in his ministry and apostolic and Holy Spirit-inspired writing on teaching and clarifying gray issues (“opinions”; Romans 14:1), emphasizing personal freedom for those truly in Christ, so long as they prioritized the love of the brethren and the unity of the body (the church) above and beyond preferences and one’s freedom.
Once I arrived at the conclusion that the issue of vaccines is a gray one, not specifically dealt with in scripture as such, I understood that I had personal liberty to take the jab or not. I further learned like many of you, that there is also much equivocation, uncertainty and even suspicion regarding the data of almost every aspect of the coronavirus and the appropriate response to it.
God is infallible- Science is not
Thus, three areas of concern seem to dominate the center of the debate over this issue which I first addressed in a post from last April which one most consider: safety, efficacy and liberty.
- Safety (are the mRNA vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson reasonably safe?)
A straight answer to that question is difficult to give due to the fallible source or authority one relies upon on either side of the debate. The most recognized and oft-quoted sources of medical expertise traditionally are those given by government funded and contracted agencies like the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the NIH (National Institutes of Health).
On the con or ‘against’ vaccine side, there seems to be a legitimate concern over the “warp speed” (President Trump’s COVID initiative last year) in which the vaccines were tested and approved for emergency use by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).
It is reasonable to assume that much of the population would be at greater ease with the vaccines had they been tested in longer-term clinical studies and the drugs themselves had been developed more slowly. However, on the “pro” side, the counter point to that concern was the severity and contagion of a global pandemic which has taken more than three million lives so far, as a more conservative estimate. That is the nature of medical triage. ‘Desperate times = desperate actions.’
To illustrate the complexity of this gray issue, recent reports indicate that about 15,000 vaccinated people in the U.S. have suffered severe illness from a “breakthrough” coronavirus infection.
As of early September, almost 12,000 people who had a breakthrough case have been hospitalized and another near 3,000 people who had a breakthrough infection have died, according to data published by the CDC.
15,000 is a big number and a 9-11 type number of fatalities for those that received what they thought was a life-saving injection gives room for reflection. Unless of course, you compare those numbers to the 177 million plus Americans- over half the adult population of the country, who have been vaccinated with little or no adverse effect (0.01% chance of a serious consequence).
Although an alarming number of positive COVID cases have occurred among children in the U.S., It is reasonable to assume that an ‘anti-vaxxer’ has a legitimate concern over being vaccinated in light of some data and the results of a new study from U.S. researchers, showing that 12–15 year-old boys with no underlying medical conditions, are more likely to get a vaccine-related myocarditis (heart related) issue than end up in the hospital with COVID.
- Efficacy (How effective are the vaccines?)
Which data and perspective do you prefer? On the one hand, or on the “con” side, COVID vaccinated people can still be infected by the virus. Anyone who has been led to believe that the vaccines provide a life-long and complete inoculation or immunization from the coronavirus are kidding themselves. Breakthrough cases are real and a risk.
Moreover, according to a large Israeli study, people who once had a SARS-CoV-2 infection were much less likely than never-infected, vaccinated people to get Delta, develop symptoms from it, or become hospitalized with serious COVID-19, which begs the question, “Why take the shot?”
But then on the other hand, or on the “pro” vaccine side, most health experts say the Delta COVID-19 variant (occurring in arguably 80-90% of new positive cases) doubles the risk of hospitalization among the unvaccinated. According to a British study, the number of hospitalizations and deaths accompanying the high number of cases has remained lower (and for some countries, much lower) than at earlier points in the pandemic when vaccination rates were much lower.
That may prove that the coronavirus vaccines in use in the West dramatically lower the chance of a severe infection, hospitalization and death. The probability of that relationship of the vaccines to severe, symptomatic effects proved to be a contributing factor in my journey.
As you read this post if you’ve been courageous enough to follow along this far, you should have been able to see the complexity and gray in this issue and that both pro and anti-vaxxers have legitimate arguments to make and concerns to share with others as to what they have found in arriving at the convictions of their conscience. Which leads finally to…
- Liberty (are we free to choose?)
Christianity in contrast to other fundamentalist religions or worldviews is non-coercive. Christians understand that faith in Christ is a choice of repentance and personal belief in the risen and coming again Lord and Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. It is God’s free gift of grace to a sinner who can turn to God and trust in Christ alone for salvation, rather than by works of the law or third-party coercion.
Similarly, born-again disciples understand that only scripture can bind the conscience of a Christian and that on disputable issues and doctrines of the faith and it’s practice, “.. whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23).”
A Christian is neither a “weaker or stronger brother” in deciding to vax or not. That decision should not be arrived at quickly, nor politically in either direction since politics in and of itself does not keep people alive. Rather, I would argue the decision and the conviction of conscience that leads to it, should be a carefully arrived at, personal and humble one.
The Bible states that on such matters of dispute, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5c).”
Furthermore, God’s word clearly admonishes any Christian from ‘passing judgment’ on another who comes to his or her own black and white decision or conviction in a gray matter. One Christian is no more spiritual or mature than another, if they chose to vaccinate or not. God’s secret will of decree is that some will and some won’t.
As I looked at my own personal, family and health circumstances, as a middle-aged man, surrounded by an ever growing number of close personal friends and church members (including one of my co-elders) having been infected by the virus- most in my age group and some hospitalized by the all too common condition of COVID related pneumonia, I concluded that the likely benefit of my getting a vaccination far exceeded the risk of the vaccination itself.
That decision however, made by a careful and prayerful time of study (including conversations with trusted friends who happened to be Christian doctors), was made personally and humbly- I pray. It was ultimately a journey and decision for me and me alone.
Due to all of what has been posted in this space, I am making clear that I am not an advocate for everyone to be vaccinated and as one who has been, I sympathize with those who do not choose to. As one who believes this decision is one of personal liberty for the Christian, I oppose the President’s vaccine mandate and virtually any other at this time.
What I do wish for above all, is that Christians will obey the revealed will and word of God in placing love and unity above personal liberty.
So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding (Romans 14:19).
31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:31-33).
Christian, let’s pay heed to what the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy and the church as “Having nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; ‘knowing that they breed quarrels.” But rather as “the Lord’s servant, we must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting ‘our opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:23-26).”
Jesus told his disciples and us – the church by extension, that love and unity whenever possible are paramount in our walk as the highest ends and the greatest gift to a world checking in to see if Christ-followers are really what they’re supposed to be. What does that love look like?
It’s not primarily for husbands and wives, but in context for the church:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
By the way, in case you weren’t sure, the above applies to fellowshipping with the saints and thinking and talking about the coronavirus, vaccine, mask and mandates.