The Word of God is our unquestionable guide for faith and practice. In every season of life we have to check our biases, our desires, our opinions, and even our convictions against the Word of God. When the Lord has clearly spoken, our responsibility is to submit to it. However, at times it is hard to discern what the Holy Spirit’s specific application of the Word is in a given situation. We may know what the Word says, but it can be challenging to know exactly how to apply the Word.
As shepherds of the flock of God at EGBC, our commitment is to lead the body of Christ with the Word. To teach it and apply it to all of life. This past Sunday (10.18.20), we strove to do just that in our congregational meeting. We called upon the body of Christ to walk in love for one another. To not bite and devour one another over matters of conscience. To bear with one another in love. However, there is an application of Scripture that I believe we missed.
There are a few primary passages that we must look at:
- 1 Corinthians 8:11-13 - By your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
First off, we must understand the “weak brother” “strong brother” language. Paul is referring to those whose conscience are bound vs. those whose conscience are not. Paul is not saying one group is spiritually mature and one group is spiritually immature. What he is saying is that there are those in the body of Christ whose conscience is bound on a particular issue, regarding that issue they they are not free. This is what Paul means by weak. Then there are those in the body of Christ whose conscience is free on a particular issue, they can take it or leave it. He refers to that brother or sister as strong.
Now back to the passage, notice the commitment of Paul to his brethren, if a freedom I have in Christ will cause a brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again. Love was not theoretical for Paul, love had definitive and sacrificial action. Then another passage:
- Romans 14:13-19 - but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother…if a brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, you destroy the one for whom Christ died…so then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding (partial quote).
For Paul, love actually does something. He is never going to put a stumbling block in front of a brother. He is actively pursuing peace with his brothers and sisters in Christ. He knows what offends them, and he gladly accommodates their convictions by changing his behavior. This is gospel-like love at its finest - sacrificing for the sake of another, which is exactly what Christ did for humanity.
Now we too must not live in the world of theories, we must apply this Scripture to our present context. It is easy to rehearse theology, but it gets real when we actually apply it. We have brothers and sisters in the body that are bound in their conscience to wear masks due to the Covid-19 pandemic. For the sake of their own health, for the sake of loved ones they care for, or for the sake of the general populace, they are compelled to wear a mask. For them to gather without wearing a mask would be sin as it would violate their conscience (Romans 14:23). In this, these brothers and sisters find commonality with our 1st century brethren described in 1 Corinthians 8:7. This is where their conscience is at before the Lord (Romans 14:6). We must not conclude that this conscience conviction is immature or sinful, for Scripture does not allow us to go there.
We also have brothers and sisters in the body that are not bound in their conscience to wear a mask. These brothers and sister can “take it or leave it” when it comes to mask wearing. Due to the freedom of their conscience on this matter, they are like the brethren described in 1 Corinthians 8:4. Wearing a mask or not wearing a mask is of no consequence to these brothers and sisters. Their conscience is free on the issue of mask wearing (Romans 14:20). We must not conclude that this conscience conviction is immature or sinful either, for Scripture does not allow us to go there.
Now, what is the divinely inspired application of Romans 14 & 1 Corinthians 8? I assure you, the application of these passages is not natural in the flesh, but it absolutely displays the self-dying love of Christ. In both passages, the Apostle Paul gives the exact same application. He doesn’t say to the “non-meat-eaters” get over it. He doesn’t scold them on why they are free in Christ to eat meat offered to idols. Not at all. What Paul actually does is he directs the application to those who’s consciences are free. He says things like:
- Never put a stumbling block or hinderance in the way of a brother - Romans 14:13b
- If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love - Romans 14:15a
- Do not destroy the one for whom Christ died - Romans 14:15b
- So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding - Romans 14:19
- But it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats - Romans 14:20b
- It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble - Romans 14:21
- However, not all possess this knowledge…and their conscience being weak, is defiled - 1 Corinthians 8:7
- But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak - 1 Corinthians 8:9
- And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ - 1 Corinthians 8:11-12
And so in the cultural context we find ourselves in today, we have brothers & sisters whom we love and for whom Christ died, who are convinced in their conscience that they need to wear a face mask. For them to not wear a face covering would be sin as it would violate their conscience (1 Corinthians 8:12). Their conscience is not free to do either. Not only that, similar to what we see in both Romans 14 & 1 Corinthians 8, these brothers & sisters are stumbled by others who do not wear face masks. Therefore, in the spirit of Christ-like love and submission to the Word of God, the body of Christ at EGBC is compelled to wear face masks when we gather together indoors. Similar to Paul in the 1st Century, Paul’s joyful accommodation of his brothers & sisters did not mean he agreed with them. But it did mean that he loved them more than his own preferences. He was willing to set aside his preference for the sake of his brothers & sisters.
To be clear - your pastors are not making a judgement on the validity of mask wearing or not mask wearing. We are not simply “getting on board” with CDC guidelines or governmental mandates. These are matters of conscience. However, we truly have a higher standard - the Word of God. Seeing that we have brothers & sisters in our body who are bound in their conscience to wear a mask, the Word of God compels us to love them. The Word of God compels us to not cause them to stumble. The Word of God compels us to not in anyway hinder their faith on matters of preference. Based on these clear passages of Scripture and our gospel-motivated love for one another, we ask that you wear a mask when gathering to worship on Sunday mornings.
Whereas we believe the Word calls us to sacrifice personal preferences for the sake of the brethren, we also look forward to the day when we will no longer cover our faces when gathering. We believe that God has uniquely created humanity to express joy, sorrow, and relate to one another through facial expression. We truly look forward to the day when this God-given normalcy will return.
Brothers & sisters - we appeal to you to not forsake the assembly of the saints (Hebrews 10:24-25). Our hope and prayer as your pastors is that we all will gladly lay down our preferences for the sake of one another. If you are free to wear or not wear a face mask, then do not use that freedom to destroy a brother or sister. If you are bound in your conscience to wear a mask, you are called to love those who think differently. The call of Scripture for all is to not pass judgment on one another, to not despise one another, to pursue peace, and the mutual building up of one another (Romans 14:10-19).