(Image courtesy of https://sfhss.org.)

To begin, the conscience is the part of us that accuses or defends our actions, says Paul in Romans 4. Consciences cannot and should not be broken in either way. The result is extremely damaging. 

For the last several months, during the COVID-19 hype, face masks have been touted as issues of conscience among Christian circles. The argument stems from Romans 14 and claims that anyone not wearing a mask is living in sin because they are not loving their weaker brother by wearing masks. Not wearing a mask is viewed as a sin by some because non-wearers are offending their brothers and sisters by being unloving and uncaring.
I want to challenge this assertion.

There are serious problems with the theology and the biblical interpretation of this passage when it leads to such a way of thinking. First, let me give an example of how this logic could be applied to another issue and how it could be labeled an issue of conscience.

It is popular in suburban neighborhoods to spray one's yard with pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals. Personally, I find these chemicals to be damaging to the environment, and harmful to people and animals. Therefore, I have a choice to make: I can either be offended that someone is not thinking or doing the same things I would; or I can decide that even if we don't think or act the same, I can still respect their freedom to do what they want with their yard. The problem, of course, is that we live in a society of people that choices the former more often than not: if someone isn't doing or saying or even thinking in a way that makes me feel "safe" then I have every right to be offended at their unloving behavior.

These sorts of offenses could lead to accused sin at nearly every turn.

But is this really where Paul is going? Does he mean for us to be so easily offended and so demanding of others to accommodate our personal preferences and our personal convictions? Perhaps your visitor grew up in a home where to take your shoes off at the door was a sign of disrespect (stinky feet?). I do not think Paul meant for us to have reasons to lord power over others by proudly labeling ourselves as a weaker brother, demanding that others obey our convictions because of our weak consciences.

One of the biggest problems I have with all of this is the language that is used to defend and accuse the issue of face masks. The regularly used words are love and compassion and harm. This is the same language that is used by proponents of any number of immoral behaviors: “that’s unloving for you to say they are wrong.” This is the blaring comment one hears if they say anything that might offend another individual. This same emotional language is used in the context of mask-wearing: “that’s unloving for you to not wear a mask; you are not being compassionate toward others.” This is not rooted in truth; this is rooted in shaming and a demand for control over others convictions.

This same sort of language is used in the vaccine debate. Some would say it is unloving to not vaccinate your kids because it could lead to harming others. But should we be so concerned about causing harm to others? What I consider harmful and what others consider harmful could be totally different. I view certain vaccines as harmful to my body and also harmful to my ethics and a violation of my morality (i.e., aborted baby cells used to create some vaccines). Others might view vaccines as totally okay and view sickness as harmful that may come as a result of not getting vaccinated. Who is right? I think both are right. In the gray areas of life, we can't demand others do what we think is right.

This, afterall, is not at all what Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 14.

The context surrounding Paul’s issue of conscience was that of abstaining from meat offered to idols. The charge was not for believers to abstain from meat at all times or when someone might be offended. The charge was to avoid behaviors and freedoms in order to keep your brother from sinning.

Here's my question: how does not wearing a mask cause the one who is wearing a mask to stumble in sin?

Additionally, the issue Paul is dealing with in Romans 14 also has to do with intentional offenses: if you know that it is meat sacrificed to idols, then don’t eat it for the sake of your offended brother. You do not want to intentionally offend him. If someone doesn't wear a mask, yet is maintaining a respectful attitude toward those who choose to, then where is the intent to cause another to stumble (if it is even possible in this context to lead him into sin by not wearing a mask)?

Furthermore, this issue was from a context of hospitality; when else would you have someone over to eat meat? Paul does not expect believers in every context to abstain from meat, nor does he expect believers to walk around in fear and cowardice, or constantly asking if everyone present approves of the meat they are about to eat.

So what is one to do? First, he should evaluate himself to see if he has an attitude that is intentionally out to offend others. That sort of behavior is sin because it is driven by hatred and selfish motives. Let me give you an example: a mask-wearer is in line to check out at a store and a non-mask wearer approaches, stands uncomfortably close, and begins to breathe excessively loud. This sort of behavior is most likely intentional and is, therefore, unloving and unkind. We should avoid such behavior.

At the same time, if a non-mask wearer is in a store and is minding his own business, doing his shopping, smiling at others, taking care to respect the space of others, and if a mask-wearer approaches with an attitude of disdain and hate toward him, who is in the wrong? Certainly the one wearing the mask!

The fact of the matter is that there are many angry people in the world today. You can be angry against those who aren’t wearing masks and you can be angry against people who are trying to make you wear masks. Those are really the only two extreme options when it comes to masks. Let me ask you, which position is more problematic: the one forcing your beliefs on others or the one where your beliefs are respected but just not followed by everyone? Clearly, forcing one’s beliefs onto someone else is a violation of that person’s liberty. That is much more problematic.

I know what the mask-wearers want (or at least say they want): they want to protect everyone. It sounds really noble and really good. But when it violates others and abuses the consciences and convictions of others, it is not noble or good. It is harmful and unloving (to borrow those words).

In short, it’s impossible to protect yourself from the guaranteed outcome of death. We are all going to die.

There is only one answer to man’s sin problem, from which sickness and suffering stem: Jesus Christ is the only answer to sin and death. Leave the mask issue alone. Do what your conscience convicts you of. But don’t be so easily offended if others don’t bend over backward to appease you.

How does not wearing a face-mask cause my Christian brother or sister to sin?