Pastors in my Evangelical circles have been increasingly faced with requests to provide “religious exemption” letters to those in our churches who do not wish to be vaccinated. With the FDA’s final approval of Pfizer’s vaccine, employer mandates will likely become ubiquitous and increase the requests for these letters. Should we give them?
While it is a minority of churches thus far, in some cases, it has taken the appearance of a “religious exemption mill.” Some churches promise anyone who attends access to such paperwork, despite having no preexisting teaching opposed to vaccines.
Cynically, I’ll confess some of this smells of an attempt at free publicity for churches, while other examples I’ve read seem more like pastors fearfully bending to avoid conflicting with members’ passionate political (not religious) beliefs. But, to cavalierly stamp “this is what we believe” on an issue for publicity or appeasement threatens all of us who advocate for genuine religious liberty.
I saw a template for a letter pastors could issue floating around earlier this week amongst the Reformed theological circles I call home. The letter essentially said, “Freedom of conscience is an important part of our religious beliefs and this church member has a conscientious objection to vaccines, so therefore they should be exempt in accordance to our doctrines. Nor should this person be required to report vaccine status, because such reporting also wounds his or her conscience.”
Talk about vague reasoning! Yet, I saw theological outlets that are normally hair splittingly precise about theology, skewering any they deem loose on Biblical interpretation, passing along this letter for pastoral use. I will not link to it and give it more promotion, but rest assured, it was not satire.
To be sure, Scripture does worry about the conscience. Paul is clear that if we do something thinking we are sinning, it is a sin even if the thing itself is not sin (Romans 14:23). What is a pastor’s duty when someone wrongly believes something is sin? To gently correct them, not to encourage them in their misunderstanding (2 Timothy 2:23-26).
Pastor, before you brush aside that duty to correct in this case, are you willing to write exemption letters regardless of the issue, no matter how detached from sound Biblical doctrine? A company requires its employees to work in a red walled room, but someone feels like that red honors Hell? Exemption. A position’s duties include ringing up credit card purchases, but someone feels like that contributes to usury? Exemption.
If not, then to honor Jesus as you represent Him in that exemption letter you are pondering writing, you must ground it in your ability to demonstrate why vaccination is sinful. Please, hold the present controversy to the standard faithful pastors used prior to the pandemic for such letters.
If we start offering exemptions scattershot like these sorts of letters seem to be trying to do, we need to be prepared for a strong push (which may very well succeed) to curb religious exemptions broadly. If exemptions are constantly issued for anything, for any reason, without principled grounding, they no longer exist to protect deeply held religious beliefs and we imperil both our religious freedoms and the credibility of our testimony.
Is this vaccine frenzy really what we want to put all the chips on the table for?
Religious exemptions are an important part of ensuring we can practice the faith we confess — and that people believe us when we do — so we ought not trivialize them. They need to be rooted in doctrine, not politics or memes. I will argue until I’m blue in the face for the right of the Little Sisters of the Poor or Hobby Lobby to hold to their sincerely held belief that birth control is sinful. Likewise, protections for those who keep the Sabbath consistent with their faith and thus cannot work on it.
The key in these examples is genuine religious belief. The cases that have prevailed legally have shown the people (and the churches they affiliate with) living in accordance with these principles. On the other hand, most of the clergy I see now flirting with religious exemption letters for vaccines have no doctrinal concerns with vaccines, masks or sharing vaccination records and thus, by pandering to the political moment, they risk making a mockery of our shared faith in the Lord.
To be sure, there may be a few genuine religious qualms which are more complex than what I’ve already outlined. As someone who is deeply pro-life, I understand concerns about the use of fetal stem cells in the testing of COVID vaccines.
Here, too, though, we need to make sure we are being principled. How?
We need to start with consistency. Such stem cells are widely used in medicines many of the people objecting to COVID vaccines have never taken issue with. Principles aren’t worth the paper they are typed on if they only arise for things we want an excuse to get out of anyway. If you’ll buy a trendy pair of shoes from a company that gleefully donates profits to Planned Parenthood — encouraging more abortions right now — but stand piously against the vaccine that encourages no new abortions and might save lives, there’s a problem.
Some of the strongest pro-life voices, including the Catholic Church, have advocated for the COVID vaccines and done so without contradicting their principles. Pastors, put it this way: would you tell a congregant to reject an organ transplant that would save the life of his deathly ill mother because the organ came from someone murdered during a robbery?
The COVID vaccine dilemma is essentially that. Experimentation was both limited and on decades old cell lines — irreversible, evil history, yes, but much like the murder victim, we need to ask “what do we do now?” Refusing the vaccine cannot reverse past wrongs, but it might cause more lives — born or unborn, all worthy of protection according to God — to be lost.
Even if the letters I have seen circulate consistently dealt with these questions and showed a firmly rooted doctrine that leads to the need for a vaccination exemption, they show their true colors by also attacking masking and even the mere reporting of vaccination status. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith eloquently asserted:
Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.
If we were to reach a truly principled religious exemption to COVID vaccines, because we believe there is some real moral evil in the vaccination, then one ought to at least be willing to live that pro-life ethic by doing everything else possible to protect the lives around us.
How can one love one’s neighbor (the second greatest commandment after loving God, according to Jesus), if one isn’t willing to protect one’s neighbor — be it a boss, a coworker or a customer? The vaccine and, failing that, honestly disclosing we skipped it so our neighbors can make informed decisions for their own wellbeing, seem small in light of the Biblical command to sacrifice our lives for others just as Jesus did for us (1 John 3:16-18).
We need to face cold, hard reality. As Thomas McKenzie warned just days before his untimely death this week, “For a Christian pastor to say that our faith excepts people from masks or vaccines is a violation of the Third Commandment. It’s a misuse of the Name of God.”
If we are willing to slap God’s name on things that have no basis in Scripture because of the cultural winds of our moment, then we deserve the mockery and loss of freedoms that will come when the world sees through our unprincipled stands.
May we do better for the sake of the one whose Name we proclaim.