The most recent attack on Biblical Christianity has come in the form of questioning if religious exemptions should exist or if they are even religious at all. This, of course, comes from the never-ending list of controversies that COVID has brought into the world. The goal of this article is to lay out the Biblical case for religious exemptions for vaccines. I do want to note two important details before I make the Biblical case for religious exemptions.
The first is that I have written and signed religious exemptions for vaccines before the COVID vaccine was required or even existed. I bring this up because there are many who want to politicize these religious exemptions, then claim they have nothing to do with religion and only have to do with politics. If there is any ideology that is politicizing these exemptions, it is from the left side of the aisle as they continue to ignore history and weaponize slanderous claims against Biblical Christianity. Simply put, while they cry “separation of church and state” they simultaneously use the state as a battering ram in an attempt to knock down the doors of religious convictions and then claim those who are principled are merely politicizing the matter.
The second detail I want to note is that I will not be spending much time in this article on the science or health reasons some may seek an exemption. This is often where people want to spend their time discussing the issue, but I find this to miss the heart of what a religious exemption is.
The Purpose and Sphere of Civil Government
To understand religious exemptions, we first need to understand the purpose of civil government. The Bible teaches that civil government was instituted in Genesis 9:6 “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.” This passage is where God gave the sword to the civil government and requires man to hold the responsibility of punishing the wicked and in doing so protecting the innocent.
Romans 13:1-5 gives more detail and insight into what this looks like:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake.
Here we find one of the most hotly debated passages in Scripture as many take this passage to mean unlimited submission to government, but is this really what the passage is saying? I would argue, with the majority of Christian leaders throughout history, that this is not what the passage is prescribing. In fact, I would say it is ignorant or nearly laughable to make this argument given the historical and primary context of this passage.
The historical context is rooted in a government that was headed by Nero. Nero was a tyrant who persecuted the church in an extreme way. He would place Christians alive in cow carcasses and sick hungry lions on them and would use the corpses of murdered Christians to light his wife’s garden parties. These are only a few of the odious acts that this wicked tyrant performed, it would be just as outlandish to say that the Christians of Nazi Germany should have unlimited submission to government as it would be to say that the Christians of Rome were to obey Nero without limit.
The primary context helps us decipher what this passage means when it says, “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” The passage goes on to describe what these authorities that are to be obeyed look like:
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.
Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same.
For he is God’s minister to you for good.
he does not bear the sword in vain
for he is God’s minister
an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.
The authorities that are to be obeyed are a terror to evil workers, they praise the good, they are God’s ministers, they do not bear the sword in vain, and they execute wrath on the practitioners of evil. The word minister here is the same Greek word used for deacon in the New Testament. Can you imagine someone with Nero’s resume, and who is not repentant, being introduced as a deacon? If that happened there would be one possible conclusion, he was an illegitimate deacon! What God is commanding here is for Christians to obey legitimate authorities and that legitimate authorities are appointed by God. A legitimate civil authority fulfills the designated purpose of civil government.
1Peter 2:13-14 is a similar passage to Romans 13 and it says, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” Once again, we see the context is key to understanding what kind of submission it is speaking of. The phrase “for the Lord’s sake” is what we need to highlight to understand this. We can never disobey God for the sake of God, so we once again see that the government has a limited scope. This passage spells out the purpose of civil government, and affirms what is clearly seen in Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13 as it says, “for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” The civil government is to punish the wicked and protect the innocent and in doing so it praises the good.
The purpose of civil government is key to understanding the scope of authority that God delegated to them. If civil government fails to meet the purpose that God set for it then it becomes an illegitimate authority and should be resisted and defied. The scope of civil government is not only limited in purpose, but it is also limited in sphere. God delegated some earthly authority to civil government, but He did not delegate all earthly authority to civil government. God also delegated authority to the family government, ecclesiastical (church) government, and to the individual (self-government). If the civil government invades any of what was delegated to these other governments then the civil government becomes tyrannical and should be defied and resisted.
Examples of Resisting and Defying Civil Government
The Bible gives plenty of examples of godly men and women defying the civil government because they either failed to fulfill their designated purpose or failed to stay within their delegated sphere of authority.
The Apostles in Acts 5:29 gave us the proper posture we are to take when we consider these matters, they said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” These words should be branded on the conscience of every Christian as it defines civil government as having a limited scope that is under God. The context of this passage was the Apostles were told not to preach the gospel. There are those who believe this is the only abuse of power that truly warrants a defying of tyrants so let’s examine some other passages as well.
The Egyptian midwives (Exodus 1:15-21), defied their king when he told them to kill Israelite babies and God blessed them for fearing Him above the king. Esther (Esther 4:13-16) specifically disregarded a law in approaching the king in order to make a plea for her people. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego (Dan. 3) refused to bow to a golden image and were thrown into the fire for it. Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den (Dan. 6) for choosing to pray with his windows open. All of these and many more throughout Scripture all defied and resisted tyrants and God recorded it in His eternal word as positive.
The defying of tyrants is not only clearly seen in Scripture, but it has been echoed as the orthodox position of Christians all throughout history. Here are some quotes from notable Christians throughout many different centuries:
“Resistance to Tyranny is obedience to God.”- John Knox (Scottish Reformer)
“Therefore, if now the leader or Caesar proceeds to such a height of insanity only in that order of natural knowledge which governs the society of civil life and uprightness, that he abolishes the law concerning marriages and all chastity, and himself sets up a contrary law of roving unclean lusts, to the effect that the wives and daughters of all men are to be prostituted; and if he himself defends and prosecutes the law with force and arms, so that certain death is laid down as the penalty for those resist or fail to conform— in such a case, doubtless, no clear-thinking person would have any hesitation about the divine right and commandment that such a leader or monarch ought to be curbed by everyone in his most wicked attempt, even by the lowest of the lowest Magistrates with whatever power they have.”- Magdeburg Confession (Pastors of Magdeburg Germany in 1550)
“The king is as much bound by his oath not to infringe the legal rights of the people, as the people are bound to yield subjection to him. From whence it follows that as soon as the prince sets himself above the law, he loses the king in the tyrant. He does, to all intents and purposes, un-king himself.” – Jonathan Mayhew (Leading Pastor in Colonial America)
“They are more properly ‘The Messengers of Satan to buffet us.’ No rulers are properly God’s ministers, but such as are ‘just, ruling in the fear of God.’ When once magistrates act contrary to their office, and the end of their institution when they rob and ruin the public, instead of being guardians of its peace … they immediately cease to be the ordinance and ministers of God, and no more deserve that glorious character than common pirates and highwaymen.” – Jonathan Mayhew (Leading Pastor in Colonial America)
“When any office commands that which is contrary to the word of God, those who hold that office abrogate their authority and they are not to be obeyed. And that includes the state.” – Francis Schaeffer (An American Theologian in the 20th century)
“Unnecessary legislation is invalid legislation. Unnecessary government is tyranny.” – Charles Finney (A leader in the Second Great Awakening)
“For I think a law that is not just, is not actually a law.”-Augustine (Bishop in the 4th and 5th centuries)
On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5), “a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all… Secondly, laws may be unjust through being opposed to the Divine good: such are the laws of tyrants inducing to idolatry, or to anything else contrary to the Divine law: and laws of this kind must nowise be observed, because, as stated in Acts 5:29, “we ought to obey God rather than man.”- Thomas Aquinas (Theologian of the 13th century)
“Loyal shoulders should sustain the power of the ruler so long as it is exercised in subjection to God and follows His ordinances; but if it resists and opposes the divine commandments, and wishes to make me share in its war against God, then with unrestrained voice, I answer back that God must be preferred before any man on earth.”- John of Salisbury (Bishop from the 12th century)
“Suppose there was a law passed in Washington D.C. that said you cannot go to church and if you do you will be fined and if you repeat the offense you will be jailed. We would know where we stood and we could stand up and put our chins high and say if God helps me I will never come under that decree, I’ll go to church when I please and I’ll pray to God as I want. My fathers founded this nation, dedicated to the proposition that every man should worship God according to the dictates of his own heart. However, that is not what is happening; the devil is too much of a strategist to treat us like that. He is busy brainwashing us and conditioning us little by little and feeding his ideas into the church. As the ideas of the ungodly enter the church the counsel of God goes out.” -AW Tozer (Pastor in the 20th century)
It is, and always has been, the orthodox position of Christians to resist or to even defy the civil government when they fail to fulfill their purpose or go outside of their designated scope. All of this is key to understanding why a Christian can rightly claim a religious exemption and that is our religion specifically believes we are not to yield an unlimited submission to government!
But What About Vaccine Exemptions?
All that has been covered so far is a necessary foundation to get to the passage of Scripture where the rubber really meets the road. That passage of Scripture is Daniel 1:5-17
And the king appointed for them a daily provision of the king’s delicacies and of the wine which he drank, and three years of training for them, so that at the end of that time they might serve before the king. Now from among those of the sons of Judah were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. To them the chief of the eunuchs gave names: he gave Daniel the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abed-Nego. But Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank; therefore he requested of the chief of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself. Now God had brought Daniel into the favor and goodwill of the chief of the eunuchs. And the chief of the eunuchs said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who has appointed your food and drink. For why should he see your faces looking worse than the young men who are your age? Then you would endanger my head before the king.” So Daniel said to the steward whom the chief of the eunuchs had set over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days, and let them give us vegetables to eat and water to drink. “Then let our appearance be examined before you, and the appearance of the young men who eat the portion of the king’s delicacies; and as you see fit, so deal with your servants.” So he consented with them in this matter, and tested them ten days. And at the end of ten days their features appeared better and fatter in flesh than all the young men who ate the portion of the king’s delicacies. Thus the steward took away their portion of delicacies and the wine that they were to drink, and gave them vegetables. As for these four young men, God gave them knowledge and skill in all literature and wisdom; and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams.
Here we see that the king gave a portion of food for Daniel and the other captives to eat. This wasn’t really optional, as we will see in the narrative, they couldn’t just “pick something else from the menu.” Daniel’s conscience would be defiled if he ate this food that was likely sacrificed to idols before it was presented to him. This is where we see the religious exemption begin. Religious exemptions start with a pricking of the conscience in the life of the Christian and then it creates a sincere belief; “Daniel purposed in his heart.” It is this sincere belief and purposing of the heart that leads to Daniel to ask for a religious exemption.
The exemption that Daniel asked for came with particular concerns. The first concern was for his own health. “For why should he see your faces looking worse than the young men who are your age?” The concern was that Daniel might not be as healthy as those around him. Did this negate his appeal for religious exemption or his purposed heart? No, it did not. The second concern was of the safety of his boss (the chief eunuch). “Then you would endanger my head before the king.” This statement was not hyperbole, it was genuine. Daniel would be putting his co-worker at risk of decapitation if he continued down the path of seeking a religious exemption. This did not negate Daniel’s religious exemption or the pursuit of it. We are not called to violate our conscience for the sake of other’s health. I’m not a scientist, but I am confident in saying that decapitation has a higher death rate than that of COVID. If the worst nightmare of the chief eunuch would have come true, would Daniel have been morally culpable? The answer is, no. The king would have been culpable. If you spread an illness because you’re convicted to not get a vaccine, would you be morally culpable? The answer is, no, as long as you’re not actively trying to spread it. Stay home when you’re sick, wash your hands, sneeze and cough into your arm.
Ultimately, God not only allowed Daniel’s religious exemption He blessed him for it. God prescribed that Daniel would resist and be willing to defy the state in order to preserve his conscience. The state in this issue, much like the issue of vaccines, had overstepped its bounds and invaded the sphere of self-government. God gives each person the self-government of their own health. If God has pricked your conscience for any reason to not get the COVID vaccine and you have purposed in your heart – a strongly held conviction – to not get it, then you should get a religious exemption and this exemption should be accepted!
To conclude I want to give an abridged summary of this article by stating the first two paragraphs of the religious exemption letter I sign and send out:
It is and has been the orthodox position of Christians to recognize that God created four great governments — Civil, Ecclesiastical, Family, and Self — We recognize that these governments all have a limited scope. We believe that each of these governments should be obeyed to the fullest extent when they are within their designated scope and that Christians should be exemplary in their behavior concerning all four governments. We also believe that a Christian has no responsibility to obey any government outside of the scope that has been designated by God.
Concerning vaccines, we sincerely believe and hold that vaccines are a matter of individual conscience and it is outside of the scope of Civil Government or any corporation to force any vaccine or injection upon an individual. We also recognize that some vaccines may be created with unethical means by exploiting the life of the pre-born through the use of human diploid cells. For this reason, we declare that it would be a violation of conscience and religious liberty for any government official, agency, or corporation to require or force vaccination without permitting an exemption for those whose conscience is hindered in any way by the vaccine or injection including the COVID-19 vaccine in any of its forms.