I have recently come across a few social media posts by Christian pastors severely judging other Christians for not getting the COVID vaccine. I find this disturbing on three fronts: 1) the data simply doesn’t call for such a black-and-white position; 2) Christians need to be wise as serpents but gentle as doves when it comes to the machinations of political issues—COVID has been politicized from the beginning; and, most importantly, 3) principles of Christian liberty and mutual respect must be employed in times such as these—to fail to do so, especially by pastors, is to bind the flock with man-made directives and opinions instead of leading it in obedience to God’s commands.
One particular blog post I’d like to highlight is by a pastor from Charlotte, North Carolina: “White Evangelical Resistance.” The pastor begins his blog with a reaction to reports in the media that white evangelicals are most resistant to getting the vaccine. This troubles him because he’s a white evangelical and doesn’t want to be labeled as ignorant and hateful by others.
The pastor of the post says the problem with evangelicals is they have bought into false information, so he sets out to educate them. You quickly find, however, that he thinks the problem isn’t just false information but an unloving heart on the part of evangelicals—a point he implies throughout the post as he equates loving your neighbor with getting vaccinated. In other words, if you don’t get vaccinated, you don’t love others, you’re not a very good Christian, and, by the way, you’re embarrassing the rest of us in front of the world that is now labeling us all unloving and stupid.
The pastor sums up his post with this: “All to say, to all of my dear Christian brothers and sisters, wherever you are, please, for the sake of Christ and for the reputation of His church, out of the love for others and the spirit of the Good Samaritan… get vaccinated.”
Such an exhortation is loaded with assumptions that bind a Christian’s conscience. If he is right—that getting the COVID vaccine is the loving thing to do and not getting it is hateful, sinful, and will bring shame on Christ and his church—then this is a very serious matter indeed. If it is not—if it is rather an issue best left to the individual conscience in the context of Christian liberty—then this pastor is grossly stepping outside of his bounds and binding fellow Christians with traditions of men and false guilt, a pharisaical act that receives the utmost condemnation by Christ himself: Woe to those who “tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders.” Christ’s way is different. His way is freedom in the midst of responsibility, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Why? Because of grace.
I’m going to make the case that the issue of getting vaccinated is not an issue about sin (being loving or unloving) or even the appearance of sin (the church’s reputation); it is an issue of Christian liberty and must be handled as such (no matter how embarrassing that might be regarding what others think of us), especially in these times when the church is maligned by the world regarding compliance with its standards of “love” and its application of the “Good Samaritan principle.” A Christian’s conscience should always be bound by the Spirit of Christ alone, not by the spirit of the world, the opinions of a pastor, or the judgments of unbelievers.
The issue of getting vaccinated is one of Christian liberty because it is a disputed matter and does not involve a clear-cut command of Christ. It involves a virus with about a 99 percent survival rate (if not higher), with the death toll mostly in a single demographic with pre-existing conditions—people who are hospitalized without contact with family members and die in a socially and sometimes medically neglected state. In other words, this is not a case like the Black Plague in which your actions directly and clearly put another person at risk because the disease is so deadly.
With the case of COVID—a highly contagious form of the flu—most everyone lives. My 86-year-old father who has diabetes, congestive heart failure, apnea, oxygen dependence, and cancer survived COVID-19 through family care after the hospital nearly killed him through isolation and neglect. While not everyone in such circumstances survives, the fact that I can cite such a case shows that the virus itself is not as deadly as it is assumed to be. For instance, with the Black Plague, my father wouldn’t have survived. Nearly every person who got the respiratory form (a near 100 percent death rate across all demographics no matter their health condition) didn’t survive. We are treating COVID like the Black Plague when it is far from it.
We are, therefore, dealing with a situation that is not a matter of clear principle (if you do A, B will definitely happen), but an issue of personal conscience. This is not selfishness. This is not ignoring one’s responsibilities within the community. This is wisdom relating to a situation with many variables, including one’s own health, conflicting data about the vaccine itself even among experts, and the obvious high survivability of those who contract the virus. Personal ramifications are as important, if not more so, than the needs of the many and the greater good.
If we were going to use the pastor’s reasoning that he presented in the post, which is a kind of “if only one person is saved by our getting vaccinated” attitude, then he should be making the same case about the flu vaccine. To date, I have not seen such a case. It is entirely focused on COVID, because that is the focus of our society and our government at this time. He goes through many points to make the case for getting the vaccine but fails to respect differing opinions, recognize medical “facts” as inconclusive, and show grace to legitimate concerns, no matter how trivial he might think they are.
This is because his starting point in the argument isn’t one of concern about the Christian conscience, but concern about how Christians are perceived as a group by a hostile and darkened world. He desperately wants white evangelicals to be seen as loving, but he is allowing the world to determine what is loving in this circumstance. That determination is: get the vaccine or you’re stupid and you don’t love others. This judgment is serious and needs to be weighed carefully, for binding consciences is a grave matter, especially for a pastor.
Calling someone unloving or setting a bad example because they haven’t received a vaccine—no matter their objections, reasonable or not—counters everything Paul teaches when he discusses Christian liberty in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10 (situations that weren’t exactly reasonable—it was reasonable to eat food sacrificed to idols, but some Christians were “unreasonable” about it). Paul’s focus is honoring God and putting others first—in the context of not leading them into temptation. It’s not about obliterating them with arguments or one-sided “facts.” And it’s not about giving up your liberties to make people comfortable on the one hand or employing liberty no matter the consequences on the other.
When the Bible speaks of Christian liberty, it puts it in the frame of using our freedom in Christ to love and not to sin or cause others to sin. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:13, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Peter echoes this teaching in 1 Peter 2:16 when he says, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
We’re to be wise and not let our liberty lead us into wickedness. Freedom in Christ is not freedom to engage in or approve of sin. Freedom in Christ is not an excuse to be unloving or unkind to others. Liberty is not libertinism. On the other hand, giving up our liberty for another should not be a matter of conformity to legalism, manipulation, or obedience to man-made traditions. It should be a matter of grace for the weaker brother.
In both Romans and 1 Corinthians, Paul’s message is that believers are free to do anything they want if they are not sinning, but this doesn’t mean they should behave as if they live on an island where only their self-interest matters. They live in community, and their actions affect others, so they need to be aware of that and sacrifice their freedom on occasion. In the spirit of love, they are to think of the other person and not just of themselves: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Corinthians 10:24).
This, however, is not a blanket admonition to do whatever makes your neighbor feel comfortable or makes them not think badly of you. The responsibility for unity and peace lies on both the weaker brother who is fearful of sinning and the stronger brother who rightly lives with a clear conscience regarding such things.
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:1–4)
Understanding motivations is key—if you are, in good conscience, making your choices because you truly think they are best in your service to God and that they honor Him, then no one has the right to judge you for your choices. Regarding vaccines, those who are pro-vaccine shouldn’t judge those who don’t of not loving their neighbors or not conforming to “the spirit of the good Samaritan.” To accuse a fellow Christian brother or sister of sinning either in deed or appearance in this circumstance is a violation of Christ’s spirit of grace.
An argument might be made, however, that a Christian should give up his liberty in this case for the greater good and for the sake of the church’s reputation as it is perceived by the world—the case the pastor makes in his blog post. Two points must be emphasized here. If a Christian is going to give up his liberty for another it must be because 1) it actually has to do with something that involves the possible violation of God’s law, and 2) it will tempt the weaker brother to engage in that behavior, which would be sinful for him. Getting a controversial unproven vaccine does not fit either of these requirements.
Understanding Christian liberty is key:
1. Both strong and weak Christians should never condemn each other in disputed matters, because God alone judges the heart. Like Paul said, “My conscience is clear. That might not make me innocent. I might be doing something wrong even though I don’t know it, but it is God who judges me, not anyone else” (1 Corinthians 4:4; paraphrase). Paul could say this because he knew his motives were right. He wanted to glorify God, and he was living as he believed God intended. This is a good lesson for us all—check our motivations. We are free to do what we want, but we should do it to glorify God, not just recklessly wander through life in the name of liberty.
2. Strong Christians must take care not to cause the “weak” to stumble in their faith and incur any spiritual harm by demanding that their freedom be expressed regardless of the situation—Paul said he was willing to give up everything for his brother so he wouldn’t cause him to stumble and sin. A selfish attitude about liberty is a violation of love, because it puts one’s liberty above another’s spiritual welfare. Toleration for those with tender consciences regarding disputed spiritual issues is necessary for Christian unity.
3. Both strong and weak Christians should accept each other as part of the body of Christ and welcome in the Christian community. Condemnations based on their actions relating to disputable matters is completely contrary to Christ’s teaching on love, which requires thinking the best of someone, not the worst.
So, how does this apply to getting a vaccine? What principles can we glean to help us develop greater unity during a very divisive time?
To begin with, getting a vaccine for a virus with an extremely high survival rate, in which development of herd immunity through natural infection rates is as—if not more so—preferrable than through a new controversial vaccine, is not an issue that relates to sin regarding God’s commands. Nowhere is there an edict from God that says, “Get a vaccine for a virus with a high survivability rate, especially when the vaccine is controversial.”
Some might try to say that sin is involved because we’re told to love our neighbor. “Not getting a vaccine,” they argue, “puts others at risk, which is wrong.” But that’s not true regarding the science and the low death rate. It could just as easily be argued that not getting the vaccine is the more loving thing to do because it saves lives from vaccine deaths (more on that below), avoids adverse effects, controls political manipulation, and develops natural herd immunity.
The science regarding the effectiveness of the vaccine conflicts even among experts—this should stop every Christian’s mouth when it comes to judging others. The Centers for Disease Control says “there is no evidence” that the deaths of healthy people after taking the vaccine were due to the vaccine, yet if someone dies after having COVID—even if it’s clearly from pre-existing conditions—they list it as a COVID death. While listing COVID deaths even on the periphery of other illnesses, the CDC has concluded that “patterns of cause of death” couldn’t be determined about the safety of the vaccine—this despite even pro-vaccine liberal news outlets recognizing that there is a connection.
Additionally, they don’t know how long the vaccine lasts, if you can still be a carrier, the extent to which the vaccine will work against mutations, why women who are not in a COVID risk group might suffer more from anaphylactic shock after receiving the vaccine, and whether blood-clotting after the vaccine is mere correlation or causation. All of these, no matter how small the sampling, are legitimate concerns for someone who knows they have almost zero chance of dying from COVID if they were to contract the virus and who can take responsible precautions involving the protection of a small at-risk demographic.
When it comes to the social and cultural impact, the politicization of this issue can’t just be swept under the rug as insignificant either. The pressure to get vaccinated has been politicized—as has COVID from the very beginning—and anyone who does not comply is targeted as a social threat. The scapegoating of “white evangelicals” is happening, no matter what they do or don’t do. It is part of the political fray in which our current society is engaged. Groups are pitted against groups: men against women, blacks against whites, gays against straights, and “citizens who didn’t vote for Trump” against “white evangelicals.”
Systematically, white evangelicals are being blamed for all the ills of our society—race conflicts, inequality, “stupid and immoral” presidents, sexual identity oppression, and now COVID vaccine inefficacy. Blaming one group for a problem within a political context to delegitimize them is the essence of scapegoating, and it’s dangerous. Christians need to understand this and not make decisions—or judgments—in reaction to it.
In other words, pressuring others to get vaccines because you’re worried about what the world thinks is to fall prey to the manipulations of the world, which has constructed the rules of the game for its own purposes. If Christians don’t “play right,” then they’ll be accused of being unloving, hateful, and “the problem.” Christians should give no weight to these perceptions but be concerned only with obedience to Christ.
Christians need to be aware of the political context in which they are being told to do something. Even if you don’t think scapegoating is happening, such political concerns are real for many, and they are factors when it comes to making health decisions. As I stated above, the issue of vaccines is not clear-cut. It involves a virus with a high survivability rate in which herd immunity through vaccines is unlikely for a number of reasons and not just vaccine hesitancy—a point made by scientists as they begin to accept that COVID is endemic like the flu. Unexplained deaths have occurred. Data are in dispute. Vaccines can be reserved for the most vulnerable if they want it while leaving others to be unvaccinated (as we do with the flu vaccination). Personal healthcare decisions matter because everyone’s body is different, and every person has to evaluate his own situation in light of any action that might pertain to the greater good.
It’s certainly possible that there is no risk to the vaccine at all (though this is rarely the case in medical science). But, clearly, the “experts” are inconsistent. No matter what data you prefer or which “expert” you respect as an authority—the indisputable fact is that the facts are disputed, which is why we’re looking at this in the context of Christian liberty. Arguing back and forth about “the facts” is really not the point. The point is, “How should we then treat one another in the church?”
The COVID vaccination should not be a point of division. It shouldn’t be a “cause” for pastors who are fretting about how white evangelicals are being judged by the world. It is not a matter of God’s law. It is not an issue that makes someone stumble in their faith—the main concern in Christian liberty. If I don’t get vaccinated, I’m not putting another at risk since they are free to get vaccinated (scientists don’t even know if it stops contagion)—and I’m certainly not making anyone stumble in their faith.
When it comes to Christian liberty, Paul’s limits on freedom don’t apply in this context as they do with other issues. No one is going to be tempted to sin by either getting vaccinated or not. Their faith is not going to be harmed, and their souls won’t be in jeopardy. These are honest disputes about science and what’s best to protect people from getting sick and possibly dying while protecting personal health and political liberties in the process. The issue of vaccines is serious, but it is not putting souls at risk.
This doesn’t mean we don’t care about people’s health or their physical needs (eg, the Good Samaritan), but this charitable principle doesn’t create a greater mandate that binds consciences regarding a highly controversial issue that might not be a matter of the wounded Good Samaritan at all, but a nation of people who get sick and survive a virus while a small demographic can take necessary precautions to protect themselves.
The fact is we do not give up our liberty for anything and everything just to make someone else comfortable or for political expediency. We don’t do or not do something merely because we’re concerned about how we’ll be judged by others—especially by a society that hates God and has an anti-Christian agenda. We do what is right before God as He dictates to our consciences through His Word, by His grace, and according to His love. Oftentimes those things are greatly misunderstood and mischaracterized by the world.
This point can be applied to any number of topics: We don’t stop celebrating Christmas or putting up Christmas trees because some Christians think it’s wrong. Women in the church don’t stop wearing pants because some think women should only wear dresses. We don’t sell our televisions because some Christians think watching secular entertainment is wrong. We don’t give up our earnings because others think it’s unfair that some have more while others have less. We don’t go to a BLM protest simply to show that white evangelicals aren’t racists. It is important to distinguish between true tender consciences and legalistic mindsets. One of the best ways to do that is consider the issue at hand—does it relate to spiritual matters as addressed in God’s Word?
Vaccinations simply do not fall in this category. It is wrong for any Christian to judge the heart of another Christian when it comes to COVID—whether it’s lockdowns, masks, or vaccines. While it is certainly appropriate to share information, debate the merits of both positions, express concerns about the political environment in which this is being done, and even disagree on which scientific studies are valid, it is not appropriate to accuse someone of being unkind, unloving, not a “good Samaritan,” or cruel if they are not getting vaccinated. Such a judgment of the heart and of motivations is only for God.
Whether you get vaccinated or not, if you’re a Christian, you are part of the body of Christ. We are to treat one another as such and not make slanderous and false accusations toward others about whether they are being loving in the age of COVID. Anger, rage, and condescension have no place in the Christian family, especially over something as uncertain, disputed, and controversial as a vaccination for a virus that kills only a tiny percentage of the population and is being handled within a highly politicized environment where science and politics are often incestuous and manipulative.
We can and should do better. Love for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ is more important than winning arguments, binding others to false guilt, worrying about what the world thinks, redefining what “loving your neighbor means,” or imposing one’s standards of virtue onto others. To paraphrase the words of Paul, “Do not, for the sake of disputes over a vaccine, destroy the work of God. Whether you get a vaccine or not, do it for the glory of God. Whatever you do, do it in a way that will lead others to salvation, not away from it.”
For some, the loving and wise thing to do is to get vaccinated. For others, the loving and wise thing to do is not to get vaccinated. We have to accept this disagreement and show grace, not judgment. We are to show love to one another first and foremost, for it is showing love within the body of Christ—love in the midst of this disagreement—that will be the greatest testimony of Christ to the world.
Denise McAllister is a cultural commentator and Christian apologist. She is the author of “What Men Want to Say to Women (But Can’t)” and co-author of the New York Times bestseller “Spygate: The Attempted Sabotage of Donald J. Trump.”