Masks: A Case Study in Moral Hierarchy

One of the great advantages of moral discussions, as opposed to wisdom discussions, is that morality is unambiguous and definitive. At least on the fundamental level. Wisdom, on the other hand, is largely situational, even vague. Proverbs 26:4-5 is a classic example when it offers two, seemingly contradictory, calls to action. Verse 4 gives this instruction: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” While clear in and of itself, it becomes very unclear when we pair it with verse 5: Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Yet how are we to know which command we are to obey in any given situation? Arriving at an answer is exceedingly problematic for most of us.

The problem is two-fold. First, we can’t look at biblical wisdom literature as “commands” in a proper sense (for those, we look to biblical law). Wisdom is a guide. It suggests, it instructs, and it nudges. Second, wisdom doesn’t deal with “doing the right thing”, but rather “doing the right thing, at the right time, and in the right way”. It’s nuanced and not always clear. Something might work well in one situation but quite poorly in another.

Morality, by contrast, is exceedingly clear. There is no ambiguity in “do not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). The reasons one commits adultery (feeling neglected by one’s spouse, possessing an abnormally high libido, etc) are all irrelevant to whether or not the act of adultery is wrong. The reasons might explain how one arrived at that point, and we can have great sympathy for those reasons, but these reasons cannot justify or excuse the adulterous act. It is simply wrong. Always.

Most Christians approach morality in this way. God commands something or forbids something and we obey. If we disobey, we are in the wrong. If we obey, we are in the right. It’s simple and absolute. But what happens when moral obligations collide?

Which Command do we obey?

A classic example of colliding moral principles is seen in the story of the Israelite midwives in the book of Exodus. The same Scripture that commands us “to rescue the weak and needy” (Psalm 82:4) also tells us “lying lips are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 12:22). Yet the midwives are praised when they lied to protect Jewish infants from Pharoah’s extermination order (Exodus 1:15-21). One moral command was sacrificed in order to fulfill the other.

Soren Kierkegaard calls this phenomenon the “teleological suspension of the ethical”. [1]  In other words, the midwives recognized their duty in rescuing these infants, but they would have been hard-pressed to offer an intelligible ethical justification for lying. They simply needed to do so. To fulfill one command required “disobedience” to the other.

As we have already noted, morality is clear whereas wisdom is often muddled, but this doesn’t mean that morality is simple. Quite often, it is enormously complicated. While most of us would intuitively agree with the decision of the midwives, how do we determine which moral commands outweigh others? And is such a concept even biblical?

The Hierarchy of Morals

A closer look at Scripture shows that a moral hierarchy is often assumed. Jesus uses this language when he says that Judas had the greater sin, or when speaks about the least and greatest commandments and the weightier matters of the law. In all of these cases, he is referring to biblical ethics, yet he uses comparative, hierarchical language.

The clearest example of this is in Jesus’ teaching of the two greatest commands. Not only does Jesus lift two commands above all other commands given in Scripture, but he also ranks those commands in order of priority. The greatest command is loving God. Also important, but subordinate to the first command is the command to love our neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40).

When discussing the laws of the Sabbath, Jesus approvingly noted a long-standing exemption to the prohibition of manual labor when he stated: “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11). A simplistic understanding of morality says ‘never work on the Sabbath’. Yet what happens when this law comes into direct conflict with an individual’s survival? In Jesus’ day, poorer Israelites could only survive because of their small flocks. Losing an animal could mean starvation or destitution. The most stringent Sabbath-honoring rabbis understood it was proper to set aside that standard for the sake of a fellow human being.

Even Romans 13:1, the command to obey civil authorities, has an assumed moral hierarchy. Though the command is given using absolute language (“be subject to the governing authorities”), we know in certain cases Christian leaders in the New Testament set aside that command in order to honor the greater command of obeying God. When the Sanhedrin issued the lawful order for Peter and the other disciples to cease from speaking about Jesus, they boldly declared “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Cars at an Intersection

Norman Geisler gives this illustration:

“In many states, the law declares that when two cars simultaneously reach an intersection without signals or signs, the car on the left must yield the right of way to the car on the right. Common sense dictates that both cars cannot go through the intersection at the same time; one car must yield. Similarly, when a person enters an ethical intersection where two laws come into unavoidable conflict, it is evident that one law must yield to the other.” [2] 

For literal intersections on our roadways, state law simply declares who must yield, but how do we determine this when applied to ethics? Geisler calls this hierarchy “graded absolutism”. As Christians, we believe in moral absolutes. That is, we believe that we must obey all of God’s moral imperatives. None should be set aside or viewed as unimportant. But not all are equally important. Some outweigh others. We never set aside God’s laws as irrelevant, but there are occasions where one must be ‘suspended’ (to use Kierkegaard’s term) in order to be obedient to a higher biblical law. Geisler and McDowell compare this phenomenon to a jetliner taking off:

“When a jetliner takes off, placing the laws of aerodynamics and gravity into conflict. As it lifts off, the aircraft does not break the law of gravity, it merely overpowers it for a time. Gravity is still in effect and will come into play again when the plane begins to decelerate.” [3]

Charles Hodge, the great Presbyterian defender of orthodoxy, understood this when he wrote:

“If a mother sees a murderer in pursuit of her child, she has a perfect right to mislead him by any means in her power, because the general obligation to speak the truth is merged or lost, for the time being, in the higher obligation.” Later he adds, “it is evidently right to inflict pain in order to save a life. It is right to subject travellers to quarantine… to save a city from pestilence.” [4]

Masks and Romans 13

Applying this to the issue of masks, the proper starting point is Romans 13:1. Here, Christians are clearly commanded to submit to governing authorities. In the past weeks, several Christian leaders have expressed moral outrage at these orders, huffing and puffing about how they will not comply, and scoffing at the notion that Romans 13 somehow applies to this mandate.

Except Romans 13 does apply, and I’ve yet to hear a coherent, exegetical explanation of how it does not. The rebel yell of a red-blooded American raised on the non-compliant philosophy of his ‘ruggedly individualistic’ ancestry is not a biblical argument. Nevertheless, I would be happy to listen to any exegetical, contextual argument that can explain to me how a verse mandating obedience to civil authorities does not actually mean we must obey civil authorities.

But is this command the final word? Must Christians wear masks simply because a Governor orders them to do so?

Yes. Well, usually. Admittedly, sometimes no.

If that answer sounds like situational ethics or moral relativism, I can sympathize. Yet we must understand that neither of those philosophies holds to moral absolutes, and the rejection of absolutes is central to those systems. Christians, on the other hand, strongly affirm moral absolutes. The only question is which moral absolute do we obey when they appear in conflict.

In most cases, a Christian has a clear moral duty to obey any legal mandate from civil authority. In our American situation, this would be seen in three spheres: (1) laws passed by Congress, (2) rulings given by courts, and (3) orders given by the Governor or President. Our Constitution even gives a process for determining if a particular law, ruling, or order is Constitutional. Barring few exceptions, a Christian is morally bound to obey.

But what are those exceptions? Three come to mind.

  1. We disobey when obeying the law would involve sin.
  2. We disobey when obeying the law would bring harm to someone else.
  3. We disobey when obeying the law would bring undue harm upon ourselves.

This simply is an outworking of Jesus’s twofold command hierarchy in Matthew 22:37-40. Throughout Scripture, we are told that obedience to and love for God must come first (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”). After that, we are told that loving others must be our next priority. First God, second humans. Any law that clearly, directly, and substantially harms a human being, or group of human beings, must be disobeyed.

When it Involves Sin

Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are all examples of believers who disobeyed the government in order to walk in obedience to the Lord. The importance of this account is that it demonstrates two different ways sin can be involved in governmental commands: (a) the government may forbid something God requires, or (b) the government may require something God forbids. They wouldn’t eat unclean foods (Daniel 1), they wouldn’t worship a statue (Daniel 3), and Daniel wouldn’t stop praying when ordered to do so (Daniel 6).

We should also note that their civil disobedience was not conducted in a defiant, angry manner. They were not publicly referring to their governing authorities as “tyrants”. They showed respect, lived in submission to the government, and yielded to the King’s authority to punish them. While they still disobeyed, they did so with quiet resolve knowing that obedience to the Lord was the better path.

When it Harms Someone Else

Rahab lied to the soldiers looking for the Israelite spies. Christians in Nazi Germany lied to Gestapo agents going door to door in search of Jews. Abolitionist disobeyed the Federally mandated Fugitive Slave Act, helping escaped slaves flee to Canada. What is interesting in each of those situations was that the individuals were not forced into a situation where they had to disobey. They could have chosen not to get involved. Many Christians in Germany and many anti-slavery Northerns did turn a blind eye.

Yet in doing so they condemned human beings to further oppression and death. For those who got involved, they did so based on the biblical mandate to love their neighbor. This ethical demand could potentially go beyond mere disobedience to a specific law. In the case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he came to the conclusion that biblical ethics demanded the overthrow of the Nazi regime itself. To allow it to exist was to sit by while atrocities were committed, which is sin by omission. 

We should remember an important point: Romans 13 is never “set aside” in these scenarios. It still governs the believer. It still applies. No true believer should feel comfortable living in the tension of violating that biblical command, yet in these scenarios, every true believer must violate it in order to honor a command Scripture itself holds as more important (namely, the life of other human beings).

When it Harms You

God cares about humanity. He cares about our lives, our health, and our weaknesses. Scripture tells us “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15). His compassion extends to everyone. It’s not for everyone except you.

There are cases where wearing a mask creates serious medical and psychological complications. It is important to note that this does not include those who are irritated by, frustrated with, or in disagreement with the Executive Order to wear a mask.

Yet when true harm to the individual could occur, we must also approach this in light of the moral hierarchy. Some struggle with getting sufficient oxygen due to a damaged respiratory system. There are several other medical situations where wearing masks creates a medical risk. According to the current Executive Order in my state of Michigan, medical conditions are automatically exempt from the rule; but even if they were not, there is still biblical justification for non-compliance. Humans matter to God. Not just other humans, but also you. Of course, in doing one must take on the consequences of non-compliance (fines, lost access to some stores, etc).

For others, wearing a mask triggers PTSD or causes severe panic attacks. As much as some might scoff at this being “only in their head”, I can assure you that the individual suffering a panic attack isn’t intentionally choosing to do so. These episodes are severe, debilitating, and often embarrassing. No one wants this. They don’t want this.

The basic principles of self-care are found in Scripture. Even the second command, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is built upon the presupposition of the importance of self-care (love your neighbor as yourself). In his discussion of marriage in Ephesians 5, the apostle says, “In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body” (v.28-29). Notice how the importance of taking care of yourself is assumed. We also see this principle in the account of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. Though he had been given the difficult task of proclaiming God’s judgment upon an evil and idolatrous King and Queen, Elijah reached a breaking point both physically and psychologically. Before he could accomplish the task, God caused him to fall into a deep sleep, feed him, and had him sleep some more. Only then could he face the challenge that lay ahead. Caring for your legitimate health concerns isn’t an act of disobedience. Rather, it is the assumed starting point for several biblical commands.

Think Before You Act

I’ve argued above that there are three biblically defensible reasons for disobeying civil authorities. Namely, when such obedience would cause us to sin, bring harm to another person, or harm ourselves.

I recognize each of these reasons can be illegitimately claimed. I’ve seen many Christians claim such orders are ‘tyrannical’ and that by obeying them we are condoning sin. The problem with that argument is that Romans 13 was written in the context of abusive, tyrannical state power. For the apostle Paul’s original audience, it was assumed that the Roman Empire did not have the best interests of believers in mind. They were actively being persecuted, even hunted down. The tax burden was oppressive and, by design, intended to reduce the population to destitution. Yet even in this context, our Lord tells us to “render unto Ceasar that which is Ceaser’s” (Mark 12:17). Another form of this argument is that all of this is a giant conspiracy. ‘Today it’s masks, tomorrow it’s concentration camps.’ Setting aside for the moment the clear logical fallacy involved, hypothetical, possible future evils are no excuse for present disobedience of an order that does not violate a higher biblical obligation. In other words, all this hypothetical would tell us is that we would have biblical justification to disobey in the future if such an order were ever given, but not now.

Others believe it is all a hoax or that people have ‘gone mad’ with fear. Of course, they see things clearly, and as an act of love disobey the mandate to show everyone else they have nothing to fear. Such people have constructed a narrative in their head where they are the ‘heroes’ liberating the masses from their delusion. Most of us have friends who incessantly send us Youtube videos and blog posts ‘exposing’ COVID as an elaborate hoax (rarely, if ever, linking to legitimate medical research). Again, even if this were true and all of these laws were created out of mass hysteria, how would that change the mandate of Romans 13? Paul didn’t say “obey the governing authorities when you believe the rationale of their mandates is legitimate.” When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans the Emperor of Rome was Nero, a man who tried to marry his horse. Sane, logical reasoning of a civil mandate isn’t the basis for whether or not Paul intended us to apply Romans 13.

Finally, there are those who falsely claim to have a medical or psychological condition as an excuse not to wear a mask. As a licensed professional counselor, not only do I find this offensive, it also does a great disservice to those who truly experience real medical and emotional trauma from wearing masks. Yet unlike the above two categories where it is easier to determine false claims and erroneous logic, we must be extremely careful about passing judgement upon those who make this claim. We are neither their physician nor their therapist. I don’t have any more idea of what is happening inside their body than you do. 

A Closing Thought

Unless it involves submission to a higher biblical moral principle (such as those listed above), willful violation of Romans 13:1 is a sin. Until I’m convinced otherwise, I’m not sure what other conclusions could be drawn. Even when other moral principles are involved, we must demonstrate from Scripture why another principle takes priority over Romans 13. You may prefer one principle over another, but that doesn’t mean that God has prioritized it above the rest. Perhaps there were some rabbis in the New Testament that prioritized Sabbath law above rescuing a neighbor’s sheep that fell into a pit. His preference, however strongly held, does not undo Scripture’s own prioritization. I shudder every time I see a fellow believer, even pastors, openly boast about their disobedience to the mask mandates. For such believers, the words of the prophet Samuel still cry out, “why did you not obey the Lord?” (1 Samuel 15:19).

For those who are confident that this current mask mandate would cause real harm to yourself, please know that you are still walking in obedience to the Lord even if you must disobey this mandate. I am open to other perspectives on this issue, but from my understanding of Scripture you are obeying a higher biblical law and as such are acting justly and righteously. Continue to affirm the importance of the Romans 13 mandate (remember, your heart is redeemed and should want to obey it). Guard your heart against a spirit of defiance against the government and a spirit of anger against fellow believers who judge you unrighteously. Be at peace.

1 Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling, p. 49.

2 Geisler, Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), p.104.

3 Geisler and McDowell, Love is Always Right, (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1996).

4 Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. 3 vols. Reprint, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952). 

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