If the government requires you to be vaccinated for you to continue working at your job, what should you do as a Christian?
While everything having to do with covid/vaccines/masks/mandates has always been controversial, the new mandate taking effect very soon has put many Christians into an even more tense and divisive spot. What are we to do?
As I have thought about this issue I have found the writings of older saints, such as John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, and especially Matthew Henry to be very helpful.
The Other Cheek
In Matthew Henry’s (1662-1714) commentary on Matthew 5:38-42, Henry considers what a Christian should do in light of these commands (particularly vs 39, “That ye resist not evil,” KJV) when we have within us what he calls “the law of self-preservation,” our natural desire to live. If an evil man walks up to you and says, “I want to murder you,” must you submit to what he says based on Jesus’ teaching here? Henry doesn’t think so. Rather, he thinks:
We must not be revengeful...yet this does not repeal the law of self-preservation, and the care we are to take of our families; we may avoid evil, and may resist it, so far as is necessary to our own security; but we must not render evil for evil, must not bear a grudge, nor avenge ourselves...but we must go beyond them by forgiving them.
Henry does not understand Matt. 5:39 to mean that Christians are never permitted to avoid “evil” from falling on them or their family. If a man comes to you and says, “I want to murder you and your family,” you are not bound to sit there and let the man carry out his desire. You can escape; you can even physically resist him, “so far as is necessary to our own security”–but, according to Henry, you cannot lash back to seek vengeance. That is reserved for the Lord (Rom 12:19-21).
A blow on the cheek...which is not only a hurt, but an affront and indignity (2 Cor 11:20), if a man in anger or scorn thus abuse thee, "turn to him the other cheek," ...there are no broken bones, no great harm done, forgive it and forget it.
John Calvin (1509-1564) shares Henry’s sentiments,
"I admit that Christ restrains our hands, as well as our minds, from revenge: but when any one has it in his power to protect himself and his property from injury, without exercising revenge, the words of Christ do not prevent him from turning aside gently and inoffensively to avoid the threatened attack."
In light of the current vaccine mandate, I think that this means that if a Christian is convinced that receiving the vaccine would lead to their serious physical harm, that it would be an “evil” done to them that constitutes a threat to their life or their family’s, then it would be permissible for them to pursue a medical exemption from the mandate. A Christian in this circumstance need not feel conscience-bound to pursue vaccination just because the authority over them is requiring them to. (This may require documentation from your doctor or other medical professionals to prove your medical condition)
The Stolen Cloak
After exhorting His disciples to “turn the other cheek”, Jesus then explains, “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well,” (Matt 5:40). Here, someone is using the means of the courts to deprive you of your rightful property–what are you to do? Henry explains:
It is common for legal processes to be made use of for the doing of greatest injuries...If the matter be small, which we may lose without considerable damage to our families, it is good to submit to it for peace's sake. "It will not cost thee so much to buy another cloak, as it will cost thee by course of law to recover that; and therefore unless thou canst get it again by fair means, it is better to let him take it."
Henry notes that it is only a “cloak” that Jesus uses as an example, not your home or field. Henry takes this to mean that if someone is using legal threats to deprive us of something which, though frustrating, is something “we may lose without considerable damage to our families,” it is better to acquiesce. However, if what we are being coerced into doing will severely burden our family’s livelihood, Henry doesn’t think it is inappropriate to defend ourselves in court, yet even in court our response must be tempered by our avoidance of vengeance and love of neighbor:
If the injury be such as requires us to seek reparation, it must be for a good end, and without thought of revenge.
John Calvin has a slightly different interpretation than Henry. Instead of permitting to be defrauded of “smaller” matters outside of court, Calvin thinks that Jesus is explaining that a Christian must be prepared to part with anything after going through the courts. The case may be decided unjustly and you must be prepared to forfeit your cloak and tunic, which you should hand over with joy (Heb 10:24). But far from thinking that Jesus is forbidding the use of the legal system to defend oneself justly, Calvin explains:
None but a fool will stand upon the words, so as to maintain, that we must yield to our opponents what they demand, before coming into a court of law: for such compliance would more strongly inflame the minds of wicked men to robbery and extortion; and we know, that nothing was farther from the design of Christ...Hence we conclude, that Christians are not entirely prohibited from engaging in law-suits, provided they have a just defense to offer...it is possible for a man to defend a just cause with a view to the public advantage.
In light of the vaccine mandate, if you have obtained a medical exemption in good faith–as in, there is a real threat to your health–and your workplace refuses to honor it, then legal redress may be appropriate. As Calvin explains, this would be “a just cause with a view to the public advantage.” Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) writes that the very spirit of self-sacrifice Jesus commends here may actually compel us to the legal system, “to stop injuries which would fall heavily upon others,” (Spurgeon’s Sermons, Vol. 55, “Exposition of Matthew 5:31-42”). While the vaccines have been created to help preserve life, if the mandate is being implemented in such a rigid manner that individuals with medical exemptions are not permitted to be exempted, then Christians should stand up to their employer with respect, gentleness, and conviction and use the court systems if necessary.
The Extra Mile
When Henry gets to verse 41, “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,” he explains:
Say not: "I would do it, if I were not compelled to it, but I hate to be forced;" rather say, "Therefore I will do it, for otherwise there will be a quarrel;" and it is better to serve him, than to serve thy own lusts of pride and revenge.
Many commentators think that Jesus is making a comment on the practice of Roman soldiers who could compel the citizens of countries they ruled to carry their burdens (cf. Matt 27:32; Mark 15:21). If that is true, Jesus is envisioning the average Jew to be faced with the humiliating task of being compelled by a governing authority to carry his pack, like a beast, and to not only consent to it, but to go above and beyond what is asked. Henry comments:
Some give this sense of it: The Jews taught that the disciples of the wise, and the students of the law, were not to be pressed, as others might, by the king's officers, to travel upon the public service; but Christ will not have his disciples to insist upon this privilege, but to comply rather than offend the government. The sum of all is...small injuries must be submitted to, and no notice taken of them.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1991), in his sermon “The Cloak and the Second Mile” (found in Studies in the Sermon on the Mount) explains:
This passage is concerned with a man's natural resentment at the demands of government upon him. It has reference to our dislike and hatred of legislation of which we do not approve..."Yes," we tend to say, "they are passed by Parliament. But why should I obey? How can I get out of this?" That is the attitude our Lord is condemning
If a Christian doesn’t have any good medical concern for not getting the vaccine, but doesn’t want to get the vaccine simply because they don’t want to be compelled by the government, then I think they must take what Jesus has commanded here more seriously. The context of Jesus’ teaching here wasn’t restricted to being compelled by other citizens, but the example he chose was specifically one where a governing authority was requiring compelled obedience, and compelled obedience of a particularly onerous kind. Spurgeon remarks:
Governments in those days demanded forced service through their petty officers. Christians were to be of a yielding temper and bear a double exaction rather than provoke ill words and anger..."Yield" is our watchword! To stand up against force is not exactly our part — we may leave that to others. How few believe the long-suffering, non-resistant Doctrines of our King!
Matthew 5:38-42 summons Christians to avoid the natural path of retaliation and score-settling the world offers. In instances where we are not in jeopardy of risking our lives or our families lives, we should not resist the evil one. We should avoid evil when we can, and even use the court system to protect ourselves and others when we have a just cause, but when compelled obedience costs us only our pride, comfort, and autonomy, we should not only consent but go above and beyond what is asked.
In light of these insights, if a Christian is convinced that receiving the vaccine constitutes a serious health risk for themselves or their family, serves as a “serious injury,” then I think they are well within their Biblical right to resist being vaccinated, even using the legal system if necessary. Of course, this comes with the risk of losing one’s job, which requires other commitments, to provide for oneself and family, to be weighed as well (cf. 1 Tim 5:8).
However, if an individual has no medical reason to resist vaccination but simply has their sensibilities offended by being compelled to be vaccinated by the governing authorities, then I do not think that constitutes a viable option for disciples of Jesus. If Jesus defined discipleship as taking up our crosses and following Him, does that not present the indignity of Good Friday–a day filled with wrong and injustice–as a path we must at times take? Perhaps this picture of self-sacrifice is behind Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians considering suing each other in court: “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor 6:7).
Some might say that we should resist the vaccine mandate because this represents a gross abuse of governmental authority and we should, as Calvin and Spurgeon remarked above, resist it for the greater good of our country. I am deeply sympathetic to this view; I am very concerned at the every growing centralization of power in our government, very concerned. However, I am left wondering how we are to ever apply this passage? What does it look like for us to “go the extra mile” if we never consent to what we deem to be governmental overreach?
Let me be clear, I do not think Christian’s are conscience bound to obey everything our government requires of us. Where Caesar demands what God has forbidden, or forbids what God has commanded, we disobey Caesar and obey God (Acts 4:19; 5:29). It would be a sin to do otherwise. If the government required us to murder or steal, we wouldn’t “go the extra mile.” We would refuse. But there is a difference between being compelled to sin and being sinned against. Where obeying the authorities over us do not require us to sin, but simply cause us discomfort or frustration or, as Henry calls it, “small injuries,” we should normally consent (see Matt 17:24-27).
Remember: Jesus’ example in Matthew 5:38-42 assumes that what is being required is wrong–but still tells His disciples to consent. We are told, “Do not resist the evil one,”–as in, what is happening in these situations is evil . So, if our argument against being vaccinated is that we think what the government is doing is wrong, we haven’t actually invalidated Jesus’ argument. The assumption of “the extra mile” is that you are being wronged. Could you imagine how demeaning it would be, how wrong it would feel to be walking down the road, perhaps with your family, and a Roman soldier shout, “Hey Jew, come carry my pack; I’m tired.” (cf. Matt 27:32).
That is the situation that Jesus says, “Do not resist the evil one.” Do not plot an insurrection, do not draw arms, do not challenge him–turn to him and say, “How far you going? Could I help you carry it a little more?” Do American Christians have a category for that kind of submission? We should, lest we let Don’t tread on me functionally replace Don’t resist the evil one.
In closing, consider the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones once more:
Any resentment that we may feel against the legitimate, authoritative government of our land is something which our Lord condemns. The government that is in power has a right to do these things, and it is our business to carry out the law. Even further, we must do so though we may entirely disagree with that is being done, and though we may regard it as unjust. If it has legal authority and sanction it is for us to do it. ...It may be that we shall be subjected ourselves some day to a tyrannous power which we naturally hate and which will compel us to do things we dislike. This is the way in which you are to behave in such circumstances, says Christ. You do not stand up for your rights; you do not show the bitterness of the natural man. You have another spirit. - Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, "The Cloak and the Second Mile"
Post Script: But What About My Conscience?
What if an individual’s conscience is telling them that to receive a vaccine would be a sin? In 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 there are individuals whose consciences do not permit them to eat certain foods and, despite Paul disagreeing with them, Paul encourages the rest of the church not lead these other brothers to violate their conscience, since matters of food and drink are ultimately inconsequential (cf. Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 8:8). So, is it legitimate for a Christian to pursue a religious exemption from the vaccine because their conscience tells them it is wrong?
This is certainly possible, but the reason why they think it is wrong is important. As stated above, if our only reason is that we don’t like the government coercing us to do things, or we think what they are asking us is unfair, that is not a legitimate reason to pursue a religious exemption, since the founder of our religion commands us to “go the extra mile.” In the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:7, “Why not rather be wronged?”
However, if an individual strongly believes that taking this vaccine requires them to sin, then that would be a legitimate grounds for a religious exemption. I have been vaccinated myself, so I do not believe there is anything inherently sinful or wrong about the vaccines, but other Christians may disagree. Here are some reasons some Christians may reject getting the vaccine to preserve their conscience:
- They believe that this vaccine is what John refers to in the book of Revelation as “the mark of the beast” (see Rev 13:1-18; however, for a compelling argument that the “mark of the beast” is likely not a vaccine, or a microchip, or anything like that, read here.)
- They believe that the covid-19 vaccine uses fetal tissue from aborted infants (it does not; for any explanation of how an abortion back in the 1970’s has been used to test vaccines, read here.)
- They believe that using any kind of vaccines (not just covid-19 vaccines) or antibiotics is wrong and that we should trust in the Lord, not modern medicine, for our health and well-being.
There may be others in addition to this. While I am not persuaded that any of these are true, I am convinced that if a brother or sister in Christ is convinced that to take the vaccine would force them to sin, then they should seek a religious exemption. Of course, it is God who defines what “sin” is, so we should let His Word lead us as we shape and sharpen our consciences under His Lordship.