Vaccines and Christian Ethics

by Layton Friesen

This pandemic never fails to give us the next dilemma. Just when we begin to sort out mask-wearing, distancing, and size-restrictions, vaccine mandates come along and give us what feels like a more profoundly dividing question.

Would you allow me to weigh in on this question? I am not giving you the “EMC Position”, nor am I giving any final answer. This is more like thinking out loud. To some degree pastors have a calling to work as public theologians, wrestling with these issues in public. At the very least we need to demonstrate that these are not slam-dunk issues, solvable with sound-bite answers. Issues around vaccines give us a chance to develop our muscles in moral discernment. Those muscles will be used in many other places.

I see two big questions about vaccines. First, should churches provide separate worship for vaccinated and unvaccinated people? Second, could it be a Christian duty to vaccinate against Covid?

Should churches separate the vaccinated and the unvaccinated?

There are churches in Canada who have decided to invite vaccinated people to attend in-person services, while inviting the unvaccinated to attend online. Other churches have one in-person service for the vaccinated only, and one in-person service where both can mingle. They do this for the same reason that other churches disregard meeting restrictions—to be able to finally meet, in person, with a church full of people.[1] One evangelical church in my neighbourhood in Winnipeg reports that their vaccinated service is packed, and that there is a joyful sense of reunion and relief as people gather for worship again. The mixed service is much smaller.

In the words of one denominational leader I spoke to, churches face a choice between either excluding vulnerable people with weakened immune systems, or excluding those who chose not to be vaccinated. They chose to exclude the unvaccinated because the vulnerable had already been excluded since the beginning of the pandemic and it was high time they were welcomed back to in-person worship.

That logic has weight and we should not dismiss it easily. I have tried to state that position as vigorously as possible because churches that have chosen this path have done so with a lot of soul-searching and careful thought. As weighty as that is, however, I have some questions about this practice that cause me to hesitate.

First, does this insert a division like the clean/unclean Israelite division into the body of the church, a division that has been overcome by the purifying blood of Jesus? In Jesus’ day, publicans, sinners, lepers and people with various maladies were not just excluded from Israel because of bigotry and hatred. They were considered dangerous to the spiritual and physical health of the “body” of Israel.[2] Jesus was so convinced about his own “medicine” for these people that he disregarded the purity laws and touched the unclean, making them clean.

But someone will counter, if we allow non-vaccinated people to attend, aren’t we excluding those with vulnerabilities? They will never come in because the risk is too great. Isn’t that also a human-based division that’s even worse, since it’s excluding the weak? Would Jesus exclude the vulnerable from his touch?

It seems to me there is an important difference between the two exclusions we are considering here. In the case of excluding the unvaccinated, the church is doing the excluding. In the case of excluding the vulnerable, it’s the virus that is doing the excluding. The virus is preventing some folks from attending a church that is open to all.

The law of double effect

If that difference seems insignificant, let me tell you about the medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas and his law of double effect. This is based on the Christian rule that it is always wrong to do an evil act to accomplish something good. Christian ethics should never involve calculating whether enough good will come from an evil action to make it worth doing the evil. Christians simply do not do evil, even to accomplish good things. Another way of saying this is that the end does not justify the means. This basic Christian conviction sets us apart from much of our secular world and explains why the church has so many martyrs. In the Christian account, humans are little creatures who cannot predict the future with anything near enough certainty to go about basing our present actions on future outcomes. We simply do the good actions we have been commanded to, regardless of outcomes. If we can’t do good actions, we do nothing.[3]

Here Aquinas comes in: He suggested that while it is always wrong to do an evil act, there can be cases where it is permitted to do a good action that we already know will have some evil effects. In this case we are doing good, but our good has some bad outcomes that we accept. This is not the same as doing an evil act. However, it still demands discernment to see how necessary and urgent the good action is, and how great the evil effect may be. These must be proportionate.

For example, aborting a baby is always an evil action, and should never be done, even to possibly save the life of the mother. That is doing an evil act so that good might (possibly) come. But a mother who has a cancerous uterus that needs to be removed might in some cases choose to do so, even if the effect may be the death of the baby in the womb. It depends on how urgent and critical the removal is. The death of the baby is an effect (an awful effect) of a good action, which is removing a cancerous uterus. This is known as the “law of double effect” and its an important little piece of moral wisdom that’s helpful to understand dilemmas like the one we are talking about here. There is a moral difference between doing a good act that has evil consequences and doing an evil act that has good consequences.

Here is where I am going with this: By opening the church to everyone indiscriminately the church is doing a good action. This is the normal, healthy way churches operate. A bad consequence of this may be that some vulnerable people can’t come to church. However, by dividing the church between vaccinated and unvaccinated, we are doing a wrong action. This is an action that we may hope has good consequences, but it is a bad action, nonetheless. To me that looks like doing evil so that good might come.

It seems to me that for this reason, it is better for the church to accept restrictions for everyone, where that is mandated, and try to make in-person worship as safe as possible for everyone, keeping in mind those who are especially at risk of this virus.[4]

Other considerations about separation

This question of the clean/unclean becomes all the more acute the more society flings condemnation at the unvaccinated. The stronger and more united the social condemnation of the unvaccinated, the more hesitant we should be about creating this separation. If, say, we had one service for those with names ending in A-M and another for those ending in N-Z, that too would be a human-based distinction. But it would not carry the moral, emotional freight of this present question and would thus be more innocent. One pastor reports that in his location the public venom unleashed against conservative Mennonites because of their choices during this pandemic is similar to the worst bigotry, racial profiling, and animus that we properly loathe when directed against Blacks or Jews. I can testify to the disturbing letters I see written in the Winnipeg Free Press against the unvaccinated.

I have two additional concerns about the practice of excluding the unvaccinated that really only deepen the problematic clean/unclean question that I just talked about. I worry that this discrimination acquiesces to a culture of fear of the other that does not witness to the promise of resurrection. We already have far too much fear of one another in our world and this pandemic has increased that terribly. Fear and polarization are first cousins. The church is a community that is learning not to be afraid of each other’s bodies. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10:28).

I also fear that the division between vaccinated and unvaccinated in our society has quickly become a cultural struggle. It has devolved into a struggle between rich and poor, educated and less educated, those for whom society works and those for whom it does not, those types who trust science and those who do not, those who trust government and those who do not, urban and rural, and whites and people of colour. There are many exceptions on both sides. But the difference between Winnipeg and Winkler, Toronto and Leamington, Calgary and Picture Butte, Edmonton and LaCrete or Vancouver and Vanderhoof is in part a cultural difference between two groups of people. These cultural differences, more than anything else seem to influence how people feel about being vaccinated. I worry about importing that culture struggle into the church. This also means we should be self-aware when we proclaim strong theological claims on either side. There is a lot of “culture” influencing us to come to our theological conclusions. This is true of any theological discussion.

Is taking the vaccine a good act?

And that brings us to the question of whether there is a Christian duty to take the vaccine.[5] Perhaps, considering the above discussion we should sharpen the question; do Christians who refuse to separate the vaccinated and the unvaccinated in worship thus have an even greater duty to vaccinate voluntarily?

The claims made for the vaccine are clear; it is claimed that if enough people vaccinate, we can gradually be rid of this virus, saving lives and allowing the world to return to normal life. No one would deny that those are good things. If those claims are reasonable, and if there are no genuine moral objections to the vaccine, I would say that Christians have a duty to vaccinate since Christians have the duty to work toward the common good of the world where this can be done morally.

Thus, before we can say that Christians have the moral duty to vaccinate, we need to consider the two main theological concerns Christians have expressed about the vaccines.

But first let me say something about non-theological concerns, such as doubts about whether they work, or doubts about their safety. I personally do not have either the science, medicine, or epidemiology background to make that judgement and so I have little to offer here, other than to suggest that we make these decisions the same way we make all our other decisions about issues out of our depth: we trust the general, broad wisdom arrived at by the whole company of those who have done the hard work.

The two theological concerns I want to deal with here are concerns about the fetal tissue used to develop the cell-lines these vaccines were tested on, and concerns about massive government over-reach coercing people to vaccinate or else risk losing their jobs or freedoms.

Abortion

Regarding abortion, I will not describe the whole project of vaccine development and testing since that is available elsewhere. The objection states that when we take a vaccine tested on cell lines developed from aborted fetal tissue we are participating in the evil of abortion.

If I understand this objection correctly, it states that since Christians are forbidden to do evil so that good may come, they also have the duty to reject any good that comes from evil acts. Using or benefiting from the good that comes from evil acts is to support or participate in their evil origins. A key verse might be “Abstain from all appearance of evil” (I Thess. 5:22 KJV)

I can’t see how that logic follows theologically though. Is bringing some good out of evil acts not exactly what God promises to do with all our evil designs? Somehow in his mysterious providence God promises to bring good out of the sinful mess we have made of our lives. Isn’t this even what God does with Adam’s sin as a whole? God is able to use Adam’s sin for His own purpose in the cross of Christ to bring about a glorious good. It’s spiritual judo in which the lunge of the opponent is exactly what the master uses to bring him down.

But it’s this reality that makes Paul need to quickly add, but this amazing judo-grace is no excuse to sin more. In a world where God can so brilliantly make good come from even our sinful rebellion it will always be tempting to sin boldly so that more good can come. God forbid, Paul says.

Thus, it may be that God is able to bring about a good from the evil of abortion. That’s just amazing grace for which we can give thanks. But if we think this somehow gives us license to abort, or to continue harvesting fetal tissue for scientific research, Paul would say, God forbid.

If we must reject every good that comes from evil acts it would seem we are in a hopeless place. What about babies who were conceived by an act of adultery? Is their existence some kind of evil because they had their origin in sin? What if I discover that my church was born in a sinful church split back in 1926? Is this church now a bad operation bereft of the Holy Spirit? What if I discover my whole country was stolen from someone 300 years ago by an unjust war? Am I participating in injustice by continuing to use the land? Of course, all these situations raise ethical challenges for how we now live with the good we have inherited from these evil acts. But in no case would we say that we need to reject all the good that has come from evil acts.

Likewise, even if a baby was intentionally aborted to create these cell lines back in the 1970’s (which I understand is not actually the case), I don’t see why we have the moral duty to reject every good thing that stems from that evil act. Much of the good we enjoy in this fallen world is tainted by its origins, but if it is a legitimate good, we can use it while rejecting the evil act.

I believe we do have a moral duty to engage our scientists with probing questions about why research happens with fetal material. We have the duty to actively look for better methods to create these cell lines. We have the duty to choose medicines and products that have the best ethical history. But I don’t think we have the duty to shun any good that comes from our sordid history as a human race.

The over-reach of government

This is the most formidable concern about these vaccines, in my opinion. It is obvious that governments world-wide are pulling out all stops to inform, coax, cajole, manipulate, and coerce people to vaccinate. We know that governments carry a big stick, a stick they can never quite resist using. There was already much concern about the creeping expansion of liberal democratic governments before the pandemic, and these concerns have only grown during this time. Could remaining unvaccinated be a legitimate way to stand against an idolatrous attempt by the State to domineer our lives?

First, about perspective: the concern about government over-reach has substance and needs our attention, but drawing comparisons to truly totalitarian regimes is unhelpful, in my opinion. Let’s not trivialize the experiences of people living in the lead-up to Nazism, or communism by suggesting that we here in Canada now kind of know what that must have felt like. This is not to say we don’t have our problems but let’s keep our historical perspective.

However, the willingness of governments to take responsibility for more and more of the common good has been noted by lots of thoughtful people. To resist this, we need to cultivate vibrant, independent, small associations like churches, families, clubs, and businesses that exist beyond State control. This is the bulwark against government over-reach. That includes the need for a strong free-church tradition such as Mennonites have had in their past.

Second, I have become convinced by Hendrik Berkhof, the reformed theologian who wrote the booklet Christ and the Powers in the aftermath of WWII, that civil government should be seen in relation to the “powers” and “principalities” that Paul talks about:

Paul observes that life is ruled by a series of Powers. He speaks of time (present and future), of space (depth and height), of life and death, of politics and philosophy, of public opinion and Jewish law, of pious tradition and the fateful course of the stars. Apart from Christ man is at the mercy of these Powers. They encompass, carry, and guide his life. The demands of the present, fear for the future, state and society, life and death, tradition and morality—they are all our “guardians and trustees,” the forces which hold together the world and the life of men and preserve them from chaos. Paul observes that life is ruled by a series of Powers.[6]

“Powers” are, by definition, given to over-reach in a fallen world. These are created entities God made to provide order in the world. After the fall, these inevitably become derailed and bloated, instruments of disorder, oppression and control. This accounts for the spiritual, (could we say at times demonic) aspect in which the State competes for our allegiance before God. God is certainly able to use civil government towards his ends, but there is a perpetual territorial conflict between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world.[7] Which is all to say, if the State is over-reaching, its only acting according to its nature as a fallen “Power”.

Thirdly, vaccination by its very nature is a social project, a group action, rather than an individual choice about personal health. Its not like taking chemotherapy or blood pressure medication. For this to work at all, what is needed is a vaccinated society, not merely vaccinated individuals. For this reason, a vaccination effort will always present a special temptation to a State given to over-reach. State over-reach often happens when government needs to create some singular, unified whole out of society and when they need us all to act as one.

This is like when the State goes forth to war. The effort to get society vaccinated has much in common with the massive propaganda and coercion efforts of western governments to create a unified mobilization to fight World War I. Mennonite resisters felt the social condemnation of their neighbours. Part of why this fury erupted against them was because it was perceived that Mennonite draft-resisters put everyone in danger, not just themselves.

But this is also reason not to be too cynical toward all attempts to get people on board a group project. Is it wrong for society to want to unify itself against a common enemy like a virus? Do we as Christians necessarily have something against a group project like that? It will always be the case, it seems to me, that where society needs to do a group project, governments carrying their big sticks will be unable to resist over-reaching. But does that mean the group project itself is evil? After all, over-reaching governments often coerce their citizens to do good things. This is why Paul and Peter encourage obedience to government, even idolatrous Roman governments led by people like Nero. Even in their demonic over-reach, governments are servants of God accomplishing things God cares about, like punishing evil and rewarding good. As an example, imagine a State decreeing that liars will be executed immediately without trial. That would be horrible government over-reach, but Christians would nevertheless still have the duty to tell the truth.

With this concern about State over-reach, I can’t resist raising some questions about where the Canadian church was in the last century. Were we concerned about over-reach when the State demanded that Canadian Christians kill their Christian brothers and sisters in Europe during WWI and II? Is this not blasphemous government over-reach, to tell the church, “You, go kill members of the body of Christ for the State’s benefit”? Or who was concerned about government over-reach when the State co-opted the church into running its atrocious residential schools for Indigenous children? Is this not terrible over-reach for the State to ask churches to destroy the culture of what were in many cases its own baptized members? The churches’ willingness to cooperate with the State does not make the over-reach any less serious.

I am not convinced that keeping a watch on government over-reach is a concern for Christians in the New Testament. Does the New Testament give Christians the duty to define government boundaries and supervise them? Our main concern is allegiance to Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords. Out of submission to Christ we mostly obey governments. Christians have mostly been good, decent, cooperative citizens, submitting even to bloated governments. But no promises. This allegiance to Jesus might just as easily end up in martyrdom.

This does not mean we should be passive before the over-reach. Where government over-reaches, we can stand with the victims who are being coerced out of their jobs because of their conscience. To the extent we are able we should hold our governments accountable. For this reason, I think it is appropriate that some of our churches have written letters advocating for people who, because of conscience, cannot comply with vaccination orders. There is a time to stand up against government over-reach, even if we as a church do not have a moral position against vaccination itself.[8]

So, all this to say, I don’t think the valid criticism of government over-reach in mandating vaccines is a reason to not vaccinate. If it can be demonstrated that vaccination creates good in society and is morally permissible, it may still be the Christian’s duty to participate, even if mandated by an idolatrous State

It seems to me that if it can be demonstrated that vaccines are an effective, reasonably safe way of saving lives, the moral concerns about using the vaccine do not stand up. Christians can vaccinate in good conscience, and they may even be said to have a duty to do so, given the toll this virus has taken on humanity.

There is, however, one caveat I would insist on that may at first appear to take back some of what I have just said. Just because I have argued that being vaccinated can be a Christian duty, does not mean someone should be pressured or coerced to take it against their conscience. If I read Romans 14:20-23 correctly, pressuring someone to over-ride their conscience is violating who they are as a brother or sister Christ died for. Over time that will weaken the very instrument God has given to direct them do the right thing. This would be disastrous not only to them, but to those around them who depend on them having a lively conscience, urging them to do the right thing even in the face of suffering.

This, of course, is not a blank cheque. Our conscience does not have the authority of scripture. If my conscience demands that I be dishonest, I must over-rule my conscience. And we also need to recognize that while a conscience should not be lightly disregarded, it does need training. A conscience is not some innocent, perfect voice inside our souls. It should not be ignored, but to really serve us well it needs to be steeped in the Bible, in Christian teaching from parents and others, and in the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit to shape us.

Conclusion

Let’s get used to the fact that sometimes it’s hard to know how to live as a Christian. Sometimes trying to follow Jesus is like my struggle with those abominable trinket puzzles that involve teasing apart steel pretzels. Doing ethics in church involves debate, experiment, repentance and trying again. It involves living in situations where we don’t yet know what to do.

This too is very counter-cultural. As a general statement, historically the church has been very sure of what a Christian should believe, but surprisingly tentative about what is the right thing to do in every situation. In the modern world we seem to have reversed that; now we think it normal to have all kinds of doubts and misgivings about what to believe, but we can be very strident and dogmatic about what we are to do.

Rather than getting all angry with each other for not being able to come up with a united approach to vaccination, let’s look at this time as an intense workshop where we have been assigned to struggle with questions we never asked before. I have struggled mightily in my own mind about the things I have written about here, especially as I have travelled across our conference in recent months. I have been interested in the way various positions on this all have a weight to them that I am attracted to.

Layton Friesen

Let’s not be intimidated by those who want to have this discussion in shouts and tweets. We are called to talk carefully, gently, truthfully, but nevertheless out loud about the truth as we see it. We arrive at the truth through dialectic—listening, speaking, arguing, and being argued with.

 

[1] In some provincial rules, if worship is confined to the vaccinated only, there are no meeting size restrictions.

[2] This is like the persecution of heretics in the Middle Ages and the Reformation. It was assumed that allowing heresy to persist would put the community at risk of plagues, war and famine. Heretics were endangering not just their own souls but were spreading a spiritual contagion that would threaten all of society.

[3] What about doing the lesser of two evils? Are there situations where a person is forced to choose between two evil options? Christian ethicist Daniel Bell says that doing the lesser of two evils is a modern invention that no theologian before the 20th century would have suggested was necessary. God simply does not require us to do things that need to be repented of. If they do not need to be repented of, they cannot be evil actions. If I really have no choice but to do an evil action, is that even evil? Is that even my action? If I grab your arm and whack your brother with it, have you committed an evil act? An exploration of the difficulties this dilemma can present in real life is given by EMC pastor and author Jacob Enns, in his novel The Gentleman.

[4] And if it is the virus, not the church, that is keeping people from worshipping God, what holy fury should be hurled at this demonic virus! What utter vigilance and care! What relentless search for a cure! What constant intercessory prayer! But should we also say, what urgency to voluntarily vaccinate? I will deal with this question below.

[5] I realize the word “duty” will be off-putting for some, and in preaching there may be better words to use. In ethics it’s a useful way to refer to things we need to do. We should not associate duties with guilt. God commands us to do certain things and has given us his power through salvation, Spirit, scripture, and church to do them with joy, not grudgingly or under guilt.

[6] Hendrik Berkhof. Christ and the Powers p. 25. Herald Press. Kindle Edition.

[7] Therefore, I cannot completely accept Abraham Kuyper’s “spheres of sovereignty” that have now become common parlance. Kuyper was a Dutch theologian and prime minister who envisioned society divided into distinct spheres of sovereignty. Church, state, family, schools etc. each had their own sphere. To me this looks like good old secularity. I am not convinced that the apostle Paul would permit the church to be siloed into its own sphere of sovereignty. See especially

[8] There is an important distinction between exemption because of conscience and exemption because of religion. Churches cannot advocate for a religious exemption unless it is against their religion to take vaccines. The current Canadian labeling as “religious” any deeply held personal belief says much about how secular our society has become.

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