Monday, October 11, 2021

Christian Leaders Need To Stand For The Consciences Of Their Flocks Against Vaccine Coercion - By Matthew Cochran

Like all tyrants, Biden and Harris leave no neutral ground for the weak-kneed to comfortably occupy. Leaders who search for it abandon the people in their care.

As more corporations, government entities, and other institutions prop up Biden’s vaccination coercion, many ordinary Americans are finding themselves under threat. The intimidation doesn’t stop at anything as simple as taking away a job. Nor is it even the more serious matter of the administration telling us we’ll never work in this town again.

The attempt to induce all large employers to require vaccination does nothing less than destroy the livelihoods of healthy Americans and subject their children to poverty. That is, of course, unless they submit to a tyrant whose patience—in true movie villain fashion—is “wearing thin.”

At this point, nobody is rejecting vaccination over trivialities. It takes a powerful reason to compel families to stand up against that kind of coercion. Many Americans find that reason in a conscience informed by our Christian faith.

So, naturally, the prospect of religious exemptions holds strong appeal. Such exemptions aren’t a long-term solution to abusive and unilateral mandates, but for some families, they may be what keeps a roof overhead and food on the table in the short-term.

It is therefore altogether shameful that so many of our religious leaders refuse to speak out on our behalf. That is unfortunately true of my own denomination, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), which recently released an updated statement on vaccine mandates.

It is, to my sorrow, a pathetically tepid attempt to take no position on the mandates whatsoever. At best, it is naive and tone-deaf, considering what’s at stake. At worst, it is a dereliction of duty. In the middle lies simple cowardice. Decide for yourself where it falls on such a spectrum.

Supporting Conscience Rights Should Be a Given

It’s entirely fair for religious organizations to avoid taking a position on vaccine efficacy or safety. Even if the issue weren’t as contentious as it is, their expertise is in providing medicine for the soul rather than for the body.

Nevertheless, refusing to take a stand in support of conscience is another matter altogether. They are the ones who are responsible for training and cultivating the very consciences that are now being put to the test.

When religious exemptions are being offered in many jurisdictions, it is only natural that we and our employers look to what our religious leadership says in support of obtaining one. But my synodical president neatly washes his hands of the matter and informs his flock we’ll be fine on our own:

Can I obtain a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine?

Religious or personal belief exemptions are based on conscientious objection and do not require official support from the denomination. The absence of an official Synod stance does not impact your ability to seek an exemption. In fact, most requests for religious exemption must be for personal, deeply held religious convictions, and not for the position of a church body or church official. Please consult your employer, local lawmakers or public health officials for more information on how to proceed should the need arise.

He proclaims—hopefully in ignorance—that we need no denominational support. Meanwhile, my employer’s exemption form requires the name and signature of my religious leader. Likewise, politicians like New York’s governor use such silence and equivocating to proclaim, “There are not legitimate religious exemptions because the leaders of all the organized religions have said there’s no legitimate reason.”

Conscience protections should be a simple matter—and a generation or two ago they generally were. But freedom of conscience is just the latest American liberty to be systematically dismantled. Acquiring an exemption is by no means the foregone conclusion some naively assume it to be. Exemption requests can be rejected–often by HR functionaries whose criteria are entirely opaque to employees. It’s hard to overstate the utility of a strong stance from church leadership in winning such a fight.

What Church Leaders Do Affects Pastors

Naturally, we can’t all expect a signature from the heads of our denominations. We have to rely on our local churches. But many of our congregations are likewise scared to offer such things because our leaders have set an example of cowardice.

They look to our overseers for guidance, then embrace the counsel that “no position” is the best position. When their faithful members ask for support, many echo the position of their president: “This is a personal decision. Go in peace. Be warm and well fed, but don’t expect any help from us.

If any of this fine talk about personal decisions proceeded from true conviction or leadership, it would not studiously avoid taking a position. It would instead take the position of affirming the God-given authority from which our decisions proceed and discard the duplicitous fiction that “no position” is an option.

Our applications will either have the signatures of our religious leaders, or they will not. We will either have our leaders’ support or we will not. There is no middle ground for “no position” to occupy.

The Bible Clearly Opposes Abusive Mandates

The statement from the LCMS does acknowledge that “Since neither Scripture nor the Synod has explicitly addressed this issue, [taking the vaccine] remains a matter of Christian freedom, which you must decide according to your individual conscience.” But Christian freedom and adiaphora (things neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture) are not areas of neutrality, but of personal conviction. We do not use our freedom to do whatever we happen to feel like, but whatever we judge to be best according to the wisdom and responsibilities that God has given us.

As a confessional Lutheran, I adhere to the Bible as God’s inerrant word, and to the Lutheran Confessions in the Book of Concord as a faithful explication of the Bible. Our theology provides a clear rationale for refusing coerced vaccination, and it is on that basis that my conscience binds me against submitting to this mandate.

As Romans 13 explains, Christians are to obey the authorities God has placed over us. Our only exceptions are when such an authority commands us to sin—then we obey God rather than man, as the apostles did. It is precisely such a command to sin that I and other Christians around the world find in this attempt to mandate vaccinations for ourselves and for our families.

You see, government is not the only earthly authority that God has instituted. It is not even the most fundamental. That honor goes to parents by means of the Fourth Commandment: “Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother.” Like any authority, parents exist because they are given clear, God-ordained responsibilities. As Martin Luther explains in his Large Catechism:

God wants to have this included in this commandment when He speaks of father and mother. He does not wish to have rogues and tyrants in this office and government. He does not assign this honor to them, that is, power and authority to govern, so they can have themselves worshiped. But they should consider that they are obligated to obey God. First of all, they should seriously and faithfully fulfill their office, not only to support and provide for the bodily necessities of their children, servants, subjects, and so on, but most of all, they should train them to honor and praise God. Therefore, do not think that this matter is left to your pleasure and arbitrary will. This is God’s strict command and order to whom also you must give account for it.

We Must Obey God Rather than Men

We are all called by God to certain offices or vocations in this life—whether that office is father, mother, or president. We have therefore been given a moral obligation to fulfill those vocations to the best of our ability. In fulfilling them, we are not robots or automatons following a script. Rather, in these vocations we must each exercise our best judgment.

We remain accountable to our Lord from beginning to end for our actions. As Luther himself found while exercising his vocations as a doctor, priest, and teacher of the church, our consciences are bound to the Word of God.

When Luther rejected the demands of many of the civil and religious authorities of his own day, he did not do so on his own account. Rather, he knew he must obey the calling and commandments of Jesus Christ over and against any other authority. No Christian has any less of an obligation.

Health Decisions Are Up to Heads of Household

For parents, the bodily necessities of all those in our households are the first and most obvious responsibility God has given us. This is no less true in matters of medicine than in matters of food, shelter, and protection.

Therefore, each head of household must judge for himself whether his actions will support his household’s needs or cause bodily harm. While it may be impossible to altogether avoid such harm in this life, our responsibility requires us to weigh potential harm against potential benefit in making decisions.

Like all medicine, COVID-19 vaccines bear both specific benefits and certain risks. These can vary wildly from person to person. It is quite clear that some people are at substantial risk from COVID—the old, the infirm, the obese, and so forth.

It is also quite clear that the virus poses very little risk to others—the young and healthy, those who acquired natural immunity, etc. It is therefore incumbent upon each of us to weigh the costs and benefits of these treatments as they pertain specifically to the lives under our care.

No mandate can absolve us of this responsibility. Therefore, if a head of household is convinced that his government, employer, or any other governing institution is demanding that he harm rather than provide for anyone in his household, he is obligated to obey “God’s strict command and order” and disobey the errant institution. And yes, the household includes the parents God has appointed to govern it. One cannot let his household’s head be cut off as though it were of no consequence.

We Must Be Convinced Rather Than Compelled

Now, a Christian who is convinced otherwise about these vaccines may act differently. If he, according to his own wisdom and vocation, determines they are sufficiently helpful, then he must make use of them. Nevertheless, our faith demands that we act according to our convictions on the matter. In the governance of our own households, we must be convinced rather than compelled.

Unfortunately, our government has forgone convincing us and has instead resorted to bullying, censorship, abuse, and coercion. But threats and propaganda do not absolve us of the God-given responsibility to make our best judgment based on the information available to us—even the information government bureaucratsBig Tech, and corporate interests hide because it casts reasonable doubt on the vaccines.

For many reasons, I stand convinced that receiving these vaccines is not at all in the best interests of my household. Accordingly, my faith and religion bind me against submitting to this mandate. In the words of Luther, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me, amen.”

Pastors Leaving Their Sheep to Fend For Themselves

It would be easy for our denominational leaders to say “it’s a personal decision” in a way that clearly defends conscience. It’s easy for the theologically literate to root the authority for that decision in God’s Word.

God has appointed me—not my president, my company executives, or my neighbors—to judge whether the vaccines are appropriate for my household. But my own denomination and too many others have instead chosen to say “it’s a personal decision” in a way that means “you’re on your own.”

God has appointed me—not my president, my company executives, or my neighbors—to judge whether the vaccines are appropriate for my household.

People try to carve out that space for neutrality because “no position” is comfortable. It’s safe and above the fray where the hems of their robes can stay pristine.

Many boomers who populate so much of our leadership no longer have much skin in the game. By and large, they’ve already gotten their shots because of their risk profile and because they grew up at a time when America’s institutions were more competent and less partisan.

What’s more, their life circumstances are such that they don’t really have to worry about job stability anymore. Circumstance has given them the option of remaining unbloodied by the war being waged against their younger brothers and sisters, so they assume the rest of us are likewise privileged with such an option.

But many Christians are not. Some have already lost their livelihoods. Others are on countdown. Others hang on by corporate policy loopholes that could be closed at any time. We are being bloodied whether we want to be or not. Just as we will never forget the politicians who overtly threatened our children, we will never forget other leaders who abandoned us in our time of need. Neither will our Lord.

Today’s Martin Luthers, Now’s the Time to Stand

My denomination exists precisely because conscience-bound men like C.F.W. Walther resisted the political and religious authorities of their day. The Lutheran tradition exists because conscience-bound men like Luther stood against the political and religious authorities of their day.

If there are no such men left among us today, then the “Religious Leader” line on our exemption forms will need to remain blank. Not merely because our leaders refused to sign, but because in our previously unrecognized poverty, we didn’t actually have religious leaders.

As with all tyrants, the Biden-Harris administration leaves no neutral ground for the weak-kneed to comfortably occupy. Leaders who set off in search of it inevitably abandon the people in their care. Our religious leaders need to do better. All it requires is taking a good, hard look at the doctrines and traditions God has appointed them to maintain.

Matthew’s writing may be found at The 96th Thesis. You can also follow him on Twitter @matt_e_cochran or subscribe to his YouTube Channel, Lutheran in a Strange Land. He holds an MA from Concordia Theological Seminary.