Vaccine mandates are real. As a Pastor, I’ve had too many conversations with faithful church members facing perhaps the biggest decisions of their lifetime. God promises to give wisdom to those who ask (James 1:5). I’ve been asking. I’ve been encouraging those faithful church members to ask as well. I’ve also been going to the Scriptures, a faithful storeroom of God’s wisdom for answers to help the brethren God has called me to serve.
Of course, I have also been speaking to faithful Pastors I trust and reading up on the latest offerings from faithful Pastors I trust, but do not know personally. That pursuit has opened my eyes to a troubling reality. In short, politicians pushing the mandates have been appealing to the Christian virtue of love to convince hesitant Christians to get vaccinated and shockingly, many of the so-called leading evangelicals of our day have been carrying their eisegetical water.
It recalls perhaps the most famous question of the mid—80’s: What’s love got to do with it? The average Baptist church could wallpaper the fellowship hall with the sheer volume of articles written in defense of the mandates reminding Christians they must love others as Jesus taught, and therefore take the jab. It seems a curious use of the term. You see, while the Bible does command us to “love thy neighbor”, that command cuts both ways. Simply stated, I can’t say I love my neighbor while forcing him to sin and truly love him at the same time. What most people invoking love mean in this discussion is really the opposite of biblical love.
Let me explain. Consider 1 Corinthians chapter eight. Paul introduces a solution to a similar problem in Corinth. The church in Corinth was divided and unloving, with members filled with pride and in conflict with each other. There were two groups of people in this church. Those who knew food sacrificed to idols could be eaten freely because there is only one true God, and those who knew there was only one true God, but still believed it to be sinful to eat those foods given their prominent place in pagan worship. One group was pro-food, and one group was anti-food. One group had a weak conscience, and one group had a strong conscience. The chapter is about the way Paul responded to the weaker conscience of those who believed it to be sinful to eat food sacrificed to idols. This is where we should be going to learn how to love one another in the face of sharp, personal, and meaningful disagreements like we face today.
True love never asks someone to sin against their conscience.
I’ve read most of the available meat in Corinth had been cleansed of supposed evil spirits through some form of ritual dedication to a false god of some kind. This meat was consumed in pagan temples and at times sold on the streets. Dedicated meats were as immediate of an obstacle as any mandate and the church was divided on how to deal with it.
The situation is complicated by the sinful pride and the lack of compassion demonstrated by those who had no beef with eating dedicated meats. They looked down on those who were abstaining, mockingly, as if they were inferior, weaker, and even foolish. Sound familiar? Interestingly, Paul rebukes them for their lack of love. They were pressuring those Paul describes as having a weaker conscience to go against that inner God given guide and eat the dedicated meats. He writes, “However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Corinthians 8:7). To the weaker brethren, eating these meats was tantamount to full blown idolatry, which having been delivered from through the gospel, wasn’t something they were interested in revisiting.
It’s a simple formula really. Though those Paul describes by default as having a stronger conscience could not understand it, and even disagreed with it, the brethren with the weaker conscience would literally be sinning against God if they ate the dedicated meats. This is where I believe we have the most to learn. A believer’s conscience represents his or her understanding of God’s will and Word, and what he or she believes to be right or wrong based upon their understanding of God’s Word. To go against the conscience then, is to willingly do what you believe to be sinful. Therefore, to go against one’s conscience is to sin against God (Romans 14:14, 23).
This principle led Paul to warn the meat eaters against embracing their liberty or pressuring the weaker brethren in a way that would lead them to sin against their conscience and eat the meats. He writes, “But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died. But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:9-12). It turns out those with the stronger conscience are not free to sin against those with the weaker conscience. This is because we are all connected, one body, with Christ as the head. We are all accountable to one another. We have a responsibility to one another. Love comes before our knowledge and our freedom in this way.
Paul ends the chapter with an incredible display of love. In fact, I would say this is the definitive verse in understanding how to truly apply the love of Christ to the current situation which divides so many God loving Christians. He writes, “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v. 13). Paul doesn’t instruct those with stronger consciences to lecture those with weaker consciences on the theological truths behind this issue. Paul doesn’t question their conscience or what has informed it either. He accepts it, believing the best about their motives and intentions, and responds accordingly. The principle is clear. True love never asks someone to sin against their conscience. That’s it. That’s the principle. Who needs a conscience, when a conscience can’t be broken? We do, it turns out. Be like Paul, signal your love by refusing to ask (or supporting someone to ask) a fellow brother or sister to sin against their conscience, no matter your position on the issue.