If there is a “prime directive” for Christians, surely it is given in Matthew 22:36–40,
36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’1
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’1
40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
One fascinating feature of this passage is Jesus’s statement in verse 39, “and the second is like it.” At first glance, the two commandments do not seem to be alike: one talks about loving God, while the other talks about loving other human beings. The two commandments come from different parts of the Old Testament: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:34 (see Lev 19:18 also). But when we carefully read passages like Deuteronomy 10:12–19, the connection becomes clear: the best way to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind is to meet the needs of others.
Romans 13:8–10 goes on to explain that all the commandments, including the bans on adultery, murder, and theft, simply develop “love your neighbor as yourself.” This means that everything we do as Christians must reflect love for others.
Christians have always appreciated that Christ’s command to love can be very hard to carry out. In every age Christians have been called to demonstrate love in ways that can require sacrifice and danger. Growing up, I read and heard stories of people like Corrie Ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Andrew van der Bijl (“Brother Andrew”), and Richard Wurmbrand, whose love caused them to take great risks and suffer serious persecution. None of them had grown up preparing for the risks they undertook; Ten Boom and Bonhoeffer could not have known as children how they would be called to oppose Nazi Germany, and Wurmbrand had no idea that he would be called to speak out against communist Romania. But they had prepared themselves to obey Christ; and when their call came, they obeyed.
Many of us have imagined being in the shoes of people like Ten Boom and Wurmbrand. Would we have answered God’s call to love as selflessly as they? I like to hope that if the time came, we could.
In 2021, we are like those 20th century saints in that we had no clue that we would have to deal with a pandemic until it was upon us. Today, less than two years after the virus reached the United States, the death toll stands at more than 650,000 Americans and nearly 4.5 million worldwide. Of course, our challenges do not rise to the level of the severe persecution faced by Christians living under Nazi or Communist rule. But in 2021, loving our neighbors while trying to keep our churches together is difficult.
Recently, Hampton Roads Christians have been confronted with government mandates to wear masks and practice social distancing, even among people who have received immunization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has recommended that we wear facemasks and practice social distancing when in crowded settings indoors, even when everyone present has been vaccinated. Their reasoning is that people who have been vaccinated can still carry and pass COVID-19 to others, and that this happens so often that our health systems are becoming overwhelmed. As a result, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, issued an executive order requiring us to wear masks and practice social distancing.
Ordinarily, Baptists and other Bible-believing Christians would follow the governor’s order without much complaint, as per the directive of Bible passages like 1 Peter 2:12–17. The government has given us instructions to mask and maintain distance, so we, as model citizens, should establish policies and procedures in our churches to do exactly that.
Of course there are times when God wants us not to obey 1 Peter 2, and instead willfully oppose select government rules. First Peter does not specify these times. But since Romans 13:8–10 states that all commandments are subject to “love your neighbor as yourself,” the wisest way to evaluate commands like “submit to governors” is to ask whether willful disobedience constitutes a better way of loving others as we love ourselves.
Most Christians who refuse to follow the governor’s order take one or both of the following positions:
- Contrary to the conclusions reached by the CDC and/or the governor, the use of masks and social distancing at this point do more harm than good. The CDC and the governor are misinterpreting the evidence.
- The Executive Order violates the rights of Christians to practice our faith as we think best.
Yet in light of the command “love your neighbor as yourself,” neither of these is sufficient justification for disobedience.
The CDC and the governor’s office, of course, are imperfect, just as all human organizations are imperfect. But we cannot avoid the fact that the overwhelming majority of doctors and disease specialists who have studied the evidence are certain that masks and distancing significantly reduce the likelihood of spreading infection. Even though the CDC and governor have made mistakes, they still know much, much more than the rest of us, because they are closest to the best data, and because they have been specially trained to interpret that data correctly. Since our goal is to love others, the loving way to behave is to preserve the health, and possibly lives, of our neighbors by bearing the inconveniences of masks and distancing.
The question of rights for their own sake is very American in 2021. Unfortunately many Christians get so caught up in conversations about “rights” that they lose sight of what it means to be a Christian! Asserting one’s rights for their own sake has little to do with New Testament Christianity. The Bible teaches God’s followers to love others first, then obey our leaders second.
As Americans, we should follow the American system. This means that until a court makes a ruling to the contrary, Governor Northam’s order is the law. “I don’t think this law is constitutional” may be acceptable reasoning for Americans in general, but it is not acceptable per the Bible. If we can show that a law impedes our call to love others and share the gospel, then of course God’s people should resist it. But the Bible does not permit us to ignore 1 Peter 2 (see Rom 13:1–7 for a similar command) just because we dislike a law, or because we think it may be changed.
Jesus commands Christians to distinguish ourselves by the love that we give to others (John 13:34). Many 20th century saints practiced love by resisting Nazis and Communists. Our call today in Hampton Roads is to love others by masking and following distance protocols. As unpleasant as the masks are, let the masks be our message to the world that Christianity is about experiencing and sharing God’s love.