Vaccine Passports are increasingly controversial among some Christians.
The recent ‘Ezekiel Declaration’ has garnered almost 3000 signatures from church leaders across Australia. It argues people should not be pressured to obtain a vaccine passport—partly because of conscience:
[C]onscience should never be coerced. The conscience is one of the innermost expressions that animates an individual, and that allows them to worship God as well as obey a legitimate governing authority … We would therefore ask that the Government not coerce the conscience of many Australians through the use of a ‘vaccine passport.’
In other words, people shouldn’t be pressured by Government (through the threat of various consequences) to do something that might go against their conscience.
This view of conscience raises several questions:
- Should ‘conscience never be coerced’ by Government, as stated by the Ezekiel Declaration?
- Or is there another way to understand conscience and the Biblical role of Government?
- And what might this mean for vaccine passports?
Here are some considerations:
1. Governments are Put here by God, but not to coerce Religious Beliefs
According to Romans 13, God is the One who appoints Governments to their role (Rom 13:1-2).
Gentile Governments have no mandate to coerce religious belief or practice.
And what is the role of Government? In stark contrast to the Government of Old Testament Israel, gentile Governments have no mandate to coerce religious belief or practice. Neither Romans 13 nor any other passage on Government in the New Testament, gives Government that authorisation. On the contrary, the gospel must only be spread via the uncoerced appeal to people’s conscience (c.f. 2 Cor 4:2).
Furthermore, other passages show that Government is not to restrict belief in God (e.g. 1 Tim 2:1-4), but to allow Christians to live a ‘peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way’.
And so, Government should not coerce your conscience when it comes to your religious beliefs.
(Hence the reason why religious freedom for all—not just Christians—is a Biblical mandate: theocracy is unbiblical, as is any law that unnecessarily penalises religious belief and practice).
But does that mean that Government is not to coerce any conscience, as Ezekiel Declaration declares?
2. Government Is Authorised by God to ‘Coerce the Conscience’ of Wrongdoers
Governments should not coerce religious conscience regarding what people believe (or don’t believe) about God. But Government is mandated to coerce conscience when it comes to unjust (religious and non-religious) behaviour.
That is, Government has been authorised by God to ‘bear the sword’, to be ‘an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Rom 13:4), regardless of what their conscience might say.
Here are some examples:
- Suppose your neighbour becomes radicalised through online ISIS propaganda to believe it is his solemn duty to attack the local shopping centre. In that case, Government has a right to restrict the free exercise of his conscience by outlawing and punishing such behaviour.
- Suppose your Marxist colleague conscientiously objects to paying taxes ‘to an imperialist capitalist government that oppresses vulnerable minorities.’ In that case, the Government is still free to coerce their conscience by demanding they pay tax regardless (cf. Rom 13:6).
That’s the way God designed Governments.
What about Vaccine Passports? Should Government be free to coerce conscience when it comes to vaccination and vaccine passports?
Before we can answer that question, there are some more things to consider:
3. Vaccination and Vaccine Passports Should not be a Religious Freedom Issue for Christians as Individuals
To make vaccination and vaccine passports a clear-cut religious freedom issue, a religious group must demonstrate that their religious texts/tradition compels them to reject vaccination/vaccine passports.
A religious group must demonstrate that their religious texts/tradition compels them to reject vaccination/vaccine passports.
What about church-going, Bible-believing Christians here in Australia? Could we make a case that the Bible compels us to see vaccination or vaccine passports as a sin?
Again, the burden is on any church to make that claim, but historically almost none have. As Southern Baptist author Russell Moore points out:
Someone who is part of, for instance, a religious tradition that eschews all medical treatment, along with any other shots or inoculations, could make a credible claim to religious liberty. [But] there are very few such groups.
The Bible makes no clear cut ‘straight line’ argument from any specific text that vaccination or vaccine passports are wrong. There is no apostolic, ‘once for all delivered to the saints’ Biblical view on these issues.
Instead, it’s a disputable ‘jagged line’ issue, over which Christians are free to disagree with each other based on their conscience (see Romans 14).
Thus, Pastors and Christian leaders must be careful not to imply that their view on these issues is the Biblical view, to which their congregations must be bound. According to the Bible, it’s not a sin to get vaccinated or have a vaccine passport, or vice-versa.
Of course, there may be all sorts of reasons why Bible-believing Christians are uncomfortable with getting vaccinated or having a vaccine passport as individuals. But an appeal to religious freedom shouldn’t be one of them.
4. In the Absence of Direct Teaching from The Bible, Christians Can Still Bring Biblical (And Other) Principles To Bear On These Disputable Issues
When there is no direct God-given mandate on particular matters, the Bible may still speak to such issues indirectly.
Thus, there may well be grounds to criticise government policy on vaccine passports and vaccinations, such as their impact on other people and wider society (e.g. if a vaccine passport prevents people from buying essentials etc.).
We might also bring other non-biblical principles to bear on the issue (e.g. medical knowledge, law, historical wisdom etc.).
But again, Biblically speaking, our conclusions will be disputable (Rom 14)—even though the different principles that inform our view be clear from Scripture. Thus, in the absence of a direct word from the Bible, we should be reticent to baptise our conclusion as the Biblical view—as if we were an apostle handing down doctrine once for all time.
When it comes to churches, however, mandatory vaccine passports may pose a more direct challenge to Biblical teaching …
5. Mandatory Vaccine Passports May Be a Religious Freedom Issue for Churches
While Scripture has no prohibition on Christians getting vaccinated or owning a vaccine passport, a government mandate for Churches to only allow the vaccinated prevents churches from operating in a Scriptural way, where all Christians are to gather (Heb 10:25), not just the vaccinated.
The question then becomes whether this is a necessary and justifiable burden (such as building fire regulations or noise curfews, for example). Or whether it’s an unnecessary government imposition (such as the Victorian anti-conversion laws).
And so, when it comes to religious freedom, this is where the conversation needs to focus. That conversation will also help inform how we might think about conscience rights.
And we’ll explore that more in the upcoming post.
First published at akosbalogh.com