Public Square & Theology 101

Should You Wear a Mask? A Modern-Day Corinthian Debate

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Should you wear a mask or face-covering while returning to work and your regular activities?

While this seems like a question that should have a clear science-based answer, all it takes is a quick browse of your social media feeds to realize that well-meaning folks can disagree vehemently about how to answer the great mask debate.

As Christians, representing Christ and his kingdom, how should we respond? Do we wear masks when asked to do so? Or is it acceptable to assert our right to not wear a mask? As I contemplated this very modern challenge, I was reminded of a similar debate taking place in the first-century church in Corinth.

To Eat or Not to Eat the Meat?

The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a powerful treatise on how to live in Christ’s freedom while residing in a world bound by sin. We might call this “how to be in the world but not of the world,” or how to live in the “now, but not yet kingdom.” The new church growing up in the Greek city of Corinth had many questions for Paul about how to do this successfully.

One of their questions was about the eating of meat that had been sacrificed to idols in the local temples, a common practice in Corinth at the time. Some members of the church felt strongly that believers should not eat the meat because it would send a signal to the secular world that they are no different, and it might even tempt new believers to return to their old idolatrous practices. Other members felt strongly that it was acceptable to eat the meat because they knew the idols were not real gods and therefore eating the meat was not a problem.

Wouldn’t you think there was a clear answer to this question? The church members in Corinth certainly thought so. However, this was Paul’s answer:

…food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (1 Cor 8:9).

Paul essentially says that the debate over eating the meat doesn’t matter. What matters is how your behavior impacts others for the sake of the gospel.

Free to Choose Self-Restraint

Anticipating some push-back on this answer, Paul shares an example based on his own ministry. In 1 Corinthians 9, he explains that as a professional apostle, he has a right to live off of the fruits of his labor, just like a soldier expects to be paid and a shepherd expects to be able to drink the milk of his flock. The churches he plants and tends are the fruits of his labors, and as such, he has a right to ask them to support his ministry financially. And yet, he and his peers chose to support themselves (by tent-making in Paul’s case) and not by taking a salary from the churches. Paul explains, saying:

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. (1 Cor 9:12b)

This passage can be confusing for us today, as I’m sure it was for the original audience. Paul is NOT saying here that pastors and missionaries should not take salaries from their churches—quite the opposite. He is saying that they absolutely have the right to do so.

Paul is using his personal choice to forgo his rights for the sake of the gospel as an example for the people of Corinth. If he can forgo his right to a salary, then they could forgo their right to eat the meat sacrificed to idols if eating it would “hinder the gospel of Christ.”

Paul even uses the very language that he anticipates being used in opposition to prove his point, saying, “Don’t we have the right to food and drink?” (v. 4) and “Am I not free?” (v. 1)

Following Paul’s Example

We may not live in a world that regularly invites us to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but we are living in a world that is asking us to wear masks in some settings while many people feel strongly about their right to not wear a mask.

As representatives of the gospel of Christ, we should be quick to sacrifice our rights to things of secondary importance. Why is this the case? Paul explains that doing so brings glory to God and makes us more Christ-like:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Cor 10:31-11:1)

There is no verse in the Bible that tells us whether or not we should wear masks in public. But there are a lot of verses that tell us to sacrifice our rights for the sake of the gospel of Christ.

So to borrow some language from Paul: wearing a mask does not bring us closer to God, so wear one if it makes you feel more comfortable or don’t wear one if you don’t think it will help. It’s your right. But be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not hinder your ability to share the gospel of Christ.

While there are certainly lines we cannot cross as we live out our faith, the debate over whether or not to wear a mask as we re-engage society is not one of them.

Editor’s Note: Learn more about the “now, but not yet kingdom” that gives meaning and purpose to our work in the booklet, All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel.

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

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