“Will the Confessing Church ever learn that majority decision in matters of conscience kills the spirit?” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The current state of affairs
Australia, October 2021, is a much different country when compared to Australia, February 2020. How would you have felt if, when you first heard the words “two weeks to flatten the curve” you knew that in little over a year you would be living in a country where significant portions of the population would be losing their jobs if they didn’t undergo a specific medical procedure? Or, perhaps, if you were told that those two weeks of lockdown would turn into a future where those who do not approve of having a medical procedure imposed on them would not be able to interact freely with loved ones, friends, workmates, etc. If you could have known this beforehand, how would you have felt back then when those initial weeks of lockdown were announced?
Whilst there are glimmers of relief for the vaccine-hesitant, even coming from some quite unexpected solitary voices in secular places of authority, the silence in the room when it comes to the vast majority of Christian leaders is almost deafening. In the same week, Victoria announced the most totalitarian vaccination policy this country has ever seen, you could hear a pin drop in that hypothetical room filled with leaders from all sorts of Christian affiliations. Not even the fact that Christian leaders will be unable to continue to shepherd their flocks if they are not double jabbed by a certain date has been enough to provoke a reaction at this stage. The Church appears thoroughly cowed.
Daniel Andrews, along with Gladys Berejiklian, for example, have not only now rewritten the requirements for Christian fellowship and worship, but Andrews even took a step further and has now also meddled with 1 Timothy 3:1-7. The Victorian premier has passed a policy which, in practice, means that it is no longer enough for Elders to fulfill the requirements listed by Paul in the letter mentioned above, but they also need to be vaccinated in order to exercise their office.
In the midst of all this confusion, there was a faint light glistening at the end of the tunnel. People started to talk about the possibility of Christian ministers writing letters of exemption for people in their churches whose livelihoods were in jeopardy, yet had objections to the vaccination on the basis of conscience. One would think most Christian leaders would be eager for the opportunity to offer some relief for the conflicted in their flocks but, instead, what we witnessed playing out is something quite different.
Many leaders, for example, The Gospel Coalition Australia, are currently arguing that unless people’s religious objections are based on a narrow set of arguments, then the objection doesn’t qualify for a religious exemption. The main argument they allow is a narrow exception for those concerned about the use of aborted fetal tissue in vaccine development. Even some Baptists, who are supposed to hold ‘liberty of conscience’ as one of their distinctives, have followed this line of thought and argued that there are only a couple of religious grounds for declining a vaccine.
In other words, if a person is opposed to being vaccinated on other grounds besides the use of fetal cells, even, perhaps, something that could be very private, such a person will probably hear a ‘no’ from many Christian leaders in Australia today. This attitude shows many people do not understand how conscientious religious objection works, namely, how Christians understand the requirements of Christ over their lives in regard to what is and isn’t permissible. It is unfair for Christians to be interrogated in what could be a fairly embarrassing process of trying to analyse a person’s real motivation by asking questions such as, ‘What about these other medications? They were also developed with fetal cells, aren’t they? Have you thought about that?’ Why some are trying to create a ‘gotch ya’ kind of scenario is beyond our reasoning capacity.
Even after a person has been exposed to all of that in order to know if they are really “worthy” of that charity from one of their leaders, the ‘no’ is almost guaranteed in many cases.
The questions many are asking
But, are these limited reasons really all there are? Aren’t any other objections that originate from the Christian conscience enough to serve as the foundation for a religious exemption? Whilst the decision about signing a letter of exemption is also a matter of conscience on the part of each individual Christian leader, to completely disregard as religious objections other types of conscious biblical objections, besides the use of aborted fetal cells in the vaccine production process, can be a real revelation about the compromised thought process of some leaders in the church.
Could it be that such leaders haven’t spent enough time considering Romans 14, or article 20.2 in the Westminster Confession of Faith or similar confessions, which contain weighty doctrines that when neglected can cause a huge impact on minority groups in our congregations? Or are they maybe being apathetic? Or are they being fearful, perhaps, since they would prefer not to risk their valuable reputations and not to appear to be at odds with the governing authorities?
Regardless of the answers to the questions above, we most certainly believe that there are other valid types of conscientious biblical objections, especially regarding this current hesitation around the vaccine. But, before we present our case, we want to make sure we proceed on clear and common ground. Therefore, it is necessary before we continue, that we should define our terms.
Much has been said about ‘the conscience’ or ‘the Christian conscience’ in this debate, but what is meant by those terms? Jonathan Edward’s provides a definition in his work “Ethical Writings”, namely:
That disposition to approve or disapprove the moral treatment which passes between us and others, from a determination of the mind to be easy, or uneasy, in a consciousness of our being consistent or inconsistent with ourselves.1
In other words, the conscience is the mind’s internal referee, at times approving, at times disapproving of our thoughts, actions, inactions, and interactions with others.
Lordship of Christ
The Christain confession that “Christ is Lord” is comprehensive and is not vague spiritualism. That Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate is an undeniable historical fact, recorded in scripture and other external sources. Scripture attests to the resurrection of our saviour, and Paul records that upon returning to life, Jesus “…appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time…” (1 Corinthians 15:6).
All are called to subject all of their lives to the risen and reigning Christ. This faith is revealed to us in God’s Holy Word, the Bible. For the Christian, the Scriptures are, therefore, sufficient for life and faith and we are compelled to believe and obey all that is written within them. To do otherwise, would result in disobedience. The Christian submits to the Lordship of Christ, as they submit to His Holy Word.
In this debate, most agree that religious objections do exist and that they do qualify an objecting person for having a religious exemption letter signed. The issue around using aborted fetal tissue in the production process of vaccines, for example, is a clear case of a non-disputable religious objection in the minds of many. Those who hold to that specific objection do so based on their biblical understanding that offering any form of affirmation or support to products that benefited from the evil of abortion is something God would always condemn, regardless of any possible benefits.
If we are to define ‘religious objection’ based on this particular example of aborted fetal cell lines, and in light of the other two definitions previously given, we would say that a religious objection is an uneasy mind, which originates from a particular reading of the Scriptures, resulting in the inability of an individual to proceed with a determined course of action without experiencing a deep sense of disobedience against God, because one considers himself to be under the direct Lordship of Christ.
A case for any objecting Christian to be provided with an exemption
If the previous paragraph is true, is it correct to say then, when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines, that the only situation capable of producing an uneasy Christian mind are those narrow considerations expressed by some prominent Australian Christian leaders? We don’t think so. The Lordship of Christ impacts the conscience in a far more comprehensive fashion.
In our current situation, we find ourselves divided because of two dichotomous positions. However, on matters not pertaining to the moral law, God allows for liberty of conscience. Paul assures us that there will be varying “opinions” amongst Christians on many different subjects (Romans 14:1). The word “opinions” (ESV) can be equally translated as “conclusions reached through reasoning.”2
Paul acknowledges that two separate Christians, reasoning in light of scripture and endeavouring to apply the Lordship of Christ to their lives, will, sometimes, arrive at different conclusions (Romans 14:2). He also says in Philippians “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you” (Philippians 3:15), which indicates that there is an apostolic expectation that Christians will think in a certain manner, but, as for the process of arriving at that point of agreement, that’s between each Christian and the Lord. Passages like this one show that one of Paul’s priorities in ministry is to ensure each persons’ conscience is being respected and led, primarily, by the Lord in matters where freedom of thought is allowed.
These conclusions are not to be treated lightly, namely, they entail the formation of conscience in the life of a Christian, which directly pertains to “faith” and “sin” (Romans 14:23). “Faith” and “sin” are matters that are first and foremost directed toward God (Psalm 51:4). One action originates from “faith” and puts the conscience at ease, yet another action proceeds not from faith and causes the conscience to become uneasy because that action is in fact sin (Romans 14:14, 23).
In the life of the Christian, the conscience cannot be separated from reasoning in the light of scripture, and scripture cannot be separated from its mediation of the Lordship of Christ over the life of a saint. A Christian who has reasoned in the light of scripture will endeavour to be consistent with the conclusions to which they have arrived. Although, as Paul argues, Christians may arrive at different conclusions on matters of indifference and he also urges neither to quarrel over these matters (Romans 14:1), nor to judge others on these matters (Romans 14:4,13), nor to place a stumbling block in the life of a believer. Why? Because to compel a Christian to act in discord with his conclusions is to cause them to become inconsistent with their biblical reasoning.
On such matters, the believer gives an account, not to men, but to God (Romans 14:12). Calvin would write “Our consciences have not to do with men but with God only.”3 For any man, entity, or institution to impose something on a conscience on matters not related to the moral law, would be for that entity to usurp the place of God.
In our context, we have a unique set of challenges. Broadly speaking, Christians are reasoning from two different sets of assumptions. The first, from the prevailing narrative, namely, that the vaccine is safe and effective, and therefore is beneficial for me and those around me; God is honoured in this act. The second, from a counter-narrative, the vaccine is a ‘clinical trial’ in a highly politicized public health environment and hence caution is necessitated. The vaccine may not be beneficial for me and those around me; God may not be honoured in this act. These two perspectives, under normal circumstances, would be able to coexist side-by-side, with individuals acting in accordance with their conscience, and receiving or abstaining from the vaccine as seems best to them before God. However, for many people, the state has removed the matter of conscience, mandating the vaccine through coercive means.
Indeed, for many believers, the simple fact that all of society’s major institutions such as the media, academia, and government, along with many of the public Christians leaders, are pressuring them to do something, is itself the reason for their religious objection. Some Christians are deeply skeptical of social pressure, aware that their brethren have endured extreme examples of such behaviour throughout history. Thomas Crosby describes the milieu of the early English Baptists this way, “…liberty of conscience [was] taken away, and the most cruel and barbarous actions committed”4 and, sadly, such deprivation of liberty of conscience is still occurring today in many places.
Think about this: when in history have all of these institutions come together to override people’s consciences, in a rushed and high-pressure situation, and done this for good? Never? Rarely? This one fact alone causes many Christians to be suspicious. For others, it may not, but compelling the conscience of those who are, only confirms their suspicions.
How then do we articulate vaccine mandates and their resulting impact on the minority Christian conscience from a theological perspective? Candidly stated, one set of assumptions and its associated formed conscience have been imposed on the other. Conscience has been usurped. The conscience of the minority group of Christians has become uneasy, they are being coerced to act in a way that doesn’t proceed from faith. Some people are being pressured to act in opposition to their conscience when that very conscience was formed through reasoning in the light of scripture. The result of this action is that there are Christians who are now being coerced to act inconsistently with the Lordship of Christ in their lives. This is a serious point; it is the point.
One mistake many people make when evaluating whether another Christian’s conscientious objection is a valid religious one is that they focus only on the issue. This is a mistake. The question is often not the specific issue, the real question is: who is Lord of the Church and Conscience? In the early Baptist and Puritan movements, non-conformists of both stripes were willing to be persecuted for, among other things, not agreeing with the decreed vestments5 (religious garments) commanded for Church of England ministers by the Crown.
Some people might think this is extreme, being willing to suffer over such a disputable issue. But the issue was not ever really about the vestments. The issue was who was Lord of the Church; the crown or the Lord Jesus Christ? The Puritans, and their offshoot cousins, the Baptists, were willing to suffer for this point. Their conscience would allow them to do no other thing.6 If the Baptist forebears were willing to object to required religious garments which are worn externally, how much more should we object to mandated vaccines which are administered internally?
The question, then, that we must answer for the church, in this case, is: what is the proper response when the majority’s conscience is imposed on the minority’s conscience? Dietrich Bonhoeffer in fact provided a response to this question 83 years ago, with a short pithy statement on the matter:
In June 1938 The Sixth Confessing Church Synod met to resolve the church’s latest crisis. Dr Friedrich Werner, state commissar for the Prussian Church, had threatened to expel any pastor refusing to take the civil oath of loyalty as a “birthday gift” to Hitler. Instead of standing up for freedom of the church, the synod shuffled the burden of decision to the individual pastors. This played into the hands of the Gestapo, who could then easily identify the disloyal few who dared to refuse. Infuriated at the bishops, Bonhoeffer demanded, “Will the Confessing Church ever learn that majority decision in matters of conscience kills the spirit?”
There is a need for pastors and church leaders to defend the reasoned conclusions of people in their congregations, especially on the issue of a ‘clinical trial’ vaccine. These are matters of conscience that are intimately connected to a person’s relationship with God.
Imagine for a moment that you are the pastor of the church in Rome in ~57AD. You have read Paul’s command to provide liberty on various opinions not related to the moral law (Romans 14). How would you respond to the people in your congregation if, on the very next day, Caesar mandated that those who only eat vegetables must now only eat meat? Would you:
- Withdraw from such people, embarrassed at the indignity of having to defend their conscience which is no longer sanctioned by the state?
- Fight at great expense to yourself in order to protect their conscience and maintain the unity of the faith?
Choose carefully. This is not a test. Currently, there are people in our congregations who cannot in good conscience obey the state health orders and receive a vaccine, and whose livelihoods are now on the line. There are many others who, because of excessive coercion and the lack of alternatives provided to avoid or stand against such coercive methods, have already received the vaccine whilst, in their minds, being opposed to it. Leaders have been given some reasonable power to come to the rescue of their people whose consciences are being coerced and became uneasy due to conflict with the Lordship of Christ in their lives.
Even if pastors don’t necessarily agree with the ‘hesitant’s position’, Romans 14 should guide them to come to the defence of the minority’s conscience in their congregations. A person with a conflicted conscience before the Lord is a person in serious spiritual danger because the sin born out of an action that proceeds not from faith is as dangerous as any sin.
If anything, Christian leaders should at least be seen fighting on behalf of their flocks due to the spiritual implications of an uneasy conscience. To provide letters of exemption to Christians with many other genuine concerns and objections to getting vaccinated, besides the issue around aborted fetal cells, is not only the charitable thing to do, but it is a matter of taking good care of the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made us overseers.
Giuliano Bordoni is a Baptist pastor from Queensland. He also publishes less elaborate and more simple day-to-day kind of content through his personal blog Cruxes Hub. Giuliano has a Bachelor of Music, as well as a master of Divinity, focused on pastoral studies.
Tim Grant is the pastor of Mount Isa Baptist Church. He is a registered Minister in the Baptist Union of Queensland. Tim has a ‘Bachelor of Ministry’ and ‘Master of Arts in Theology.’
Reverend Matthew Littlefield is the pastor of New Beith Baptist Church. He is an ordained Minister in the Baptist Union of Queensland. Matthew has a Masters in Theology.
Warren McKenzie is pastor at Biota Baptist Church in Inala, Brisbane. His interests are theology and evangelism. He is currently studying a Master of Theology through Malyon College.
- Edwards, J. (1989). Ethical Writings. (P. Ramsey & J. E. Smith, Eds.) (Vol. 8, p. 592). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
- Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 232). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1845). Institutes of the Christian religion (Vol. 3, p. 196). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.
- Crosby, T. (2011). The History of the English Baptists (Vol. 1, pp. 1–2). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
- Bebbington, D. (2017). Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (pp. 17–18). Baylor University Press.
- If you think this was a silly sacrifice, let me ask you: does your minister wear the officially decreed vestments of the crown of England? If not, thank the Puritans, it gets really hot in Australia.