When it comes to masks, Pastor Doug Wilson first presents as a modest man. He says the practice of mask-wearing at his church (wear one if you want) is “the way of love.” He says he is “trying to maintain the bond of peace within our own ranks during this trying time.” But then he says he must keep us from listening to the “commandments of men who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14)—then going on to claim that elders who require their congregation to wear masks are “binding the conscience.”
That last statement is not true. Elders, pastors, and civil authorities who require masks are not binding the conscience of the church of America. Doug Wilson is the man binding consciences. Why?
Because Doug Wilson demands conformity nationwide. No church’s elders are permitted to require masks of their congregants. Pastor Wilson says such elders have violated Westminster Standards 20.2, forcing on their people “the doctrines and commandments of men.” How does he justify his view?
Binding the conscience
By offering this definition of “binding the conscience”:
Binding the conscience is an act of authority. It can only occur when someone under authority is required by an authority to act contrary to what that person believes to be right. (emphasis original)
The problem is this definition is wrong.
Actually, a man’s conscience is bound whenever he believes morality requires him to behave a certain way whether or not he has been convinced by anyone in authority over him. A man in authority can convince those under him they must do something and this can be a binding of their consciences. But this binding can also be accomplished by any Tom, Dick or Harry with no authority at all. Think of the Judaizing Pharisees arriving in Antioch from Jerusalem. They had no authority over the Church there in Antioch, yet the Apostle Paul fought their conscience-binding throughout the Epistles. He opposed their binding of people’s consciences with commandments of “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch.” He commanded Titus that such men “must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not.”
Which brings us back to the irony that we began with. Pastor Wilson says other men are binding men’s consciences but this is precisely what he is doing.
As cited above, the Westminster Standards emphasize both commandments and doctrines. While Doug Wilson is not an authority issuing commands on his blog, that doesn’t protect him from the danger of binding men’s consciences, doctrinally.
Actually, many men have dismissed the authority of their own elders and pastors … citing Wilson’s authority in doing so.1 Though he is at a distance, and doesn’t exercise formal and localized authority in these men’s churches, Wilson is able to exercise powerful moral suasion. He is able to bind consciences. When he convinces men and women that they must not obey their own elders and pastors, what else does he think he is doing?
Let’s open this up a little more.
An abuse of “God Alone is Lord of the conscience”
The Westminster Confession of Faith (from which Pastor Wilson argues) states:
God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, in matters of faith, or worship.
In other words, we can disobey those commands of earthly authorities in two cases:
- When the command is contrary to God’s Word, or
- When the command is not explicitly found in God’s Word and it is a matter of faith or worship.
At different times Pastor Wilson has seemed to imply that mask mandates fall into both of these categories. Let’s start with the first category.
If, like sacrificing to Baal, wearing a mask is statist idolatry2—a confession of faith in the statist religion—then it is an act of idolatry to put a mask on. Thus, mask-wearing is contrary to God’s Word and we are conscience-bound to refuse masks at all times and in all places. We pity those who believe this to be the case, for there are no exceptions when commands are contrary to God’s Word. Idolatry is not acceptable if it allows you to keep your job. There is no exception clause in the Bible allowing the worship of false gods if it is required in order to buy food, visit your dying relatives, or keep asbestos out of your lungs.3
Either masks are idolatry or they are not. Giving into idolatry but being difficult about it might make you feel better about yourself, but in the end, you’ve put a mask on, and you’re an idolater. It is our presumption that Doug Wilson doesn’t truly believe this since we know his elders have all worn a mask—during a church service, no less—and we are aware of no public repentance. Thankfully, such repentance is unnecessary since there is no biblical prohibition on masks no matter who or where you are.
It’s obvious God’s Word Itself does not forbid face masks, so Pastor Wilson must ground his position in the second case claiming masks are “a matter of faith or worship.” Are they?
Consider other laws decreed by the civil authority that apply to Christians during worship. The fire marshall enforces laws we submit to requiring us to limit the number of people in our sanctuaries. Laws require us to have a certain number of aisles of a certain width as we worship, preventing too many people from being too close together, for safety reasons. Social distancing laws regulate where worshippers sit each Lord’s day morning, as well as how many souls may be present. We obey these laws because they address matters incidental to our church meetings. They are no regulation of faith and worship.
The same is true of masks. Mask mandates do not require one to believe a certain thing about God or worship Him with certain words or actions.
Regaining a sense of proportion
Think about what we do as acts of worship during a worship service. We sing, we pray, we read and listen to God’s Word, we sit under preaching, we receive the sacraments.
These are the words and forms of worship and they must not be subject to the commands of men. The government cannot tell us what must be included as part of our services. It cannot tell us what kind of music to use. It cannot tell us what to preach. It cannot tell us what scriptures to read. If the government tries to tell us these things, we stand against it.
But a mask requirement is not a requirement about how we must worship. It is not something we do or don’t do as worship, but something we do (or don’t do) all day long, wherever we are—including during worship. Just like wearing clothes.4
Are there ways the government could infringe on matters of worship through illegitimate mask regulations?
Absolutely. They could tell us (to take a silly example) that masks worn during worship must be red, symbolizing the blood of Jesus Christ. In such a case we might refuse, wearing black to symbolize the sinful heart of man, because such a law would be the state attempting to legislate religious matters.
Our civil authorities have done no such thing.
So what about the elders who require their own congregation to wear masks? Are they mandating how we must worship God?
Not at all. They are simply making a church-house rule, which is entirely within their authority. 5
England’s 1662 Act of Uniformity commanded pastors and elders to conform their worship to Cranmer’s Prayer Book. Two-thousand pastors refused and were removed from their pulpits and congregations. Church historians refer to this as the “Great Ejection.” Here pastors and congregations suffered acutely for freedom of conscience concerning “command(s) not explicitly found in God’s Word [which were] matter(s) of faith or worship.”
Mask insurrectionists will claim they are kindred spirits with these godly men.
And yet … the nonconformist Puritans did not contend that it was a violation of Scripture for anyone to choose the order of worship in a church. Rather, they contended leaders of each particular church were the only ones with that authority.
Pastor Wilson has not given modern church leaders the same freedom. On the contrary, he denounces any church that chooses differently than him for “binding men’s consciences” and violating the Regulative Principle.
What would the Westminster divines have said?
Just a few sentences after their warning against binding of consciences, they gave this rebuke to such men:
Because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another, they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God.
Note carefully that pastors and governors are not supposed to fight, but rather to stand with each other. Anybody (and particularly another authority) who opposes a lawful command is resisting the command of God Himself.
Yet instead of carefully protecting the consciences of Christians around the country by upholding and preserving the co-authority of the civil magistrate God has placed over His people, Pastor Wilson hints we may have the “right to disregard everything they say (original emphasis).”
Which commands of the civil magistrate might we have the right to disregard?
Surely just the commands Christians have always thought we should disregard—laws contrary to God’s law and laws requiring us to worship in a certain way. The ones, for instance, that are outlined in the Westminster Confession of Faith Pastor Wilson quotes from.
So does this mean Christians are able to ignore the governor, the police, the tax collector, the mayor, the congressman, the fire marshal, the president, the bureaucrat at the BMV, ICE, and BATF? And what about the judge holding him in contempt of court?6
This is exactly and precisely “opposing a lawful power.” What did the Westminster divines think ought to be done with such men?
They answer in the very next sentence:
For their publishing of… such erroneous opinions or practices, as either in their own nature, or in the manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church, they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against, by the censures of the Church.
Many men joining Pastor Wilson’s insurrection are not simply disregarding civil authorities, but also their own pastors and elders, thereby creating division in their leadership and congregation. Such men are reviling authority, biting and devouring faithful elders and pastors.
But it was Pastor Wilson himself who accused these pastors of being “triggered.” He denounces them for being worried about what will happen if “somebody in their congregation start[s] wishing that they had a courageous pastor.”
The fruit of Pastor Wilson’s schism is the division of churches across the country, and this is sad. This fruit is destructive to the peace and order Christ established in the Church. Pastor Wilson and his followers sin against sheep and their undershepherds by their careless charges that those undershepherds are not “courageous” (like they are) and “are uneasy in their conscience.” Unless an undershepherd in New York (for example) does exactly what the Christ Church elders require in rural Idaho, the poor man is a coward limping along with a hobbled conscience.
Concerning our civil authorities, Pastor Wilson declares that, because of how many “untruths” they have told us, they “have forfeited (our) trust.” He then says, “You can’t throw something away and still have it afterwards (emphasis in original).”
What does this mean? That we are under no obligation to give any trust, obedience, or respect to our civil magistrates? That we should give some? Where do we draw the line? When and how?
It’s hard to tell, and this is where we most want to plead with Pastor Wilson to. Just. Stop. Real pastors and elders in real churches have to make real decisions about these things. They have to lead real people. Fuzzy rhetoric of this type is confusing. It can be explosively destructive. It can hurt people.
Can anything good come from the Beltway?
Pastor Wilson continues: “Two thirds of our government is doing bad stuff, and the rest of them are up to no good.” Did any of us need to be told we live under wicked rulers?
Scripture Itself warns us: “The kings of the earth take their stand/And the rulers take counsel together/Against the Lord and against His Anointed.” (Psalm 2:2.)
At some personal cost, the writers of this piece have opposed wicked men in civil authority, as well as their wicked decrees. Still, we are called to obey not only the masters who are “good and gentle” (in Pastor Wilson’s estimation, do any such men still exist?), but also those who are “unreasonable” (1 Peter 2:18). This is the insistent theme of Scripture concerning civil authority:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. (1 Peter 2:13-16.)
Yet the tone of Doug Wilson’s censure of the civil authorities is not in the slightest way honoring to the king. He portrays our civil authorities as fools and knaves.
Whatever you think about the pandemic, whatever you think about face-masks, this reviling of authority, this binding of men’s consciences is wrong.
But now, as something of a side point, let’s talk about the facts concerning the pandemic itself.
Pastor Wilson assures members of other elders and pastors’ congregations that what’s going on is just “a severe flu season, buried under a tsunami of government-induced panic.” It’s merely a “question of fact,” Wilson declares, “and historical theology is not going to be any help there.” He assures us he’s hunted down “the facts on the ground.”
What are these “facts on the ground”?
He doesn’t tell us, actually.
For months, Pastor Wilson has been trotting out words like “shamdemic” and “mass panic.” He and his insurrectionists have been describing the data models used by our public health officials as “wildly—cosmically off base.”
Is Pastor Wilson right? Have the models been so wrong? Have the facts been “massaged” so much? Is this really just, as he puts it, a “severe flu season?”
In fact, Pastor Wilson is embarrassingly wrong. He himself has been hoodwinked by the kind of dishonest manipulation of stats he accuses the government of purveying to induce panic.
Back on March 31 when Covid deaths were still below 500 per day and there were only 3,007 total deaths, President Trump held a press conference and displayed two charts with numbers from a model created by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. They were estimating daily deaths would peak April 15 at an average of 2,215 per day.
Critics scoffed, yet deaths peaked almost precisely when and how they said they would—April 16 at an average of 2,312 deaths per day.
The second chart predicted by August 4 there would be between 100,000 and 240,000 total deaths, assuming we kept up the “intervention” we had begun for 30 days.
We did, and on August 4 there were 160,338 total deaths. The model that the White House relied upon most heavily to communicate to us what would happen assuming we all agreed to stay home was a home run. They nailed it. They weren’t wildly cosmically wrong. They were right. From the very beginning.
Objection 1: “But they count everybody who dies as a Covid death!”
No, they don’t. Between March 1 and April 25, there were 87,000 excess deaths in the US—i.e. there were 21% more deaths than expected. In that same time frame, only 56,246 deaths were attributed to Covid. In other words, during that time, only 65% of the unexpected increase in deaths were attributed to Covid. Normal deaths were not being counted as Covid deaths, in spite of widespread claims circulated among conservatives that this was happening. The opposite was true. They were not counting normal deaths as Covid deaths. And they only counted 65% of the unexpected deaths as Covid deaths.
Objection 2: “But that other study said our ER’s would be overwhelmed and 1.2 million Americans would be dead even if we took extreme action immediately!”
No they didn’t. That’s a lie debunked back in March. Neil Ferguson’s Imperial study accurately predicted that, if we shut down, the peak would occur a few weeks later without overwhelming the country’s critical care capacity. It also accurately predicted the second spike of cases being much larger after we decreased our mitigation efforts.
Objection 3: “But they were totally wrong about what would have happened if we took another course of action. There’s no way 2 million people would have died if we had just gone on with life as normal.”
That’s simply an opinion, and it is unverifiable. Still, ask yourself this: Who do you trust more—the men paid to be experts in infectious diseases who accurately predicted what would happen in the course of action we took, or the men who can’t even admit that’s what happened, instead crowing about the models being wildly wrong?
Objection 4: “But it really is just like a severe flu season.”
No. It’s not. Severe flu seasons don’t last through a lockdown, then begin to pick up steam in the heat of the summer. 2017-2018 was a severe flu season. In a mild flu season, (e.g., 2011-12) only 12,000 people might die in the US. A very bad year such as 2014-15 might see 51,000 deaths. 2017-18 was an extreme year, with 61,000 estimated deaths. Even the most extreme flu seasons only last 21 weeks and never exceed an average of 415 deaths per day. We just passed 23 weeks averaging over 1,000 deaths per day, with no end in sight—apart from God’s mercy. This in spite of a lockdown we know was massively effective, and continued major social distancing which we also know is effective. If we used those mitigations during a severe flu season, there would be no flu season. If we have any integrity, it is impossible to downplay this as a severe flu season.
Objection 5: “But it wasn’t worth the economic cost, and people die from economic trouble, and they changed their tune on masks, and they are oppressing me.”
Only when you are able to acknowledge the basic facts that the models were right can we begin to reason about what we might well have done differently. If your commitment is to disregard the civil authorities and your convenient justification is based (unbiblically) on the magistrate being massively wrong, it is no surprise you are unwilling to be corrected on the facts.
Objection 6: “But they’ve been lying to us for ages! The media lies. Politicians lie. We can’t trust anything we read on the news. Are you honestly saying you believe everything they’re telling us? And plus, you still haven’t acknowledged that they did a complete about-face on masks! They’ve been pushing us around for years, and this is just the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was always going to be a straw that did it.”
These are some great questions, but we’re out of time. We’ll return soon with a post in response, but to give an idea of the direction of our response, our answers to the questions (in order) will go in the direction of, “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” “of course not,” “you’re right, they did,” “we know,” and “for sure.”
The Final Question
The final question to ask is why? Why is Pastor Wilson promoting these views? Why has he chosen to sow so much confusion and destruction in the conservative Reformed church at large? Why has he been so willing to gather dissatisfied, unruly men to himself?
Many souls in different parts of the country read and trust Pastor Wilson, and now believe themselves conscience-bound to confess their faith by not wearing masks. Some of them believe they are conscience-bound to confront their spiritual fathers—the shepherds who have nurtured and cared for them—even leaving their churches. They condemn their shepherds as statist idolaters. Over masks. Pastor Wilson has raised mask-wearing to a confessional issue.
Pastor Wilson and his followers have caused much harm to Christ’s church and His sheep. Even granting him his freedom to lead his own congregation in rejecting masks, why does he not force this division within the Church of Christ at large with fear and trembling? If there was ever a time for Pastor Wilson to abandon his humorous, avuncular tone, this would be it. Yet he has continued in it.
That is why we wrote this piece. Several of us have gone privately to Pastors Doug Wilson and Toby Sumpter to discuss some of the matters raised above. We are releasing this piece to the larger church as a safeguard against false teaching and authority.
There is a Biblical precedent. The Apostle Peter didn’t escape the public rebuke of the Apostle Paul when he held himself aloof from the Gentile Christians (Gal. 2:11-21). He was causing division in the church by binding the conscience of believers in his attempt to “compel the Gentiles to live like Jews” (Gal. 2:14).
The Apostle Peter’s office and leadership made the public rebuke even more imperative.
Since the Apostle Peter isn’t above correction, we simple undershepherds aren’t either. No matter his public persona and reach, no matter our great respect and affection for him, neither is Pastor Wilson. Our esteem for him leads us to hope and pray this public warning will cause him to turn aside from his present course.
We pray that, by God’s grace, this breach may be healed and love may cover a multitude of sins, both theirs and ours.
|↑1||We have heard from pastors, personally, a number of painful accounts of this division within their congregations. Sensitivity to creating further division within these congregations keeps us from recounting these divisions here.|
|↑2||Doug’s fellow Christ Church, Moscow, pastor, Toby Sumpter, writes: “The statist idols are all deaf, dumb, and blind. They have mandated worthless pieces of fabric be worn on your face. That is their current sacrament…”|
|↑3||Again, Wilson’s colleague, Toby Sumpter, writes: “if someone asks me to put one on, I plan to be cheerfully difficult. I will probably start with a simple “no thanks, I don’t believe in that,” but if they are somewhat insistent, I will let them know that I have a religious exemption. If they need to know more than that, I will explain that my Christian religion teaches me not to bow down to idols. If they still need more, the mayor’s order also made it clear that the masks are only required where social distancing is not possible. Of course I believe private businesses should be free to require certain things of customers. I want to love them toward resisting this tyrannical law, but if they are not interested in my encouragement, and they have something I need, I will happily comply. I’m free to wear a piece of useless fabric across my face, but I will do everything in my power to indicate that I don’t believe in that statist religion…”|
|↑4||We are not arguing that masks don’t have an impact on worship. Of course they do. It may even be a negative one. But to argue that the civil magistrate can make no laws that have any kind of impact on worship is silly. Should no police officer ever set foot in a sanctuary to uphold public decency, zoning, or occupancy laws? The government makes all kinds of laws with a direct impact on our worship and to try to argue it never should is a fool’s errand.|
|↑5||From The Preliminary Principles of the Presbyterian Church: “In perfect consistency with the above principle, every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own.”|
|↑6||Having known, sought counsel from, and listened to Doug Wilson for years, we have little doubt he would respond that he didn’t mean here what we took away from it. But there you have it. The words are in black and white. “Everything” is italicized. If he didn’t mean we could disregard “everything,” he shouldn’t have said it. He could have limited his statement to everything civil authorities say about masks or Coronavirus. He could have limited it to health orders.|
He didn’t. By “disregard,” he did not simply mean “disbelieve.” After all, the context is civil disobedience.