A critique of Pastors Wilson and Sumpter on COVID-19
I write this as an admirer of both Pastor Sumpter and Pastor Wilson. I’ve heard Pastor Sumpter speak and been strengthened by it. Also, I’m a classicist by training, and so I naturally have certain sympathies with the educational framework he advocates. My wife has many a time tuned into CrossPolitic and found it helpful. I appreciate his firm and bold commitments on any number of issues we face in today’s climate.
And Pastor Wilson? What can I say? I’ve been listening to him for over 20 years in one form or another, from the earlier days when he wrote for Ligionier’s Tabletalk and Credenda/Agenda, to his more recent entries. I’ve been blessed by the practical, Scriptural, and straightforward advice in Reforming Marriage, appreciated his championing of the classical tradition, and enthusiastically recommended his insightful analysis on politics. In the apostasy of Evangelical figures who are entrusted with the Gospel, I have found Pastor Wilson’s vigorous, clear-headed defense of orthodox truth on social issues to be refreshing and helpful. I’ve even found his rhetoric to be generally useful, an example of Augustine’s principle of spoiling the gold of the Egyptians by using rhetoric to good ends. I’m always interested in what he has to say, though I find that his speed in writing often dwarfs my speed in reading and digesting it all.
So it has been with sadness, dismay, and astonishment that I’ve witnessed his and Pastor Sumpter’s posts on COVID-19 and especially masks in the past few months. At the beginning, during March, their posts were measured, circumspect, and wise overall. There was at least some acknowledgement that much was not known, and their judgments were more precautionary than pronouncements.
But starting in April, and continuing to the present day, what began as careful has slid quickly into posts that are increasingly idiosyncratic, irrational, and even unhinged. Conspiracy lurks around every corner, COVID-19 is mostly a political, invented reality, and masking has become the statist, sacramental, idolatrous evil by which all others are defined. Worse than that, there is increasingly little room for anyone who disagrees with these pronouncements. Churches that have reached different conclusions regarding mask mandates fall under condemnation. The result has been schism, and members leaving faithful churches to join others where the “evil” bugaboo of masking is properly condemned. Worse, when pushed and pleaded with to dial back their condemnation of mask mandates, Pastors Wilson and Sumpter have responded only with small, hypothetical qualifications that leave their main contentions intact—there’s been no pulling back in the rhetoric, no alteration of the central, erroneous statements made, nor even an acknowledgement that where words are many, sin is not absent.
In this context, I have documented in separate posts many of the statements made by Pastor Wilson, and by Pastor Sumpter, in the course of the past seven months, pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, the State, masking, and church authority. In those posts, for each statement, I have given some comments underlining what I believe to be the central errors therein.
However, since not everyone has time to read twenty pages of quotations, I have written this post summarizing the three fronts my criticisms focus on. I have used quotations sparingly in this piece, since the full documentation is available at the above links. Also, because these two Pastors have chosen not to separate their positions and vocabulary, but have cast their lots together, I will refer to them collectively as “Moscow.” There do seem to be differences in their positions that could be teased out, but nothing that affects the central contentions made here.
Moscow’s Rhetoric: Confusion over Analysis, Emotion over Reason, Rabble-Rousing over Restraint
I’m astonished as to how careless Moscow has been in their analysis and distinctions. Astonished because this has often been one of Pastor Wilson’s strengths—but over and over on this issue, these men engage in sloppy, unprovable generalizations. That all the rulers are in cahoots. That masks, rioting, the Mueller report, and so on are all of a fabric. That masks (or, in Pastor Sumpter’s derisive parlance, “random pieces of fabric”) can’t be of any help because they don’t block all particles—as if we have to choose between total effectiveness or none at all! And on it goes.
But in fact, what’s left behind in each of these areas is the immense excluded middle. We don’t have to choose between (1) All our rulers are in cahoots and (2) Every ruler is a paragon of virtue and has his citizens’ best interests at heart. As Moscow has been preaching for years, we live in a federal system. There are national rulers on multiple levels, state rulers, county rulers, and so on. Among them are motivations that are good and noble and also depraved and self-serving and everything in between. And, because we’re Christians, we have the responsibility to evaluate each of these on their own merits, praise or criticize them in a Christian manner, and even set up or remove them from office. We can do all those things without resorting to simplistic explanations about what “all the rulers” are doing.
The same latitude of thought is granted us on masks. We don’t have to believe that masks will bring an end to the pandemic, or that masks do nothing. Or that mandated masks are only about public health, or oppositely, only about enforcing compliance and servility. Why not simply state that we don’t know how much good masks will do, that there is a public health interest for some in mandating them, and that for others they serve as an easy way of control?
Incidentally, I don’t know is the most glaring absence in Moscow’s oeuvre. I noticed this, and so decided to quantify this. Going through every post I could find on COVID (amounting to over 200 pages of single-space, 12-point Times New Roman), I found only two instances where Moscow said “I don’t know”, “we don’t know”, or similar phraseology concerning COVID-19. Both were in March—after that, crickets. But as Moscow would surely agree, knowing what one doesn’t know (à la Socrates) is the hallmark of classical epistemology. More than that, such humility about what we don’t know is key for the Christian life (1 Cor 8:2). So how is it that, in over 103,000 words (I counted), Moscow says it only twice?
But no: instead of calm, equanimous statements about what we know and what we don’t, Moscow increasingly gives rhetoric that has become unglued. Attempts of elected officials to save lives are branded as “Statist salvation.” Those with no medical credentials assure us that “random pieces of fabric do absolutely nothing to prevent the spread of viruses.” Masks are “Marxist Burqas.” And then there’s the high moral dudgeon that masks are “symbols of submission to the high priests who just a few minutes ago were praising the looters burning down Target because of ‘systemic racism.'” Despite Moscow’s commitment to logic, it’s utterly absent from such a statement. We know from mathematics (the transitive property) that a = b and b = c implies a = c; but here, apparently “masks = submission to high priests”, “high priests = people who ordered masks”, “people who ordered masks = people praising looters”, “people praising looters = high priests”, and therefore a = e, despite the fact that b, c, d, and e have no equality whatsoever.
Indeed, a central contention of Moscow is that the people insisting on mask mandates are the “exact same” ones applauding the riots. Except that it’s manifestly not true. For starters, the majority of governors have issued mask mandates, while almost none of them can be described as applauding the riots. Likewise, many people (e.g., young people) supporting the riots and unrest are not only not insisting on mask mandates, they’re disobeying them. Finally, there are the thousands of pastors and elders across the country that have required masks and oppose riots. It is impossible to give credence the claim that the exact same people are pushing both of these agendas.
Really, so blustery are the arguments and so hysterical the language, one might be excused for thinking this is actually Moscow’s way of illustrating in their language the panic they everywhere condemn. Except that, Moscow actually owns such language! So what do we make of it? It’s my personal judgement that, when it comes down to it, Moscow’s opposition to masks isn’t logical or principled, it’s emotional and visceral. Pastor Wilson almost admits as much in one statement. And I think this causes Moscow to make error after error in logic, Scriptural interpretation, and so on.
Consider Moscow’s recent interpretations of 2 Corinthians. In the past, Pastor Wilson has spoken helpfully on the image of God, particularly in his observation that our culture’s sexual anarchy militates against the image of God in man. So it’s distressing to see this doctrine now being used as a prop to argue against mask mandates. Lacking Scripture arguments heretofore for opposing mask mandates, Moscow has now settled on the unfounded claim that masks nullify the image of God in those who wear them, with the accompanying novel idea that the image of God is conveyed by the face. That this is unheard of in church history and our Reformed confessions is bad enough; worse still is that Moscow justifies this with an appeal to 2 Cor. 3:18. Except that, far from addressing masks, the Apostle in mentioning “with unveiled face” is not even speaking physically (as Calvin notes, the veil refers to the law). Nor, contrary to what Moscow opines, does the glory of redemption (2 Cor. 4:6) have anything to do with physical faces at all, but rather with the gospel, which has shone “in our hearts.” What Moscow has done here is to allow their belligerency on mask mandates to overcome sensible exegesis, and force them into interpretations that obscure the gospel and, indeed, the true face of Christ.
Our anger may or may not be justified, but in no case should it drive our exegesis. Our viscera must not drive our response to the civil magistrate, still less to churches who differ from us. Nor should our fear of “being played,” as Moscow has put it. Indeed, I suspect that much of our anger and resistance is, in fact, embarrassment or fear of being “fooled” yet again by governments, political parties, and so on. And indeed, it is a sin to be naive. But it’s also entirely possible to see what we see, not be naive, and yet realize our chief goal is not to maintain our shrewd cleverness and untrammeled dignity by avoiding “being played.” Surely the early Christians knew they were being taken advantage of. And yet, as the Apostle says in a different case, why not just accept being defrauded, for the sake of Christian witness?
Rhetoric of Rebellion with Plausible Deniability
Rhetoric is a tool—one that in my view can be used to good effect, but that carries with it the potential for damage. Pastor Wilson’s gift is rhetoric, I believe, but in this crisis, it’s been used to ill affect. Men around the country within reach of Moscow’s pronouncements are rebelling against their magistrates, against their sessions, against men who know and love them, by appealing to Moscow’s rhetoric. And yet, when pressed to dial back and retract some of that rhetoric, Moscow’s response has been that they’re not responsible:
But I don’t believe that what we have been producing is responsible for the existence of the visceral reaction in the conscience that numerous believers have had. And I believe the turmoil exists because of a head-on collision between that reaction in the conscience and a mandate from the elders.
Such a statement is irresponsible. Of course, one is not responsible for every action another might take as a result of one’s writing. Neither Warhorn nor I am assigning any such one-to-one correspondence. But when the preponderance of posts over months has been laying the groundwork for men to object to elders’ decisions on masks, casting those men as ungodly and even idolatrous in their decision, and unsubmission as a matter of conscience, and then when such men leave their churches and explicitly appeal to those arguments, it’s disingenuous to assert no correlation. One need at least recognize and acknowledge the possibility of contributing to such schism—and this has been wholly absent from Moscow’s words.
To great extent, this is because Moscow’s rhetoric achieves power without responsibility. It’s able to forcefully persuade, all the while retaining plausible deniability. Points are made through hypotheticals, allusions, rhetorical questions, and so on—so that it’s difficult to nail the writers down on what point they’re actually making. And indeed, I take Pastor Wilson at his word that he doesn’t intend the conclusions people draw from his words. But he needs to be more aware of how people read him, how fatherless men see him, how much anger festers in the hearts of our communities, and how much the pastoral, emotional, and relational context of his words matters.
For example, in one instance, Pastor Wilson condemns pastors who “give way to panic.” If pressed, I’m sure he would aver that he doesn’t mean good, faithful pastors. Well, that’s good. But meanwhile, post after post of his has stirred the pot by describing and condemning various forms of panic. So that, a reader coming to his final condemnation of pastors, lacking a clear statement as to what pastors he’s describing, would easily be forgiven for thinking it’s those pastors that partake in the actions Pastor Wilson has opposed for post after post. Rhetoric and action can’t be separated as much as he would apparently like.
The Schismatic Rhetoric of External Purity
Finally, I’ve been dismayed in how much emphasis Moscow has placed on the meaning and implication of a single, physical item. On the one hand, they’ve admitted on occasion that a mask is nothing, but on the other hand, more often they’ve loaded it with metaphysical meaning. Masking is the symbol of servility to the state, covers the image of God in man (which it manifestly does not—unless we relegate the image to the face, a novel concept), makes us all into joyless men without smiles. Most significant, Moscow has taken the outrageous, unwarranted leap to calling mask wearing a sacrament. And not just in off-the-cuff, informal parlance: they’ve repeated it in post after post, developed it, and defended it.
And this is inexcusable. First in its logic: as Moscow has never proven that wearing a mask symbolizes servility in any way, still less to the State (again, whatever “the State” is), still less that there is an invisible reality in the soul of the one who wears the visible sign. And yet, since that’s what a sacrament means, that’s what Moscow has to defend.
But there’s an even worse problem. If we grant their contention about wearing a mask being a sacrament, then arguably not wearing masks is also sacramental; that is, if wearing a mask is a sign and seal of solidarity with and idolatrous submission to the state, then not wearing a mask (especially in defiance of a mandate) is a sign that one does not acknowledge its “idolatrous” claims. But this magnifies the divisiveness and schism this brings into the Church. For, now, those who refuse to wear masks can claim themselves free of the impurity of the pagan sacrament. Virtue has come through not wearing a mask. The sacramental nature of masks has thus become a way of granting those who refuse it a claim to virtue: they’re the ones with the wisdom, insight, and prescience to see the sacramental play the state is making.
We’ve seen this kind of fixation on physical marks of separation before. Down through the ages, over and over again. For a prior generation, it was, say, wearing blue jeans. Or not going to movies. Or not drinking alcohol. Or not going to public school. Or, back in fourth-century Africa, it was about not receiving the Lord’s Supper from a sinful minister.
In other words, in this emphasis and intransigence about masks being a sacrament, Moscow risks the error of the Donatists. The statement may sound absurd, but consider the situation. The Donatist controversy came about because Christian ministers “gave way” in the midst of persecution, handing over the (rare) copies of the Scriptures to the State and its idolatrous purposes. The Donatists claimed such men were disqualified from office, and the ordinances they performed were invalid. More than that, those ministers who disagreed with this analysis could be rightly forsaken and disobeyed, as they had lost their claim to legitimacy. And so schism came not just because of the disagreement over the sacraments, but because it split parishioners into the haves and have-nots: those who were “discerning” enough to see impurity everywhere, and those who disagreed.
And so when St. Augustine fought Donatism, it was not chiefly the sacramental error that bothered him. What was the problem was the schism in the churches, the belief of the Donatists that faithfulness was bound up with a self-designated symbol of purity, and their willingness to condemn and invalidate other churches who didn’t hold to their physical superstitiousness.
Clearly, such is not Moscow’s intent, and for that we can be glad. But the seeds are there, and some of the dangers are the same. The Donatists taught that even “otherwise godly” elders who rejected their view of sacramental purity could be rejected and disqualified by their parishioners; here, Moscow teaches that even “otherwise godly” ministers who reject their characterization of masks as sacraments can be rejected by their parishioners. The Donatists’ intransigence created a schism in the church for centuries, where the Donatists could crow that their external purity showed their commitment to purity of faith; does not Moscow’s intransigence also amplify a wedge issue, where the sheep can think themselves purer in faith because of their resistance to an impure symbol of statist idolatry?
Finally, lest it be forgotten, the Donatists were incensed about the betrayal by Christian ministers of their sacred trust, and handing over of the Scriptures. Moscow, on the other hand, is incensed about….masks. Any other generation would be amused to find so much ink and so much vociferating and so many jeremiads over so small and insignificant a thing.
It Didn’t Have to Be This Way…
Looking back over 2020, at the judgments and dispensations of the Lord, I have no doubt many of us will see how much time we wasted, how much energy we squandered. And this is the chief tragedy about the Moscow COVID crusade: that it didn’t have to be this way. As we have noted, there is so much middle ground that could have been claimed, so much moderation that could have been manifest. Judgements and plagues sent by the Lord have always been occasions for careful meditation about how we got here, how we’ve sinned, how we need to repent. And indeed, Moscow began there, and has done some of that kind of writing. But the problem is that, increasingly, “how we got here” has been answered not by “our sin,” but by railing against the magistrate, idiosyncratic judgments on masks, and condemnation of mask mandates as statist idolatry. With more care in their rhetoric, Moscow could have been a guide for Christians thinking through these things, but lately, it’s been a rallying cry against “random pieces of fabric.” All the while our unborn perish, our children rebel, our churches divide, and the watching world sees us fighting about…masks.
So, can we not have magnanimity toward sessions who differ on this? After all, Pastor Wilson has himself already laid out a paradigm for us as individuals:
When I walk by someone on the street who is wearing a mask, I have no idea why he is doing so. He might need to do it to keep his job. He might have a serious underlying health condition that he is concerned about… By the same token, when he walks by me, he has no idea why I am not wearing one. It could be that I am concerned that an amateur wearing of masks increases the chances of spreading infection…. He has no idea. Consequently, he and I should cut one another some slack.
This is wonderful. So can we please simply have this principle govern our view toward civil magistrates and sessions as well? If we have such generosity toward the unbelieving man on the street, can we not have at least this much toward men of our churches appointed by God to lead? Or has Moscow become not only the authority on the pandemic, its reality, its causes, its severity, its remedies, but also the delimiter of the Constitution, the federal system, and even churches, issuing ex cathedra writs and bulls on what is and is not idolatry?
It’s true that Moscow says they’re willing to cut elders’ boards some slack, that people should be willing to “work with them”, and so on. But commitments are shown where the rubber meets the road. And Moscow has thus far been unwilling to grant the most specific, obvious, elephant-in-the-room way that they could cut other sessions some slack: by simply saying that men should submit to their elders on such a paltry issue as masks. This, after all, is what our Lord commands explicitly in Scripture. And it’s a fundamental principle of exegesis that we allow the explicit to control and delimit the implicit. Is Moscow really going to let their positions on the Constitution, masks, the limits of mask mandate authority, and so on—all of which are not addressed directly in Scripture—trump the simple, clear statement that Scripture does make?
Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you (Heb. 13:7).
From their many posts, it’s clear that Moscow is concerned about the long view of history. Pastor Wilson has said he thinks “the judgment of history will be severe” because of the manufactured panic. Time will tell, and truth will out. But God is the keeper of history, and so in the meantime we have a responsibility to preserve the unity of the flock both great and small, near and far. And in that effort, no action could avail more than for Moscow simply to dial back their rhetoric, retract the inflammatory statements they’ve made, and admit straightforwardly the damage of their words. Such actions would, in fact, be no impediment to history’s view of them. Indeed, if the pandemic turns out to be a tempest in a teapot, a tempered Moscow will be vindicated and seen as magnanimous; if it turns out to be severe, Moscow will be credited for giving due concern at the beginning, and for then being tender to rebuke by brothers in arms, in the midst of a difficult situation. By such an admission, there’s no circumstance where credibility is lost, and many ways in which it’s gained.
But more than the judgment of history, we face the judgment of our Lord. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, may we not be said to have divided the flock capriciously. May the quality of our words be seen by the fruit of actions that come therefrom. And may the strengthening work of Moscow on so many things not be undone by commitments that cause the sheep to despise the rulers of their nation, states, counties, and most especially, churches.