I’d like to do a little crowdsourcing in this thread, please: if you know of a religious exemption certificate issued by a religious institution (Christian or not), would you please post it here? Thanks!
Destiny Church: Dropbox - OnlineExemptionv2.pdf - Simplify your life
Coloardo Catholic Conference: Template for Religious Exemption from COVID-19 Vaccines
Here is a pile of documents posted by Gabb: IMPORTANT: DOWNLOAD COVID VACCINE RELIGIOUS EXEMPTION DOCUMENTS HERE – Gab News
Was just looking for this (Gab link) to post. Thanks for this thread, too. It reminds me to finish reading some related material that I’ve accumulated but not gone through yet.
Lucas, couple of additions I’ve come across:
Couple of OPC churches where I have friends drafted this lengthy statement:
“That as the physical body of believers is the temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 6:19), and that as Christ is Lord of the body and has redeemed it by his death and resurrection (1 Cor. 6:20), human governments and states do not have legitimate authority to force their citizens to be vaccinated; to mandate vaccinations is a usurpation of authority that God has never given to any state, claims that the state knows what is best in all circumstances for individual citizens, which is a claim of omniscience, and intrudes into the spheres of personal liberty and family authority to make these decisions. Should the United States Government or the Commonwealth of Virginia mandate vaccinations as a condition of travel, education, worship, or work, we shall encourage our members to utilize any and all legal means to resist this overreach of government authority, follow their own consciences on this matter, and uphold the authority of Jesus Christ over our bodies; furthermore, to mandate their usage in light of the unusual number of negative reactions following the implementation and usage of these vaccinations might make the government complicit in violations of the sixth commandment, which is opposed to Romans 13:1-7.”
The discussion over vaccine mandates has been a boon to the exploration of medical science, the meaning of “love thy neighbor,” and the nature of the relationship between church and state. In this post I want to focus on one aspect of this debate that has been touched upon by others, but deserves greater exposition. That topic is Liberty of Conscience.
Westminster Confession chapter 20 paragraph 2 reads:
“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”
This doctrine is at the heart of the Reformation and has now been recentered in the debate over vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and governmental lockdowns. There is a key element, however, that is often neglected in this debate and in the articulation of Westminster’s doctrine on this point. This element is also involved in the debate over the proper interpretation of Romans 13. The passage in Romans dealing with the magistrate has to do with authority and our due submission to it. The key element in the doctrine of liberty of conscience also deals with authority and our due submission to it. This key element is the idea of implicit faith/blind obedience.
Implicit faith was a doctrine of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church which taught that a faithful Catholic will implicitly believe whatever the church taught. To believe something implicitly is to accept whatever is presented as true because of the one presenting it. Good Catholics were taught to accept whatever the Church taught becasue the Church taught it. This was a form of “trust the experts, trust the science.” “Just trust us because we are the religious experts.”
The Confession points out that to give implicit faith to any doctrine of men that is contrary to the Word of God, or beside it (meaning not necessarily contrary but simply beyond the scope of God’s Word; such as whether to buy a Ford or Chevy), is to destroy liberty of conscience and reason also. This is due to the relationship between the conscience and the rational faculty of the human soul. The conscience operates in a rational manner. This means that it draws conclusions from moral premises and either exonerates or condemns the actions of the individual accordingly.
Here’s a simple illustration: Children in the womb are fully human. Therefore it is murder to abort them. Therefore, one who aborts a child in the womb has committed murder. Let’s add a final premise about my own actions. Let’s say I have been an abortion doctor and have performed these operations. With the premises above let’s add, “I have aborted a child in the womb.” What is the rational conclusion? What should the conscience dictate here? I am guilty of murder. This is known as the syllogism of conscience. The key element of this illustration, however, is that the conscience operates in a rational manner. It operates according to premises and reflection upon actions in light of those premises.
How does implicit faith destroy this process of reasoning and liberty of conscience then? To grant implicit faith to a doctrine is to accept it as true upon the mere authority of men and not of God. But, as the Confession teaches, “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” This means that God alone is worthy of implicit faith in whatever he teaches or commands. We obey him without question. Not so the dictates of men. To obey the doctrines or commands of men with an implicit faith or a blind obedience is to confer on those men an authority over our conscience that they have no right to. And this destroys true liberty of conscience and reason also. But how?
Another illustration: let’s say a government orders its citizens to hop on their left foot on Tuesday morning. This command is neither moral nor immoral of itself, but in coming from the government it carries a certain level of authority due to the institution promulgating it. One may choose to obey this for the sake of not wanting the hassle of dealing with the police in this matter and still reserve his rational judgment that this order is silly. But let’s say the government, in its zeal to empower southpaws and bring about a more equitable society where lefties are as valued as righthanded folk, made this command a condition of citizenship. Let’s say they promote and enforce this command as a moral duty of all good citizens. For, we are to love our neighbor, including left handed folks, aren’t we? And let’s say that many of the citizens obey this order out of conscience, implicitly, taking the government’s word that this is a matter of civic duty to our left handed neighbors. What will necessarily happen?
In the soul of the one rendering implicit faith in the government’s left foot mandate, he will have a crisis of conscience. For the command itself is silly on its face. And the rationale for it is specious at best. But, he has given implicit obedience to the government’s command. He will therefore have to either accept the premise of left footed locomotion as true or he will have to cease the ridiculous act of hopping to work on his left foot. Either way his conscience is forced to reconcile what he knows to be true with his actions. Either he will accept the premise as true to maintain the action or he will cease the action since it based on a false premise. If he chooses the former (accepting a false presmie as true for the sake of maintaining a politically correct action) he will have destroyed his reason, and liberty of conscience having sold it to the slavery of an illegitimate authority.
To tie this back to vaccine mandates, for the government to mandate them goes beyond their authority. Further to take the vaccine because the government says to is to submit the conscience to an exercise of authority that does not belong to the government and will destroy reason and true liberty of conscience. Vaccines, in themselves, are neither good nor bad. As a medical procedure they are morally neutral. I am saying nothing about those made with fetal tissue, I am simply speaking of vaccines in the most abstract and neutral form as a tool of medicine. To then mandate a morally neutral act and to engage in that act out of conscience requires the citizens to grant an implicit faith in the government. This is at the heart of what “Trust the experts” means and implies. And this was the heart of the Reformation’s reassertion of the doctrine of liberty of conscience.
The growing premise of vaccine mandates, one that has been in the background since this all began (March 2020, never forget we’ve been at this for 18 months after a lockdown that was supposed to last 2 weeks), is that the only way to beat coronavirus is to take the vaccine. But this is patently false. One may take it if one chooses, that is their right. But it is in the mandating of it that we see the great evil. And you are already seeing the breakdown of reason and true liberty of conscience. Listen to the voices pushing vaccine mandates; behold their irrationality. Look at the growing fear and increasing draconian measures being employed to force compliance with these mandates. Irrationality and tyrannical fear are both signs of a conscience in bondage to guilt.
The only way of escape is through submission to He alone who is the true Lord of the conscience, God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. The government can never free you from the fear of death. But if the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.
I don’t believe this is accurate, and it appears to me that it is the heart of the case being made. It is obvious that there is a third option, which is to keep doing the absurd, without suffering a crisis of conscience.
Can you please explain the difference between this and every man doing what is right in his own eyes?
Can’t I obey a silly command from an authority because God has bound my conscience to obey authorities?
And who died and made me the arbiter of what is silly and what is a necessary component of a smoothly-functioning society?
As Bannerman argues in The Church of Christ (pp. 174-180 in Banner of Truth edition), liberty of conscience is limited by three things: God’s law, the ordinance of civil authority, and the ordinance of ecclesiastical authority. One cannot claim liberty of conscience in order to violate a command of God or a lawful command of either the civil or ecclesiastical authorities. Civil authority is not absolute or unlimited; conscience also is not absolute or unlimited.
So, very simply put, if the civil authority has jurisdiction over the body (this point is being debated in our society) and it makes a lawful command seeking to protect the wellbeing of society, liberty of conscience cannot be claimed as a justification to disobey. Yes, the civil authority must prove the efficacy of what is commanded (they can’t poison her people), but if and when they have done so, “There is a limit affixed to the rights of conscience by the rights of civil society,” Bannerman writes.
From there Bannerman goes on to state that “it may be difficult or impossible, theoretically, to tell precisely where the point is to be fixed at which the magistrate is justified to interfere, and where conscience can no longer plead its right in opposition to the interference. But that there is such a point, few or none will pretend to deny.”
Yet, that is what we all deny today. We’ve all become anabaptists. It needs to be said that liberty of conscience is not unlimited. If it were unlimited, God would not have given the state a sword.
EDIT: Bannerman stole all of his stuff from WCF 20.4.
Is this what we all deny today? You rightly emphasise the limitations of the liberty of conscience. I’ve publicly argued on Sanityville that Christians who don’t want to take covid vaccines should be very cautious (ie: don’t!) about using religious exemption language. But for many Christians, the main concern is not liberty of conscience but the limit of government’s authority…ie, Bannerman’s point that you referenced.
I’ve also used Bannerman over the past year and a half. And in my view, the governments of the US and the UK (those are the ones I’m familiar with) have far exceeded their authority, per Bannerman’s discussion of sphere sovereignty, particularly regarding demands placed on churches. Yes, the civil government has authority to close churches in times of plague, but Covid has been nothing like the plagues of which the Reformed Scholastics or even those of Bannerman’s training where intimately acquainted. Thus…
is definite but also certainly difficult to discern. Especially at an ecclesiastical level. And this ecclesiastical difficulty trickles down to the ethical concerns faced by those who are here asking about vaccine mandates. Those who have been shut out from gathered worship for the greater part of a year are going to find it difficult to submit to what practically amounts to a vaccine mandate. Those who are working to think carefully and biblically about these questions, and who are also deliberately avoiding the ‘defy tyrants’ crowd, deserve our charity and graciousness as we work through very complicated times.
In other words, while I strongly oppose the use of a religious exemption to get out of being vaccinated, I am sympathetic to many of the reasons that lead people in this direction. For many, anabaptist views of the civil authority don’t even begin to come into it.
Setting aside concerns about cell lines derived from elective abortions, I’m coming around to the view that claiming a religious exemption from vaccination is driven more by libertarian/anabaptist thinking than historic Reformed theology. So far as I know, military conscription has never been viewed as unlawful by the latter, and if the civil magistrate can compel a man to take grave risks to his life in defense of the nation, then it seems to be a much smaller matter to be compelled to receive a vaccine for the public health of the nation. And whatever doubts one might have about a vaccine, they are hugely multiplied when it comes to war, but so far as I know, historic Reformed theology never made determination of a justness of a war a matter of private judgment. Certainly the Founders were well-aware of how frequently monarchs would make war for dubious reasons, which is why they gave the authority to declare war to Congress, as the representatives of the people, rather than to the President. But they did not put in the Bill of Rights the right to be free from conscription if an individual decided a war was not good. Note that I am not saying that whatever vaccine or war that the civil magistrate says is good is actually good, but rather that from a historic Reformed perspective, compliance is not a matter for individual judgment. I am also doubtful that churches will be in position to make a valid judgment. The place to exert leverage is via petition of the civil magistrate and election of different magistrates.
Fair enough. I’d still argue that our default position, prior to learning from our confessions and history, is anti-authority. It’s the sea we swim in. To read Bannerman (and the WCF) making an argument that there are limits to conscience feels shocking. It exposes my inner anabaptist…
Precisely, and are anabaptists wrong in their posture? That is where we must put on our thinking caps. Love,
I’ve been paying some attention to this conversation. I strongly agree with Mr. Norris’ analogy between vax mandates and the draft. As a Reformed Christian, I don’t have a principled objection to the government doing either one of those things.
At the same time, I learned yesterday that my church has helped some of our members with vaccine exemption papers. I have no problem with this. Number one, my elders and pastor have the authority to make the decision, not me. I am to submit to their decision. Number two, even if it were up to me, I would favor helping conscientious Covid vaccine objectors in the church, even though I disagree with them on vaccination.
Thanks in part to the influence of Joe Sobran and other good men I’ve known personally, although I admit the government may legally draft men to fight in war, I favor our nation’s historic commitment to allowing conscientious objection. Does that make me Anabaptist?
Trying to help vaccine hesitant church members seems to me to fall under the law of love. I don’t flaunt my meat-eating or beer-drinking before believers with tender consciences. If someone were to ask me about the vaccines, I would try to gently persuade them that the vaccines are safe and they would be better off getting one. But if the other fellow wasn’t persuaded and had a tender conscience, I would be willing to help him duck the requirement.
I don’t think so. There are prudential reasons to allow men out of combat (Deut. 20:5-8). And there have been conscientious objectors who have been awarded the Medal of Honor.
However, I am doubtful that I would approve our Session providing exemption papers since biblically I don’t see how a man can refuse an order of the public health authority. I would need to understand better what drives the tender conscience regarding vaccines. Can you explain it?
In this specific case, the concern of folks is that:
The vaccines are authorized under emergency use, although this is no longer true of the Pfizer vaccine. Much about them is unknown. Is there a precedent for a government compelling vaccination in this kind of a situation? I personally am vaccinated, and the emergency use authorization did not bother me much. As more data comes out about breakthrough infection, I suppose we are learning in real time why the FDA normally takes such a long time to authorize vaccines.
There is doubt of the vaccines’ long term efficacy. If there is reasonable doubt as to whether a vaccine is effective, may a state mandate it?
There is some concern about the use of fetal cell lines in development (I don’t know enough about this subject to offer a judgment on it).
The risks of Covid infection are not uniform. A person could decide that it is not worth it to be vaccinated.
There are other reasons I could list that would traffic in various conspiracy theories floating around social media. I won’t include these for reasons I hope are obvious.
At the moment, Sovereign King Church ( we are a member of Evangel Presbytery) is using the CREC statement, linked by Lucas Weeks above. No Scripture is cited; rather an appeal is made to a person’s personal beliefs about vaccination. Bodily autonomy is referenced. Do we have verses for that? No.
Would any civil authority or private organization look at our exemption and honor it? I know some have chosen to so honor such letters. I look at it as a way to bear with a weaker brother. Like you, however, I can’t justify such an exemption with Bible prooftexts. My case for it is pragmatic and limited to this particular circumstance with these particular vaccines in this particular political envrionment. The Supreme Court’s Jacobson case upholds the right of states to mandate vaccines, but a state must demonstrate the necessity of such a mandate. If the Delta wave crests and subsides, would they have a case? Would they have a case now? I don’t know. But if we provide people with exemption letters, it may trigger a court case that would give us some answers. Again, that’s a pragmatic justification, but it is in line with how our system works. It’s our appeal to Caesar.
It isn’t exactly precedent, but various governments compelled vaccines before there was such a thing as an FDA. According to the article linked below, the first mandatory vaccines were required by Boston in 1809. However, the current mandates aren’t typically coming from governments, but rather from employers or businesses. The distinction matters to me.
I’m not sure that a religious exemption letter that can’t appeal to particular biblical standards is necessary for an appeal. In fact, I know it’s not. It just muddies the waters in some ways. The benefit is that it might *prevent people from needing to fight in court.
This is not Anabaptist thinking; this is libertarian thinking. The reason Anabaptists receive conscientious objector status is because their church teaches that it is a sin to take up arms. It’s not up to the individual member to decide whether or not fighting in a war is sin. Similarly, a church could teach that it is sin to receive a vaccine, and in that case a religious exemption letter would be warranted. But I won’t support our Session issuing vaccine exemption letters because I don’t believe it is sin to receive a vaccine. For a variety of prudential reasons I might think it is better not to compel people to be vaccinated, but I can’t in good conscience make out that our church teaches that receiving a vaccine is sin.
Setting aside the fetal cell line issue, the other concerns you list are all matters for the civil magistrate. Is it lawful to mandate a vaccine authorized for emergency use? Is it lawful to mandate a vaccine of doubtful effectiveness? Is it lawful to mandate a vaccine for someone at little risk from disease? These are all questions to be settled by the secular legal system and out of the purview of a church.
So what is really going on here is that your church is telling the civil magistrate that its religious teaching is that each person is sovereign when it comes to personal beliefs about vaccination and bodily autonomy. I’m glad that your church does not attempt to cite scripture in support for that because I think it would be difficult. If personal beliefs about vaccination are sufficient for a religious exemption, are personal beliefs about taxation or regulatory compliance also sufficient for an exemption, and if not, why not? And it is odd that you mention bodily autonomy because that is the reasoning used to support a woman’s choice to abort her child. How is bodily autonomy with respect to vaccines different from bodily autonomy with respect to abortion? If it is sin to take the life of a child, why is it not also sin to endanger life by refusing a vaccine? And if there really isn’t any consistent principle driving all of this, how is your church not teaching that every man ought to do what is right in his own eyes? I don’t think we are helping the weaker brothers by issuing poorly reasoned religious exemption letters.
Note that I am not arguing in support of vaccine mandates or that individuals should not request exemptions. My concern is that religious exemptions be limited to genuine teaching of the church regarding what is sin to engage in.