This is a piece I’ve been working on that relates 1 Corinthians 10 to believers today and the issue of abortion tainted vaccines. (I’ve left it without footnotes for the time being but can add them in if it’s helpful). Please do offer critique if you feel there’s a problem with the argument.
For good or for ill, Covid has brought the subject of vaccine ethics to the fore. The ethics of both the production of and the encouragement/mandate to participate in vaccines have been explored by many Christians in recent months. While numerous articles have been written on the subject of vaccine ethics, and a few have focused on the relationship of vaccines to ethically questionable research, virtually no one has produced an exegetical (rather than ethical/philosophical) argument that addresses the subject of the relationship between aborted babies and vaccine research. I think there may be something of a solution to this issue in the Apostle Paul’s discussion on immorality and idolatry in 1 Corinthians 6-10.
Before I get to that, I want to draw the lie of the land. I’m assuming a Christian audience in this discussion. Sadly doing so doesn’t necessarily simplify the discussion. On the one hand, you have Christians who unthinkingly assume the benefit of all modern medicine without any concern for the ethical issues involved. This would include much of contemporary evangelicalism, the sort that’s never considered that chemical contraceptives can often be functionally abortifacient. This sort of Christian is often very defensive when medical ethics is brought up, and the conversation is usually shut down. On the other hand, you have Christians who have been duped by the anti-vax community. There are many variables that usually go into this sort of person’s mindset, but again, the conversation is usually shut down fairly quickly (and often by some intellectually questionable point).
I’m writing for those who affirm the value in 20th and 21st century medicine without assuming it’s all industrial and collusion with Big Pharma. But I’m also writing for those who want to take medical ethics seriously. Christ’s lordship in all of life means we must consider the ramifications of all our actions, no matter how seemingly insignificant they may be.
I’m also writing for those in the church who are not blessed with the luxury of time for study and research. Full-time pastors are given a remarkable gift in having what Richard Baxter called “a perpetual Sabbath.” While it is good and right for pastors to devote themselves to study of ethical questions, we must also remember that many of those who make up the congregations of ordinary churches do not have the same time, training, or ability to study the intricacies of ethical dilemmas. For many Christians, simply attempting to follow the moral demands of the 10 Commandments is a worthy enough goal. I’m writing for a mother with small children who is concerned about how to care well for her children while also participating in the life of the church. I’m writing for a father who works an exhausting manual trade, a father who tries to be faithful in reading the Bible with his family but has little time at the end of the day for the study of complex issues, many of which he is not able to adequately explore before coming up with a solution. I am writing for Christians who are wondering whether their ethical concerns over the vaccines are enough to warrant them losing their jobs over it. I am writing to protect God’s tender sheep from the demands of moral absolutists whose goals may be admirable, but who risk running afoul of Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, that “they tie heavy burdens on the people which they themselves aren’t willing to lift a finger to help carry.”
So, to the topic at hand.
Vaccines are unquestionably behind the significant decrease in infant mortality in the modern world, at least in part. The proliferation of vaccines has all but eliminated certain diseases from the western world. This is something for which we can and should give thanks to God. But what are we to do with the news that much modern and potentially historical work over the past couple generations has been done over the bodies of murdered children?
Recent exposure to the involvement of groups like Planned Parenthood in the medical research community (in the US specifically) and the sheer numbers of those killed by various forms of abortion throughout the western world have shown us that our medical treatment systems and our medical research establishments are rather less ethically pristine than we would have liked to think. It has been capably shown that vaccine research has more than an initial or cursory reliance on the bodies of aborted children, and at multiple points throughout the research process (though this link may not be an issue regarding the specific strain that was used to produce some of the Covid vaccines).
1 Corinthians 10 and the subject of food offered to idols may provide something of a solution.
What does the subject of meat offered to idols in first century Corinth have to do with present-day vaccines? The Corinthian meat markets were closely related to the idolatrous temple system. While that temple system itself may not have had a direct formal link with the Corinthian sex industry, prostitution was a well-known and frequently advertised part of the idol feasts that followed on from the sacrifices made at the pagan temples. At the very least, as one first century Roman writer comments, temple worship and prostitution were closely connected. That prostitution involved, as every sex industry does: illicit sex, rape, abuse, child molestation, slavery, and murder (either through abortion or the exposure of infants). And whether or not each act of sexual immorality was connected with pagan worship or each act of pagan worship was connected with sexual immorality, as is nearly always the case in scripture, idolatry and sexual immorality are inseparably related. The meat sold in the meat markets in Corinth was at the very least tainted with the stain of the sex trade, simply by virtue of its association with the temple system. Thus those eating meat from the meat markets were eating meat that flowed downstream from this relationship between idolatry and immorality. Yet in 1 Corinthians, despite this troubling origin of market meat, and despite marking out this symbiotic relationship between immorality and idolatry, Paul does not forbid the eating of such meat. In fact, he permits and even encourages it because of his higher goal of seeking the good of others. My question is if this principle of seeking the good of others may also apply to the topic of vaccines.
The apostle’s argument here flows from his treatments of a variety of issues in the preceding chapters. In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul gives an extended discussion of sexual immorality in general and prostitution in particular. 1 Corinthians 8 opens the discussion of food offered to idols. Paul addresses the subject of personal rights and how or even whether one should make use of them in 1 Corinthians 9. Then we come to 1 Corinthians 10. Paul argues that to participate directly in either immorality or idolatry is clearly forbidden for the Christian (10.6-10, 14-22). Even the appearance of participating in such is forbidden (10.27-30). Yet the eating of that meat is not forbidden; in fact, it is actually encouraged (10.25-26). Above all, the twin focus on the good of others and the pursuit of God’s glory is to determine our actions (10.23-31).
In the flow of Paul’s thought there are two goals for believers: first, the ultimate goal in life is to do whatever one does to God’s glory; second, the immediate goal in life is to seek the good of others as a result of doing everything to God’s glory. Paul assumes that eating meat is a good and desirable thing. One could even make an argument that meat is necessary to feed one’s family. Thus we should see the eating of meat and taking a vaccine as analogous in their relationship to each other. Each is, in itself, something at the very least morally neutral or even morally commendable. With meat sacrificed to idols as with present day vaccines, there are ethical questions surrounding the origin and production of these necessities. Meat in Corinth was connected to an idolatrous, immoral, and violent religious system, as are vaccines in the present day. Yet the apostle requires neither moral purity of these necessities nor complete certainty of the circumstances surrounding these necessities. It is not that moral purity or ethical certainty are unimportant; it is that in this issue they are secondary. Were Paul addressing idolatry or immorality directly, as he does throughout 1 Corinthians, his teaching would be (and is) more demanding. As he is addressing what is inherently neutral or good itself and flows downstream from this system, he is more permissive.
Critics of this proposal will note that Paul addresses the importance of considering the conscience of others before eating this food. There are two reasons I do not believe this conscience concern applies, and this is true whether in 1 Corinthians 10.23-30 Paul is referring to an unbeliever or a believer raising the issue. First, the other person’s conscience becomes an issue when the relationship between the meat and idolatry is raised at a feast with the believer. If the person raising the question is an unbeliever, this is akin to the unbeliever celebrating (or, charitably, try to prevent the defilement of a believer’s conscience) the fact the food was indeed offered to idols rather than revealing that the food was, at the very least, likely to have been offered to idols. If the person raising the issue is a believer, it is raised so that the person being addressed is warned against similarly celebrating as the unbelievers do. Again, it is more a concern about celebrating than revealing. Everyone knew that the food was likely offered to idols already. The problem is that the unbelievers present are still participating (albeit indirectly) in the idol sacrifice through their subsequent meal. Whereas the believer is (divinely) allowed to draw a distinction between the sacrifice to the idol and the later eating of the meat, the unbeliever (or perhaps a believer) in Paul’s example is collapsing that distinction, thus posing a problem for the relationship between one who rejoices that the meat was sacrificed to an idol and one who denies the legitimate existence of the idol. The second reason I do not believe the concern of conscience is legitimate to raise in this issue is that the issue is raised, in Paul’s example, by a specific observation to a specific person. In other words, Paul is not concerned that a general sentiment current among Corinthians en masse that meat in the markets was indeed offered to idols was enough to disqualify that meat from Christian consumption. What disqualified believers from participating in eating market meat was specific people (potentially either unbelievers or believers at dinner party) bringing this up to specific believers, thus making either offence or idolatrous participation unavoidable for the believer at the dinner party. Again, the problem is not that some people thought the meat was offered in sacrifice to idols. Everyone knew that the food was likely offered to idols, and if they believers didn’t prior to Paul letter they certainly did after. That fact was not disputed. The problem was specific personal relationships making this observation to believers with the result that either participation or offence was inevitable. Abortion and foetal tissue research are certainly celebrated today by some, but it is relatively unusual to find the local physicians who urge vaccination to their patients to do so at the same time as celebrating the link between vaccine research and foetal tissue. If one were to do so, Paul’s injunctions here would perhaps apply. But using the logic of this passage, the mere suspicion of a link or even the potential fact of a generally established link, is not enough to trigger the apostle’s requirement for abstinence.
In light of this evaluation, while it may not be problematic for Christians to refuse certain treatments (in this topic at hand: various Covid vaccines), they are not required to do so under the argument of 1 Corinthians 10. In fact, while they are not required to partake of this vaccine, they are certainly free to do so. In other words, Christians need not feel the pressure to give up education or employment in order to maintain a consistent Christian witness in this issue.
While it is certainly right for Christians to lament the murder of innocents that provides the foetal tissue for vaccine research, and while it is also commendable to participate in moments, petitions, legislation, etc that seek to outlaw such bloodshed, 1 Corinthians 10 provides a means for Christians to receive the vaccines without compunction, provided they do so according to the apostle Paul’s instructions. The meat sold in the markets was clearly downstream from an immoral, idolatrous, and murderous system. Yet the apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, felt no need to issue an absolute condemnation of participating in the benefits to human life that flowed downstream from such a system.
It would be wise for us to consider this restraint ourselves when it comes to the subjects of vaccines. Paul’s instructions here in 1 Corinthians 10 provide a legitimate logic by which believers may participate in vaccines without compunction of conscience, regardless of level of moral certainty they have about the ethical purity of the vaccine in question. This is not to say that believers must participate in vaccines, especially when believers have consciences are bound in this subject. But it is to say there is no divine command that requires their consciences to be bound.
Charles Hodge helpfully summarises the goal of Paul’s argument. We would do well to consider these thoughts in our evaluation of complex ethical dilemmas, especially when we make application to others in light of our evaluations.
‘It is by thus having the desire to promote the glory of God as the governing motive of our lives, that order and harmony are introduced into all our actions. The sun is then the centre of the system. Men of the world have themselves for the end of their actions. Philosophers tell us to make the good of others the end; and thus destroy the sentiment of religion, by merging it into philosophy or benevolence. The Bible tells us to make the glory of God the end. This secures the other ends by making them subordinate, while at the same time it exalts the soul by placing before it an infinite personal object. There is all the difference between making the glory of God (the personal Jehovah) the end of our actions, and the good of the universe, or of being in general, that there is between the love of Christ and the love of an abstract idea. The one is religion, the other morality.’