The church largely failed to defend conscience when it came under attack during Covid. Christians must learn from this mistake if we are to have a voice on future conscience issues.
Christians are called to be salt and light wherever God puts us. In the post-Christian West, our challenge is to fulfil this calling in a culture that is quickly drifting away from its Christian moorings.
How is the Western church doing in the face of such an enormous challenge? To help us answer this question, let’s briefly consider a hypothetical scenario. Ask yourself how you — and the Christian leaders, pastors and friends that you look up to — might respond to the scenario below.
A Conscience Hypothetical
Imagine it’s 2019. Australian governments announce that they are mandating an injection for the entire population. Many refuse to take it and lose their jobs. Hundreds of thousands march in the streets in protest.
Churches are forced to close for months on end. Pastors are given limits on how many can attend, what must be worn in services, and whether or not singing is allowed. Shops, restaurants and all community venues are required to track everyone’s movements and report this to the government.
Those who ask questions are called troublemakers. Many find their posts being censored on social media. The press not only fails to challenge what is happening, but even cheers it on.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Unfortunately, we don’t need to ask how Christians would respond to this scenario because we already have the answer. Yes, we can offer a defence for every decision that has been made over the last two years. But what has happened has happened — including how the church responded to it.
I believe we as Christians have a lot to learn from our response to Covid. If we learn and grow, we will be better placed to navigate our way through the cultural challenges that lie ahead.
One of the reasons for the church’s lack of good leadership during Covid is that we have forgotten the value of conscience. Though it has come under immense attack during the last two years, conscience is desperately important. It is a uniquely Western value — something we discovered, developed and valued beyond any other civilisation.
Many governments around the world today force their citizens to think, say and believe certain things. For most of history, rulers have made their people do what they’re told — whether on religious matters, lifestyle choices or politics.
But the West carved a different path. In the Reformation, we rediscovered this idea that every individual is made in the image of God, and that each of us can know God directly without the help of popes and priests.
From Scripture, the Reformers and others since taught that every corner of our life belongs to God and must be offered in worship to him. “Over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself,” Martin Luther resolutely declared.
In other words, all of our choices — even the mundane ones — are either an act of obedience or rebellion against the kingship of Jesus Christ. And if we are forced against our conscience to act from a place of doubt, we sin (Romans 14:23).
This is why the conscience shouldn’t be compelled. Our Christian legacy is why the West protects conscience. As Christians, we should still lead the way in defending freedom of conscience.
Conscience and Covid-19 Vaccines
Last year, out of left field, we got hit with vaccine mandates. Of course, we have always debated the limits on freedom of conscience: it is rarely a black and white issue. But within my lifetime, I can’t think of a greater attack on the conscience than being forced to choose between our bodily autonomy and other freedoms that we’d been deprived of for over a year.
Sadly, the response of too many Christians was to simply do what the TV told them to. We Christianised it. We said that taking the vaccine means “loving your neighbour”, even if you have to ignore your conscience to do it.
Somehow, we forgot Romans 14, which says that anything that God has not commanded must be regarded as a conscience issue — and people must be given freedom.
It would be difficult to find a better example of a conscience issue than Covid vaccines. God doesn’t command us to take them, so Scripture says it’s up to the individual to discern the ethics and the wisdom of taking it. It’s not my place to judge you for your choice, and I must not bind your conscience with my own convictions.
A Covid Hypothetical
Imagine for a moment that Covid-19 was far more deadly than it is. And imagine that the vaccines weren’t just provisionally approved, but all the research was complete. Imagine they were 100% effective at stopping infection and transmission. They were as safe and effective as vaccines could be, with lifelong immunity and basically no risk.
Even if all of that were true — and the vaccines on offer were “science incarnate” and God’s gift to mankind — even then, as followers of Jesus, we should still defend conscience. We shouldn’t be okay with the State forcing people to give up their medical autonomy just to buy food for their kids.
Of course, if a vaccine was perfectly safe and lifesaving, we would encourage, incentivise, and even plead with people to take it. (And to be honest, if a virus was that deadly and a vaccine that good, just about everyone would take it voluntarily).
Nevertheless, if Romans 14 means anything, even in that best case scenario, we should still stand against government coercion for the sake of those who Paul calls “weak in faith” (Romans 14:1).
If that would be true of a perfect vaccine, how much moreso in our current situation?
The vaccines on offer were developed at record speed, many using new technology, and clinical trials on them are not yet complete. We now know that there are significant side effects, even if they are rare. These vaccines don’t meaningfully impact infection or transmission, and we still have no idea how many doses governments will require for someone to stay “up-to-date”.
Complex Issues Ahead
Whether or not the government should coerce us to take a Covid vaccine has never been a scientific question. It has always been an ethical one. As Christians, that’s our domain. Even more than this, it’s a spiritual question. “You were bought with a price,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:23. “Do not become bondservants of men.”
As Christians, we must be clear on this if we are going to have credibility speaking on the next conscience issue. And it’s safe to say that we’ll be confronted with even more complex issues soon — whether digital ID, central bank digital currencies, transhumanism or the Great Reset.
There are many things about Covid that remain contentious and may only be fully known in time. We don’t know what the newspapers will concede tomorrow, or how far governments will soon distance themselves from Covid policies that were once celebrated.
Whatever happens, God has called us to be faithful witnesses of the gospel in how we respond. Let us not be tossed about by the winds of public opinion but instead, be guided by the wisdom of his Word and the power of His Spirit.
Then we will be ready to defend conscience the next time it comes under attack.