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Joel BelzVoices Joel Belz


Masks help stop the spread, but they hinder the Church

If I’ve asked just a dozen people, I must have asked 100. What’s the worst part about this pandemic? If you could change just one thing about this miserable year-old plague, what would it be? The overwhelming winner is: the masks! 

In this marvelous high-tech age, where we call on a little device no bigger than a box of crayons to do just about anything we ask, are we really reduced to balancing a scrap of fabric across the lower half of our faces in the hope of staving off what we’re told is the most threatening health evil of our lifetime? 

We can do better.

Let me be emphatically clear. I do not believe, and I am not suggesting here, that the masks now covering 90 percent of all Americans’ faces are the result of some vast conspiracy designed to show how subservient we are. My sense is more that some top experts in medicine, science, academia, and politics—when confronted with a genuinely baffling threat to public health—stumbled across one tool that offered potential help. And that one tool also just happened to carry with it some symbolism that should serve as a warning to many people.

The Church has already taken an incredible hit in terms of lost opportunity.

Practicing Christians should pay attention. Intentional or otherwise, the wholesale masking of a population has produced a profoundly negative effect on at least three behaviors central to Biblical living: Christians should gather often and committedly. Christians should share the sacraments when they gather. And Christians should sing when they gather!

I am astonished that a number of WORLD readers are reporting to me that it has now been a year—and more—since the churches of which they are members have welcomed them to these practices. It hardly ­matters whether some evil force intended all this for ill. God ordained these practices—and intended them for our nourishment in all kinds of ways. When we begin paying more attention to the demands of civil authorities than we do to God’s gentle commands, why should we expect happy results?

There’s also the practical side of things. Kindergarten teachers everywhere, for example, report how hard it is to build interpersonal relationships with no more than half a face to share with a 5-year-old in his or her first year of school. 

On the other hand, tending the needs of the elderly may be even more challenging. I heard last week from one of my college roommates, now retired in an assisted living center where he also serves as a chaplain to his fellow residents. “The regular Bible study in ‘Personal Care’ has been canceled,” he wrote, “due to COVID. And attendance in the public services is limited to a pianist and the person handling the TV in-house broadcast. COVID has seriously affected pastoral ministries in ‘Skilled Care’ and ‘Memory Support.’ A visit requires gowning, gloving, masking, and shielding. It is most difficult for the person I visit to recognize me. And trying to hear me clearly behind masks and shield is a struggle for them. For me, with glasses fogged, reading Scripture is greatly hampered.”

Imagine, if you will, what your response might have been if you’d been told the preceding paragraph came from a Muslim nation, where it was commonplace for a regulatory government to make life difficult for Christians. In such a case, I think many of us would scurry to our prayer closets to seek relief for our beleaguered brothers and sisters.

I remind you that I’ve seen no evidence that the “mask movement” has sinister motives and roots. Good, smart, and qualified people are endorsers of the effectiveness of masks to help slow down this dreadful plague. And yes, millions of people around the world regularly wear masks not to protect themselves but unselfishly to protect others in their homes, schools, workplaces, churches, and other settings. And yes, I personally wear a mask nearly all the time I’m supposed to.

But this mask issue’s not a petty matter of fretting and worrying about some possible future consequence. The Church has already taken an incredible hit in terms of lost opportunity to offer ministry and personal care. Those masks have covered up much more than people’s faces.


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  • SonoitaMike
    Posted: Thu, 02/11/2021 10:04 pm

    Good thoughts. If makes worked like they purpose then I have a couple questions: 1) Why the big spike when the majority off people are wearing then, 2) Why so many of the people I know that are avid mask wearers have gotten the illness?

    I wear a face shield in public and believe it's better because it keeps my hands off my face. I think it's through the hands that the virus is being spread just like all the other viruses we have had in the past.


    Posted: Fri, 02/12/2021 11:25 am

    I'm grateful that we've been able to go back to worshiping together during a pandemic because of masks and other mitigation measures that reduce the risk. So far, by God's grace, our church has avoided an outbreak.

    I think if a small thing like a mask can offer a level of protection to ourselves and others, it is a blessing from above, not a curse. I'm reminded of Naaman, who was willing to do the heroic and praiseworthy things to heal his leprosy, but not willing to do the simple and humbling things. To me, wearing a mask is a simple thing I can do to get through this and help others get through it, and I'll wear it as an act of respect to others and gratitude to God.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 02/12/2021 01:32 pm

    The funny thing about masks is people have made them a much bigger factor than they need to be. I sing all the time at church with a mask on. My son attends school with a mask on in class, and off in open air. He looks cute in it! The eyes are the window to the soul. How do we tell a fake smile? Look at the eyes!

    Sometimes I wonder whether God is telling us that he is tired of hearing empty words of "praise." I believe that God will allow us to remove our masks after we start worshiping him in spirit and truth.

  • Nanamiro
    Posted: Mon, 02/15/2021 08:43 pm

    The mask obsession continues to perplex me. In Oregon, our infection rate never went down after our July 1st mask mandate. I have yet to hear any statistic telling how effective masks are in slowing the spread. We're are constantly told masking DOES slow the spread, but with no concrete evidence or numbers.

    Many think masks are no big deal and they don't mind wearing them. Many people think they are a big deal and hate wearing them. When I see the population masked, they just look like apes walking around, expressionless and faceless. This is enough reason for me to think we should limit masking to only certain situations. My homebound, 91 year-old grandpa hates them. He can't see people's faces when he goes out and struggles to communicate with others because of them. I fear for young childen who, for 7+ months now, never see a stranger's smile or facial expression (and if they are in daycare or school, most of the last 7 months they have experienced this. This seem unethical to me). 

    I've been going to a church now for 6 months that doesn't require masks. We sing, we smile, we talk. No infections have been connected to our church thus far. And it's such a relief to be somewhere and hour and a half a week where there is no fear or paranoia.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Thu, 02/18/2021 01:01 pm

    Joel, for the sake of clarity, what do you propose that we do? Are you suggesting not wearing masks and figuring that Romans 13:1-7 and I Peter 2:13-15 don't apply to us?

    I agree that it's impossible to participate in the Lord's Supper with masks on all the time. And, I think we obey God there. I don't see where we have a scriptural override more generally, however.

    The church has, as you say, taken a hit, but I'm not certain the fix lies in taking off the masks.

    We make unrealistic demands for safety from our government (and Christians do this, too) and then complain when the government "solutions" impinge on our freedoms. It's a difficult place to be in. I suspect we fear death way more than generations that have preceded us, and we are reaping some of the consequences of that fear.

  • DCal3000
    Posted: Thu, 02/18/2021 03:43 pm

    Thank you, Joel Belz! This is an excellent column.  And it hits on what I believe was a great error many Christians made about mask and lock-down debates.  Many people believe anti-COVID regulations are a conspiracy to target Christians, and many other people, especially pastors, have quite understandably done what they can to downplay those fears.  But in so doing, both sides missed what is really going on - our culture sees our churches as largely irrelevant.  Our churches don't drive the economy, they are peripheral components of partisan politics, they appear, in essence, superfluous - an unnecessary risk when disease is spreading.  So, prior to some major court cases, many political leaders failed to make many special allowances for our religious practices.  The challenge for us, as Christians, is to remember that our churches have a certain level of divinely-ordained authority quite apart from government.  Depending on what God's Word directs, we can comply with lockdowns and masks (I, personally, comply) or oppose them, but either way, we should do so as members of an institution (the church, visible and invisible) that is not strictly political in and of itself but is also not merely a servant of the state.  I am concerned that during this COVID crisis, as we have quibbled about the existence or non-existence of conspiracies, we (myself included) have failed to convey to the world around us that our churches are authoritative institutions, that we believe our church practices are important, and that some of those practices are at times worth risking our lives for, though not unnecessarily.   

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Sat, 02/20/2021 05:22 am

    Joel you are so right! The Church "of the living God the pillar and  the ground of the truth" has lost its bearings. We have abandoned our compass, our focus and our mandate. This didn't start with COVID19. But this virus has served to shine the light on the lines of division between the Church of Jesus Christ and the world. Not to forget the division in the church itself! And we have failed. This is a clarion call, is it not? We must do something about it.

    I did read this morning about pastor James Coates in Alberta, Canada who is in jail defying the authorities who require him, and his church, to submit to a 15% limitation on attendees at services. I'm sure he is doing this at great personal expense and inconvenience if not harm. One could debate all sorts of issues from this but my point is that here is a pastor who is willing to stand up for the Church of the risen Christ. According to what I read, "He said when governments fail to follow God’s plan, churches have a duty to challenge and push them back onto the proper path. 'We must call government to its God-ordained duty,' Coates told the congregation."

    Regarding masks, my take is that they are the #1 issue for many because masks are a very visible public and ubiquitous symbol of  extreme governmental overreach. Despite what many might think that mask mandates are a reasonable option proposed by reasoned and wise academics they all too often come across as hapless, politicized hacks who are subject to unclear whims and political currents, not science. So there are good  reasons to dispute their  claims. Nevertheless masks might be seen as the lightning rod of social discourse as are vaccinations now. I don't want to belabor this since both sides have received more than their due consideration already.

    We need to step back and rethink personally and as the Body of Christ what should our priorities be and how then should we live.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 02/19/2021 07:44 pm

    Disagree with the government requiring masks if you like, but please do consider wearing one willingly for the sake of your brothers and sisters in Christ who will not be able to fellowship with you in good conscience otherwise. For me, this has been the hardest part of the pandemic--having to say no to so many chances to spend time with people because the others are not interested in wearing masks or any sort of distancing.