In 2020 we found ourselves thinking and talking about a variety of things that we hadn’t thought or talked about a great deal in the past:
What is sphere Sovereignty?
Under what conditions may I defy the civil magistrate?
Should I wear a cloth mask?
Am I being groomed for future totalitarian overtures?
I don’t recall any of those things being dealt with in my seminary curriculum and yet I found myself giving pastoral counsel on all of those things over the course of this most unusual year.
I am also just now beginning to field questions from congregants about the various vaccines that will be arriving in my Province early next week. These vaccines have been described as “the light at the end of the tunnel” by the Prime Minister and by General Hillier who is in charge of distribution. However, not everyone is feeling quite so encouraged. According to a recent Pew Research poll 50% of evangelicals are planning not to take the vaccine. The data appears to indicate that 70% of a population needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, thus the matter of vaccination is likely to be a topic of conversation in the culture and in the church in the foreseeable future.
With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to write down the essence of what I plan to say to those calling me for advice and counsel. The first thing I imagine I would advise is this:
Consult your family doctor
I am not a physician and I am not qualified to give medical counsel. Whether or not to take a vaccine is primarily a medical decision and therefore the first thing you should do is consult with your family doctor.
Many of the concerns that people in my church appear to be related to the rapid speed at which these particular vaccines have been developed. Many wonder whether adequate testing has been performed. I recall a similar situation a number of years ago during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009. I had my concerns about the expeditated process then and made a point of asking several questions of my family doctor and the nurse overseeing vaccinations and was reassured by their knowledgeable counsel. They felt confident that, while the process was rushed, the necessary protocols had been observed and the vaccine was likely to be safe and free from harmful side effects or complications. I took their advice, received the vaccine, and have had no cause to regret that decision.
Whether the same may be said for the COVID19 vaccinations, is beyond my scope of expertise. Therefore, my advice to congregants will be to consult with their family physician.
Consider a variety of biblical principles
I will also advise congregants to consider a variety of biblical principles before making a decision on this issue.
Many Christians appear to be leaning on dubious eschatological associations in their initial consideration of this matter. In preparing for the Into The Word podcast series on Revelation a few years ago I read numerous books, commentaries, and articles on apocalyptic literature and in not a single one of those sources did anyone suggest that the mark of the beast was to be understood as some form of a medical vaccine. The best explanation that I discovered for this unusual symbol was given by William Hendriksen. He says:
“In order to understand the expression ‘mark of the beast’ we must remember that not only cattle but slaves also were branded and marked. The mark meant that the slave belonged to his master. … So ‘receiving the mark of the beast’ seems to mean ‘belonging to the beast and worshipping the beast’.”
As to why it goes on the forehead and the hand he says:
“The forehead symbolizes the mind, the thought-life, the philosophy of the person. The right hand indicates his deed, action, trade, industry etc. Therefore receiving the mark of the beast on the forehead or right hand indicates that the person so characterized belongs to the company of those who persecute the Church; and that – either preeminently in what he thinks, says, writes or more emphatically in what he does – this antichristian spirit becomes evident.”
Thus the “mark of the beast” is a symbolic way of referring to actions and beliefs that definitively identify people as having thrown in their lot with the enemies of Christ and is not to be equated with debit cards, tattoos, or vaccines.
More obviously related to the question of whether or not to get the vaccine would be the many biblical injunctions to love our neighbour as ourselves. The Apostle Paul said, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10 ESV).
As Christians we should strive not to be known as the people whose refusal to take a vaccine (should our family doctors recommend that we do so) delayed our progress as a society against this virus. If our family doctor advises us to take the vaccine there is no compelling biblical reason for us not to and a great number of obvious biblical principles suggesting that we should.
Safeguard your credibility and witness
As Christians we are under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and subject to his Word and authority. The Word of God, not the whims of culture, must be our map and measure. And yet, the Scriptures to which we are bound commend an awareness of what is respected and valued by our friends and neighbours. The Apostle Paul in Romans 12 said:
“take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” (Romans 12:17 NRSV)
I would remind any congregant asking me for pastoral counsel that there will be a world to reach on the other side of this pandemic. There will be friends, neighbors, and loved ones to evangelize who are all watching us now as we navigate this last stage of COVID19. If they see us caring more about our liberties than their safety, we may have a harder time having Gospel conversations with them going forward. If they see us getting our information from conspiracy news sites on the internet they may be less interested in attending Bible Study with us once this pandemic has finally passed.
We need to take thought NOW for what is noble in the sight of all.
While the decision to take a vaccine, or not, is primarily a medical decision, how you handle that decision and how you communicate that decision will have a missiological impact in the days, weeks, and months that lie ahead.
Beware of potential complications
As a pastor I would never want to “sugar coat” the realities surrounding a difficult decision such as this one related to vaccines. It is possible that there will be unanticipated medical complications related to the COVID19 vaccine – as I imagine your doctor will tell you. It is also possible that there will be unforeseen political and social complications. I’ve already had one congregant ask me about the coming “vaccine passport” that may be used in this Province in 2021. “Will this lead to further government control and surveillance?”
People are sinful and power corrupts. If the government discovers that people are willing to do a great many unpleasant things in the interests of public safety it is possible and perhaps even likely that some people will attempt to exploit that willingness to enact legislation or to take certain measures that will have far-reaching effect on our lives and liberties as citizens.
That is a hazard to be aware of, but it isn’t an argument against taking the vaccine.
Christians can wind themselves up in knots trying to anticipate and predict the plots of wicked people. The Bible warns us against this, “Fret not yourself because of evildoers” (Psalm 37:1 ESV).
There will always be people trying to take advantage of a situation and attempting to manipulate the weak and the vulnerable among us – but their time is short and the Righteous Judge of the Universe sees all. The same Psalm goes on to say:
“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil. For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.” (Psalm 37:8–9 ESV)
Do good (v. 3), don’t be distracted, don’t be enraged, trust in the Lord, play the long game.
Evil has a way of swallowing its own tail. Don’t let worries about what could be done by wicked actors keep you from doing what you should do as a concerned friend and neighbour.
But do be aware of the hazard.
Respect the decisions and convictions of others
And be sure to respect the decisions and convictions of others. This will have the potential to divide and distract churches.
Let’s work very hard to avoid that.
This is not an article of the Apostles’ Creed. In the same way that I do not believe that the vaccine is the mark of the beast, neither do I believe that not taking the vaccine identifies a person as an unbeliever. Good Christians who love Jesus and read their Bibles will make different decisions about the various COVID19 vaccines over the next 3-6 months.
Prepare yourself for that reality.
Share your thoughts and convictions carefully and in proportion to your influence, authority, and expertise.
Hear other people sharing their thoughts and convictions with respect, attention, and humility.
Within the church be prepared to experience some delays in resuming your personal service if you decide not to take the vaccine. Many churches will no doubt require volunteers working with children or seniors to show proof of vaccination before returning to their duties. This is not discrimination, this is merely the reality of making hard decisions, in difficult times with finite information and understanding.
Be gracious to your leaders, considerate toward your fellow members, and mindful of your neighbours watching on.
This too shall pass.
Joy comes in the morning – and the fields remain white unto harvest.
Even still, come Lord Jesus!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here.
 William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 150.
 William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 150.