Today the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19. In the lead-up to that news, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said such an approval will likely increase vaccine requirements – especially in places of business and educational institutions. Not unexpectedly, the societal discussion around this topic has been extremely contentious, and there are sincerely held and well-informed opinions on both ends of the spectrum about whether or not to get the COVID-19 vaccination.
That discussion may take a new turn if policies begin rendering the vaccine mandatory. In arguing the Bill of Rights before the first session of Congress, James Madison asserted that the "rights of conscience" is something for which "the people in America are most alarmed." What was civilly true of our founding has, for a long time, been religiously true too. The Protestant and Presbyterian tradition to which I belong has valued the liberty of conscience both in society and within the church. We value this because it is an important and distinct teaching of the Holy Scriptures (see Liberty of Conscience: The History of a Puritan Idea by L. John Van Til). As citizens of this nation, and more importantly as Christians many will need to determine in the days ahead whether they will get the vaccine if business or institutions make than mandatory. As we do, we must leave room for disagreement and in the spirit of Christian charity, we must be content to let others act according to their own conscience as we all seek to inform and be informed.
Recently, Pastor Brant Bosserman – a pastor in the PCA, adjunct professor of philosophy at Northwest University, and a guest contributor to Gentle Reformation – provided members of his congregation with a letter to employers requesting a religious exemption to possible COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Knowing this may be a scenario many Christians face in coming months, Rev. Dr. Bosserman has made his pastoral letter available to others, to serve as a template on how and why such an exemption can be requested. I offer it here acknowledging that not everyone will agree with the need for such a request, but also recognizing each Christian's right to sincerely hold their religious convictions.
In my capacity as a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), I am writing on behalf of ________________________ to ask that his/her religious exemption from receiving Covid-19 vaccination be honored by your organization.
A concept germane to historic Presbyterian theology, and as codified in our Westminster Standards (1646, American Revision 1788), is that of “Liberty of Conscience.” The Apostle Paul taught that “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23; cf. Rom. 14:1-23; 1 Cor. 8:1-13; James 4:17). This means that if a Christian cannot perform an action with faithful confidence that God would allow it, to so act is to “sin” and to “defile” one’s conscience (1 Cor. 8:6). This doctrine of “Liberty of Conscience” presupposes that Christians may differ significantly in their understanding of how to apply God’s moral law, and that each is bound to act in accordance with his/her understanding of it. Individual Christians, civil leaders, and even clergy must be careful not to exalt their preferred applications of God’s moral law as rules which prohibit, much less contradict others’ convictions. For, as the Westminster Confession declares, “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (20:2). When Christians do succumb to outward pressure to behave contrary to God’s moral law as it is impressed upon their conscience, they “betray” and “destroy” that liberty granted to them by God and violate their covenant with Him (Westminster Confession, 20:2).
Policies rendering Covid-19 vaccination mandatory have the distinct capacity to violate the Christian conscience in a variety of ways. Thus, many Christians must refrain from them, lest they sin.
First, whereas rules prohibiting infected employees from coming to the workplace are welcome, rules requiring employees to disclose their vaccination status and/or to place a foreign drug within their bodies conflict with fundamental human rights to privacy. Thus, even vaccinated Christians may have a conscientious objection to disclosing their status with a view to protecting the liberties of their fellow employees. The Christian whose conscience testifies that vaccination policies deprive co-workers of God-given rights cannot disclose his/her vaccination status without sinning against his/her neighbor and contributing to a hostile work environment.
Second, there is a fundamental moral distinction between harming oneself or one’s neighbor passively or actively. An unvaccinated individual may inadvertently contract Covid-19, as with many viruses. In contrast, the individual who pursues vaccination must be an active participant in placing a foreign substance in his/her body, that has proven harmful and even fatal to some (especially between doses and/or prior to two weeks after the second dose). It is one thing for a healthy person to incur an illness, as divine providence would have it, by no intentional activity of his/her own. It is another thing for a healthy individual to intentionally utilize a drug that has had severe adverse effects in others, and possibly contribute to his/her own harm. For the Christian who views the latter as an especial violation of the 6th commandment—"thou shall not kill”—he/she cannot become vaccinated without sinning.
Third, the long-term effects of all Covid-19 vaccines are unknown. Determination of exactly how unknown future consequences should come to bear on present decisions is a distinct matter of conscience, since there is no hard rule by which the unknown can be weighed. The Christian whose conscience will not allow him/her to risk incurring unknown adverse consequences cannot become vaccinated without sinning.
Fourth, Covid-19 vaccines were tested and developed using fetal cells (or fetal cell lines) taken from elective abortions, as indicated here. As elective abortions are prohibited by the sixth commandment—"thou shall not kill”—Christians have an interest in opposing and refusing to use medical products that encourage and/or validate the murder of the unborn. The Christian whose conscience will not allow him/her to use such medical products cannot become vaccinated without sinning.
As a minister of the Gospel, I do hope and pray that your organization will recognize the legitimate religious exemption _________________ from policies compelling him/her and other employees to receive Covid-19 vaccination.