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Face Masks and the 5th Commandment by Pr. Kyle Verage

Note: The following post/article was written by Pr. Kyle Verage of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church--Pleasant Prairie. He originally shared it with some of the circuit brothers back in September, and it continues to be an important topic for pastors to consider concerning how they shepherd souls. We encourage you to take some time to consider the issue of "loving your neighbor" as it applies to masks with the aid of this well thought out paper.

Face Masks and the 5th Commandment

Governor Evers’ mask mandate has stirred-up not a little controversy. With this paper I do not seek to address all aspects of the controversy (the legality of the mandate, the reasonableness of the mandate, the effectiveness of masks, etc.). Rather, I aim simply to answer this question: does the 5th Commandment require us to wear masks?

“We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”[1] No one would question the physical need of the neighbor who is half-dead on the side of the road. Absolutely, in clear cases of physical need, Christians jump to their neighbor’s aid. Out of love, Christians even seek out ways to curb and prevent the physical harm of their neighbor. Christians gladly obey traffic laws, respect building codes, respect and support law enforcement, etc. Where the physical well-being of the neighbor is obvious, so is preserving that well-being.

Coronavirus is a complex issue. The well-being of the neighbor amidst threat of coronavirus is obvious in some cases, but not so obvious in others. To help explain this, I offer the data below from the CDC and MacIver Institute. I focus on C-19 numbers here in Wisconsin.

(a) Asymptomatic Cases – Many positive coronavirus cases are asymptomatic (around 40% according to the CDC).[2] Many people do not even show signs of the disease.

(b) Recovering Symptomatic Cases – The vast majority of symptomatic cases recover. Most cases pass with mild to severe cold or flu symptoms. Some, yes, even require hospitalization. But most recover. Just look at the startling difference between deaths/cases in Wisconsin (1,168/81,760 as of 9/7/20; a 98.6% recovery rate).[3]

(c) Fatal Cases – In relatively rare and specific cases, the virus is deadly. Of the 32,620 natural deaths in Wisconsin from 1/1/20 to 8/22/20, only 1,081 were due to COVID-19 (3.3%).[4] Interestingly, the note at the bottom of the MacIver Table reads, “The WI DHS confirmed that 1% of all people who died of COVID-19 in WI had no other known conditions or illness (comorbidities).” Finally, of the above coronavirus deaths, 72% of them were over the age of 70.[5]

The takeaway here is that coronavirus represents a mild threat, not to the average Wisconsinite, but particularly to the immune-compromised, comorbid, and/or 70+ Wisconsinite. I say mild threat because Wisconsinites are far more likely to die from heart disease or cancer[6] (especially those 65 and older).[7]

So going back to our original question: does the 5th Commandment require us to wear masks? Assuming the effectiveness of masks,[8] at best I think we can answer: the 5th Commandment requires us to wear masks around a very particular neighbor. To the average Wisconsinite, coronavirus represents a miniscule threat – as threatening as driving a car or flying on a plane. Again, it is a very specific segment of our society that is affected by COVID-19. Therefore, yes, in Christian love, in obedience to the 5th Commandment, face masks can and should be worn when visiting the elderly (particularly in assisted living centers and nursing homes), with those who are immune-compromised, and those with severe underlying health conditions. Private businesses can even accommodate such people, offering special seating, venues, shopping times, etc. Churches can do the same, offering “high risk” services at church or private visits in the home.

But to make face masks binding on all people at all times in every place (particularly during the church’s Divine Service) – that is going too far. While the 5th Commandment binds us to masks in some cases (as stated above), it actually forbids them in others. The 5th Commandment compels the Christian to consider the potential negative effects of face masks – effects on the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs of the neighbor. Some people cannot wear face masks for health reasons. Some might even have a legitimate fear of people in face masks.[9] Others use the ubiquity of face masks for wicked gain.[10] Meanwhile, the very human, God-given need for genuine social interaction[11] suffers where face masks and social-distancing are rigidly observed. The coronavirus situation has markedly increased anxiety and depression in our country.[12] Certainly, the lockdown was the major culprit here, but no doubt, the daily reminder of “fatal danger” through ever present facemasks and required social distancing contribute to that anxiety.

And regarding the spiritual needs of the neighbor, for those who are low-risk (and even those who are high-risk)[13] face masks have negative spiritual consequences. While anyone can see that face masks are an unwelcome distraction in worship – hearers adjusting/fighting/focusing-on their facemasks instead of the Word of God – the spiritual fallout is even greater and deeper. I would argue that face masks in the Divine Service are a small concession to fear, a subtle denial of God’s Means of Grace. Are not face masks and social-distancing in some measure an attack on the preached Word and the corporately administered Sacraments? Does the Church not lose something when her confession is muffled (literally or symbolically) by a mask? The Word is preached from a real, live preacher to real, live hearers with faces and voices that react to that Word. In Baptism, the pastor brings the baptized close, pours water and Word on their exposed heads, imposes the holy cross on their forehead and heart, and transfers the prayer of our Lord to them. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus unites Himself to His people bodily, coming to them through bread and wine delivered into their mouths, yes, from a pastor’s hand. And all this in an intentionally communal setting! Christians gladly share with their fellow brothers and sisters – their goods and possessions, their joys, and even their sorrows and misfortunes (and dare I say it, maybe even their germs!). My point is that there is a spiritual cost to wearing masks – a cost which affects the spiritual wellbeing of our neighbor. Face masks are a subtle attack on the fortress of faith – of course, not a battering ram at the gate, but instead, a little poison slipped into the common well, weakening the defenders.

In any regard, the 5th Commandment binds the Christian to love and serve the neighbor. What I have tried to show is that that love and service to the neighbor amidst coronavirus is not always uniform. Christians must employ their God-given reason in navigating these complex issues, recognizing that the 5th Commandment means face masks in certain situations, but it does not in others. There are legitimate reasons why Christians cannot or ought not wear masks.

Pastor Kyle Verage

September, 2020

[1] SC: 5th Commandment [2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020, August 31). [3] Ibid. [4] MacIver Institute. (2020, September 1). [5] Ibid. [6] Ibid. [7] The WI DHS reports, “In 2017, heart disease was the second leading cause of death overall, and the leading cause among the population aged 65 and older [83.6%],” and “Cancer mortality rates were highest among those 65 and older, constituting 74 percent of all cancer deaths in 2017” [WI Department of Health Services. (2020, September 1). and] [8] The effectiveness of masks in curbing the spread of the virus is dubious, according to the British Medical Journal [(2020, September 2). and Conservative Review [(2020, September 2).] [9] This article tells of a sexual-assault survivor reliving her tragedy just at the sight of others wearing masks [Adam Rogan. (2020, August 9).] [10] A bank robber in Union Grove, WI, worked under the cover of a medical mask [Journal Times. (2020, September 4).] [11] Genesis 2:18 “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” [12] Depression rates are triple that of pre-Covid-19. See WebMD. (2020, September 4). [13] The physical need of the high-at-risk will often trump their spiritual need (i.e. they will wear masks and ask others to do the same, whilst social distancing or avoiding God’s house altogether), but nonetheless, there is a spiritual cost for doing so: they lose out on corporate worship, the mutual consolation of the brethren, HUGS!

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1 Comment

Feb 19, 2021

Thank you for a wonderful article Pastor Verage. You brought love for the neighbor out of the abstract and into the concrete by removing absolutist assumptions (i.e. If you loved your neighbor you would wear a mask). It was a fine treatment of a 5th commandment application.

Your comment that masks should be worn for a specific neighbor assuming their effectiveness is spot on. There is ample evidence that while masks can stop larger droplets from sneezing or coughing, virus particles are anywhere from 200-1000 smaller than a mask can stop. As multiple doctors have said, "it's like trying to stop mosquitos with a chain link fence."

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