How to Debate Vaccines* and Still Come Out a Christian

“Baby’s First Shot” Richard Sargent, The Saturday Evening Post, March 3, 1962

(*or organic food, essential oils, education, health care, immigration, soteriology, eschatology…)

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that there have been several outbreaks of measles across the United States recently. Not surprisingly, this has led to vigorous (if not often, one-dimensional) debate about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccinations. And all I have to say to CNN, FOX, NPR, and every other news outlet that is now covering this story: Y’all are late to the party. We mamas have been debating this for years.

I remember the first time I realized that the questions surrounding vaccines were more than theoretical. I was visiting a friend when she opened her freezer to get some ice. There, sitting next to a chub of frozen hamburger, was a tray of lab vials. When I asked about them, she casually replied, “Oh, those are my kids’ vaccines. I ordered them from XYZ instead of the standard ones. My doctor said he would administer them if I bought them and stored them myself.”

Since then, I’ve watched the vaccine debate play out on blogs, Facebook feeds, and in the corners of church nurseries. And I’ve learned a few things—mostly, that we don’t debate well and that we tend to have an unhealthy relationship with the certainty of our own choices. So in the interest of making the next few weeks easier on all of us, here are some suggestions about how to debate vaccines and still come out a Christian:

1. Realize that we live in a broken world.

One of Christianity’s core tenets is that we live in a world devastated by sin. Not only does this account for the presence of disease, it also means that our ability to combat disease will always be, in someway, inadequate. Learning to navigate the brokenness isn’t simply about having enough footnotes to back up our conclusions; navigating the brokenness requires the wisdom to apply the principles we know, weigh the relevant contingencies, and come to the best possible answer. Even as we accept that we will never arrive at a perfect solution. In a broken world, the questions surrounding vaccines are more an exercise in applied ethics than a simple choice between black and white.

2. Pursue true wisdom.

Very early in the vaccine debate, one side will inevitably wallop the other with “the truth”—whether it is scientific research or a secret government memo. And that’s when the trouble really begins. If we believe that we have a corner on “the truth,” we will also believe that weunderstand things that other people don’t. That we have discernment that others lack. (How sad for them.)

I’ve seen this happen from both sides, but the ironic thing is that this posture is fundamentallyunwise. In fact, Proverbs calls this kind of arrogant certainty by another name: foolishness. True wisdom does not boast about what it knows but humbly listens and learns. In fact, the difference between wise people and foolish people isn’t how much they know. The difference is that wise people know that they don’t know everything while foolish people are convinced they do (Job 12:2).

3. Consider you neighbor’s well-being.

Jesus Christ taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Because of moral proximity, our closest neighbors are those who live within our own homes, and it is our God-given responsibility to care for our children to the best of our ability. But loving our children also means remembering that they are part of a greater family where God is our Father and Christ our older brother (Heb. 2:11). Unfortunately, too many people parent with the aim of preserving their own nuclear families intact. We see our own families as ends in themselves rather than a reflection of a greater family.

Instead of simply weighing my responsibility to my children, I must also weigh the responsibility thatmy children have to their neighbors—both today and tomorrow. My goal is not to give my children the safest possible life but to teach them how to love God and their neighbor as themselves. My goal is to teach them how to live within this larger family and draw their brothers and sisters into deeper fellowship with our Father.

4. Do nothing out of fear.

Whether it is fear of what may happen if you don’t vaccinate or fear of what may happen if you do, many people approach these questions from a posture of fear. This is why reactions become so intense when you offer an alternative perspective. Honestly, these conversations are rarely about the issue itself but about what we are trusting to keep us safe.

But for a Christian, fear is the worst possible motivation to make any decision. We are to be awed by nothing other than God Himself—our loving Father who is sovereign over all. When we stop fearing the wrong things and start fearing Him alone (Prov. 1:7), we’ll be able to engage the questions with power, love, and sound minds (2 Tim. 1:7).

5. Trust God.

So let’s say you do your due diligence. You research every possible scenario. You humbly submit to counsel. You make your decision before God. Guess what? It’s still not going to be enough to protect your child.

One of the hardest lessons of parenthood is learning that you can’t protect your child from suffering;an even harder lesson is learning that your own parenting failures will cause some of that suffering. Just as the world around you is broken, so too, are you. You are sinful and limited. If your parenting philosophy relies on your ability to make the “right” decision, you’re going to end up one massive ball of anxiety or worse, self-righteousness. And in the end, you’ll model a works religion for your children.

It’s been said that what makes us afraid and what we trust in to keep us safe reveals what we worship. In the case of vaccines, a lot of us are trusting ourselves and our own ability to know enough to make the “right” decision. But by its very definition, this approach is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, the gospel calls us to embrace our weakness, to humble ourselves, and to cast ourselves on God’s mercy. Even when it comes to something as prosaic as vaccines and the safety of our children.

Especially when it comes to something as significant as vaccines and the safety of our children.

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There are 24 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


I'm among those who believe there should not be a vaccine controversy... But I appreciate the call here to take a look at the deeper issues that often fuel this--and so many other--contentious debates.

A different--but also thoughtful and helpful take on the vaccine issue: Jesse Johnson's Anti-vaxxers and epistemological narcissism

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

Really, the most compelling argument for vaccine use is that (assuming the vaccine in question works) it reduces the likelihood that a sufferer passes on the disease to others.  It's a simple geometric series; if each sufferer passes the disease on to less than one person, the disease fizzles out.  If he passes it on to more than one, you have an epidemic.

That's "herd immunity" in a nutshell.  Now granted, demonstrating you get a lower # of infections per infected is not easy-peasy, but once you do, you've got a compelling moral argument for taking on some risk in vaccination--and, for that matter, a fairly straightforward way of quantifying the relative risks.

Not easy, again, but straightforward, and a great way to love your neighbor.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

I was and we did ... but I'm not sure it's a church discussion (although obviously in a free society folk can talk about whatever they wish):

I was:

  • Polio was the feared disease of my childhood (living in an iron lung). I was glad to get the Salk and Sabin vaccines (in the 50's at school). I had a childhood friend who is a polio victim. And I have (he's retired now) a co-worker who is a polio victim
  • Every kid of my generation received the small pox vaccine. This was a feared event because of the forked needle. 
  • Measles: We got it ... (not the vaccine .. the virus). I don't remember much about it but I know I was sick.
  • Mumps: did not get it and did not get the vaccine until I was in my early 30's. 

We did: Had all of our kids vaccinated. Two of my children have traveled extensively overseas (one in the Marines in Iraq ... followed 10 years later in Afghanistan / the other to Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, and  Indonesia). Both have had many shots including in my son's case, the Anthrax vaccine. He took antimalarials his entire time in Afghanistan. 

Below are images of kids in iron lungs ... my childhood fear:


Bert Perry's picture

....are Jim's comments.  Jim grew up in an age where (a) infectious disease was common and lethal/debilitating and (b) all the vaccines were for those lethal, common diseases.  Today, the schedule includes vaccinations for HPV, varicella (chicken pox), and other nonlethal or rare diseases, so the CDC has somewhat muddied the waters just as people have forgotten the iron lung and polio.  Show the numbers--going back to the influenza epidemic of 1918--and I think the debate will calm.

(and yes, I know HPV can be lethal, but (a) you can overcome that with pap smears and (b) it's a disease you "earn" --you don't contract it just by going to school like polio)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

Vaccines, Birth control, Drinking, Tithing are all 3rd level issues:


  • To vaccinate or not? I did and we did. Every parent must decide. Just don't use the flawed science of the autism & vaccines please. I happened to ask my son their practice (they have a 19 mon old). They do. I'm glad. 
  • How many babies? What means (if used) of birth control. We did .. we had 3. Our business
  • Tithing: I give. I don't follow the OT law. How much I give? Ask me and I won't tell  you! 
  • Drinking: Don't get drunk! Don't offend a weaker brother! If you have the liberty have it to yourself before the Lord
  • These things get down to minding one's own business. 
jimcarwest's picture

I can't vouch for the accuracy of this report, but if it is true, we are being hyped by the CDC into an imaginary crisis.

One might ask:  What is the reason we are being threatened with new outbreaks of infectious diseases?  The answer may be:  At least 100,000 unvaccinated children have been introduced by the government into the U.S. from immigrant children who entered from Mexico and Central America.  

It's obvious that if, as reported, measles was wiped out in the U.S. several years ago, then (1) vaccinated children are safe from infection, (2) unvaccinated children would not be infected by vaccinated children, and (3) unvaccinated children could only then be infected by carriers of the disease who have recently arrived since measles was reported to be defeated.  Or perhaps, people traveling from the U.S. might have contracted it in traveling to other countries and brought it back.  A little research by the CDC should reveal the source of this recent outbreak.  

Vaccination adherents are often heard to allege all sorts of physical maladies and defects, even death, from failure to vaccinate.  It should not be difficult to actually report statistics to back up these claims, but we are not being given the results of any recent studies.  Why this silence?

I do strongly disagree with those doctors who refuse medical care to children whose parents have not vaccinated their children for conscience sake.  Such doctors are using their profession to deny care on the basis of a political disagreement.

GregH's picture

jimcarwest wrote:

I do strongly disagree with those doctors who refuse medical care to children whose parents have not vaccinated their children for conscience sake.  Such doctors are using their profession to deny care on the basis of a political disagreement.

If I were a doctor, I would probably refuse to treat unvaccinated children unless I was desperate for money. The reason is their parents. I would look at it like this: parents who refuse vaccinations for their children are immediately make it clear that they have little respect for modern medicine. They would not value my opinion over the opinions of conspiracy theorists they read on the Internet and I would waste a ton of time arguing with them. In general, they would be high maintenance and frustrating. Life is too short and money is not everything. Let some other doctor deal with that.

Anne Sokol's picture

1. It's really hard to let other people have a different conscience and to truly accept that they can be as sure as they are about making the opposite choice that you are making. This is very hard to accept on all these questions. But it's a humbling thing to work on practicing it.

2. Unity is more important than winning the argument (this is what my mom says about marriage).

Personal note: Here is where I struggle with not speaking up: When it is really affecting people's lives. I was just watching a video yesterday of a Ugandan man who was persecuted for speaking up about all the babies in Uganda dying from the live polio vaccine. (Live polio vaccine was discontinued in the U.S. for this reason. But, thank you Bill Gates, children in Uganda are dying from it. And those who speak up are silenced.)

I don't know. I think being silent when poor people are being 'used' and wasted and killed... might not be the right response, as much as my personality type hates conflict. I'm not sure what my moral responsibility is as a Christ-follower. But you know, ... I'm not sure I'm ready to speak up about it.

Bert Perry's picture

Jim Carwest and others are pointing out a very real issue with vaccinations today; we perceive sometimes that the death rate from the vaccine seems to be higher than that for the disease itself.  That's a bit of the wrong approach IMO.  The right approach is to compare the deaths from the vaccine today vs. what the deaths would be from the disease in X years if the vaccine were to be discontinued.  

For example, with polio, we don't compare cases attributed to the vaccine to cases without.  We thankfully don't have much without.  However, Jim presented some very compelling images of what we had prior to vaccination.  We would guess that in 50 years, an outbreak could look like what we remember from 50 years or so back.

The same kind of calculus can be used for the Uganda case mentioned by Anne.  OK, sounds horrific that we're using live virus vaccine, leading to X cases of polio and Y deaths per year, right?  On the flip side, even Bill Gates has finite resources, and how do you get Uganda's 38 million people herd immunity?  Might be possible with live virus, but not with inactivated.  It could be an ugly choice between herd immunity with X deaths vs. no herd immunity.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Anne Sokol's picture

polio wasn't a prob in Uganda before this. If they want to herd vaccinate, do it with a 'safe' vaccine that you have to pay more for, and not with a vaccine that is loaded to kill-- and they know it is. They stopped using it in developed countries for that reason.

Where's that video....


Anne Sokol's picture

Here it is:

start around 8:30 if you don't want to watch it all. He clarifies  that he is not against the polio vaccine, just the live one that is killing all these babies, but ... ?  All the big name govt and world organizations are forcing this upon people, want it or not, in populations where they will not be sued or brought to justice for it.

So this is where, as a Christian, I wrestle with remaining silent. Because these things are foisted on the poor and defenseless. And where is my place in that.



Mark_Smith's picture

but the US, for example, stopped using the live polio vaccine because people given it excrete a tiny amount of live virus in stool. If polio is rampaging the population, the tiny risk of infection from exposure to this waste is worth it. When polio is practically eliminated it isn't worth the risk. The vaccine does not kill people it is given to (by and large not like people accuse them of). Of course, an extremely rare few have reactions to the shot of ANY kind practically.

The new form of polio given in the US isn't as effective as the live virus vaccine, but it eliminates accidental infections of others.


Bert Perry's picture

.....then I think Scripture tells us we ought not remain silent.  The one caution I've got, Anne, is that the source, the NVIC, is an anti-vaccination group.  So if they're going to put their finger on the scales of truth--and lots of groups do--you know what way they're going to do so.  You therefore want to be very careful about taking their statements at face value.

I would look to the CDC and WHO for probably more objective data on this one.  It could indeed by that the Gates Foundation has done something truly barbaric in Uganda, and history and perhaps the courts ought to even deal harshly with it and Mr. Gates.  However, I'm not about to make that judgment based on the testimony of the NVIC.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Anne Sokol's picture

Personally, I tend to be skeptical of no-name, no-face big-govt organizations with billions of dollars invested in this issue. And the studies they produce.

The fact that this no-vaccine group would have a person speak who is not personally against vaccines says something, and listening to a real man talk about his real experiences and how he came about sacrificing so much of his life to address this and dirty deeds done to try and silence him ... does a lot more for me personally. The govt, of course, is not going to tell you what they are doing. Listen to that man. Just try it.

We have the Russian govt spending boatloads of money on pushing their lies about this war in Ukraine on the world. I am surprised by how many believe, support, and then re-communicate Putin's open lies. But talk to people on the ground, and it's a whole different story. A couple was sitting in my living room just yesterday from the war zone, and they left months ago when 100s of russian soldiers came to their town. ... oh wait, no, there are no russian soldiers here, that's just Ukraine's civil war ... right?

? What does a truth-lover do?

Bert Perry's picture

....about not completely trusting NGOs and the UN.  One of the tricks I use to dig deeper is to test everything with a second source, and then to look at how the primary source makes the argument.  Are they saying "trust me I'm an expert", or are they pointing to other sources?  Makes a huge difference.  I also look at whether the sources make simple unforced errors like indulging personal attacks, not having any data at all to justify what they're doing, appealing to consensus, and the like.

Prayers for your home, BTW. All I know for sure there is that it was designed as a mess (move borders and people to create mixed population),and that Putin's all too glad to take advantage of it.  Oh, and that our media doesn't seem to have a clue about how read between the lines.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

As an aside, it looks like the school associated with my church has an unusually low vaccination rate. Not saying it is good or bad. But interesting

Database search: Look up your elementary school's rate of unvaccinated kindergartners

Anne Sokol's picture

And that is why parents have to enter the fray with prayer and discernment, and both sides need to be forthcoming about the realities of risks, percentage, chance of getting disease, when it's better to get the disease naturally, the number of vaccines and at such a young age, etc.

And very few are able to do that. Very few caregivers or parents are able to do that. Dr. Bob Sears is pretty middle of the road in his book The Vaccine Book. Shonda Parker is good, too, for educating while leaving final decision to parents.

Mark_Smith's picture

you decide to not give your child the MMR vaccine, which by and large is safe any way you look at it. Millions receive the vaccine every year in the US alone for crying out loud. 

So, you decide to NOT vaccinate your kids. Your child contracts Rubella, aka German measles, which is horrible if a pregnant woman gets exposed to it. let's say your child exposes a pregnant woman.

So, given that you could've prevented that, are YOU RESPONSIBLE for the birth defect that develops?

Bert Perry's picture

....all others must provide data.  (W. Edwards Deming)

Mark, I tend to agree with you, but part of me says that we need to also provide the incidence of measles/rubella prior to, and after, mass vaccination to show what degree of problem we're avoiding, as well as incidents attributed to MMR vaccine and incidence proven to result from MMR vaccine.

Then, when we've proven (a) the vaccine reduces infections by X orders of magnitude vs. no vaccine, we can build a model that shows what level of infection we are likely to have with a vaccination rate of 70%, 80%, 90%, etc..  And then we can tell people that their part in loving their neighbor can be to assume the y% risk of "adverse events" in order to reduce the total risk fo epidemic.

(we're math people, we can do graphs, right?)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Anne Sokol's picture

I am that pregnant woman, in a sense. I have been pg 4 times, and my children are not vaccinated.

Are you assuming that her MMR vaccine does not protect her?

i was actually more concerned that I was vaccinated for varicella (chicken pox) as a child, and we are not sure that I ever had real chicken pox as a child. Vaccine effects are temporary, they wear off over time. Getting the real disease produces life-time antibodies. So I was concerned that, having been vax'd and not having had the real thing, I could then get it when I'm pg if I were exposed to it. However ..

I am actually more concerned about driving in cars and safety than this issue---driving caused me great anxiety during my 3rd pg, but I still did it. I could have a baby with birth defects from many other causes. I went to the dentist and had an x-ray done on my teeth, not knowing i was in the early stages of my 3rd pregnancy.

Risk is all around me. We live in the Chernobyl zone when we lived out in our village house with this fourth child's pregnancy.

I educate myself a lot about health. I have running water (#1 issue in cleanliness) and money to pay for medical care, I have sanitary living conditions. I have a healthy and varied diet. I have clean water source. These are the real factors, not vaccines.

I'm rambling here, but personaly, I am a terrible skeptic when it comes to allopathic medicine because of my birth studies. Malpractice insurance ($, $ and again $) decides how a doctor will treat a woman, not the health of her and her baby. And this operates on a mass scale in society--most women give birth with malpractice insurance deciding the course and outcome of their pregnancies/births . .. . And how many times allopathic practitioners and their organizations have foisted dangerous, birth-defetct-and-death-causing, untested practices and medical treatments on pregnant women and their babies-- they deserve the litigious atmosphere they have caused. But I will not risk my life in that sphere unless I know exactly what I want, and that I am asking them to do something they are specialized at, like surgery.

The medical advances of the past century (including the reduction of epidemics) were more due to understanding hygiene (no thanks to doctors who refused to wash their hands even after being told (they laughed!) and killed multitudes of birthing women by spreading infections with v'ginal exams), the invention of sulfur antibiotics, societal advances that allow for food distribution and cheapness, running water everywhere, etc. than to the medical field. ... They have made their valuable contributions, but not in the ways we usually assume.

I desist. It maketh me hot under the collar Smile

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