Vaccine mandates have arrived, and so have questions about religious exemptions. What should Christians think about them? I’ll provide one over-arching principle, then briefly discuss some common religious justifications we see offered up.
The Third Commandment tells us we must not misuse God’s name (Ex 20:7; Deut 5:11). One way we do this is when we invoke God as an authority to justify something we want to do. I want to do something, so I use God as a blank check, and I get my free pass. But … did God really say that?
People misuse God’s name for all sorts of sins. To justify divorce in unwarranted circumstances, sexual immorality, sexual confusion, gender identity, and the like. Look anywhere, and you’ll find professing Christians using God as justification for their unholy ways. This is a violation of the Third Commandment.
Now we come to religious exemptions for vaccines. You must think carefully, very carefully, about why you object to the vaccine. If you’re using God as a free pass to escape a vaccine mandate, then you’re violating the Third Commandment.
You may object and cite an abortion connection, freedom of conscience, and the like. Fair enough―we’ll get there. But ask yourself, “Is [insert religious justification] really why I don’t want the vaccine, or is [insert religious justification] a convenient pass for me to avoid something I just don’t want to do?” If the answer is yes, then you’re in danger of violating the Third Commandment.
As a well-known news anchor once said, that’s “kind of a big deal.” You don’t want to do that. Now, to the religious justifications themselves.
The Abortion Objection
This is perhaps the strongest religious exemption of the lot. Some Christians claim the various COVID vaccines have a connection to abortion. Various news outlets explain this connection is distant and far removed, and that the vaccines themselves don’t contain fetal tissue. Still, some Christians find this horrifying. Here is a representative example from a professing Christian, quoted in the New York Times:
My freedom and my children’s freedom and children’s children’s freedom are at stake,” said Ms. Holmes, who lives in Indiana. In August, she submitted an exemption request she wrote herself, bolstered by her own Bible study and language from sources online. Some vaccines were developed using fetal cell lines from aborted fetuses, she wrote, citing a remote connection to a practice she finds abhorrent. She quoted a passage from the New Testament: “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit.”
The Louisiana Attorney General provides a sample exemption letter with an identical objection. Back to the New York Times article―note that this woman fronts her remarks with a discussion of “freedom.” Also, notice that she apparently didn’t consult her faith community about the veracity of her religious objection. Instead, she did independent study and looked up “sources online.” She then quotes 2 Corinthians 7 out of context and assumes a vaccine will “contaminate” her. As Michael Bird would say, “sweet mother of Melchisedec!”
But, this woman isn’t you. Perhaps you have a more sophisticated form of this objection. Fair enough.
Back to the Third Commandment.
I want to ask you to re-ask that same question again―does this distant abortion connection really outrage you, or is it just a “get out of jail free” card you’re willing to use? Please think very carefully before answering this question. One way to be introspective here is to consider whether you were already against the vaccine before you learned about the abortion nexus.
Body as a temple
Proponents cite the Apostle Paul’s well-known remarks at 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19. One organization, called Health Freedom Idaho, published a sample exemption letter on its website that used this objection and cited these passages. It read, in part:
Accordingly I believe, pursuant to my Christian faith, that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is a God-given responsibility and requirement for me to protect the physical integrity of my Body against unclean food and injections.
Again, this does violence to the text. First, Paul’s remarks about the body as a temple were directed to the Corinthian church as a body, as a whole―the “you are God’s temple” is plural! So, he is not referring to you as an individual at all. Second, the sample letter mistakenly interprets the temple motif to refer to physical pollution to one’s body, when Paul is in fact interjecting a rhetorical question (an accusation, really) about sins that may destroy their community (“the temple”), among which Christ resides.
This objection has no interpretive merit.
It’s a sin to do what I don’t want to do
The Liberty Counsel is a Christian legal ministry. It also provides a sample religious exemption letter on its website. This letter manages to encapsulate peak narcissism with its interpretive method:
It is against my faith and my conscience to commit sin. Sin is anything that violates the will of God, as set forth in the Bible, and as impressed upon the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. In order to keep myself from sin, and receive God’s direction in life, I pray and ask God for wisdom and direction daily. As part of my prayers, I have asked God for direction regarding the current COVID shot requirement. As I have prayed about what I should do, the Holy Spirit has moved on my heart and conscience that I must not accept the COVID shot. If I were to go against the moving of the Holy Spirit, I would be sinning and jeopardizing my relationship with God and violating my conscience.
According to this letter, if the Spirit “has moved” you then you have a free pass―presumably about anything. This is absurd. Christianity is not a subjective religion with scripture that shape-shifts according to taste, like an Etch-a-Sketch. God gave us His word. That word has content. That content has meaning that can be known and understood in community with the brotherhood of faith in your local congregation, and in consultation with the Great Tradition of brothers and sisters who have gone before.
This definition of sin is also specious. Sin is lawlessness (1 Jn 3:4); doing what God’s Word forbids. The author wishes to make sin Play-Dough; it’s anything the Holy Spirit “impresses upon” him to be wrong. Sin isn’t concrete anymore, it’s subjective.
This kind of bible interpretation can justify anything, and it’s dangerous.
Freedom of conscience
This objection has a strong siren song, but is harder to justify than it seems. A Christian must have a rational basis for claiming a conscience objection. If food is sacrificed to demons, then that’s a pretty good reason to avoid eating it (1 Cor 8). You get it. You can “see” the problem.
What is the conscience issue with the vaccine? It isn’t enough to hold to some form of, “I don’t like it, so it violates my conscience, so I don’t have to do it.” That’s never been how responsible Christians have interacted with society. Health Freedom Idaho offers this attempt:
… the New Testament requires of Christians that we, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). When it comes to consuming things into our own bodies, as opposed to make payments to government, compliance with God’s law is required. The mandated vaccine, with its numerous additives and its mechanism for altering my body, is the equivalent of a prohibited “unclean food” that causes harm to my conscience. Vaccines to me are unclean. I believe in and follow God and the principles laid out in His Word and I have a deeply held belief that vaccines violate them.
This objection says very little. It is scarcely believable that unclean foods under the Old Covenant are a parallel to a COVID vaccine. As just a preliminary step to justify this argument one would have to establish a basis for the division of clean and unclean foods, and I wish you luck as you survey the literature on that topic! The author provides no justification about why the vaccine violates his conscience. He just asserts it as a “deeply held belief.” That isn’t good enough. Some people have a “deeply held belief” that Arbys makes good roast beef sandwiches. That don’t make it so …
God doesn’t require it
This is a novel interpretation. The New York Times reports the following:
In rural Hudson, Iowa, Sam Jones has informed his small congregation at Faith Baptist Church that he is willing to provide them with a four-paragraph letter stating that “a Christian has no responsibility to obey any government outside of the scope that has been designated by God.”
This argument is a non-starter. God hasn’t mandated seatbelts, either. Nor the Bill of Rights. The pastor owes it to his congregation to provide a more robust argument than this. If he has one, hit didn’t make it into the news article.
Christians shouldn’t be afraid
This is a well-meaning but sad argument. Its logical end is to eschew all medical aid in toto. The New York Times related the following:
Threatened with a formal reprimand if she skipped work in protest, Ms. Holmes woke up in the middle of the night with a Bible verse from the book of 2 Timothy in her mind: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
The Liberty Counsel also rallied to the cause by declaring Christians have a religious exemption because they have “… a reliance upon God’s protection consistent with Psalm 91.”
2 Timothy 1:7 has nothing to do with rejecting all medical aid, nor does Psalm 91. It’s a symptom of what Scot McKnight has described as a puzzle piece hermeneutic rather than a contextual reading of the bible as a story. If a man cheats on his wife, can he cite 2 Timothy 1:12 (“I am not ashamed …”) and declare he has nothing to apologize for? Why not? It’s in the bible!
There may well be valid religious exemptions out there from a Christian perspective. Those cited here are largely specious; arguments in search of proof-texts. The abortion connection has the most merit, but I again caution believers to avoid misusing God’s name and violating the Third Commandment.
One Christian named Curtis Chang, who is a former pastor, wrote what Yosemite Sam would consider to be fightin’ words:
Christians who request religious exemptions rarely even try to offer substantive biblical and theological reasoning. Rather, the drivers for evangelical resistance are nonreligious and are rooted in deep-seated suspicion of government and vulnerability to misinformation.
Perhaps this goes too far. But, it is true for too many Christians. Maybe that isn’t you. Maybe you do have objective religious grounds―what are they? What have your pastors said? What has your faith community said? What has the global church said? Are your objections really grounded in the scripture, or are they a prop for some very non-religious reasons?
Only you know the answer.
1 Ruth Graham, “Vaccine Resisters Seek Religious Exemptions. But What Counts as Religious?” New York Times, 11 September 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/11/us/covid-vaccine-religion-exemption.html?smid=url-share.
3 Health Freedom Idaho, “Sample Letter for Religious Vaccine Exemption,” https://healthfreedomidaho.org/sample-letter-for-religious-vaccine-exemption/.
4 Liberty Counsel, “Sample Religious Exemption Requests For COVID Shot Mandates,” 26 July 2021, p. 3. https://lc.org/Site%20Images/Resources/Memo-SampleCOVID-ReligiousExemptionRequests-07262021.pdf.
5 Health Freedom Idaho, “Sample Letter.”
6 Graham, “Religious Exemptions.”
8 Liberty Counsel, “Sample Exemption” p. 1.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?