Vaccine Ethics: Black and White, or a Conscience Issue? What does the Bible say?
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
So far in this series of blogs I have been commending boycotting the vaccine as a good idea, a great opportunity for the abolition movement to give a powerful message to the watching world. But would it be going too far to say that this is a necessity for Christians?
The refrain from almost every Christian I have heard speaking into this is that, above all else, this is a conscience question and everyone must be free to make up their own minds. We mustn’t put pressure on people one way or the other by suggesting that ours is the “Christian” way.
Let’s take a look at 1 Corinthians 10:23-33.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
There is freedom of conscience here – you can eat anything sold in the market without having to worry about where it’s come from. At face value, this would seem to suggest that we don’t need to worry ourselves too much about the provenance of consumer products today, such as a vaccine. But hang on, there’s more.
A deeper principle is at work: it’s not just about what you have a right to do as an individual in isolation, it’s about how it affects others, especially unbelievers, particularly their conscience: “not everything is beneficial…not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” Before someone says that taking a vaccine is for “the good of others”, note that Paul is not talking here about “the good of others” healthwise or financially or in terms of feelings, but in terms of their conscience, and their understanding and reception of the gospel: “so that they may be saved”.
There is a clear instruction here to the Corinthian Christians: If you are told that the meat was offered in sacrifice: “do not eat it.” This is now a command, not a suggestion. It’s no longer a freedom of conscience issue, but has been taken over by the superior principle of love for neighbour. It has to be understood in the context of that relationship.
To eat something that you have been told has been offered in sacrifice communicates endorsement of that act of idolatry, and that is why it is forbidden, because it misrepresents the gospel and causes the other person “to stumble”. They will interpret it as suggesting that Christians are able to accommodate idolatry at the same time as worshipping Jesus.
Applying this to today: we need not worry ourselves about the provenance of every single product we consume. But if we know, if we are told, that something has been produced with the fruit of child sacrifice, as these vaccines have been, and especially if that child sacrifice continues today with society’s blessing (and therefore ours by default), as it does, then unless I’m mistaken this passage of Scripture issues a command, not freedom of conscience. The command is this: do not partake of it. Not so much because of our conscience, but because of the conscience of those around us.
It is to avoid communicating (and the tepidity of our stand against abortion only reinforces this message) that we are comfortable with, tolerant of, even willing to benefit from, child sacrifice. We misrepresent Christ if we show indifference toward child sacrifice, or if we consider our own health interests to be superior to opposing and ending the genocide. Simply keeping our heads down or staying neutral is not an option: we need to communicate proactively that child sacrifice is wrong and needs to be stopped.
I eagerly invite discussion over this because if my reading is right, the implications are huge: this is not a freedom of conscience issue but one in which Christians are called to take a clear stand: there is one right answer. If I’m wrong I need to be shown that I am wrong in order to prevent me from causing all sorts of harm.
This is Part 4 of a series of blogs responding to the recent Evangelical Alliance webinar on the ethics of the Covid-19 vaccines. I'm grateful to the EA for hosting this timely and stimulating online event. A recording of the event, together with a written introduction from the EA and accompanying papers, is available here, so I won’t spend virtual ink summarising who said what. Instead, in this series of blogs, I want to pick up on a few specific points, offer some personal reflections/analysis, and then suggest how we might helpfully advance the debate in a new and different direction. Read Part 1...
Read Part 2...
Read Part 3…