A Theology of the Face: How Endless Mask-Wearing Hides the Image of God and Hinders the Church

Christian themed stained glass, Freeport, Grand Bahama, Bahamas

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord,
are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
– 2 Corinthians 3:18 –

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
– 2 Corinthians 4:6 –

We are in the season of that ancient of holidays, the one where humans put on masks and pretend to be lions, ghouls, super heroes, and villains. This year, however, Halloween’s game of dress up has become ubiquitous. It has been going on ever since “social distancing” became 2020’s favorite neologism. And there is no end in sight. Masks, it seems, are here to stay long past Halloween, and it is worth asking—to what effect?

What are the consequences of wearing masks? And what are the consequences of not wearing masks? The latter question is easy to answer; just read the regular updates on the CDC website or visit your local grocery store. State regulations, governors’ orders, and local business practices have converged to declare with legal force—no mask, no service.

Following this line of thinking many churches have pursued the same approach. With good intentions, especially in the early stages of COVID-19, many sought to love their neighbor by wearing a mask. Yet, as masking as become the new normal, I want to ask: What are the not-so-hidden consequences of hiding the face for months on end? And what are the consequences for churches who are called to live distinct from the world and who are to proclaim the glory of God in the face of Christ?

While medical experts continue to debate the efficacy of preventing COVID-19 with a cloth mask and doctors demonstrate the inefficiencies of various masks, I want to approach this subject theologically. Opinions continue to change about masks, but with the exception of a few articles (e.g., They Don’t Own Your Face You Know), I have seen little consideration for the theological impact covering the face has on humanity and the church who gathers to worship God.

With that in mind, I want to answer a few questions: What does Scripture say about the face? What impact does hiding the face on a regular basis have on humanity, the glory of God, and the gathering of God’s people? In particular, can we worship God face-to-face with masks constantly on? And if so, what implications do that have on the church?

As we will see from Scripture, the veiling of the face, with no certain change forthcoming, distorts our ability to embrace the knowledge of God, and hinders the community of faith created to reflect the image of Christ. More than that, masking as a normative practice in worship services runs into multiple New Testament commands. In other words, the commands of God are strained, if not violated, by making mask-wearing the normative practice.

What follows is not the only line of argument we need to consider when making decisions about gathering God’s people in these days and wearing or not wearing masks. Loving our neighbor (Romans 12), obeying civil magistrates (Romans 13), and considering weaker brethren and not violating conscience (Romans 14) must all play a part in our decisions. Yet, we must not forget that Romans 12–14 follows an expansive description of the gospel (Romans 1–11), and is followed by Paul’s description of the gospel ministry.

Thus, setting Romans 12–14 in context, it is my contention that in recent application of Romans 12, 13, and 14 for mask-wearing without end, we are picking up habits of heart and face that may interfere with the clearest declaration of God’s mercies (Rom 12:1) in the gospel (Romans 1–11 and 15). In that vein, I offer this God-centered argument, that seeing and showing the face matters. And I ask Christians to consider the impact of endless masking on the spiritual health of image bearers and Christ’s Church.

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A Biblical Case for the Church’s Duty to Remain Open

man raising his left hand

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

But Peter and John answered them,
“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God,
you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
— Acts 4:19–20 —

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.
— Acts 5:29 —

Since March of this year, the church in America has faced a host of challenges related to COVID-19, gathering, and government. While health concerns legitimately initiated the emergency closure of churches, reopening them has too often been dictated by governors making up and then remaking requirements. Such pronouncements have not only impacted churches gathering, they have raised concerns about the very nature of the church. What does it mean to gather? Can we do church online? For how long? Et cetera!

While Americans have enjoyed unusual freedom to gather and worship in our country, this is not the first time churches have faced the (1) task of articulating their greater commitment to God in order to worship, and (2) in accepting the consequences of those actions. To that point, John MacArthur and the staff at Grace Community Church have written an article explaining why now is the time to obey God and not man—when man commands the church not to meet.

Their God-honoring, Word-saturated, church-protecting words are worth considering. You can find the whole article here, but let me highlight one point that has been of greatest concern to me during the Coronavirus pandemic. Here’s what they say:

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