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Why I believe the Apostle Paul would choose to wear a mask

A stained glass image of the Apostle Paul, edited so that a present-day face mask covers his nose and mouth.
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Kevin Boyd is a pastor in Texas, having served in ministry for twenty years. Since 2013, he has had the honor of serving as Lead Pastor of Legacy Church in Plano and works with his dearest friends. He lives in Plano with his wife and four daughters.  

I do not like wearing a mask. No one does. 

Regardless if it’s an N95, a homemade cloth mask, a bandana, or a gator, I find them to be itchy and hot. Wearing a mask makes me feel claustrophobic. I do not like constantly recycling my own breath. Wearing a mask has been bad for my complexion. 

Still, I choose to wear one when I am in public. 

I do not feel as forced into this practice as I did at first. Instead, I have decided to view it as an act of love that edifies people. 

Furthermore, if he were walking the streets in 2020, I believe the Apostle Paul would view the mask in this way.

Why did Paul “become all things to all people”?

It would be difficult to argue that Paul was a patsy. 

He was nobody’s fool, and, after his conversion, I cannot think of one instance in which Paul was used by another human to unintentionally advance their cause. He was highly intelligent, highly credentialed, deeply faithful, and lived with serious convictions. 

Paul was thoughtfully and carefully engaged in culture and seemed to know exactly how to handle himself regardless of the circumstances. In his own words: “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it” (1 Corinthians 9:22–23 NASB). 

In other words, because Paul was freed from the controls of the culture around him and subject to Christ alone, he was able to serve others and set aside his own rights for their sake.

How should Christians handle their freedoms—like wearing a mask or not?

In 1 Corinthians 8:1, Paul discusses how the Christian is to view and handle their freedoms: “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes one conceited, but love edifies people.”

The specific issue at hand is: to eat or not to eat certain foods. 

Paul reminds his Christian readers, “Food will not bring us close to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat” (v. 8). He was speaking, of course, of how the message of the gospel frees every person from performing religious acts to prove their spiritual worth. 

It is a temptation for us all to place a disproportionate focus on outward action over inward motivation, or even to spend exorbitant effort justifying what we think are the “right” actions in a given situation. Paul’s approach is to consider an issue such as food as a minor issue when compared to the greater purpose of sharing the gospel. 

He announces that they are free to eat what they wish but exhorts: “Take care that this freedom of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak (v. 9).” It is important to Paul that a strong believer act in every way, far above reproach, so that the less discerning person would not be led astray by the example set before them, and also so as not to make idols out of spiritually insignificant matters. 

Paul ends chapter 8 by saying, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to sin (v. 13).” As a guy who has a thing for cheeseburgers and Texas BBQ, I can think of no provocation, other than gospel-motivated love which edifies people, as a legitimate reason for Paul’s final declaration.

What is most helpful?

I believe it would be healthy to consider the mask conversation in light of the food conversation in 1 Corinthians 8. 

Though, in a climate of warring news reports and hyper-politicization of COVID-19, where it is difficult to discern what the right action is, we must view this issue in terms of what is most helpful for the movement of the gospel and the unity of the church. 

This is what Paul has done in the example before us. 

As cultural disagreements invaded the growing church, Paul is clear that the disputes should be put down quickly and that mature Christians should be willing to surrender their rights and do whatever is necessary to ensure unity and to avoid distractions from more important matters. 

If Paul were looking in on our churches today and viewing the hotly debated topic of masks, I believe he would say something like: “Take care that your freedom not to wear a mask does not somehow become a stumbling block.” 

What my children have taught me about wearing masks

I understand some might argue that the act of wearing a mask could be a stumbling block for all of the aforementioned reasons. However, I will refer to my children, and the example I have seen in many other children in my church, who do not complain at all about wearing a mask. 

Even in moments where we leave a store and enter a parking lot, and I invite my kids to remove their masks, I’m often met with the reply, “Oh, it’s no big deal. Wearing it isn’t really a problem.” 

I wish that response came to me as easily. 

Nevertheless, I cannot let my personal dislike of the mask nor culture’s attempt to politicize the mask be my guide. Instead, as I am convinced, I will choose to let love which edifies be my guide and relegate my objections to the mask as an issue to be put aside for the sake of others.

Choosing to have an effective ministry

Acts 15 describes another hotly debated matter in the early church: to circumcise or not to circumcise new believers. 

The dispute started when some legalistic Jewish teachers came to Antioch teaching that, in order to be saved, Gentiles must obey the Law of Moses, including submitting to the practice of circumcision. Naturally, the church began to split ideologically over the issue, with converted Jews supporting the idea and Gentiles rejecting it. 

The real danger was that they were attempting to mix law and grace in a way that could never be and that Jesus had described as pouring “new wine into old wineskins” (Luke 5:37). Still, the concerns were big enough that it warranted one of the most significant gatherings of early church leaders described in the Bible. 

The meeting is known as “The Jerusalem Council,” and each local church sent representatives to the series of meetings. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James all had significant moments during this conference. Among the conclusions of the Council was the decision that they should not require Gentiles who were turning to Christ to submit to circumcision as a sign of their conversion.

Acts 16 begins: “Now Paul also came to Derbe and to Lystra. And a disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brothers and sisters who were in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this man to leave with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (vv. 1–3). 

Oh, the irony! 

Immediately following the Jerusalem Council’s decision that circumcision should not be necessary, Paul, who had openly argued that point, compelled Timothy to be circumcised. 

Why would he do this?

The Jerusalem Council had declared circumcision unnecessary in order to be saved. From Paul’s later partnership with Titus, we can see that Paul certainly agreed with this decision, as he did not allow Titus to be circumcised when false brethren were pressuring him to do so (see Galatians 2:1–5). 

In the case of Timothy, Paul’s concern was not Timothy’s salvation, but that Timothy would have an effective ministry when working with unbelieving Jews. He wanted to ensure that Timothy took every action so as not to be a stumbling block to the men and women whom the Lord would send him to serve, and, amazingly, the young man complied. 

Was Paul being hypocritical, legalistic, and inconsistent? 

Not at all. Rather, he encouraged Timothy to employ the same missionary strategy he had assumed for himself in being “all things to all people” (1 Corinthians 9:22). 

Again, this example leads me to believe that if Paul were walking the streets in 2020, he would do so wearing a mask. 

I suppose that if Paul thought it important enough, and Timothy was willing to be circumcised for the sake of others, the least I can do is put on a mask.

It’s up to you

Of course, all of this is my own speculation. 

You may agree with my assertion, or you may have already canceled me. 

Wherever you personally land in regards to the mask issue is your decision, and I have no right to force my opinion on you. 

However, if you would allow me this final sentiment: if I were your pastor, I would humbly ask you to make certain you do not allow clinging to your rights, personal preferences, or divisive politics to cloud your judgment on how to behave as a Christian. 

Remember Paul’s words: “For though I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may gain more. . . . I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it” (1 Corinthians 9:19, 23).

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