What does the Bible say about Christians getting vaccinations?
I have been asked if Christians should get vaccinated against COVID-19. As vaccination was invented in the late 18th century AD, while the New Testament was written at least 1,700 years beforehand in the 1st century AD, this topic isn’t addressed in the Bible. However, there are principles in the Bible that are relevant.
In a situation that is not sinful, whether to get a vaccination can be considered to be a debatable matter where Christians may have different opinions and convictions. These are secondary matters that are not essential to the Christian faith. The Bible distinguishes between essentials and non-essentials in the Christian faith. The essentials or fundamentals or primary matters are things which all believers should agree on. They are the tests the Bible quotes for recognizing false teachers and false ideas about things such as the person and work of Christ; the good news of salvation “by grace … through faith .. not by works” (Eph. 2:8-9); and the inspiration and authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to us.
Apart from such foundational truths, there are many other things in the Bible that are not as clear and not as easily understood. These are non-essentials or secondary matters. Romans 14:1 – 15:7; 1 Corinthians 8 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33 are key passages on this topic. In Romans 14:1 they are called “disputable matters” (NIV), or “opinions” (ESV), or “what they think is right or wrong” (NLT), but as the Greek word used (Strongs #1261) means “discussion” or “debate”, I prefer to call them “debatable matters”. We can debate them, but shouldn’t dispute them. In these instances as the Bible allows for differences of opinion, we must also allow for differing opinions.
Romans 14 addresses whether to eat food that has been offered to idols or whether one day was more sacred than another, which were issues in the first century AD around the Mediterranean. As Paul wrote, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), what counts in God’s kingdom is not what we eat or drink, but lives characterized by practical righteousness, peace and joy.
It says not to quarrel over disputable (debatable) matters (v.1). The mature Christian allows for different opinions on minor issues. God demands Christian unity, not uniformity. And mutual acceptance of each other as a member of the family of God rather than uniformity in minor matters.
The first example in this chapter concerns eating meat, “One person’s faith allows them to eat everything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” (Rom. 14:2). When the book of Romans was written, many Gentile believers (those with no Jewish ancestry) had previously participated in pagan worship which included animal sacrifices to pagan gods. The animals that were sacrificed were usually sold as meat on the open market. So for those who had been saved out of this lifestyle the question became whether they should eat the meat sacrificed to these idols. By eating this meat, were they participating in the idolatry of pagans? This was a hard question for many. And desiring not to participate in idolatrous practices, many of these Gentile Christians became vegetarians. Only in that way could they assure themselves that they were not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Paul says that the weak believer, with a strict conscience, ate only vegetables whereas the strong believer’s faith allowed them to eat this meat because they understood that the idols to which the meat had been offered were not gods at all – only pieces of wood, stone or metal. Therefore, as they ate the meat with that understanding, they were not participating in idolatry.
The second example has to do with observing special days as holy days, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike” (Rom. 14:5). Those who had been saved out of a Jewish tradition of Sabbath days and festivals were apt to make a great deal out of those observances. However, others not coming from that background felt that every day was the Lord’s day, and that none were more special than others. This created problems in the early church. How were believers to live together who did not agree in every detail? How are we, today, to deal with other believers whose opinions differ from ours?
When I was young smoking, drinking alcohol, playing cards, movies and dancing were viewed as being sinful and taboo. In some circumstances this is true, but in others they may be debatable maters. The Bible gives principles that can help us determine God’s will in debatable matters. It is clear that these principles are important because of the numerous references to them in the New Testament.
First, we are to honor God with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). When Paul said to “flee from sexual immorality”, he gave the following reason: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This means considering questions such as: Will it honor or dishonor God? Will His reputation be enhanced or harmed? Will God be exalted or disgraced? Will others think less of God, His church or of His word? Is the motive to draw attention to ourselves (1 Tim. 2:9)?
A related principle is that whatever we do should be done for the glory of God. When Paul discussed whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols he concluded, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
The Welfare of Others
Next we are to consider the welfare of others by putting the following three principles into practice.
Acting in love (Rom. 14:15)
With regard to debatable matters, Paul wrote, “‘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” (1 Cor 10:23-24). In this area, although there is freedom of action, acting in love means that we consider the impact on others, particularly those whose conscience is weak or strict (1 Cor. 8:7). As a result of this we may need to modify our behaviour and not enjoy all the liberties that we could otherwise.
Acting in love means forbearing those with a stricter conscience, not insisting on doing what we want without considering the views of those around us, in order to build them up; “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please Himself …” (Rom. 15:1-3a).
The practice of acceptance features in the passage in Romans, which begins with “accept those whose faith is weak” (Rom. 14:1). Those whose convictions allow them more freedom are to accept those with stricter consciences on debatable matters. Despite our differences of opinion with regard to debatable matters, believers should accept one another just as Christ has accepted us; “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom. 15:7).
Our fellowship with one another shouldn’t depend on one’s viewpoint on such matters. As Christ died for all believers and they have been accepted as His children, we should accept them as well (Rom. 14:15). The call to the Christian is to accept every other believer without having to pass judgment on every opinion they hold. In other words, we are to allow for differing opinions, because differing opinions do not necessarily mean a differing faith.
With regard to debatable matters Paul wrote, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). This means promoting peace and spiritual growth and determining whether the matter would help or hinder the harmony of believers.
Furthermore, the welfare of others involves avoiding the following three situations in debatable matters.
Paul also wrote, “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable (or debatable) matters” (Rom. 14:1). One way of accepting other believers is to not engage in disputes about their strict views and not force our convictions on them (Rom 14:22). We can share our opinion, but it is important to give others space to grow and to allow for the possibility that we may be wrong.
Those with a strong conscience shouldn’t despise those with a strict conscience; “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not” (Rom. 14:3a). On the other hand, those with a strict conscience are not to judge others as being sinners; “the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them” (Rom. 14:3b).
As far as our service goes as the Lord’s servants we are all accountable to Him, not to each other (Rom. 14:4, 10-13). This means respecting each other’s opinion as we can have differing views on what pleases the Lord (1 Th. 4:1). We are to allow for differing conclusions of honest believers seeking the mind of Christ, without criticism, without contempt, and without judgment (Rom. 14:10). Don’t judge one another critically to put others down (Rom. 14:13). React with love not criticism. Remember, God has accepted them. He is the judge in these matters, not us.
Note that these verses are dealing with debatable matters. We can certainly make judgements about matters that involve the fundamentals of the faith and sinful behavior.
Don’t hinder spiritual growth
There are many references to not stumbling a weaker believer (Rom. 14:13, 15, 20-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 1 Cor. 10:32-33). This means refraining from doing something that is not forbidden in Scripture if it hinders the spiritual progress of those with a strict conscience, by causing them to act against their conscience. Otherwise, both parties sin.
Don’t let debatable matters destroy the work of God. Paul even extends this principle to unbelievers because he wanted them to accept Christ as their Savior; “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” (1 Cor 10:32-33). It’s loving and unselfish to think of others above ourselves (Rom. 14:15; 15:1-2).
Order in the Church
When he was addressing disorder in the meetings of the church in Corinth, Paul wrote; “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” and “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:33; 40). In this situation, Paul imposed some boundaries to ensure there was order instead of disorder.
Some debatable matters can affect the unity or functioning of the local church. Because the local church is to operate in an orderly way, in the case of debatable matters that directly affect the unity or functioning of the local church, there should be boundaries on what is taught and practised. In these situations, what is taught and practised within the church needs to be consistent and it will not always match everyone’s opinion because after all, we can have various opinions on these topics.
In all activities there is a risk of something going wrong. A risk assessment is the tool that can be used to assess these risks. This involves thinking about:
– What could go wrong (the risks)? For each risk determine the following:
– How likely is it to happen (the likelihood: rare, unlikely, possible, likely, or almost certain)?
– How serious would be the harm be (the consequence: insignificant, minor, moderate, major, or catastrophic)?
– The degree of risk is a combination of the likelihood and the consequence (the rating: low, medium, high, extremely high).
– The risk tolerance (low, medium). Some risks may be accepted based on a good understanding of the potential benefits and adverse impacts.
Do a risk assessment of the COVID-19 vaccination and do a risk assessment of the COVID-19 disease. Which has the greater rating? Is the risk of the vaccination greater than or less than your risk tolerance? By the way, these risk assessments can give different results for different people.
Finally, our body is like an instrument or tool that can be used for good or sinful purposes (Rom. 6:13). The important question is whether we are giving our bodies to God, not whether we have a vaccination or not (Rom. 12:1).
Lessons For Us
When considering vaccinations and other debatable matters such as food, drink, clothes, standards of living and entertainments, we can ask the following questions: Will it honor or dishonor God? Are we acting in love? Are we too fearful (Appendix)?
Are we accepting one another regardless of their views on matters of secondary importance? Will it help or hinder the harmony of believers? Are we judging believers on matters of secondary importance? Will it hinder the spiritual progress of a weaker believer? Will it promote order or disorder in the local church?
Let’s apply these biblical principles to the debatable matters in our daily lives.
Appendix: The role of fear
Tony Payne believes that fear has been dominate over conscience in the COVID vaccine debate. Fear is a reaction we have to an approaching threat or danger. It’s possible to be too fearful. A hyperchondriac gets anxious over every tiny symptom because it could possibly indicate a life-threatening disease. It is also possible to be too fearless (like adolescent boys).
How does the work of God in the gospel transform our experience of fear and anxiety? Through the gospel of Jesus, God liberates us from our greatest fear—the fear of death and judgement (Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Jn. 4:17-19). Because we know that God has loved us in His Son, and given us all things in Him, we can face anything that life throws at us with rejoicing and hope (Rom. 5:1-11; 8:28-39). We can cast our anxieties upon Him, knowing that He cares for us (1 Pet 5:7), and has already won the victory that gives us peace (Phil. 4:6-7).
As we grow in faith, love and hope, the kind of fear that belongs to our old lives begins to diminish—the fear of death, the fear of what others might do to us, the fear that protects ourselves and our wellbeing and our possessions at all costs. This is why Christians have always been the ones to care for the sick during plagues, to give away their possessions rather than hoard them, to treat lepers when no-one else would go near them.
It is often right to act against fear. We may need to exhort the fearful to overcome their fears through faith, love and hope (as the New Testament frequently does). This will play out in how we relate to one another about COVID-19 and vaccinations. In some circumstances, it will lead us to encourage one another to overcome our fears; in others, to encourage one another not to downplay real threats, especially if our behavior is a threat to others. In all things, it will mean to act in faith, love and hope.
With patience and kindness, let us help each other not to give in to fear.
The Appendix is based on a post by Tony Payne on “Fear in a time of COVID”.
Written, September 2021