In 40 years of medical and surgical practice, on occasions I was challenged by conscientious patients who refused the possibility of blood transfusion, even to save their lives. These were good people who, in their acquiescence to Jehovah’s Witness teaching, had accepted the misapplication of Deuteronomy 12:23. Their teachers had taught them that blood transfusion was the same as eating blood and therefore they could not accept a transfusion of blood. This was a moral quandary for me, as my own conscientious belief was that, if I could save a life by transfusion, God required that I should do so. Otherwise, I would be breaking the sixth commandment by omission.
In the current pandemic-dominated climate, the topic of freedom of choice has again arisen when considering vaccination against COVID-19. Much has been made by some of the idea that compulsion to be vaccinated, whether mandated by government or certain industries, is contrary to our belief in individual freedom of choice. Some believe that we have a God-given right to resist such actions, as they somehow conflict with God’s Word. Others are even teaching that such compulsion is the beginning of the Mark of the Beast. So, in the interests of correct exegesis, I believe this topic needs to be carefully unpacked, using the Bible alone.
It comes down to what should be rendered to Caesar, and what should not. The Bible is quite clear on this distinction. As we all know, when it came to taxes, despite the occupation of Palestine by a foreign power, Christ advised that His followers should pay whatever taxes were owing, whilst not neglecting what we owe to God (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25).
When arrested on false charges, Christ offered no resistance. He even corrected Peter’s violent response by healing the severed ear of Malchus. When arraigned before three separate authorities, the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod, Jesus offered no resistance. On no occasion did Jesus suggest His followers should offer resistance against arrest, no matter how unfair or illegal.
Following Pentecost, Peter and John were arrested; they offered no resistance (Acts 4:1-3). Stephen was taken by the mob and stoned; he offered no resistance (Acts 7:57). Paul was jailed numerous times, and never offered resistance, nor did he encourage other Christians to do so (2 Corinthians 11:24, 25). He appealed to the justice of Caesar and spent two years in Rome under house arrest, without protest (Acts 25:11,12; 28:30).
Paul even went so far as to warn Christians against resisting civil authority, despite the fact that Rome was under the despotic rule of Nero. It is instructive for us to read that passage in Romans:
“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgement on themselves” (Romans 13:1,2 NKJV).
So how do we interpret this advice, when we read Peter’s testimony before the Jewish Council, “We ought to obey God, rather than men” (Acts 5:29)? Peter continued to preach the gospel boldly, in spite of warnings about its supposed illegality. Was that blanket defiance of authority?
The answer to this conundrum is really all about context. When, and under what circumstances, should we resist authority? When is it OK (or is it ever) to defy the law of the land?
Whenever we see the apostles defying what appeared to be the authority of the state, it was always in the context of preaching the gospel and sharing the truth of God, never anything else. Not once did they break Roman law in any other jurisdiction. Only when prohibited from preaching did they take a stand. That’s where the principle of “We ought to obey God, rather than men” applies, and only there.
So how does that relate to us as Christians in 2021, who have genuine concerns about where increasingly prohibitive government laws and restrictions are taking us? Yes, during COVID lockdowns, there is some restriction of assembly. But we have to ask, “Why?” If it was clearly an attempt to restrict religious liberty for religious reasons, we would have a valid argument to defy the law. But even if demands were being made of us that contradicted the law of God, should we protest and resist? According to the advice of Paul and the experience of the apostles, even then, violent resistance is to be avoided. Legal protest, and defence of our position is certainly not prohibited by Scripture, but any form of active resistance is condemned.
So, what about compulsory vaccination? Is that against the law of God?
It is very hard to make a valid argument that laws, enacted by the state for the preservation of life, should be perceived by Christians as defying God’s law. Where then, does this “freedom of conscience” come from? Is this just worldly self-centredness, which says, “It’s my body, I’ll do with it as I like?”
There is the argument that we defile our bodies when partaking of unclean foods (1 Corinthians 3:17), but when stretched to such things as vaccination, we are using the same invalid arguments put forward by our JW friends against blood transfusion. Jesus dealt with such arguments in Matthew 15:11,20.
If we as individuals decide not to be vaccinated against the most highly contagious virus yet encountered in the developed world, we should take a long look at the reasons. In not doing so, we are taking not only a risk with our own health, but in the context of the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31), aren’t we more likely to spread illness to others, even to the point of death?
Finally, brothers and sisters, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
Dr David Pennington is a retired plastic surgeon living in Lindfield, NSW.