Covid Vaccines, Freedom, and Imitating Paul

Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

If you are on social media, you have undoubtedly heard numerous appeals to freedom and personal conscience regarding being vaccinated from Covid-19. Many argue that freedom means that they, not the government, should choose whether they should take these vaccines. More than once, I have seen Galatians 5:1 invoked in this context, 

For freedom, Christ set us free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

I am not writing to evaluate whether those arguing for such freedom are right or wrong in the Western context. I will leave that for leaders serving in the Western church to discuss. Instead, I am writing to discuss covid vaccines and personal freedom in the context of frontier missions. One missions leader recently tweeted that 23 countries now require vaccinations for entry and 29 countries place additional restrictions for entry on those unvaccinated. It appears that the number of countries requiring vaccines for entry will continue to increase. Last week, I heard a story of a missionary being refused entry to their country of service because they were not vaccinated.

In this blog post, I am also not writing about missionaries who voluntarily choose vaccination. Many missionaries have chosen vaccination, believing it to be the best health decision for themselves and their family. Some countries have inadequate medical facilities, so missionaries have taken the vaccine pre-emptively to avoid significant medical issues. To be honest, I am one of those who voluntarily took the vaccine for these reasons. Instead, I am talking about those missionaries who desire not to be vaccinated.

In light of these global realities, some are debating whether missionaries should take Covid vaccines if it is required to maintain access to their country of service. I have heard of a few missionaries who returned to their passport countries rather than taking the Covid vaccine. Missions agencies are beginning to either require their missionaries to be vaccinated or strongly encouraging vaccination. Facing the pressure to vaccinate, some missionaries wonder whether they should leave the field or take the shot. 

My question in this blog post is how Christian missionaries should consider their freedom regarding vaccination

In short, my answer is that we should imitate Paul in giving up our freedom for the gospel.[1] Paul modeled becoming all things to all people so that by every possible means he might save some (1 Cor 9:22). Therefore, missionaries today should follow Paul in giving up their freedom for the advancement of the gospel. 

Regarding Covid vaccines, this means that Christian missionaries should give up their personal freedom, as Paul did, and take the shot

Meat Sacrificed to Idols and Christian Freedom

When Paul wrote First Corinthians, the saints in Corinth were very interested in a matter of personal freedom. In particular, their question was whether it is permissible for Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols? (1 Cor 8:1)

Paul gave two answers to this question. First, Paul said that the Corinthian believers could eat the meat or not eat it. This decision was a matter of personal conscience. He wrote, “Food will not bring us close to God. We are not worse off if we don’t eat, and we are not better if we do eat” (1 Cor 8:8). In other words, Paul’s first answer was that whether to eat meat or not was a matter of personal freedom.

Second, Paul said that the Corinthian saints needed to stop looking to their own desires and look to the needs of their brothers and sisters in Christ instead. Some fell into idolatry because their brother or sister in Christ flaunted their freedom in front of them.  Paul wrote, “if food causes my brother or sister to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother or sister to fall” (1 Cor 8:13). 

Paul said that his desire to not cause his neighbor to stumble was greater than his desire to exercise his personal freedom. Therefore, he was willing to lay aside personal rights (i.e., the right to eat meat) to advance the gospel. Personally, I would rather take a vaccine than give up meat. 

Paul’s Example of Giving up Freedom

In 1 Corinthians 9:1, Paul asked, “Am I not free?” He then advanced his argument about giving up freedom for the gospel by providing examples of how he gave up his freedom personally.

Here are a few examples of freedoms that Paul gave up for the gospel:

  • The right to eat and drink what he chose (9:4)
  • The right to marry and take along a family (9:5)
  • The right to take support for his ministry (9:6-14)
  • The right to live according to his cultural preferences (9:19-23)

Paul wrote, “I have used none of these rights” (1 Cor 9:15). He said, “Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone in order to win more people” (1 Cor 9:19). A free man making himself a slave would have been a graphic picture to the believers at Corinth. There was no greater picture in their context of loss of rights than being sold into slavery.

In summary, Paul willingly and consciously gave up his rights for the advancement of the gospel. In this context of discussing giving up freedom for the advance of the gospel, Paul commanded, “Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

So, Paul said he was imitating Jesus’ example of giving up personal freedoms. How did Jesus give up His personal liberties? To start, Jesus left his place of authority in heaven to live as a child on earth. Jesus gave up the right to an easy life. For example, He said, “foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head” (Matt 8:20). The King of Kings and Lord of Lords gave up His freedom for us. Lastly, Jesus gave up His right to life, dying a horrible death as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Paul said that he saw himself following Jesus’ example of giving up freedom.

Missionaries and Personal Freedom

Many missionaries exemplify Paul’s statement, “I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). 

Here is a partial list of freedoms that my family has given up for the advancement of the gospel:

  • The right to clean air.
  • The right to access to American healthcare. 
  • The right to have our kids live near their grandparents. 
  • The right to our personal preferences in language, food, clothes, and a host of cultural preferences.

Our personal preferences have shifted as a result of living abroad. We have taken on more and more of our host culture. In some ways, we are less American now than before being sent. Our personal desires have shifted closer to Jesus’ plans for our life. However, it is not our preference to live in a megacity with significant pollution and congestion. I prefer a cooler climate to the extreme heat we often face here. My wife loves wearing her American clothes on vacations. Still, she chooses to wear local clothes to advance the gospel while in our country of service. 

My point is that it is normal for missionaries to give up personal freedom to advance the gospel. It is part of our calling. I am not saying that we have done anything extraordinary. Indeed, Jesus and Paul gave up far more freedoms than we have. In fact, it is with great joy that we serve in the role that Christ has called us. To summarize, missionaries are called to give up their personal freedoms and preferences in order to win more people (1 Cor 9:19-23). 

Considering Paul’s example and the standard expectation of missionaries to give up their freedom for gospel advance, how should we view the Covid vaccine? 

I believe that the answer is self-evident. Just as we missionaries have given up many other freedoms to advance the gospel, we must also be willing to give up any liberty regarding our preferences about the vaccines.[2] As many more countries require Covid vaccines, missionaries should vaccinate before non-vaccination becomes an inhibition to their ministry. 

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[1] It is my conviction that God has provided Paul as the ideal missionary model in the New Testament. Therefore, modern missionaries should study his life and emulate his missionary model.

[2] I know some will ask “What about…” type questions when reading a blogpost like this one. So, I thought I should respond to the question, “What about those with medical issues that make taking the vaccine unwise?”First, I am not a medical doctor. If someone has a complication making vaccination higher risk, my thoughts in this post are still valid. However, medical complications should also be considered. The reality is that most missionaries struggle with the fact that living in their contexts is not the best decision for their health and the health of their children. For example, most workers in South Asia face much higher pollution than they do in their passport countries. Also, various tropical diseases and parasites are much more common in South Asia than in the West. Health risks are part of the job of being a missionary. Therefore, a slightly higher risk in an individual who might take the vaccine does not mean that they should not take it. It is simply one more factor to consider, and their consideration should be taken with medical advice.

2 thoughts on “Covid Vaccines, Freedom, and Imitating Paul

  1. Thank you! My wife and I are still sifting through this. It’s discussions like this that speak to my heart of hearts, giving anything it takes to make his name known in the world. We seek to go in a few years. And I think we are willing to do what it takes. Thanks again. I’d like to be added to receive your posts.


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