Religious Exemptions: Christians and the COVID-19 Vaccine

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, many schools and workplaces are requiring students and employees to get vaccinated in order to continue in-person activities. This has led many people who are vaccine hesitant to look for exemptions that may apply to them.

For some, there’s the medical exemption. This provision is for those who are allergic to one or more of the components contained within the vaccine, as well as those who have a preexisting medical condition that would preclude them from taking the vaccine, such as an autoimmune disorder. 

Then there’s the religious exemption for those who feel a vaccination would violate their spiritual beliefs. This applies mostly to Christian Science practitioners and some Amish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Scientologists who generally reject most forms of western medicine for religious reasons.

But for those who generally have no theological objections to medical practices, the grounds for this religious exemption are decidedly less cogent. Nevertheless, I’ve heard more than one personal account of churches and pastors being asked to draft and sign statements of vaccine religious exemption.

There may be legitimate reasons to be vaccine hesitant. I don’t deny that. But if we look at it from a theological perspective, none of those are religious reasons for the bible believing, orthodox Christian. They’re personal reasons that we shouldn’t project back onto Jesus or the bible.

Here are 3 reasons why I don’t believe there’s warrant for a Christian to ask for a COVID-19 vaccine exemption on religious grounds. 

1. Vaccines are not made from aborted fetal remains. 

One genuine concern, if true, would preclude Christians from taking the vaccine on moral-religious grounds. Thankfully, the claim that COVID-19 vaccines are made from aborted fetal remains is a misnomer. 

A Pro-Life, Pro-Vaccine Argument

I’m avidly pro-life, and I have both written and spoken about as much. So this question is eminently important to me. One resource that has been helpful to me is a blog post written by renowned pro-life ethicist Scott Rae. I encourage you to read it, as he outlines the history and science very succinctly. 

To summarize, while the vaccine does benefit from decades old cell lines that were originally replicated from aborted fetal tissue, none of the vaccines contain fetal material. And for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, the cell line was used only in testing, not in production. 

Depending on the vaccine, the cell lines were harvested in either 1973 or 1985 from aborted fetuses. The circumstances of these abortions is unknown. But based on the relevant historical data, we can surmise that the 1973 cells were from an abortion as a lifesaving measure for the mother, while the 1985 case was perhaps not. 

Regardless, when these cells were replicated, they were “immortalized.” The original tissue is not used, but rather the “immortal” replications of it. To repeat, no tissue from the original fetuses has been used for medical research in the past 40-plus years.

These immortalized cell lines have been used for the last four decades in myriad medical research and treatments, saving untold numbers of lives and improving overall medical knowledge and treatment options.

These cell lines are so prevalent in the medical field that if you were to refuse any medical treatment that have benefited from the use of these immortalized cells, you would likely need to refuse more medical treatments than you ever accepted––many of which are lifesaving. 

Wrestling With The Moral Complexity

I understand the moral complexity of the question of utilizing these immortalized cell lines. But here are the stakes: if you decide that it’s morally inexcusable to use these immortalized cells in one medical practice, then it must be immoral for every usage. We can’t have it both ways. 

What’s more is that these cell lines have been leveraged to save lives and improve quality of life. While we could have only obtained them from the body of an aborted child, we don’t have a hand in perpetuating that evil with the ensuing medical research. Those acts were committed 40 years ago. 

On the other hand, if the vaccines were tested and produced with newly aborted fetal material, and in fact continuously required new fetal material to continue such research, Christians would be morally obligated to reject the vaccine out of hand. But that’s not the case. 

Rae summarizes it this way: “…there are no fetal materials in the vaccines, these vaccines do not encourage abortions for medical research, nor are they complicit in elective abortions in such a way as to make the person receiving the vaccines culpable for association with evil.”

If the vaccines were produced with newly aborted fetal material, and in fact continuously required new fetal material to continue such research, Christians would be morally obligated to reject it out of hand. But that's not the case. Click To Tweet

2. COVID-19 precautions in general, and vaccines in particular, are meant for the collective good. 

If Christians are to seek a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine, then we must demonstrate that the vaccine is morally wrong based on our biblical worldview, either on personal grounds or societal grounds. 

As we explored in the previous point, we don’t have a strong case to reject taking the vaccine on personal moral grounds. That is, unless you’re also willing to reject most modern medical treatments and practices. 

Furthermore, as we look to societal impact, the overall effect of COVID-19 precautions is that they are beneficial to the common good. The higher the rate of vaccination in any given community is, the lower the rates of transmission of the virus are. It’s simple math. The more people get vaccinated, the less people get sick and die. 

Therefore, while an individual may have legitimate, albeit personal, reservations about the vaccine, they cannot make the case that the vaccine is immoral––only that they don’t want to take it. 

However, if we are seeking the good of our communities, our goal should be to get as many people vaccinated as humanly possible. So if a Christian is required by their employer or school to take the vaccine, they have no moral reason not to. 

As legitimate as our personal reservations may be, they don’t constitute a moral argument, and certainly not a theological one.

As legitimate as our personal reservations about the vaccine may be, they don't constitute a moral argument, and certainly not a theological one. Click To Tweet

3. Taking the vaccine is a nuisance, but it is well worth the collective benefits for our communities. 

There are any number of reasons why a person may be vaccine hesitant. And that’s because vaccinations, much like many other even minor medical procedures, can be scary and uncomfortable. 

Getting The Vaccine is a Pain in the Arm. 

When I received my vaccination, it wasn’t exactly fun. At the time, lines were long, even with an appointment (they’re likely much shorter now that a few months have passed). So I had to block out a few hours of my day for each of the two doses. After receiving each dose, I felt a little under the weather for about 24 hours, and my arm was sore. 

The whole process was kind of a pain––both metaphorically and physically. But at the end of the day, it honestly wasn’t that big of a deal. I’ve endured greater inconveniences for less worthy causes. Most of us have. 

What’s more is that there are others in my community, such as medical professionals, police officers, firefighters, first responders, and others who have endured far worse for the cause of the common good in the midst of this pandemic. Taking the vaccine is a small token of partnership with them in their personal sacrifices for the collective health of our communities. 

For these reasons, I encourage all Christians to take the vaccine voluntarily. And while it is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss which government or private entities should or shouldn’t require the vaccine, if you have placed yourself under the authority of an entity that is requiring its people to be vaccinated, I encourage you to respectfully comply. 

Sacrificing a Little to Make A Bit Impact

One pastor recently made the “biblical” case for falsifying vaccination documents. It would almost be funny if it weren’t so reprehensibly sincere. Please don’t do that. And definitely don’t set it forth as the Christian thing to do.

The bible never centers its moral philosophy on personal rights, but rather on personal responsibility not only for personal piety but also the collective good. This is what Paul conveys to the church in Philippi.

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 4:6)

The example Paul uses to drive this command home is Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross for the good of others. The measure of this command is our willingness to make personal sacrifices for the collective good. That should always be our mindset. When it is, we make a bigger impact than we often realize.  

This isn’t to say that you have no rights or shouldn’t have rights. You are free to remove yourself from under the authority of the entity requiring a vaccination. You can withdraw from the school. You can resign from the job posting. While you’ll need to weigh the ramifications of those decisions, it is well within your rights to make them. 

But generally speaking, my sense is that the nuisance of the vaccine is outweighed by its benefit to the common good, as well as your personal success. In other words, this may not be a hill worth dying on. 

That may sound cold. But as we look at our society as a whole, every individual should be committed to the collective good, even at the expense of personal comfort. 

The bible never centers its moral philosophy on personal rights, but rather on personal responsibility not only for personal piety but also the collective good. Click To Tweet

Let’s see the bigger picture. 

It isn’t my intention to come across as calloused or compassionless. If you are vaccine hesitant, I see and understand your fears and frustrations. 

But I also encourage you to step away from cable news. Step away from the cynicism perpetuated by our echo chambers. Look at the bigger picture. 

Listen to the stories of those who have loved ones who have been hospitalized or have died from COVID-19 related complications. Feel their pain. Mourn with them. And resolve to do what you can to ensure that something similar doesn’t happen to someone else. 

Sometimes, it can be difficult to see the impact of your decisions when you think of them in terms of macro trends and statistics. Sometimes, it takes looking a friend in the eye to understand exactly what your choice to get vaccinated will mean to somebody else. 

Seek first to serve others. In so doing, you will model the heart of Jesus, and that will not be forgotten. 

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