My government is mandating that everyone receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but I heard some Christians are refusing to take it. Should a Christian obey the government mandate or can we refuse to take the vaccine?
The Bible is silent on the topic of medical treatments, which means we must apply a basic principle for Christian living called "liberty." All Christians are free to decide for themselves in matters not addressed specifically by Scripture so long as our choices do not violate Scripture nor our conscience. The principle of liberty sets an important standard for Christian fellowship that believers respect and honor the choices made by other believers in matters outside the Bible.
Since the Bible does not set requirements on medical treatments (including taking vaccines), Christians have liberty to decide the matter for themselves, and we must leave room for different choices within the body of Christ. One believer may elect to receive a vaccine while another believer may refuse the same. Nevertheless, both are acting properly because each is following his or her own conscience in the spirit of Christian liberty.
On the other hand, Scripture teaches that believers do not have the liberty to disobey the law. When matters of liberty come into conflict with government directives, a believer must prioritize obeying the government ahead of exercising personal liberty, for to do otherwise is sin, as Paul says:
Rom. 13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
Rom. 13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
Scripture sets a very high standard for our submission to authority. Paul says all governments are agents of God established to do His will, so in effect, Paul is saying that to disobey the government is to disobey God Himself.
Generally speaking, a believer is required to obey the government in all matters. We cannot ignore the Bible's command to obey the government simply because we disagree with our government's goals or methods or even for fear of suffering personal harm. We may disobey our government only when it requires something of us that directly contradicts God's word (see Acts 5:29), but even then we must willingly submit to the consequences of our disobedience (e.g., fines, imprisonment, etc.).
Therefore, since the word of God gives us no specific direction on medical treatment (including on taking vaccines), believers have no Scriptural basis for choosing to disobey a government requirement to take the vaccine.
Not even the preservation of our personal safety or health takes priority over obeying the government. In Paul's day, Christians willingly suffered great personal harm at the hands of Roman persecution, yet history records that believers did not rise up against Roman authority. Instead, they submitted to the government and suffered persecution willingly, and as a result of their sacrificial obedience to government, history records that the Church grew as the Empire marveled at believers' obedient behavior.
Therefore, we must submit to our government even when doing so may place us in harm's way, as when we are conscripted to serve in the military or if required to take a vaccine with potential negative side effects. Our Christian witness is at stake in these decisions, and the Bible teaches that the preservation of our Christian witness through obedience to government is more important to the Lord than our right to preserve our liberty or health by disobeying the government.
(For an in-depth examination of a Christian's obligation to obey the government, please listen to our Romans Bible study.)
So if the government gives us a choice of whether to take the COVID-19 vaccine, then each Christian has the liberty to choose whether to do so or not. On the other hand, if our government mandates taking the vaccine, then Scripture commands we submit to the mandate and receive the vaccine as part of our duty to obey God's word.
Finally, can a believer refuse a government's order to take the vaccine on the basis of personal conscience? For example, if we suspect a vaccine was developed in immoral ways (i.e., using aborted fetal tissue, etc.), can we refuse the vaccine on moral grounds?
Yes, a believer may refuse to obey the government on the basis of conscience, however, the believer is duty-bound in such circumstances to accomplish proper due diligence before deciding the matter. In our technologically-advanced age, we are inundated continually by unsubstantiated accusations and theories circulating the Internet, which distort the truth, reinforce preconceived ideas, and incite fear and suspicion. Often the information we receive this way will be wrong (or at least incomplete), therefore we should hesitate to act contrary to a government mandate based solely on social media rumors.
Instead, before deciding to disobey government authorities on the basis of moral objections in any other matter, we must consult reputable sources of information to determine the truth in a matter. Unless and until we can substantiate our moral concerns, we should err on the side of obedience as required by Scripture. To do otherwise would not be acting in good faith.
Paul warns believers to consider the consequences should we make a habit of disobeying our government:
Rom. 13:3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;
Rom. 13:4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.
Paul warns that a society with no fear of breaking the law is not a society we should prefer, so if Christians lead the way in disobeying the government, we lend our support to the forces of anarchy and chaos, which is sin. Ultimately, a society marked by chaos and lawlessness will bring far greater risks in the long run and will impede the Church's ability to fulfill the Kingdom program.
Remember, willfully disobeying a command of Scripture like that found in Romans 13:1-2 is a serious offense, and therefore we should not be inclined or persuaded to do so without sufficient biblical support.