Throughout the world, governments are aggressively pushing COVID vaccines. Some have instituted mandates or vaccine passports. Many are losing patience with the unvaccinated, even proposing that they have forfeited the right to certain health services. The unvaccinated have become deplorables—the undeserving sick.
This COVID regime has been bolstered by a sort of civil religion—the “cult of covid.” We are in a period not merely of authoritarian overreach, but of religious zeal and stratification.
The cult of COVID is real, with its saints (frontline workers), high priests (Fauci and the CDC), lower priests (vaccine developers, doctors), deacons (mainstream media), piety (expressing overwrought concern about variants, various forms of safety theater), and so forth. With the arrival of vaccine passports, public spaces become “sacred”—holy realms accessible exclusively to those purified by one of the vaccines. These persons will have made the proper sacrifice, granting them access to society.
These forms of stratification and segregation can be understood as a reversion to what Peter Leithart has called “stoicheic order.” This refers to the Pauline concept of the “elements [stoicheia] of the world” (Gal. 4:1-10; cf. Col. 2:8, 20). Ancient pagan nations organized their societies according to stoicheic rules, with religious practices and purity systems based on binaries of pure and impure, clean and unclean, sacred and profane, and so forth. These were deemed necessary for life in the “flesh.”
In Paul’s writings, Leithart explains, “flesh” refers to human existence after the fall. It describes the weakness and vulnerability of life in Adam after humanity is removed from the Garden of God’s presence and destined for death. The various socioreligious arrangements in ancient societies understood the impotence of the flesh, but having no means for its redemption, they created rules to remind people that flesh was the problem. These societies were regulated by ascetic prohibitions—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”—that were severe toward the body but of course could do nothing to fix the flesh (Col. 2:23).
These purity systems were present among Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. For example, Egyptians were scrupulous about cleanliness, believing physical purity was necessary to please the gods. Priests had elaborate rules for eating, shaving, cleansing, and clothing. The Babylonians had similar rites of purity—requirements for shaving, clipping, and fumigating of breath and body. Gatekeepers guarded temples to keep out unwanted people. Greeks made sacrifices to please the gods and purify the people. Pregnancy, birth, and even the death of a relative made one impure, and barred one from the temple. “Purification is the science of division,” said Plato. The stoicheic practices of these cultures institutionalized flesh without gesturing toward its overcoming, as the religion of Israel did. They merely exclude and divide.
As many have argued, modernity is not really secular, but simply religious in less obvious ways. Leithart’s analysis helps us see this—how contemporary secular societies have reverted to the pagan stoicheic order of the flesh with all its binaries.
The way in which governments are pushing the vaccines is one example. Flesh is the problem. We must have a sort of religious faith in these vaccines—ignoring (or at least inexplicably downplaying) all scientific evidence about natural immunity and varying levels of risk across demographics. Only with proof of this purification is one permitted to enter all the temples of modern society (restaurants, workplaces, gyms, and so forth). The unvaccinated are viewed with suspicion. Increasingly, they are deemed unworthy of compassion and medical services. Our biosecurity state has created a new stoicheic order. And Christians have done little to resist. In fact, most are found cheering it on.
The Word took on flesh (John 1:14), condemned sin in the flesh, and overcame the problems of the flesh in his resurrection and creation of the new society in the Spirit (Rom. 8). Walls of division were broken down (Eph. 2:11ff). Christians are called to no longer regard anyone according to the flesh (2 Cor. 5:16). No person is unclean, impure, or beyond the reach of grace (Acts 10). To believe such as a Christian is to commit the Galatianist heresy (Gal. 1-3). Unfortunately, Leithart argues, Galatianism has been an ever-present temptation in the Christian era.
The Galatian heresy rears its head when churches start to require evidence of vaccines to attend worship. Or when they divide the congregation between vaccinated and unvaccinated. Or when Christians deny that there are legitimate reasons for refusing the vaccine, thus binding the consciences of others and rendering judgment upon them. But in our churches, we must no longer judge according to the flesh.
Christians must be very careful, in our efforts to fight this virus, that we do not adopt the stoicheic order of our secular society. We need this social sickness to come to an end. At least in our churches, where we must no longer judge according to the flesh. Refuse Galatianism, not your brothers and sisters who come to a different conclusion about the merits of these vaccines.
Rev. James R. Wood is a PhD candidate in Theology at Wycliffe College (University of Toronto), graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary (ThM, 2018), and PCA pastor. His writings focus on political theology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology and have appeared in the Journal of Reformed Theology, Pro Ecclesia: A Journal for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, and Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Mere Orthodoxy, Providence, and Covenant (weblog of Living Church).
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