How to Debate Vaccines* and Still Come Out a Christian

(*organic food, essential oils, education, health care, immigration, soteriology, eschatology…)

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that there have been several outbreaks of measles across the United States recently. Not surprisingly, this has led to vigorous (if not often, one-dimensional) debate about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccinations. And all I have to say to CNN, FOX, NPR, and every other news outlet that is now covering this story: Y’all are late to the party. We mamas have been debating this for years.

I remember the first time I realized that the questions surrounding vaccines were more than theoretical. I was visiting a friend when she opened her freezer to get some ice. There, sitting next to a chub of frozen hamburger, was a tray of lab vials. When I asked about them, she casually replied, “Oh, those are my kids’ vaccines. I ordered them from XYZ instead of the standard ones. My doctor said he would administer them if I bought them and stored them myself.”

Since then, I’ve watched the vaccine debate play out on blogs, Facebook feeds, and in the corners of church nurseries. And I’ve learned a few things—mostly, that we don’t debate well and that we tend to have an unhealthy relationship with the certainty of our own choices. So in the interest of making the next few weeks easier on all of us, here are some suggestions about how to debate vaccines and still come out a Christian:

1. Realize that we live in a broken world.  One of Christianity’s core tenets is that we live in a world devastated by sin. Not only does this account for the presence of disease, it also means that our ability to combat disease will always be, in someway, inadequate. Learning to navigate the brokenness isn’t simply about having enough footnotes to back up our conclusions; navigating the brokenness requires the wisdom to apply the principles we know, weigh the relevant contingencies, and come to the best possible answer. Even as we accept that we will never arrive at a perfect solution. In a broken world, the questions surrounding vaccines are more an exercise in applied ethics than a simple choice between black and white.

2. Pursue true wisdom. Very early in the vaccine debate, one side will inevitably wallop the other with “the truth”—whether it is scientific research or a secret government memo. And that’s when the trouble really begins. If we believe that we have a corner on “the truth,” we will also believe that we understand things that other people don’t. That we have discernment that others lack. (How sad for them.)

I’ve seen this happen from both sides, but the ironic thing is that this posture is fundamentally unwise. In fact, Proverbs calls this kind of arrogant certainty by another name: foolishness. True wisdom does not boast about what it knows but humbly listens and learns. In fact, the difference between wise people and foolish people isn’t how much they know. The difference is that wise people know that they don’t know everything while foolish people are convinced they do.

3. Consider you neighbor’s well-being. Jesus Christ taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Because of moral proximity, our closest neighbors are those who live within our own homes, and it is our God-given responsibility to care for our children to the best of our ability. But loving our children also means remembering that they are part of a greater family where God is our Father and Christ our older brother.  Unfortunately, too many people parent with the aim of preserving their own nuclear families intact. We see our own families as ends in themselves rather than a reflection of a greater family.

Instead of simply weighing my responsibility to my children, I must also weigh the responsibility that my children have to their neighbors—both today and tomorrow. My goal is not to give my children the safest possible life but to teach them how to love God and their neighbor as themselves. My goal is to teach them how to live within this larger family and draw their brothers and sisters into deeper fellowship with our Father.

4. Do nothing out of fear. Whether it is fear of what may happen if you don’t vaccinate or fear of what may happen if you do, many people approach these questions from a posture of fear. This is why reactions become so intense when you offer an alternative perspective. Honestly, these conversations are rarely about the issue itself but about what we are trusting to keep us safe.

But for a Christian, fear is the worst possible motivation to make any decision. We are to be awed by nothing other than God Himself—our loving Father who is sovereign over all. When we stop fearing the wrong things and start fearing Him alone, we’ll be able to engage the questions with power, love, and sound minds. 5. Trust God. So let’s say you do your due diligence. You research every possible scenario. You humbly submit to counsel. You make your decision before God. Guess what? It’s still not going to be enough to protect your child.

One of the hardest lessons of parenthood is learning that you can’t protect your child from suffering; an even harder lesson is learning that your own parenting failures will cause some of that suffering. Just as the world around you is broken, so too, are you. You are sinful and limited. If your parenting philosophy relies on your ability to make the “right” decision, you’re going to end up one massive ball of anxiety or worse, self-righteousness. And in the end, you’ll model a works religion for your children.

It’s been said that what makes us afraid and what we trust in to keep us safe reveals what we worship. In the case of vaccines, a lot of us are trusting ourselves and our own ability to know enough to make the “right” decision. But by its very definition, this approach is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead, the gospel calls us to embrace our weakness, to humble ourselves, and to cast ourselves on God’s mercy. Even when it comes to something as prosaic as vaccines and the safety of our children.

Especially when it comes to something as significant as vaccines and the safety of our children.