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Most Christians Welcome COVID-19 Vaccines, But Others Are Skeptical

Many of the 700 members of the Grace Chapel Church of Christ in Cumming, Ga., north of Atlanta, are excited about the rapid development of vaccines to fight COVID-19.

“This is an answer to prayer, for certain,” said Paul Huyghebaert, the church’s lead minister.

When his turn comes, Huyghebaert, 42, said he definitely plans to roll up his sleeve.

He expects that most of the congregation—especially the older population—will be vaccinated.

But not all.

“Some do see this as a government overreach,” he said, “or even something as extreme as the ‘mark of the beast.’”

Nationwide, roughly three-quarters of 200 members of Churches of Christ who responded to a Christian Chronicle survey said they intend to get vaccinated or already have.

Like many fellow believers, Yolanda Greenway, a member of the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ in Dover, Ark., said she praises God for the first two COVID-19 vaccines cleared for use in the U.S.—those made by Pfizer and Moderna.

“We all want this terrible pandemic to end,” Greenway said. “There are some things only God has the ability to handle. This is one of them.”

Sarah Palmer is a pediatrician who attends the North Central Church of Christ in Indianapolis. She is one of 9 million Americans jabbed with the first of two shots since vaccinations began in mid-December.

“I am grateful for the intense effort to develop the vaccine and know that it has the backing of years of research on vaccines in general,” Palmer said. “I believe when God gave Adam dominion over the earth in Genesis, that included developing scientific knowledge to tame diseases.”

A game changer?

Nancy Henley’s dad lost his 4-year-old sister to polio in 1949 before the first polio vaccine was developed by American physician Jonas Salk in the early 1950s.

“She died in her mother’s arms going to be put in an iron lung,” said Henley, a member of the Maryland Heights Church of Christ in Missouri.

“Vaccines were a game changer for polio. I have prayed for a COVID-19 vaccine.”

But even as the number of U.S. coronavirus deaths nears 400,000 and infections top 24 million, a quarter of Chronicle readers surveyed said they either don’t plan to be vaccinated or remain undecided.

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“I’m skeptical,” said Trent Wheeler, a member of the University City Church of Christ in Gainesville, Fla. “I appreciate the rapid efforts to get a vaccine, but I have a distrust of the pharmaceutical industry.”

Linda Anderson Sneed, 69, said she is high-risk for COVID-19 because of her age, autoimmune deficiency, respiratory weakness, and other medical issues.

Sneed, whose husband, Denny, preaches for the Hereford Church of Christ in Texas, said she follows safety rules such as wearing a mask and observing physical distancing. She only goes out when necessary, such as for medical appointments.

But she’s undecided about being vaccinated.

“I am not sure due to the fact that it was conceived so quickly and rumors that it was created using the cells of aborted babies,” she said.

Operation Warp Speed

Even a number of Christians who plan to receive the shots voiced concerns about potential unknown long-term effects.

In retrospect, Dr. Francis Collins, the physician-geneticist who heads the National Institutes of Health, said the name attached to the rapid vaccine development—Operation Warp Speed—might have given some Americans the wrong impression.

“It may also have conveyed that we cut corners,” Collins said in a video discussion with Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “I want to assure you—as a scientist, as a physician, as a researcher who has been in the middle of all of this since January (2020)—we have done nothing to compromise in even the smallest way the safety of the efficacy standards for these vaccines.”

At the same time, Collins said a cell line derived in 1973 from a pregnancy termination in the Netherlands was not used in the production of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, although it was used in preparation of some vaccines not yet approved in the U.S.

Quincy J. Byrdsong, vice provost for health affairs at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., echoed Collins’ statement.

“The reference many are making to fetal cells and vaccines is the use of fetal cell lines, not fetal tissue, in the tests which ensure the vaccines work,” Byrdsong said. “The tests are performed during what is known as the confirmation stage of vaccine development.

“For any drug development, there is preclinical work which needs to be performed before it can be introduced to humans,” he added. “These preclinical studies include the use of animals and/or cell lines, and these studies are designed to not expose humans to risk unnecessarily.”

In a recent story, The Associated Press reported that religious leaders at the forefront of the pro-life movement, including Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler and SBC’s Russell Moore, have celebrated the development of the vaccines. Many believe the leading COVID-19 vaccines “are acceptable to take, given their remote and indirect connection to lines of cells derived from aborted fetuses.”

50-50 split at one church

At the Stockdale Church of Christ in rural South Texas, minister Kenneth Clapp said the congregation is split about 50-50 on being vaccinated.

“There are certainly those that see the vaccine as a solution and an answer to prayer,” Clapp said. “Then there are those who are certainly very skeptical of the vaccine and what it may represent.

“I don’t really see any theological objections being voiced,” he added. “Most of them are political more than anything, a lack of trust in big pharmaceutical companies and the government.

“And like has been the case all along, there seems to be a portion at least that think this whole thing (COVID-19) is fake. I’ll be honest: I don’t really understand that. But it’s their position nonetheless.”

James Nesmith, minister for the West Broad Church of Christ in Richmond, Va., said he initially was suspicious of the vaccines, particularly given how quickly they were developed.

“But after I learned about the strict, stringent, multilayered process adhered to before these vaccines were approved, my apprehensions became far less pronounced,” Nesmith said. “Based upon the evidence, I feel the vaccines are safe, and I look forward to taking mine as soon as I am able to do so.”

On the other hand, Mike Lewis, worship and young adult minister for the Southwest Church of Christ in Tigard, Ore., said he does not take a lot of medicines and focuses on natural remedies.

Lewis said he rarely gets sick and has not had a real cold or flu for years.

He has avoided the coronavirus so far.

“I’m concerned there wasn’t sufficient testing,” he said of the COVID-19 vaccines. “It was rolled out too quickly.”

He cited specific concerns: “Lack of animal testing stages. Long-term effects on the body. What an mRNA will do to our own DNA and body functioning.”

How mRNA vaccines function

The COVID-19 vaccines rely on mRNA—or messenger RNA—a new technology that injects a piece of genetic code for the spike protein that coats the coronavirus, medical experts note.

The mRNA induces the body to produce harmless spike protein, enough to prime the immune system to react if it later encounters the real virus.

“The benefit of mRNA vaccines, like all vaccines, is that those vaccinated gain this protection without ever having to risk the serious consequences of getting sick with COVID-19,” said Jeff McCormack, chief academic officer at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City.

“Let me be clear on the next point since I have been asked regularly about it,” said McCormack, who leads that Christian university’s coronavirus readiness task force. “They do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept. The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.”

The reference that some COVID-19 skeptics make to the mark of the beast refers to the apocalyptic writings in Revelation, specifically Revelation 13:17.

“The mark signifies loyalty to those principalities and powers opposed to God’s kingdom,” said Vic McCracken, a professor of Christian ethics and theology at Abilene Christian University in Texas. “It has nothing to do with a medical procedure. Such a reading of Revelation would make little sense in the context of a book written to an audience nearly 2,000 years ago.”

Back in Georgia, Huyghebaert said he has seen no need to address that question with the full congregation since just a few members have expressed such an idea.

But when fellow Christians raise that point in one-on-one conversations, he tries to lead them through the Scriptures.

“People who receive the mark seem to be aware of what they are doing,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that people were tricked into receiving the mark, as is the fear with this vaccine. That is what the few I have talked with have worried about.”

Also, he explains that this is not the first time that believers “have had similar unfulfilled fears about things that could have been viewed as the mark.”

“Revelation is difficult to interpret, at best, and it’s even more difficult to make specific and exact applications of John’s words,” he tells them.

“I try to conclude,” Huyghebaert said, “by reminding folks what Revelation is ultimately about: God wins. So whether you choose to take the vaccine or not, make sure you are on his side and that he is the only one you give your worship.”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally posted at The Christian Chronicle. Bobby Ross Jr. is a columnist for Religion Unplugged and editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle. A former religion writer for The Associated Press and The Oklahoman, Ross has reported from all 50 states and 15 nations. He has covered religion since 1999.

Bobby Ross Jr.

A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, he blogs about the intersection of faith and the media for GetReligion.