This post is a few months in coming because I’m woefully behind on my writing for all kinds of personal reasons (maybe more on that some other time). But we’re also preaching through 1 Thessalonians at Arise Church right now, so I was reminded about a post I’d started a while back. I write this post not as any sort of personal attack, but rather as an example of the importance of reading and interpreting the Bible contextually.
The genesis for this post was a conversation that I had with a fellow Christian with whom I was having a conversation about COVID world and the American church.
As we were talking about the various things that our churches have done in response to COVID, this person mentioned “a verse in 1 Thessalonians that prohibited the wearing of masks.” This struck me as odd, so I asked them to send me the verse. Sometime later, they sent over 1 Thessalonians 2.5, which in the NIV reads: You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness.
Now certainty, in the NIV the word mask appears and is used in a negative sense. Paul is saying that he never masked. On a very surfacy reading of this passage, I’m not terribly surprised that someone used this as a prooftext for not wearing masks. “Look, Paul says that he didn’t wear a mask, why should I?”
Putting aside the fact that throughout his writings, Paul is very consistent in his calls to serve another in love and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, I want to be crystal clear: Paul is not even remotely addressing the issue of wearing masks in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in this passage.
In the first place, the context of this passage is Paul’s recounting of his time spent doing ministry in Thessalonica. At issue is the truthfulness and authenticity of their work. In contrast to his Judaizing opponents who chased Paul and his companions from Thessalonica, Paul claims that he and his companions only spoke the truth. Nothing in this passage points to medical masking or political motives; the issue is the importance of honesty and telling the truth rather than hiding behind flattery or greed.
Reading this passage in another translation will make this clear. The ESV renders this phrase as “a pretext for greed,” the CSB “greedy motives,” and the NRSV “a pretext for greed.” Even the KJV translates this as “a cloak for covetousness.” No masks to be found.
In the Greek, the word in question is πρόφασις (prostasis), which the LSJ defines as “a motive or cause alleged.” There’s certainly evidence of this term appearing in ancient legal and medical contexts. Indeed, this is the context suggested by the seven appearances of this term in the New Testament.
Prostasis does seem to have had one other primary use in the ancient world: the theater tradition. In Thessalonica (which, we must member, is in Greece) a prostatis may well have been understood as a reference to the theater tradition. The Greeks had been putting on plays for hundreds of years (if not longer), plays which often incorporated the use of masks. And while entertaining, there is evidence that the theater was viewed with an air of skepticism and incredulity. It was, after all, people pretending to be something they were not.
But even if the NIV is right in rendering prostasis as mask here, the issue remains Paul’s authenticity before the Thessalonians. He’s communicating that he wasn’t acting, that he wasn’t pretending to be something he wasn’t, and he didn’t try to deceive or flatter the Thessalonians.
All of this is to say that you should absolutely form your own opinions on masking (and other COVID responses). But please, for the love of interpreting the Bible contextually, don’t bring 1 Thessalonians 2.5 into the conversation. This is about telling the truth and being authentic, not a statement about pandemic procedures.