The Week Magazine, in its April 10, 2020 issue, ran an article entitled, “Evangelicals: Just saying no to distancing”. They tried to present both sides of the question, as is their custom. However, this story was more of a pot stirrer than real news. No doubt there are Christians who are feeling a compulsion to continue worshipping with their congregations in spite of the threat of the pandemic. But are these people representative of Evangelicalism or are they examples of the Evangelical fringe? Based on survey information it appears that only 5%-10% of Christian churches are continuing to meet for services, even missing Easter, the most important church service of the year.
I am part of a Bible study that meets every week. Our last assembled meeting took place March 12. Besides our usual Bible study and prayer, we took the time to discuss the pandemic. Out of that discussion we decided to stop meeting and, unless things got unexpectedly better, we would attempt to meet virtually. We have now met for three weeks via the internet. Our decision was well ahead of any prohibitions coming from the Mayor or the Governor or the President. Within a week of our decision, all the local churches I am familiar with had cancelled their Sunday services and had directed that small groups such as ours discontinue assembling until further notice.
The national news media seems to have a sophomoric understanding of how the vast majority of Christian churches function. This is inexcusable since all they have to do is ask. Most churches are governed by committee—either by a group of Deacons or a Session of Elders. When a group of people governs a church the tendency is that these people provide a range of ideas that contribute towards major church decisions. These individuals generally serve without much public recognition. They don’t have careers to promote, nor are they interested in providing the media with controversial quotes. They tend to be administrators with eyes on the practical concerns. These committees certainly would have been thinking about such things as the elderly and sickly within their own congregations who would be especially vulnerable to the attacks of COVID-19. They would not want to make decisions that would bring sickness and death on their own congregations. They would not like to see their friends die. Let’s be frank—the committees themselves are well represented with individuals who are a bit long in the tooth. They would have a vested interest in avoiding risky behavior.
Characters like Jerry Falwell get a lot of attention from the press because they tend to act rashly and say outlandish things. This sells papers. Jonathan Rauch said, ”Extremism, outrage, and conflict are catnip for journalists.” Charismatic characters such as Falwell have significant followings. Being charismatic is not necessarily a problem. Billy Graham, for example, could have talked hoards of people into walking off cliffs, but he never did. I think Mr. Graham was cognizant that God is God and that, as a leader, he had to be wary of the deity complex that can accompany successful leaders. Many charismatic Christian leaders experience the free fall into autocracy, failing utterly to recognize the danger they have brought on themselves and their followers. The recent decisions to continue meeting with their congregations is a clear example of this spiritual weakness manifesting itself in physical ways.
Will the promises that God will protect their assembling congregations from the attacks of COVID-19 hold true? Allow me to say first that God does as he pleases. This is a good thing, because God is truly good and truly wise. God is always actively involved in everything, but he will make shifts in the fabric of history when he chooses. The more we can pray God into involvement, the better for everyone. And, yes, God can answer the inappropriate requests of an autocrat according to the autocrat’s wishes. But I don’t expect it. I rather doubt it.
What I expect is that those autocrats who expose their congregants to a greater degree will reap the corresponding additional infections in their congregations. I say this for two reasons. The first reason is that God tells us he is most interested in the prayer requests of the righteous. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. – John 9.31. The other reason is that God, while he has performed many shocking demonstrations (miracles) over the course of human history, they have always been done within the context of purpose. The parting of the Red Sea was an amazing display of God’s power, and part of its purpose was the display itself. But equally important was that it delivered the Israelites from the pursuing Egyptians, who would have slaughtered many of the Hebrews and ushered the rest back into slavery. When Jesus healed the blind and the sick, these were demonstrations of his authority from God (and ultimately evidence of his deity), but the healings were in themselves important acts.
It could be argued, of course, that it’s important that the churches continue to meet. This is a biblical directive. Still, there obviously are exceptional circumstances that would disrupt this rule. Paul, often in jail, could not meet with the churches but continued to communicate with them via letters. (Many of his letters were preserved and included in the New Testament. This exception proved an important blessing to the Christian Church throughout history.) Christians today have the option of internet communication. It’s not the same but it’s not bad, and it protects those in the churches from mutual exposure to the virus. This option is not available to everyone, sad to say. But sometimes we must “live to fight another day”. The Church should use whatever means it has to stay connected, and look forward to the day when it can assemble again. No doubt, the temporary loss of freedom will make a lasting impression. When people return to their churches it will be with new joy and appreciation.
Keeping these things in mind, the Christian has to ask, “Has God really promised me special protection if I continue to meet with the saints? If someone in the church is claiming that God gave him or her a vision or a command to do so, is such a command consistent with God’s revelations and behavior? Can the person with the revelation be trusted? Is there an implied threat to not going along with the one with the revelation? Is there significant peer pressure to go along? Fundamentally, is the revelation from God or is it from man? We are commanded to trust God; we are warned against trusting people.
Christians have good reason to be fearless in this time of COVID-19. This fearlessness is based on God’s promise to raise his children to life again, to incorruptible bodies and incorruptible spirits, and into a joyous heavenly community. This fearlessness is a great thing and a great counter to the human inclination to be fearful of everything. Fear is fundamental to the human condition. We are afraid of everything because sickness, injury, poverty, and shame are always one tough break or two away from us. And certain death is always lurking in the background, promising to come for us, and giving us no promises about when that will be. Christians do not escape these common human fears. Christians remain haunted by them. Even so, Christians also do sincerely believe in the resurrection. The belief is liberating; it dampens anxieties and fears.
The potential downside to this belief is recklessness. “What if I die? For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” The Christian must be careful not to neglect the “to live is Christ” part. This phrase reminds the Christian that they have been put on the earth to serve as God’s stewards and his representatives. We have assignments and responsibilities that God intends for us to fulfill. Our bodies are not our own; we do not have the option of being cavalier with them.
In addition to responsible care for ourselves, being image-bearers of God means that Christians must serve one another and the world at large. The application in this situation is to recognize that risking infection to one’s self means added risk to family, friends, and neighbors. There is a clear responsibility to avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus. To act otherwise is to fail to serve Christ. So, while there are many good reasons why churches should continue meeting in this time of COVID-19, the fundamental principle of loving one’s neighbor drives the conclusion that churches should not be meeting.
It’s clear that governments are not singling out Christians with any intent of persecution. Yes, restrictions on corporate assemblies do affect Christians and other religious groups more than the secular society at large. But everyone has been restricted. Note the cancelled concerts, plays, movies, sporting events, and even the use of public playgrounds. This is a case where Christians need to heed the direction of the civil authorities, whose responsibility it is to protect the entire citizenry.
My apologies (for what it’s worth) for those few churches that have charged forward, careless of our present circumstances. If civic authorities should decide to punish such churches in such ways as levying fines and/or sealing the doors of their church buildings, I think it would be appropriate. I don’t like to see the State imposing itself on the consciences of anyone, but there are times when an issue really is more the business of the state than it is of the Church. The Church, for its part, must do what it can to stay internally connected; it must make itself available for useful service; and it must increase its prayers, that God might be merciful and provide a means of short-circuiting this scourge.