2020 Theological Symposium: Update

by Theological Commission

Many of our readers have communicated with us in recent weeks inquiring about the status of our 2020 Theological Symposium, originally scheduled for October 5-6 on the campus of Welch College.

Due to the significant rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and the overall uncertainty created for events like our Symposium where guests come to town from multiple states, we have decided to hold a virtual Symposium this year. Our intent is to still hold this event on the originally-scheduled dates. However, all of our event’s features will be taken online.

Many details are being worked out still, but we will be sure to keep you posted on how you can participate in this free, intellectually enriching event. While we completely acknowledge the undesirable nature of an online meeting versus an in-person event, we do anticipate that the event will be accessible to a broader array of people who, in the past, would not have been able to make the trip to Gallatin, Tennessee or Moore, Oklahoma for our event.

We are still receiving paper proposals at this time, and welcome your questions and submissions. As presenters will not need to be physically present to share their paper, we suggest you take this into account as you consider participating.

Please direct any questions or proposals to fwbtheology@gmail.com, or the comment thread to this post.

Why It’s Not the Same

W. Jackson Watts

It’s just not the same.” Most people have heard this phrase and uttered it countless times since March. It’s how Christians have expressed the sentiment of trying to worship together while not actually being together. After the suspension of worship services in March, the vast majority of congregations transitioned to various online expressions of Christian community and worship. These ranged from pre-recorded sermons being posted online to livestreaming full-length service elements from mostly vacant buildings—and quite a few other variations.

During this time pastors, teachers, and church members repeatedly said, “We know it’s not the same.” I’ve heard those words rolling off of my lips a time or two. Most people recognize that in doing something online, regardless of what they call it, they were engaged in something highly unnatural and undesirable.

Let’s zero in on the phrase itself: “Online ‘worship,’ ‘service,’ or ‘church’ isn’t the same.” I have two main concerns about this. First, it’s not clear to me that all Christians recognize that there is an inherent problem or limitation. Now if you asked them, “Would you prefer to gather in person or watch a video or something like a service online?” most would opt for the former. However, this leads to a second concern. Can we honestly articulate why an online experience isn’t the same as an in-person experience? Only in answering this question, based on biblical principle and practice, can we rightly address the first concern, which is to understand that there is indeed a problem or limitation that we need to face up to.

With that being said, I have composed a list of reasons why an online experience is inferior to an in-person experience. I offer this list with conviction, but also with compassion. I fully understand that we’re still in a transitional stage where many of our brothers and sisters are not yet able to gather  owing to health concerns of various kinds. Yet the importance of addressing this issue is three-fold: (1) Crises are an occasion for us to grow in virtue and understanding. If we must be apart now, and if we want to make sense of the months we were apart, thinking this through will benefit us. (2) Because many who are new to the faith, or who aren’t believers, will likely not fully understand God’s design for the church, this is an occasion for discipleship. We don’t want to squander such an opportunity. (3) Pastorally speaking, there are many who think it’s safe enough to go on vacation, go to Walmart, protest while surrounded by thousands, and/or attend large family gatherings, but gathering at a socially-distanced worship service is somehow not sufficiently safe. Walking through such a list may cause them to reevaluate what is truly essential to our Christian experience.

With those being said, here are my 22 reasons, largely in no particular order:

  1. Church means “assembly.” It’s a gathering. You can’t gather apart.
  2. “Online church” or “Online worship” are oxymorons (see #1).
  3. God made us as embodied creatures to experience life.
  4. It’s impossible to look someone in the eye on a screen and the camera simultaneously.
  5. You can’t hug someone you’re not with.
  6. You can’t shake the hand of a person you’re not with.
  7. You can’t take the Lord’s Supper with the body when you’re not with the body.
  8. You can’t wash feet[1]
  9. You can’t practice congregational church discipline online.
  10. You can’t easily hold a church business meeting online, if at all.
  11. It’s easier to get distracted when you’re apart, behind a screen, and no one else can see what you’re doing.
  12. Online ministry uniquely furthers the problem we already have among some Christians—which is to see the church as a religious content provider (i.e. Here’s a file to download at your leisure!).
  13. Virtual “altars of prayer” don’t provide us a place to weep together as we might need
  14. I can’t hear God’s Word being sung all around me online, no matter how good the audio and amplification are.
  15. The preacher can’t look his listeners in the eye in an empty
  16. The congregants can’t fully experience the depth of multi-directional communication that live preaching achieves.
  17. You can’t have the fullest range of volunteers assisting in leading the worship service.
  18. Online “visitors” don’t experience your church as it truly is, but as an online product.
  19. Younger children don’t get the opportunity to learn to be still and attentive in a service surrounded by other people.
  20. Younger children don’t get to learn about the act of giving by placing money in the offering plate that their mother, father, grandma, or grandpa handed them.
  21. Empty or sparsely filled parking lots diminish yet another opportunity churches have to give a visible witness to what they value in life to the surrounding community.
  22. Participating in Sunday school, small groups, and other similar ministries online loses a significant personal

I want to acknowledge that there may be a counterpoint to most of these. People are finding new ways to perform normal parts of life online. Yet I’ve tried to combine both principles (like #s 1 and 3) with both practical situations (like #s 20 and 22) to help us understand what’s really at stake. You can’t work your way around a biblical principle; it is what it is. It’s God’s good design for us. When it comes to the practical situations, I’m trying to paint a picture of specific experiences we miss when we’re apart. I do see these as practical ways we apply biblical principles, even though they aren’t all commanded of God (i.e. I don’t think Scripture requires Christians to hug as the only culturally-appropriate alternative to a “holy kiss.”). But some of these are ways we express our love and unity in the faith together that can’t be supplanted easily—if at all—in virtual reality.

Let me offer a final thought to those still at home who reasonably must remain there, and those able to gather but may have grown to devalue our embodied, physical gatherings:

To those at homebound or in nursing homes, you are not somehow less than God’s child because you are unable to be with other Christians. This simply means we who are able have a greater obligation to minister to you where you are, as best as we reasonably can. Pray for us as we pray for you. Do what you can from where you can. We miss you, and we love you.

To those able to gather but refuse to, or who deep down doubt the importance of in-person worship, what would you like to say to those stuck at home? After considering this list, do you still feel the same way? How might we honor, respect, and love God and His people well? Seeing why our online experiences fall dramatically short should help us to recommit ourselves to the importance of our gathered life of worship and service, and help us to be more intentional in serving those who weren’t able to gather, even before we ever heard of COVID-19.

[1] I am not advocating that we practice the Lord’s Supper or Feet Washing during a time in which social distancing is still necessary for health reasons. I’m speaking about what is possible (or not) during non-pandemic conditions.

Theology in a Time of Pandemic

W. Jackson Watts

Theology never arises in a vacuum. It always has a context, a set of circumstances shaping its development and reception. Augustine’s City of God was a response to pagan claims that the barbarian incursions into Rome were a consequence of Christian emperors abolishing pagan worship. Martin Luther’s early writing would have never been penned outside the shadow of a spiritually bankrupt church. Francis Schaeffer’s Trilogy makes greater sense once you learn about his years ministering to spiritually and intellectually adrift youth at L’Abri.

The coronavirus pandemic is an occasion that forces us to theologize. As important as it is for church leaders to develop communication strategies and ministry procedures to ensure safety, it’s equally important to consider how our understanding of God, Scripture, and the Gospel are revealed in and through this crisis. Crises always expose the depth (or lack thereof) in our convictions. Yet they should also elicit careful theological reflection—reflection which presupposes that Christianity speaks to all of life.

I’d like to highlight five questions Christians should be able to address during this pandemic. My goal is not ultimately to answer all of these. Rather, it is to show how a clear understanding of Scripture is essential to begin to answer them at all.

Where is God and What is He Up To? (Theodicy)

As the death toll rises, so too do the questions that some ask about the presence of God. No doubt the present suffering is unequally distributed among families, communities, states, and nations. Some are better equipped to treat the sick, comfort the afflicted, or avoid the worst financial impact of the crisis. But rest assured, many are asking about God’s ways.

Theodicy is simply that: an account of the ways of God, especially in the face of suffering. Typically theodicy is a concept discussed in the context of what philosophers and theologians call “the problem of evil.” The problem, generally and simply stated, is that if an all-loving, all-powerful God exists, and evil exists, too, then how can we maintain belief in God? It would seem that a good and loving God would eliminate evil—at least in its most egregious forms. It seems just as likely that an all-powerful God could. While free will is usually used to show that it’s not a logical contradiction for evil to exist in a world where such a God exists, the problem of evil has many intellectually challenging forms that require us to pause, and avoid simplistic answers.

Imagine Christian parents who lose an infant child to coronavirus. Tragic. They then learn from hospital staff that their baby won’t be permitted a traditional burial. Moreover, it may not be safe to touch or kiss his body. He is their only child. The problem of evil lands a certain way for these parents: “Why God? Why this evil? Why did you let this happen?” How does free will sufficiently answer such questions? The problem of evil then presents a pastoral challenge as much as a theological challenge.

Now imagine unbelieving parents who experience the same tragedy. While they may not know what a syllogism is, at a deeply visceral level their suffering counts against belief in God. “How could we believe in a supposedly all-powerful, all-loving God who allows things like this? How could belief in such a God be maintained in the face of this kind of evil?”

Pastors, Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, and believers of all kinds don’t need to wait until they, the believers under their care, or their neighbors face death to think carefully about these issues. We need attentive hearts and ears, to go along with a biblically-informed mind.

Is this Pestilence Like the Ones in Scripture? (Eschatology)

 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!”  And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth (Revelation 6:7-8; ESV).

More than one Christian has read a passage like the one above and tried to find versions of it in their world. This isn’t new. What is new is our 24-hour news cycle where we receive real-time updates on our phones about every famine, plague, shooting, drought, tornado, and earthquake. Let’s face it: it’s hard to watch the evening news and not think, “The world is literally coming apart.” And it has, ever since Genesis 3. Most of us also have some basic eschatological beliefs which entail conditions on earth and for human life growing increasingly worse. This means both people’s love growing cold, as well as earth’s increasing travail, groaning for release from its bondage (Mt. 24:12; Rom. 8:18-22).

Beyond this basic conviction, Christians can certainly freely debate how similar the nature of modern disease and virus are to ancient plague and pestilence. I’m sure there are similarities and differences.

Where we want to be cautious is at the intersection of theodicy and eschatology. For example: “God is doing this to wake us up spiritually!” “This city had more coronavirus cases because it is an especially wicked city; it’s the judgment of God.”

Believing in the providence and sovereignty of God means that He is in control. Nothing happens that He isn’t aware of or that He did not allow. However, it takes a few extra theological leaps to claim to know precisely why a particular evil happened and had the specific effects it had. Some have done this even in recent years, whether it concerned Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans (2005), or Hurricane Sandy in the greater New York area (2012). I can see no biblical claim that would allow us, with confidence, to call specific natural evils divine judgments. It may be the case, but we cannot know. Just as important, it raises other problems we may not be prepared to answer: What if the calamities that impact Christians are just as likely to be judgments of God against His church for her unfaithfulness to Him? After all, the grain of the Old Testament certainly shows us that God’s judgments fell against His own people more often than it did pagan nations!

It’s certainly not my intent to squash every theological judgment we might personally consider as reasonable or even probable. I find in my own congregation that we all have a sense that God is reminding us all of important truths: “We are not in control of our lives. God will take care of us. God is good even when things are going wrong. We need to obey civil authorities, even when we find it difficult.” It’s not irresponsible to say that God has His purposes, and some are more clearly discernible from Scripture. Yet we should not go beyond that.

Should We Take the Money or Not? (Conscience)

One provision in the CARES Act involves the government (specifically the Small Business Administration), through banking institutions, providing loans to smaller businesses to help them meet their payroll needs. The loans actually convert to grants if the company can demonstrate that they used all of the funds for payroll. After all, the government has a vested interest in seeing small businesses survive and workers continue to be paid.

The wrinkle in this bill that many Christians have been debating is the inclusion of churches and other religious organizations. In other words, a church could be the recipient of a loan. Baptists have a long and complex history when it comes to its relationship between the church and state (see more below). But this specific provision in the law cuts across denominational lines, whether one belongs to the free church tradition or not. Many pastors, theologians, and parachurch legal groups have landed on different sides of this question. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has written a short, helpful piece arguing that it may be permissible. Yet even he acknowledges the reasonable, conscientious objections some Christians and churches may have to accepting such financial support, even if the funds appear to have no strings attached, and enough lawmakers thought it was a good idea.

It’s not my intent to analyze the merits of this argument, but simply to caution about how we debate matters of conscience in general. Sometimes Christians understand conscience in a sub-biblical way. We essentially adopt our society’s basic understanding: “If it bothers you, don’t do it. If it doesn’t, go for it.” This is not a biblical understanding of conscience. Scripture is clear that one’s conscience is not reducible to how we feel about a given choice before us (I commend Andy Naselli’s excellent, short book on the topic). As Harold Senkbeil thoughtfully puts it, “Conscience is not so much a moral compass as it is an umpire, or the capacity to see oneself as God sees you.”[1]

Our conscience can be misinformed, desensitized, and just plain wrong. Our “umpire,” to use Senkbeil’s metaphor, must be trained by the wisdom of Scripture. I say this because we can yield to the moral relativism of our highly secular age. Christians need to avoid merely saying, “You do what’s best for your church, and we’ll do what’s best for ours.” Christian truth is such that we need to come together and discuss thorny questions in a gracious, patience, respectful way without checking our brains at the door. Such a discussion will not yield uniformity, but it will yield greater unity, even when we have come to different conclusions.

What is the Church and How Shall it Gather? (Ecclesiology)

The same considerations concerning Christian dialogue certainly apply to more than the CARES Act. Probably the first question pastors asked when they realized the severity of COVID-19 was, “What can we do online?” Of course, the first question should always be, “What should we do?”

I spent countless hours thinking about and discussing this particular one. I’ve written elsewhere about my concerns concerning the interface of religious practice and technology. It’s ironic that I should find myself teaching and interacting with church members through Facebook and Zoom each week. But technical ability (or the lack thereof) should never be bracketed off from theological reflection about what the church is and isn’t, what worship is and isn’t, and how we maintain those distinctions, even while using certain crutches that we’ll gladly lay down when gatherings begin once more.

Technology has surrounded worship practices for nearly two thousand years. The moment anyone gave any thought to a building, keeping records, or musical instruments they were discerning what tools or artifacts could be faithfully used to support Christian ministry. I dare say our forefathers thought a bit more carefully than we do about these types of issues. They had their own temptations to resist. They also had to try to discern how much liberty to extend to one another, especially as various congregations (and later denominations) made different ecclesial choices.

I think what’s crucial to affirm again and again is this: A worship service is an embodied gathering. No amount of virtual proficiency will create that. Now, this is a separate question from, “Can we provide a context for our households to be edified while they are apart? Are there some Scripture-based messages, songs, or other resources we can provide each week to foster private worship, while at the same time saying: Won’t it be great when we actually do worship together again?”? To me this is a delicate balance to strike. Yet this is the challenge all church leaders have. At least this strange and uncomfortable time should give us some space to feel how unnatural it is for the church to be apart.

To What Extent Should We Obey the Government? (Church and State)

As I said above, Baptists have a rather complicated history when it comes to relating to the state. Heritage aside, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 are in our Bibles. We may not teach it so explicitly on a weekly basis, but the Lord has reminded us that obedience involves reading Scripture with Scripture. Can we square the command to assemble together in Hebrews 10 with the command to obey the authorities, who tell us not to assemble?

With few exceptions, Christians across this country have clearly seen that civil obedience and love of neighbor (both Scriptural principles) shape our application of the command of Hebrews 10—that a temporary suspension of public gatherings is not compromising our faith. In fact, it may be the exact embodiment of the faith needed in a world that so often misunderstands the church.

To be sure, as we see what appear to be positive signs in the fight against COVID-19, we are all chomping at the bit to gather again. The test of our theology of civil obedience will be whether our impatience is born out of a spirit of passion for Christ, or disdain for authority. Sometimes we struggle to discern the difference. Regardless of motives, being in an emotional uproar is seldom a good place to begin good theology.

All five of these questions are complicated. Unfortunately they often elicit a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. This is part of why the Commission for Theological Integrity exists. Our prayer is to lean into the conversations that others are already having, and to serve as a resource for clear, theological reflection and action. I pray we serve Free Will Baptists and their neighbors well in this pandemic.

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[1] Harold Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2019), 128.

2020 Theological Symposium FAQ

W. Jackson Watts

As Program Chair for the Commission for Theological Integrity, I get the privilege to oversee the planning and preparation for our annual Theological Symposium. I’ve been so gratified to see interest in this event grow over the last few years, and we’re looking forward to another great one later this fall.

Typically we issue what’s known as a “Call for Papers.” This appears on our website and in print publications such as ONE Magazine. This notice is designed to generate awareness and identify prospective presenters, as well as any who would attend and benefit from this free event. However, as potential presenters begin contemplating ideas for the Symposium, I want to offer this post of Frequently Asked Questions to help people make plans to join us this fall.

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Where and when is the Symposium held?

The campus of Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee. This year our event is a bit earlier than usual, so take note of this date: October 5-6.

 How are presenters chosen?

We review the papers and proposals that are submitted each year and select those which are well-written and thematically suitable. Sometimes we solicit papers from people if they have recently completed some scholarly work that they are interested in sharing with a broader audience. However, we generally have interested parties contact us. The only other detail approaching a “requirement” is that presenters must be members of a Free Will Baptist church.

 What can I write on?

 Typically we will receive and consider papers on any topic that is broadly theological in nature: biblical studies, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, ecclesiology, etc. This year we have an open program, so any paper on any topic, broadly theological, will be considered. If you’d like more information about what might be perceived as appropriate, just ask!

Must I have an advanced degree to present a paper?

No; While most of our presenters have received graduate theological education, it is by no means a requirement.

Where can I stay?

There are several area hotels which provide a reasonable rate to those in town for Welch-affiliated events. Hotel information will be published later this year.

Why attend in person when live-stream is available?

Two main reasons: First, we don’t guarantee live-streaming every year, and even if we do live-stream, we may or may not post video content on our website after the event is over. We have done this in the past, but it is a year-by-year decision. Second, attending in person allows you the chance to ask questions in person to presenters, hear the discussion and dialogue following each presentation, and connect with other Free Will Baptist pastors, scholars, and laymen. I’ve seen many fruitful relationships form and develop as a result of this event. This is a great chance to network with many of our thought leaders.

If I am interested in presenting, what are the specific requirements and deadlines?

You can email fwbtheology@gmail.com for a fuller list of what we’re looking for in terms of paper content and format. Concerning deadlines, all ideas and inquiries about presenting should be submitted to this email address. Abstracts/proposals should be submitted by July 7. Submissions for review should be submitted by August 7. The final draft should be submitted by September 7.

Thank you for your interest in this event!

The Church and the Coronavirus Challenge

The Commission for Theological Integrity

By now it’s fair to say that not a single church has escaped the impact of concerns over the Coronavirus. Churches have been urged to consider measures to ensure people’s safety, along with schools, businesses, and virtually every other assembled group of people. Governors and public health officials have called for certain forms of activity to be suspended, especially when they involve even as few as 50 people. More recently our President has recommended we avoid groups of 10 or more.

This poses some obvious challenges to churches. The average church size is somewhere around 75 people. And many churches have a significant number of elderly members. While it appears that the virus is less deadly to younger people, they can in fact be carriers who transmit to it other persons. So any recommendations to suspend public gatherings are to be taken seriously, regardless of how we feel about them.

The Gospel Coalition and 9Marks are two parachurch ministries that have provided several helpful articles and suggestions on this topic you can easily find on their websites. But as Free Will Baptists try to think practically as pastors, church leaders, and laymen, we’d like to offer three key principles that ministries should follow during this challenging time. We won’t repeat all the important, standard reminders about washing hands regularly, not shaking hands, and covering our mouths when we cough. Suggestions of this sort have been well publicized by mainstream news organizations. However, we cannot help but view this situation in light of the theological commitments God calls us to.

We don’t experience this pandemic as generic American citizens; we’re disciples of Christ. We care about His church. Therefore, we want to see this situation through a specific theological lens, particularly three key doctrines:

Civil Obedience

Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17, and 1 Timothy 2:1-2 are substantial passages on the relationship between the church and the state. How we as Christians and churches relate to governing authorities is not insignificant. Naturally we don’t always agree with everything our leaders say or do (when have we ever?). Yet it is essential that unless we are asked to disobey Scripture, we should otherwise submit to governing authorities. In our American context this includes local officials, state officials, and federal officials. It’s safe to conclude that the Center for Disease Control, in our system of government, would be included in that. Whenever we hear multiple, rightly authorized institutions giving a mandate, we need to heed it. Whenever they make a suggestion, we need to give it careful consideration.

In addition to obedience, we need to pray for our leaders. God forgive us for where we have spent more time criticizing our elected and appointed officials than we have praying for them! First Peter 2 deals especially with our attitude toward leaders, while 1 Timothy 2 calls us to pray. After all, when officials make wise decisions, it promotes peace, not chaos. We need to model Christ-like speech and Spirit-led prayer to help work toward that outcome.

Embodied Community

This article will be read by people in different states and localities. The recommendations given differ slightly from place to place, though increasingly they have moved toward the complete elimination of all non-essential travel or gatherings. What does this mean for the church, the ecclesia, which itself means “gathering” or “assembly”?

We aren’t the first believers in history who have had to be creative about maintaining an ongoing ministry of worship and witness in the midst of pandemic, plague, or persecution. History is filled with occasions when churches had to determine how to obey their government, while not compromising (in the bad sense of that word) the Christian principle of assembly.

A number of churches have already instituted measures to help them continue to gather, but to do so as safely as possible. Extensive facility sanitation, no hand-shaking or hugging, and other forms of social distancing have been observed. However, church gatherings have also had to get even more creative, especially since typical church gatherings are significantly larger than 10 people. Some churches have also sought to give their members some way to stay connected when they cannot physically gather. This includes livestreaming worship services through an online platform.

We need to be both charitable and wise as we view these practices, evaluate them, and consider how or if we may also implement them. One thing is clear: biblical community and worship is an embodied reality. People often point out that the apostles were absent when they wrote letters to churches. Yet notice how often these apostles emphasize the undesirable limitations of physical absence: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 Jn. 1:12). This is just one example among many.

The point is this: any measures we take to preserve an ongoing ministry of worship and witness that utilizes smaller group meetings (smaller than the actual congregation), online media, or other hybrid options, should be treated as temporary measures. Through God’s common grace, we have many helpful technological tools to facilitate some degree of ongoing contact and connectedness. They should be spoken of that way, and not seen as a lasting substitute. Some pastors understandably worry about the “new normal” that we may inadvertently be creating by implementing such measures. Yet this is an opportunity for ministers (ironically through digital means), to teach their congregants about the vital need for gathered, embodied community and koinonia, and to foster in them a biblically rooted desire to return to it as soon as possible (Again, it’s impossible for this to be replicated online). In the meantime, acts of service to those ill and/or elderly would be an appropriate expression of biblical community. After all, such persons are much more adversely affected by social distancing than others. Phone calls, text messages, cards, and similar gestures are always appropriate, and now more than ever.

Most people understand that in times of crisis we all make concessions we wouldn’t typically make. Examples include showering every other day in times of water shortage, or keeping unnecessary lights off when power grids are stretched in a region. Similarly, the church is wise to consider how to foster ongoing awareness of each other’s needs, delivering food to those who cannot leave home at all, and in some instances, providing online teaching content to be viewed from home. However, let’s pray to be reminded in this time of absence and distance of how this is not God’s ideal nor design for us. Let’s pray that when we do return to gather normally we’ll do so with deeper appreciation and hunger for our gathered life together.

Neighbor Love

In these polarized times, social trust is a rare commodity. Many polls and surveys show that people do not trust others in their communities as much as they used to. Certainly biased media coverage sometimes fosters distrust. But when we strip away all the political commentary, we have one profound command staring us in the face: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This principle cuts against the grain of our present culture, which is self-focused, self-absorbed, and self-exalting. But this second great commandment of Christ has so much to say to us in this moment.

First, we must take this pandemic seriously. Imagine one possible outcome if we don’t: People may die. Our public officials tell us people will die, and we think they should be taken seriously. But imagine that it simply increases the likelihood that people will die because of the carelessness of citizens. If that’s true, then we aren’t loving our neighbors very well by traveling or gathering unnecessarily, not observing safe, hygienic practices, or reposting or retweeting dubious news about the Coronavirus online. The great thing about neighbor love is that it has a way of stripping away the politics of this situation. It leads us to ask, “What if this is more serious than we think it is? What might be the cost for my neighbor? How might my careless rhetoric reflect on the Gospel, the Church, or the Christ?”

Second, what happens if we take the situation too seriously? In other words, instead of proactively praying and taking precautions, we yield to fear. We rush to the stores and buy far more than we actually need, making groceries less available to our neighbors, who have the same needs as we do. Neighbor love forces us to look at our attitude and actions closely and ask tough questions of our behavior. Do people see faith working through love in what we’re doing and saying? Do we love our neighbor next door enough to give them a call, and make sure they’re okay, too? The appropriate level of concern will help us get to the other side of the pandemic and hopefully have a stronger witness before a lost world.

Much has been made about the economic impact of this pandemic. Christians need to be reminded that this has not only been disruptive to their regular work life, but also to churches and Christian institutions of many kinds. These kinds of organizations take a significant hit financially during crises like these, and without people continuing to be generous they sometimes never rebound. While the government is preparing some financial responses, few if any of these monies will in any way make it into the coffers of churches or religious organizations. As Christians, let’s remember these important institutions in our life and the need to uphold them in prayer and financial support during this time.

A final caution is also appropriate as we consider the full range of implications of loving our neighbors. Christians, churches, and religious organizations will choose to take different measures to safeguard themselves and others during this time. Provided direct government mandates are followed, there is a range of specific decisions that can be made by people of good faith. In other words, not everyone who takes different steps is being unfaithful or unloving. We need to exercise generous patience toward one another. We need to abstain from using social media to shame other churches for “selling out” and closing their doors (or for keeping their doors open when ours has closed theirs). These discussions should be had privately as we mutually discern best practices in keeping with public health recommendations, and at the same time appropriate for our unique organizations. Blasting our brethren (or neighbors in general) for their choices is unwise and unloving.

Conclusion

The Lord will have the final word on how we choose to respond to the information we’ve been provided. Let’s respect civil authority, work diligently to cherish embodied community, and practice neighbor love. Our commitment to these biblical principles is central to our ability to navigate this turbulent situation. And together let’s pray that the fallenness of this world will continue to awaken us to the hope of the Gospel, for the end of earthly corruptions, the “freedom of the glory of the children of God,” and the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:18-30). May our temporal concerns press us to hope more fully in God’s eternal promises.

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine