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:
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.
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.
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.
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.