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.

2 thoughts on “Theology in a Time of Pandemic”

  1. Jackson — This is a nice piece of work. It is very thoughtful and balanced. This is the kind of writing I like to see.

  2. Some observations in regard to this ”crisis”. 1. There has not been a complete agreement among our people to have services or not. 2. It has allowed many to express their desire to be “gathered together” again. They say they enjoy and are thankful for what we are doing, but nothing can take the place of being together. 3. I have sent weekly letters to each household to help encourage everyone. I was installed as pastor March 1, so we do not fully know each other yet. 4. This compelled me to use Facebook despite my reservations. I post something almost daily, usually directed to the members. 5. I post a ‘condensed’ sermon each Sunday and have been surprised to have more views than members. 6. This has been an opportunity to teach something about the principles concerning judging others (esp. in regard to those who kept meeting vs those who did not and for those who will begin to meet before the mandates end). 7. It has been a good time to teach that the NT has more to say about church attendance than not to ‘forsake’. In many places it is distinctly implied that the Christian life cannot be lived properly apart from our fellow believers. How can we rejoice or suffer with each other, or encourage or admonish one another except we be in close communion on a regular basis?

    It seems that the second paragraph of your post is proven true. And in some sense, each crisis is an opportunity.

    Thanks for the good post.

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