This is the third of a three-part series on the church’s response to COVID-19. Part 1 focused on the question, “What is the church?” Part 2 sought to gauge whether church leaders have appropriately responded to this crisis. Part 3 will now look at why i believe church leaders have responded inappropriately to this crisis.
(At the outset, I am not trying to shame anybody who is more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus, and who would have chosen to stay home even without government “recommendations.” I just ask and pray that your decision is rooted in and surrounded by prayer.)
When it comes to my favorite historical period, i would have to say it is the Middle Ages. There are many reasons for this: I consider swords more elegant than guns, i find castles and fortresses fascinating, and i think the economic concept of feudalism is incredibly intriguing.
I’ve often joked that we should return to a feudalistic way of life. And sure, just like our democratic, capitalistic system suffers abuse, so also in the Medieval period, feudalism could be abused. A lord could mistreat his soldiers or his serfs. But i’m equally confident that there were many good, kind lords who took care of the people under their charge to the best of their abilities.
The point–why i originally planned on writing a post on this topic (which i may still do at a later time)–is simple. If you were born nobility in the feudal system, you remained nobility; if you were born a serf (servant), you remained a serf; if you were born whatever may be in-between, you remained whatever it was you were born.
This effectually removes the question we are asked from the earliest years of our lives: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
And nowadays, when we grow up, the question becomes, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
In a feudalistic society, these stresses are removed. You are, and you do, whatever you were born to be and do. (Sure, there are likely some exceptions, but the general rule is that you don’t escape the class into which you were born.)
I bring up this concept because of the confusion in our world today. The world was a more straightforward place in the Middle Ages.
Like the first two posts in this series, to answer the primary question adequately, we must deal with the two underlying questions:
- Why is there so much confusion in this time?
“Isn’t the Internet such a blessing at this time?”
This is a dangerous question to answer.
On the one hand, absolutely, the Internet is a blessing. I couldn’t post these musings if the Internet did not exist. I wouldn’t be able to reach people halfway across the earth if the Internet did not exist:
But on the other hand, what would be happening right now if the Internet didn’t exist? What would it look like if this was happening five hundred years ago when the only way to communicate with one another was through hand-delivered (or orally-delivered) messages taken by horsemen?
First of all, if the Internet didn’t exist, i think there would have been less panic. It doesn’t take much to discover that the Internet too quickly spreads information. If James can write that the tongue is a destructive fire (cf. James 3:5-6), one wonders what he would have said about the Internet.
People type before they think. People take statements and run with them. A quick Google search: “LA County stay at home order” reveals that no one truly knows what is going on in the world right now. Just because states or counties lift COVID-19 restrictions, doesn’t mean the increase in COVID-19 cases in said county or state in the following day or two has anything to do with raising the restrictions. The media already told us that the virus takes close to a week (on average) to show symptoms. Let’s be discerning at this time and not just believe every little piece of information we read or hear.
James 1:19 cautions us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak.” The Internet would be a better place if fewer people spoke and wrote and posted out of complete ignorance. And Solomon said the following in Proverbs 10:19,
When there are many words, sin is unavoidable,
but the one who controls his lips is wise.
We can apply this to our day too. The one who controls his/her fingers over his/her keyboard or the one who controls his/her instinct to click “Share” on the latest current “development” would also be wise. There has been so much conflicting information, so much fear-mongering, and so little Gospel proclamation that the Internet has mostly helped perpetuate the confusion at this time.
Second, if the Internet didn’t exist, then i don’t think churches would have closed. Like Solomon said, “Many words lead to sin.”
And you’re right. They did. But we had something in 1918 that we didn’t have in the Middle Ages when the Black Plague was ravaging the world. What was it?
Telephones. Information could travel faster than it did by horse-carried messenger in the Middle Ages.
There is a crucial difference between the Spanish Flu in 1918 and COVID-19 in 2020, though. Churches only closed for five Sundays, if they closed at all:
Texas Baptist churches, like churches across the country, continued to meet and pray for an end to the crisis in the early days of the pandemic as it began to sweep across the United States in September 1918. However, when it became apparent social distancing was needed to curb the spread of the virus, churches in major cities like Dallas and Houston were closed for the month of October.Baptist Standard.com
I would also point out that there are two other differences.
- First, churches continued meeting in the early days.
- Second, there is no evidence that the government-sanctioned closures for all churches across the whole country. (This article seems to indicate that the government did play a role in the closing of churches, but i see no proof it was more widespread than the D.C. area.)
In our day, churches closed as soon as there were merely a handful of cases across the country. (There were 1.6k cases as of March 12, 2020, and the first data for deaths shows that there were 60 by March 15, 2020.) The government told us to close, and for the most part, we immediately listened.
During the Black Plague, c. 1347-1407–“perhaps the greatest calamity in human history”–some Christians continued doing what they knew they were called to do:
Yet there were also pockets of extraordinary Christian charity. According to one French chronicler, the nuns at one city hospital, “having no fear of death, tended the sick with all sweetness and humility.” New nuns replaced those who died, until most had died: “Many times renewed by death [they] now rest in peace with Christ as we may piously believe.”Mark Galli, “When a Third of the World Died,” (Christianity Today, Issue 49: 1996).
Again, i am not saying that we should be okay with the fact that people have contracted this virus. I’m not saying that we should make light of the fact that people have died from this pandemic. I’m not saying that the answer to this pandemic is total ignorance on our parts. (This includes both ignorance of current events and ignorance of the medical knowledge we have that we did not possess even 100 years ago–let alone 500 years ago). I fully accept that lives have been saved by the medical knowledge we possess at this time in history and also by the precautions the government has “recommended.”
But i stand by what i’ve said previously: The church should never cease meeting because the government “recommends” that it do so.
“But isn’t it great that we have the Internet so we can keep doing church?”
It is interesting that you mention it.
Third, if the Internet didn’t exist, then we couldn’t use that excuse to disobey Hebrews 10:23-25. I spent much time on this discussion in part 1, so i will simply state this point here. The Internet has become an excuse to disobey God’s clear Scriptural commands. This is not only true for our current situation. It has been a reality ever since the Internet first gave us the ability to neglect worship and listen to sermons at home.
We can cite that people closed their churches in 1918. But while i understand that it serves as a historical precedent for what we’re doing right now, it does not necessarily mean that they were right to do so. Scripture commands that we not give up meeting together, just like it commands that we not murder and we not commit adultery. For pastors to say that we can ignore the command in Hebrews 10:23-25, for the time being, is to invite people to decide for themselves what other clear Scriptural commands they may do away with when it seems like the right thing to do. Especially as children of the Reformation, is not Sola Scriptura our rule for faith and practice? Why are we suddenly following “traditions”? (Moving our church “gatherings” entirely online also betrays that we don’t view the public gathering of the saints as highly as we ought, and i will not be surprised if this has severe ramifications for Christian commitment to the local gathering of the church when this pandemic passes.)
Especially as children of the Reformation, is not Sola Scriptura our rule for faith and practice? Why are we suddenly following “traditions”?Tweet
Fourth, if the Internet didn’t exist, we could better trust God at this time. Allow me to say that it is unfortunate what people spend their time doing. The simple Google search: “Change.org Netflix” reveals three individual petitions with 174 total signatures (at time of writing) because:
People are stuck at home with nothing to do and would benefit hugely from watching shows on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime. Given a lot of people lost their jobs and many more will, we would like to request these companies to make their services free temporarily. It would help all of us tremendously in getting through this surreal crisis.Change.org
I get that 174 signatures aren’t very many. But people don’t need more entertainment at this time. They need a more enlightened picture of God as He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ at this time.
But who wants to watch church-related things that cause people to think when it is so much easier to just veg out to the latest Netflix original series?
By moving our services online, not only are we competing with all the other online advertising, but we have no guarantee that people are genuinely participating. It’s so easy to open another tab and browse the web while “watching church” and checking off the “good Christian” box for the week.
I’ll admit i’m even guilty of it. My church meets in-person on Sundays since we are a tiny church. However, during our midweek Bible studies, i am always distracted, whether by the things on my desk, projects on my computer, or any number of other things.
We need to gather together again. The Internet is not the answer.
We don’t need to be binge-watching our favorite shows. We don’t need to be learning how to do 12 million new things at this time. We don’t need to be doing whatever it is the media is telling us we need to be doing while stuck inside our homes at this time. We need to be praying. We need to be reading the Word of God. We need to come to a new understanding of who our God is. He is so much bigger than this pandemic.
Because you have made the LORD—my refuge,Psalm 91:9-12 (HCSB)
the Most High—your dwelling place,
no harm will come to you;
no plague will come near your tent.
For He will give His angels orders concerning you,
to protect you in all your ways.
They will support you with their hands
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
This is the God we worship. And if He chooses to bring the plague near our tent, we will still trust Him. Because He is good, no matter what happens to us (cf. John 11:25)!
Finally, if the internet did not exist, then certain sins would be inaccessible right now instead of being increasingly consumed. Yes, i’m talking about pornography. Fifty years ago, before the Internet, you had to go to a store to access “new stuff.” Now, it is available with a few mouse clicks or finger taps. With all “non-essential” businesses closed in this time, Adult stores would be closed as well. Without the Internet, pornography consumption would currently be dead. As it stands, though:
With so many people stuck inside and enduring social isolation, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen an increase in church members struggling with pornography. One of the typical schemes of the devil is to take advantage of Christians who are experiencing extended loneliness and isolation.Deepak Reju, “How Should I Respond to the Growing Pornography Consumption?” May 11, 2020.
God has been gracious to me at this time, but that doesn’t mean that my heart doesn’t ache for those who feel like they have nowhere else to turn for comfort right now. I was initially worried i would be continually failing in this area during this quarantine. But God has been good to me, and i am praying for those trapped in this ugly cycle.
But this is yet another reason why the church needs to regather as soon as possible. The preaching of the Word, the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, corporate prayer, in-person fellowship with the saints–these are all means of grace that God has given us to fight the sin in our souls that would draw us to pornography, or any other sin for that matter.
In conclusion, the Internet is an absolutely wonderful invention, and a lot of good has come from it (despite the obvious ways in which it can be abused). I enjoy my Netflix and video games like anyone else. (But they are not my only forms of input during the day. I’ve averaged fewer than one episode a day during the quarantine.) However, at this time, i firmly believe that the Internet has led to more harm than good.
“How can we return to normalcy but still protect our people?”
I don’t know. It is for you and your church leadership team (board of elders) to pray and come to an informed, biblical, God-honoring decision on this question. If you’ve read part 1 and part 2 of this series, and if you’ve agreed with them, then God has provoked your conscience to act. To fail to act now is to disobey God.
It will obviously look different between congregations of 1,000+ and congregations of 10 or so. But i think some basic guidelines should follow:
- Central locations (buildings) need to be returned to.
- We shouldn’t discriminate who we let in (based on race or body temperature).
- Masks should be worn, and social distancing practices should still be practiced (to show the government we aren’t blatantly rebelling)
- Nothing wrong with checking temperatures, but people shouldn’t be turned away if they have a fever (that’s someone you’re called to especially love).
- In a church of many congregants, where social-distancing can’t be practiced effectively inside, other options should be made available (still within the realm of “gathering”).
- We must pray for God’s hand of protection to bless our obedience to His Word.
- The Gospel must be boldly preached!
Martin Luther, who pastored during a recurrence of the Black Plague, offered the following advice:
I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.Martin Luther, Works v. 43, p. 132. Letter “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess.
I stand with Luther on this. We must continue to move about, loving others, caring for needs, praying together, and being the hands and feet of God in this world (cf. 1 John 4:17).
But the fact remains that church gatherings cannot remain closed for an indeterminate time. We will be judged for how we actively love others or fail therein. Church history is full of stories of Christians loving and serving and gathering together despite death and plague surrounding them. Again, while it is never done perfectly, we are always to be growing in our love for others.
This is where Paul’s statement in Romans 8:18 comes into application in our lives:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.
Have we forgotten that this world is not all there is? Have we forgotten Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21?
For me, living is Christ and dying is gain.
Have we forgotten Jesus’ call to discipleship in Matthew 16:24-27?
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done.”Emphasis added. Verse 27 is underlined.
Verse 27 is essential. Especially as i keep bringing up Jesus’ description of the final judgment in Matthew 25. Matthew 25:31 is especially telling:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.
Jesus is clear. We will be judged for how we love others. When we love others, we are loving Jesus. But when we are no longer out in the world, no longer proclaiming the full counsel of God to our gathered congregations, no longer preaching the Gospel–or being a public witness–to a lost and literally dying world, we are failing to properly love one another.
Is there hope?
Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses,Isaiah 53:4-6 (HCSB), emphasis added.
and He carried our pains;
but we in turn regarded Him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced because of our transgressions,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on Him,
and we are healed by His wounds.
We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the LORD has punished Him
for the iniquity of us all.
First, if you are a pastor who has closed your church doors, and you disagree with these posts, all i can say is that i sincerely hope and pray that your decision was rooted in much prayer. I also pray that you will pray about the possibility of returning to regular gatherings even before the government tells you that you can.
Second, if you are a pastor who has closed your church doors and this series has convicted you, i need you to know that Jesus loves you. There is grace, and hope, and mercy, and forgiveness in Him. Look to Him at this time. Remember that He died for us all when we were straying, and because of His shed blood and resurrection:
We [have] become the righteousness of God in Him.2 Corinthians 5:21b (HCSB)
Believe anew in the Gospel. Ultimately, this is the only hope we have–whether in this time of COVID-19 or in times of relative peace and safety. We must place our faith in Christ anew, deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and die daily. This is the command of Jesus, and this is the greatest hope we have.
The psalmist says:
Pay homage to the Son or He will be angryPsalm 2:12 (HCSB), emphasis added
and you will perish in your rebellion,
for His anger may ignite at any moment.
All those who take refuge in Him are happy.
Take refuge in Jesus. Read the psalms. Study the psalms. Pray the psalms. The psalms paint a portrait of our large God, and they show people exercising faith in Him through any and all situations. There is a psalm there for your encouragement, peace, and joy in this time as well.
Third, if you have never placed your faith in Jesus before, you need to know that there is a disease more dangerous than COVID-19. And you’re already infected by it. It’s called sin. It has a mortality rate of 100% (cf. Romans 6:23). As such, you should be just as concerned about sin as you are worried about COVID-19.
COVID-19 is dangerous and deadly, but it only might kill you. Sin has killed every human being who ever lived. In fact, sin wields COVID-19 like a sword. Sin uses drunk drivers; cancer; shootings; tornados, hurricanes, and floods; AIDS; and even old age. Anything that ends up bringing death is because of the sickness known as sin that is inside all of us.
But what did Isaiah tell us:
Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses,Isaiah 53:4-5 (HCSB)
and we are healed by His wounds.
But how are we healed by His wounds?
He died in our place. He was cut off from God (cf. Matthew 27:46). We should have been cut off from God for eternity. But Jesus bore our sicknesses. We are healed by His wounds. We will still die physically, even if we take the vaccine for sin, which is faith in Jesus Christ. But until we physically die, those who believe in Jesus have peace and communion with God. And we have the hope of resurrection to life eternal even after death!
If you’ve never trusted Jesus before, there is no better time than today to place your faith in Him!
Trust Him today!
And if you’ve already trusted Jesus, take practical steps to grow in your faith, hope, and love in this time. Let the Netflix chill, and crack open your Bible! God wants to comfort and guide you, but He speaks primarily through His Word.
Get into His Word! I promise it is more beneficial at this time than the news and any other media out there. And i would also posit that it is a lot less confusing!
The grass withers, the flowers fade,Isaiah 40:8 (HCSB)
but the word of our God remains forever.”
As the church, i fear that we have let our focus be shifted by an overabundance of input, by the fear that swept the whole world in recent months, and by neglecting careful and prayerful Scripture study.
At the top of each of these posts, i said that part 3 would discuss why i believe churches have responded inappropriately to this crisis. And i believe–for the reasons listed in this post–that the Internet is why:
The Internet has led to much conflicting information at this time; the Internet has allowed people to be distracted people from God at this time; the Internet has allowed us to excuse disobedience to God’s clear command to gather together as the church.
As such, i fear that the church has lost some of its reputation in this time (not that we should ultimately care about status), but the world has seen us acting no different than them, with the exception that once a week we watch our church service on TV. (If you do stuff more than once a week, that’s great, but it’s still not obeying the Scriptural command of meeting together if you do it through online live-streaming. Two-way online communication options are more in line with Hebrews 10:23-25, but in-person gathering must be again pursued.)
I’ve referenced the Black Plague several times in this post. The problem, though, is that it did not only bring out Christian goodness. The article cited below reveals much negativity that happened in the name of Christianity during the Black Plague. It concludes by saying:
But the church also garnered much criticism. Most clergy turned out to be as frightened and self-serving as the populace, some gouging people for their services during the crisis. This was severely condemned by Pope Clement VI and violently resented by the people. In Worcester, England, for example, citizens broke down the gates of a priory, attacked the monks, and tried to set fire to the buildings.
Wrote one contemporary, “When those who have the title of shepherd play the part of wolves, heresy grows in the garden of the church.” Most people plodded on as before, but dissatisfaction with the church’s behavior at a critical moment accelerated reform movements, which were to break out uncontrolled a century and a half later.Mark Galli, “When a Third of the World Died,” (Christianity Today, Issue 49: 1996).
May this not be said of us in this time, regardless of whether you personally believe that the church should physically reopen its doors now, or not.
And we must pray that God would use this COVID-19 pandemic to spread much reform and revival in the church, despite our choices at this time.
He alone is in control! We must trust Him!
Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, so that you won’t grow weary and lose heart.Hebrews 12:1-3 (HCSB), emphasis added.
In this with you.
Soli Deo Gloria
Thanks for reading.