For about five years, I served as pastor of a church in the Midwest. The winters are harsh in that part of the country, so there were times the snow and icy roads forced us to modify our Sunday schedule or even cancel meeting for church altogether. I vividly remember how stressful it was to make those decisions because people would be upset regardless of the outcome. I don’t think it was because people were unreasonable – well, some of them were – but primarily it was because people felt so strongly about gathering for worship. In those days before online options were as available as today, to cancel services meant disconnecting a lifeline of community for many people. For that reason, I can understand the difficulty some churches have in canceling their physical gatherings and moving to online options for worship and community in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
The difficulty is intensified by some Christian leaders struggling with whether or not moving to an online platform is a sign that faith is being overrun by fear, or worse, that churches who respond to state and local government mitigation orders are allowing their religious liberty to be trampled. Even worse are pastors, Christians, and Christian universities openly minimizing, mocking, or outright denying the severity of this moment.
I suggest instead that a church’s decision to cancel physical meetings is first, a demonstration of faithful wisdom and Christian love. Second, that churches who fail or refuse to cancel physical gatherings are engaging in both poor neighboring, and presumptive sin. Third, that our posture as Christians can be one of faithful engagement by discerning the difference between performance-based recklessness and purposeful risk. And finally, that canceled physical gatherings are a means of preserving religious liberty by responsibly stewarding it, and that refusing or failing to cancel physical gatherings endangers religious liberty by abusing it.
Faithful love leads from head and heart.
The notion that a faithful Christian response to COVID-19 is one of either faith or fear is a false dichotomy. It’s simply unrealistic and dishonest to suggest that fear is not a factor. Healthy fear and healthy anxiety are natural protective measures that help us perceive and respond appropriately to danger. When I was confronted with a rattlesnake while on a run, I was startled, got that jolt of adrenaline, said something I couldn’t repeat in Sunday’s sermon, but then I identified the threat, give it a wide berth, and went on. Why? Because I’ve learned the danger rattlesnakes pose, applied that knowledge, and was able to respond appropriately. Both my emotions and mind were engaged. Fear played a healthy part, but not the only part.
The Apostle Paul wrote to his young protégé’, Timothy, who struggled with anxiety as he led the church in Ephesus, “For the Spirit God gave us a does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and sound judgment.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
The key to this passage is the interplay between Timothy’s timid nature and God’s Spirit that brings sound judgment. It’s the sound judgment, also translated self-control, a sound mind, or discipline, that informs and tempers the fear. It’s not that fear is absent; it’s that fear’s power is managed, harnessed, and synthesized with information and discretion, resulting in a wise response. It’s no wonder the definition of the Greek term translated self-control here is “an act of sensible, prudent, reasonable, wise discretion.”
Given the wealth of information on COVID-19 available to us from reputable and reliable sources (NOT SOCIAL MEDIA!), Christians can access information addressing the questions, issues, and concerns arising from genuine fear we have. This knowledge is power, the power to respond both courageously and wisely in the face of fear. “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” What is more important than what we fear? Who we love. As those called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40), canceling physical gatherings is in not giving in to fear, but rather a display of faithful wisdom and love for God and neighbor.
Misplaced faith won’t shield the faithful from presumptive foolishness.
In Psalm 19:13, the psalmist asks God for protection from presumptuous sin. What did the writer mean? It’s a sin of arrogance, of recklessness, of too much faith in one’s own faith rather than the strength of the one in which their faith rests. It’s like the teenaged driver pulled over for speeding and saying, “don’t worry, my dad’s a lawyer and will get me out of it.” It presumes upon the mercy and power of God to rescue one from their own reckless actions.
This is the nature of the second temptation of Jesus. In Matthew 4:5-7, Satan demanded that Jesus perform what David French called, “an ostentatious display of power and faith—that he throw himself from a great height to demonstrate his invulnerability. Yet Christ refused, declaring that such a ridiculous and ostentatious act would put God to the test.” (French Press, 3/22/2020)
When church leaders continue to hold physical gatherings, or when church members pressure leaders to do so, it’s rationalized with phrases like, “we’re covered by the blood,” “we’re claiming and believing God for protection,” “we’re not caving in to fear,” or my favorite, “we’re raising a halleluiah over the virus.” No, you’re jumping off the temple. In the face of reason, wisdom, and community concern, you’re presuming upon the mercy of God to rescue one from recklessness. Be assured, however, your faith is no more a shield against COVID-19 anymore than Jesus’ divinity would have shielded him from death if he’d jumped off the temple.
Performance-based recklessness is not the same as purposeful risk.
Returning to David French’s 3/22 French Press, “There exists within Christianity a temptation to performative acts that masquerade as fearlessness. In reality, this recklessness represents—as the early church father John Chrysostom called it—’display and vainglory.’”
As seen above, Jesus rejected such a performative act of recklessness. Instead, he placed himself in harm’s way, and his spirit into the hands of the Father, for the purpose of redemption. His was a purposeful risk. So, when Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 16:24-26, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”, he’s not calling for display and vainglory, he’s calling for selfless, restorative, purposeful risk rooted in sacrificial love. This is the purposeful risk seen in the work of first responders, medical professionals, and volunteers caring for the sick.
While we shouldn’t be reckless, we may be called to risk. As more people are infected, more people will be needed to help out. The U.S. Surgeon General said to a religious leader this week, “We are going to need the church – we can’t do this all ourselves.” If needed, we must be both willing and wise in stepping up to help.
I love Martin Luther’s wisdom toward a question on how Christians should respond to the Black Plague,
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 infect 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.
Liberty is a liability apart from responsibility
Some Christians cite the practice and protection of religious liberty as their reason for continuing to hold physical gatherings for worship. In some states, like New Mexico, churches are exempt from mitigation orders, but officials want churches to follow them. When churches refuse based on their rights, they may be right about their rights, but that doesn’t mean their exercise of those rights is correct. Christians need to understand that religious liberty is not unlimited.
The Founding Fathers understood the need for free-exercise of religious practices while at the same time recognizing that religious freedom could not be limitless. As a result, the free-exercise wording in state constitutions allowed for limitations to religious liberty if the prohibited actions proved to interfere with the community’s good (Francis Beckwith, Politics for Christians, Statecraft and Soulcraft. 2010, p.115). New York state’s constitution (1777) provides a typical example,
The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever hereafter be allowed, within this state, to all mankind: Provided, That the liberty of conscience, hereby granted, shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness, or justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of the State. (New York Constitution, p. 38).
The last line above powerfully frames the question of physical church gatherings. Because they could, a Nashville church went forward with a fundraiser. Now 24 of its members are infected. Because they could, an Arkansas church went ahead with a children’s program. Now 34 people are infected. How do their communities perceive these churches? Just read the comment thread for the reports—sadness, anger, regret, outrage. So when Christians and church leaders decide to court recklessness during a global pandemic, the Body of Christ becomes a presence of danger to their communities, rather than a presence of hope.
It’s not a question of whether or not churches could meet; it’s a question of whether or not churches should meet. And they should not. To continue meeting endangers religious liberty by abusing it.
Canceling physical gatherings, meeting online, and practicing faithful, wise, and courageous acts of sacrificial love work to preserve religious liberty through its responsible stewardship.
In the 4th century, Eusebius wrote of the early church, “Their deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.” May our communities see and say the same.