These are extraordinary days, during which the church must articulate a clear, biblical, and reasonable message that addresses the particulars of such times. The coronavirus pandemic has caused significant disruption, uncertainty and distress among people. It has challenged governmental leaders, locally and at the state and federal levels. It has caused widening divisions over tension between concerns for public health and the impact on jobs and the economy. It has raised questions about the extent and nature of religious liberty and the responsibility of the church to its community. The following is a theological and practical reflection toward a faithful response by the church. It certainly cannot explore every possible facet of the intersection of Covid-19, the church, and government. It only attempts to present some basic principles and convictions that I hope prove to be congruent with relevant biblical content.
1. God is the creator and sustainer of all human life. But because of sin, our earthly existence is defined by our mortality (Gen. 3; Rom. 5). Death is inevitable for all people. Scripture teaches, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting on him” (Heb. 9:27-28).
2. The coronavirus poses a real threat to human life, particularly to the elderly and to those who have pre-existing health conditions with some exceptions to these apparent norms.
3. Every day we live with certain risks to our health and lives. Many of these risks we are neither preoccupied with nor take extreme precautions toward. We travel in our cars almost every day without contemplating the fact that around 38,000 people die every year in the United States from auto accidents and an estimated 1.3 million globally. According to the CDC, since 2010 there have been as few as 12,000 deaths in a single flu season and as many as 61,000. People die every day from different kinds of accidents and sicknesses. At a basic level, coronavirus is simply one of a variety of means by which a person may die, albeit at this time we are still on a steep learning curve about its nature and effects.
4. However, just because death is inescapable, we do not live foolishly or callously. Life has an intrinsic worth and dignity because all people are created in the image of God. God has clearly stated that the taking of life or carelessness with life is an offense. Life should not be risked foolishly (Gen 1:26-27; Gen 6:9; Ex. 20:13; Matt. 5:21-22). Therefore, for example, we have laws to provide safer roads, and we provide a flu shot each year.
5. The onset of Covid-19 brought the entire country to an unprecedented clamping down on activity. The original projections of over 2 million deaths sent the nation into paralysis. Projections of a 9% mortality rate of the estimated 81% of Americans that would become infected terrified the nation. Since then, although still a serious health threat, we have come to learn the danger is not so grave.
6. Therefore, it becomes unconscionable to shut down church gatherings voluntarily, or for states to unreasonably restrict church gatherings, when people are shopping, eating out, riding on airplanes, protesting in large numbers, and willing to return to public schools and sporting events.
7. The church by definition is a gathered assembly of believers, who come together physically to worship God, grow as disciples of Christ, support one another in fellowship, and contribute cooperatively in the ministry.
8. If a congregation can meet, it should meet to carry out its purpose of proclaiming the gospel and making disciples.
9. So-called online worship is a self-contradicting idea. An assembly that does not physically assemble is not an assembly. I can no more enjoy the fellowship and experience with God and others virtually any more than I can enjoy the experience of the beach through a live stream of it on my computer.
10. The ability to live stream or record and upload worship services is a modern tool that is helpful for those who truly cannot make a gathering. However, even though one can benefit from the instruction from God’s Word, a virtual experience cannot replace the interpersonal and spiritual dynamic that takes place in physical gathering. Furthermore, Scripture commands the Lord’s church to gather. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).
11. The onset of the coronavirus on the world has occurred completely within the divine will of God. All things are not good from our point of view; however, our faith compels us to confess God’s control and power over the affairs of this world. His ultimate purposes through hard circumstances often remain unseen to us in this life. However, we can be assured that his children will mature in faith through the many trials of this existence, and God never ceases to be sovereign or good.
12. Covid-19 should not send the believer into a paralyzed fear. We should declare with the Apostle Paul, “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
13. Nevertheless, trust in God in this life with our physical lives is not a call to foolishness in behavior. Since the threat of the coronavirus is real, common-sense precautions are in order for our personal lives and when the church gathers. This is not only reasonable for the protection of one’s own health, but to protect others.
14. According to health professionals, the coronavirus is primarily transmitted by personal contact through respiratory droplets. Therefore, working to maintain physical distancing between non-family members, wearing face coverings when distancing cannot be maintained, and sanitizing hands regularly are all reasonable precautions congregations should take when gathering during this health crisis.
15. Churches have a responsibility under God to take the current threat of Covid-19 seriously and thoughtfully and take measures to mitigate risk and the potential of its spread during its gatherings. Even the temporary suspension of in-person gatherings may be reasonable to prevent a spread, if a known case has occurred in the congregation.
16. Christians will disagree on some matters regarding precautions and risk prompted by the engagement with the reality of Covid-19. But our call is to respect one another and be patient with one another in regard to matters of personal opinion.
17. Christians, even in the midst of differing personal opinions, should be careful to respect and comply with the pastoral leadership of their congregation on these matters. This preserves unity and obeys Scripture when it says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). If you find an egregious lack of wisdom on the part of pastoral leadership and an unwillingness to listen to reason, then your prayerful consideration may regard your continued connection to that congregation.
18. The government is established by God to be the means by which people who live together in a society are protected from evil and harm and through which the good of society is promoted. Government has the right to collect taxes and to create policy and law that benefits and safeguards its citizens. Government is accountable to God for the morality and justness of its laws and policies (Rom. 13:1-7).
19. The government does not stand above the church, God’s divinely established institution, created by Him and for Him. The government does not have the authority to bind the religious conscience of the individual, who is part of the church, through arbitrary or burdensome laws. The government should not prohibit the church’s gathering or put conditions on its gathering that it does not equally require of all others in contexts where people gather.
20. Jesus Christ is the Lord of His church. While Christians have a posture of respect and submission to governing authorities, the church must courageously give priority to honoring and obeying God when government inserts itself inappropriately into the affairs of the church.