COVID-19, Christians, and Churches

COVID-19

But another factor is pressing upon us. The issue is not just preservation of one’s life from persecution of one’s faith. The issue now is what Jesus calls the second of the greatest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Since the exponential growth of the viral infection is largely due to mass assembling, the believer must take responsibility that he does not contribute to this viral spread. And if one proven effective way to do that is to avoid mass gathering, then we must heed to the mandate of love: Love does no harm to a neighbor

 

In his The Briefing for Monday, March 16, 2020. Albert Mohler describes the current crisis so succinctly: “The entire world is learning a new vocabulary, a new set of habits, a new set of rules, and a new set of expectations — expectations about today, not to mention expectations about tomorrow. We are looking at all of the world as we know it being reshaped socially and morally, politically and economically, by a tiny invisible coronavirus, known as COVID-19.”[1]

According to a facts-list released by the World Health Organization, this began as a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China and was first reported to the WHO country office on New Year’s Eve on December 31, 2019. In just one month, on January 30, 2020, it was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. On February 11, WHO announced a name for the new coronavirus disease: COVID-19. A month later, on March 11, WHO declared COVID-19 as a pandemic.

Today, nations of the world are in panic. One of the most affected is Italy. On March 15, the country reported 3,590 new cases in one day and 368 deaths in that same day of 24 hours. As of this writing (March 18), the Philippines has recorded 193 confirmed cases, 14 people have died from the disease. The government has put Metro Manila under Code Red Level 2, which later escalated as enhanced lockdown and community quarantine of the island of Luzon. This included a ban on mass gathering – including those of religious in nature. One official defined ‘mass gathering’ as exceeding more than 10 people.

Two questions are in every believer’s mind, in the immediate: What now of the assemblies of churches? A more fundamental question is: Why is this happening in, what we love to hail, “This is my Father’s world”?

Why is this happening?

We must begin with what builds the right foundation in addressing crisis such as this one. A rightly-taught Christian cannot even begin to answer this without invoking the sovereign control of God over all things. This includes the events, cycle, and movements of the natural processes. As Creator, God is the Originator of all things that exist. But the Word of God will not stop at nature’s origination. It reveals clearly the over-all control of God as He sustains nature – both in its most benevolent produce: such as, rains for the harvest (Acts 14:17); as well as, in its more malevolent side, such as, calamities and plagues. Faith is inadequate where God is not recognized on both sides of nature’s movements. The biblical faith’s confession is in God’s declaration: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things.” (Isa. 45:7 ESV)

As to why a universe created good by God should turn destructive, Christian theology’s answer is clear, even if unpalatable to many: Because original man, as mandated to be the ruler of God’s creation, sinned, he dragged with him the pristine goodness of nature. Creation now, Paul describes, “For the creation was subjected to futility… For we know that the whole creation has been groaning…” (Rom 8:20, 22). That groaning will sometimes take the form of calamities as gigantic cyclones. Or it can come in the form of a plague – as unseen in its microscopic dimension as a virus.

Put it in this way, the answer will come as dissatisfying for those looking for a definitive ‘this-and-that!’. There is no human answer to the ‘Why?’ of this crisis. The skeptic and the contemptuous of religion will take this as another ‘proof’ of Christianity as being a ‘pie-from-the-sky’ religion. It is nothing of the sort. When we say there is no human answer to the ‘Why,’ that is only because we do want to yield the answer to the wisdom of God. On rare occasions, the answer may be immediate. But more ordinarily, the answer takes a while – even generations. Or perhaps, the answer is yet for eternity. When eternity comes, so will be the final redemption – including that of creation (Rom 8:21).

But of this we can be certain. Even plagues, which we sometimes call outbreaks as though they are out-of-control events, are under the control of God. He has revealed this in the 10 plagues that He visited on the most powerful nation at one period – Egypt. Egypt at last was forced to yield to the will of God, but only reluctantly. In many instances, God’s Word declares God’s sovereign control of plagues. By acknowledging this, we also recognize that God alone is the ultimate Protector from plague’s ravages. “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence.” (Ps. 91:3 ESV)

Because plagues are within God’s control, we can be certain that when a plague strikes, it is consistent with God’s justice, but always mindful of the fulfillment of His good purpose for His people and for His kingdom. It cannot be inconsistent with either. This is not to say that believers will be immune from the plague. Some may have already died from the present one, and more are bound to suffer. But the purpose of God is unmoved in fulfilling His design – until its judgment is accomplished, or the good of His kingdom-glory is secured. The Reformer John Calvin had his own share of plagues and commotions in the 16th century. His confidence in the sovereignty of God is worth emulating:

 In the same way, when the tumultuous aspect of human affairs unfits us for judging, we should still hold, that God, in the pure light of his justice and wisdom, keeps all these commotions in due subordination, and conducts them to their proper end`.[2]

 The response to this behooves us His creatures to be contrite in our smallness, yes, even our sinfulness. Plagues, such as this, must not be used to cast blame on specific individuals or people groups. That was the mistake of Job’s friends whom Job called ‘miserable comforters!’ (Job 16:2). But what it does is to expose man still in his helplessness, for all the advances of civilization, when plagues visit beyond all our power to immediately resolve. As Mohler puts in another of his The Briefing:

 The reality is that there is a deeply humbling experience taking place in the United States where even those who are believed to be the most powerful human beings on earth wielding the most powerful instruments of political, economic, and military power, they are unable to control a tiny little microscopic virus as it replicates and of course as it does so much damage amongst humanity as it does so. But we’re looking not only the fact that this is a humbling experience for those in political leadership. It’s humbling for all of humanity if we will only observe and understand what is going on here or you might put it another way, our failure adequately to understand at this point what is going on here. We’re all called upon in different spheres of life to make responsible decisions based upon the threat of this virus, but it’s not at all clear exactly what that means in every circumstance. [3]

Let us be in prayer for government and for those tasked to contain the spread of the virus, and especially for those who have the means and equipment to look for an antidote – a vaccine to stop this rampage, and return society to normal. Peace and normalcy are still friends of the gospel mission (1Tim 2:1-4).

Let us also make this a personal occasion for examination of our spiritual standing. For believers, it is a time for self-examination of their state of sanctification – including the issues of sin in their lives. In the Puritan divine John Owen’s sermon entitled, The Use and Advantage of Faith in a Time of Public Calamity, he urges believers:

If we live by faith in the approach of a calamitous season, this will put us upon the search and examination of our own hearts, what accession we have made to the sins that have procured these judgments. This is that which faith (where it is in any measure sincere) will assuredly put us upon.[4]

These are times to seek the mercy of God upon us, the people of the Philippines; and indeed, for the people of the world, all of humanity. It is also an opportunity for witness. We call on people to own the Psalmist’s invitation:

3 Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God (Ps. 146:3-5 ESV)

What of the Assemblies of Churches?

A prohibition has been imposed on mass gathering, with a given definition of it as exceeding 10 people in assembly. That disqualifies most of our churches in our regular Sunday assemblies. There are many whose knee-jerk reaction is to follow the suspension of assemblies, because Christians are supposed to follow government authorities. But there had been prohibitions of that nature in the past. One may cite the Conventicle Act in England in 1664 forbidding the assemblies of Dissenters and non-conformists (churches outside of the state Church of England) on threat of persecution. But many dissenting congregations continued to assemble – some in forests – in their courageous stand against legal sanction on their religious liberty. Clearly, mere government prohibition alone should not be enough reason for us to suspend assemblies.

Love of Neighbor

But another factor is pressing upon us. The issue is not just preservation of one’s life from persecution of one’s faith. The issue now is what Jesus calls the second of the greatest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself. Since the exponential growth of the viral infection is largely due to mass assembling, the believer must take responsibility that he does not contribute to this viral spread. And if one proven effective way to do that is to avoid mass gathering, then we must heed to the mandate of love: Love does no harm to a neighbor (Rom 13:10 NKJ).

The balance in the words of Martin Luther during a plague in his letter to John Hess is insightful for a man of his time:

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.[5]

For the sake of the good of neighbor, then, which in this case involves the whole country, churches may consider suspending their large gatherings until this pestilence is past. How they may still carry on their services, there are now more means to answer that than were available in previous generations. But one should not flagellate his conscience because the church assembly is temporarily suspended. It cannot be shown to be disobedience to Hebrews 10:25 as this does not come to the level of forsaking the assembly. This is protecting the perpetuation of assembly for some safer times. Safer times mean the lifetime of the virus which is estimated to be 14 to 21 days – give or take. This temporary suspension of large assembly is a step of wisdom for the continuing of assembly more permanently.

Self-flagellation (what Filipinos call penitensiya) became a practice during the Black Death of the 14th century.[6] It was thought of as pacifying God that He may withdraw the plague seeing the faithful inflict self-pain. It was a blind superstition. It is no less a blind superstition today to insist on large assemblies and presume on God’s protection of His people.

Again, the simple but incisive words of Albert Mohler are to the point:

We have to understand as Christians that love of neighbor now makes demands upon us that we had not considered even a week ago, and that comes right down to the fact that we cannot meet when we otherwise would meet, we cannot go where we otherwise would go, and we have to take what just days ago would have been considered extreme if not irrational measures to try to prohibit, or at least to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.[7]

May the Lord have mercy upon our churches; upon our country; and upon humanity.

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Ps. 46:10 ESV)

Christians may still sing William Cowper’s immortal hymn:

        Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

        But trust Him for His grace;

        Behind a frowning providence

        He hides a smiling face.

 

        His purposes will ripen fast,

        Unfolding every hour;

        The bud may have a bitter taste,

        But sweet will be the flower.

 

        Blind unbelief is sure to err

        And scan His work in vain;

        God is His own interpreter,

        And He will make it plain.

 

[1] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/16/briefing-3-16-20 (cited with permission)

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion I. 17. 1

[3] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/11/briefing-3-11-20 (cited with permission)

[4] John Own, Work, Vol. IX (Banner of Truth): 497

[5] Luther’s Works Volume 43, “Whether one may flee from a Deadly Plague” written to Rev. Dr. John Hess… (Thanks is due to Christian Camacho of Grace Baptist Church of Los Baños for posting this on our Church Facebook)

[6] See Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (Ballantine Books; 1978)

[7] https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/16/briefing-3-16-20 (cited with permission)

 

 

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