Sometimes ‘the missing everyone feeling’ overtakes us during our worship service streaming. We can’t sing through the tears when we see the recordings of the church singing together. We know everyone is joyfully making the best of it. But, we long for the gathering of the saints. It’s a part of the fabric of New Testament Christianity.
Add to this, the economic suffering. So many are out of work. When it feels like the cure is worse than the disease shouldn’t we make our voices heard to the government? Should we even disobey the government and meet and work anyway? To cloudy the waters even more, so many opposing ‘expert’ opinions are being thrown around on social media that it is difficult to even agree on what information we should look for and trust. `
I want to offer a pro-life perspective to reopening our economy and our churches. Christians are called to value life for all including the elderly and vulnerable. I want to lay out a series of factors that help us think through how hard to push the government to re-open and when we should meet. Governments, businesses, and churches will all seek what they feel are safe and reasonable practices. Since the situations and perspectives vary, so will responses. We must be humble and patient with each other and their decisions.
Naturally the first and foremost question we must answer is this. What is God’s will and how do we honor it? It is not first, “What are my rights as an American?” I submit that the first consideration during the COVID-19 threat—when it comes to meeting as churches and going back to work—must be the preservation of life. I see five scriptural commands at play. Sometimes they seem in tension. But the first helps us shape the rest.
How we handle Covid-19 is not first a religious liberty question, but a preservation of life question. Many people are speaking about American religious liberties being violated. Remember Thomas Jefferson carefully chose the order of the phrase in the Declaration of Independence “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.” Without life, there is no liberty. Liberty that negligently threatens another’s life is unacceptable. It is important to note again, I am not referring to situations where persecution is the cause to close church meetings. I am referring to the spread of infectious disease.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor (Romans 13:10)
We are called to love God first and foremost and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-37). Luke’s account includes the parable of the good Samaritan. Those who love God will love the suffering and vulnerable.
Human life is precious to God from conception to old age. We should seek to do our best to preserve life.
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” Psalms 139:13-14
To illustrate how import life is in the Bible, murder was the first sin to require capital punishment (Genesis 9:6). The fountain head of all moral commands about the value of life is the sixth commandment. “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). All other lesser matters like manslaughter or negligent homicide flow down from this. The Bible elaborates on our responsibility for others’ lives whether through negligence or infectious disease.
Here is one example related to building codes.
“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” (Deuteronomy 22:8).
God holds people accountable for negligence in causing another’s death. It did not matter how old the person was who was killed. Carelessness, thoughtlessness, or a skimpy budget was no excuse not to protect the life of a family member or guest. In modern terms a person can be convicted of manslaughter or negligent homicide.
The Bible also applied this to an infectious disease like leprosy.
The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, Unclean, unclean.’ 46 He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46).
Yes, this was part of ceremonial purity, but it was also part of controlling infectious disease. It was the person with the infectious disease who was responsible not to infect others.
It is sin to murder and it is sin to be negligent in such a way as to cause another’s death. It is sin to let infectious disease affect a large community without doing one’s best to mitigate it.
When it comes to opening our churches we must weigh well the risks of exposing our people to Covid-19. Information is still pouring in. Infection rates, mortality rates, and other pertinent data are incomplete. People over 65 and people with certain pre-existing conditions appear to have greater mortality rates. The picture so far shows that where large numbers of people gather, the disease spreads quickly. All four doctors I have consulted agree that Covid-19 is very contagious and often goes undetected. 90,000 people have died in 10 weeks most of which have been under stay-at-home orders. What will happen when those orders end? The pro-life question is this. Are we ready for the responsibility of catching then spreading the virus? What if you catch it outside church and infect someone at church? What if it is a visiting unbeliever and they die? Are you ready for this risk and responsibility? Are you ready to catch it at church and give it to someone at work? These questions require us to have good practices in place to minimize the risks. We will not be able to stop the virus altogether, but we can take sound precautions to reach a level of acceptable risk. But, the stakes are too high for bias against atheists, opposing political parties, or the government when it comes to statistics and scientific investigation. A Bible expert is not an infectious disease expert just because he found an article on the internet or listens to a fiery pastor with confidence. I urge objectivity and caution.
The governor of every state has the God given responsibility to preserve life in his state. Ours in Washington is wildly inconsistent by allowing marijuana stores and liquor stores to remain open as essential. Those create known health risks for many, but are not curtailed. He allows abortion which is murder. But, in this case he seems aimed at keeping the spread of Covid-19 to a minimum. We may disagree with how far he goes, but it is clear he wants to preserve life. A church may have a legal claim to disregard his orders. A church may have biblical claim to disregard his orders in some instances. But, let every church weigh carefully its responsibility to preserve life. Non-Christians will hear us be pro-life for the unborn. Will they hear us be pro-life for the vulnerable and the rest of the city? If we as elders reopen in defiance of the governor and someone catches the virus and dies, will we stand in good conscience as we perform the funeral with non-Christian family in attendance? The answer will only be yes if we have put reasonable measures in place to mitigate the spread of the virus.
"Non-Christians will hear us be pro-life for the unborn. Will they hear us be pro-life for the vulnerable and the rest of the city? If we as elders reopen in defiance of the governor and someone catches the virus and dies, will we stand in good conscience as we perform the funeral with non-Christian family in attendance?"
So, when can we gather as a church again? Answer: When we have a way to responsibly minimize risks, keep our people safe, and especially show care to our vulnerable populations. No one thinks COVID-19 is going away fast. There will be various opinions about when it will be safe. Since God holds us accountable to uphold healthy environments as best we can, we must be careful and cautious.
God has ordained work as a means to provide what is needed for physical life. When the cost to health and life is higher by staying at home, we will need to go back to work. For weeks I have been rooting for more businesses to open. I believe many more businesses in Eastern Washington can reopen. It is not to feed American greed. It is to stop risking larger health dangers due to poverty brought about by a shut down.
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8). See also Proverbs 27:23-27
Most people want to work, believers or unbelievers. Most people want to earn their income. The Proverbs are filled with injunctions to work hard and provide for your family. Paul tells Timothy that this extends even to the care of widows and backs it up with a statement about being worse than an unbeliever. But, what if you are sick with Coronavirus? Can you go to work, infect someone else with the risk of their death? No. The priority of preserving life first comes into play. God has graciously given us the church. The church is eager to assist financially when these difficult decisions are made. But what if I am healthy, and I go back to work and catch the virus? Since I don’t know if I am a carrier, I have to think carefully about my interaction with the church. Preserving human life is a high priority.
We must not be pro-life for the unborn and yet flippant about the deaths of the aged. There is too often a gross insensitivity in the evangelical community toward the families in the U.S. who have experienced the loss of loved ones. When the governor, a pro-abortionist, is more compassionate toward the losses of families in Washington than are church leaders, we are in serious need of repentance. 90,000 people have died in ten weeks across the U.S. Does that not crush the heart of the Christian? Most are older with pre-existing conditions, but they are still image bearers. Many Christians are focusing more on religious liberty than on people who are vulnerable. They cite the small number of the population that have died as they justify the attempt to re-open churches.
One third of our church is in the ‘high risk’ category. Do not those who are vulnerable require us to consider carefully what we should do?
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
This ‘visiting’ is to show up and bring relief. It means true religion takes loving responsibility toward the vulnerable. While we want to reopen, does anyone know for sure they are not infected on any given day? You can pick up Covid-19 at the gas pump. We must have a reasonable way to mitigate the risks of transmitting the disease. It will be some time before I can bring my 78 year old mother from assisted living to church. What if she got it at FBC and brought it back to her facility? Caution is in order. We will re-open, but we want to have good measures in place to protect the vulnerable.
"One third of our church is in the ‘high risk’ category. Do not those who are vulnerable require us to consider carefully what we should do?"
While we are eager to re-open we must demonstrate love and care for those who should not come. The first way to value them is to do our best to keep them from being exposed to COVID-19.
The stay at home orders are being played as government overreach or the threat to religious liberty. There is legitimate debate about this. Some make good arguments saying yes the governor is going beyond his constitutional powers in Spokane County. Others disagree. There are also clear signals as to when we will be able to tell if the governor’s orders are in violation of religious liberties. When large restaurants can open at 50% capacity and churches cannot, this may signal that bias against churches exist. Or it may recognize that the types of activities are very different when it comes to the spread of a disease. It is good to have civil dialogue about this and not demonize each other or the government. But. let me say it again. Without life, there is no liberty. Preserving life is necessary for liberty, including religious liberty. Government’s God given role is to protect and preserve life. (Romans 13:1-5). We must be careful not to hinder Governor Inslee’s obligation before God.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God… for he is God's servant for your good. Romans 13:1,4
We don’t submit to the government when it asks us to sin. We should be prepared to suffer if we choose not to submit. We may have freedom of conscience to disobey what we believe is an illegal government action. But our first considerations are the preaching of the gospel and the preservation of life.
Are we being ordered to stop preaching the gospel? Are we being ordered to disregard human life and the vulnerable? No. We can use dozens of mediums for preaching the gospel. We connect with large groups through various technology platforms and we can drop off gifts and needed items on doorsteps. We can even go on walks with other Christians provided we social distance. Our counselors are allowed to meet counselees in crisis situations face to face with appropriate safety protocols. This is nowhere near the situation which Peter and John faced.
So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 3:18-20)
“But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).
John and Peter were forbidden from preaching Christ at all. That is not what is being done here.
In trying to maintain our religious freedoms, we must not negligently cause the death of one of Christ’s sheep. We ought to make it as easy as possible for the government to uphold its obligation to preserve life. If a church meets in defiance of a governor’s orders it must be ready to be accountable on judgment day for the lives of the people that come. It must do all diligence to protect the lives of people who gather. So long as the government is not stopping us from preaching Christ, is not causing us to sin, and is not doing something illegal, we must submit whether we agree with it or not.
In a democracy, we can petition, write letters and call our elected officials. We can use any legal means at our disposal to do this so long as we are not sinning in the way we do it. Paul urges that we pray for our officials so we can lead peaceable and quite lives, godly and dignified in every way (2 Timothy 2:2). If the restrictions placed on us are clearly no longer needed or if they are costing more lives in other ways, we can speak up. But, we must do it with a respect toward its role to preserve human life. We must seek much prayer and wisdom.
Christians are commanded to gather and worship (Psalm 95:6; 111:1). There is nothing in the Christian life that fills the role of face to face gatherings. We want to worship together because the Spirit of God within us compels us to. But we are also commanded to keep infectious disease from spreading in and outside the community of believers (Leviticus 13:45-46). Mitigating the spread of infectious disease for a time appears to be a priority over gathering.
The command to gather in Hebrews is to those who were themselves forsaking gathering with the church.
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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. (Hebrews 10:24-25)
To neglect the gathering of saints in Hebrews 10:25 is to decisively turn one’s back on the assembly. It is not talking about someone in quarantine who wants to be gathering but can’t. It is not talking about someone on stay at home orders driven by public health factors. It is talking about someone ready to abandon the faith out of fear of persecution. That is not what is happening now. The governor is asking us to something more akin to Leviticus 13:45-46 which is to quarantine those who can infect others as they gather to worship and go through life. Perhaps it is an over-reaction, perhaps we are not reacting strongly enough. Time will tell. We should be careful not to play the religious liberty card with a cavalier approach to life.
The elders of Faith Bible Church do not at this time feel like the governor is over-reaching his authority in ordering us not to meet as a whole church. We believe it is his job to preserve life and we wish he would broaden that out to the unborn. If he were to let us make our own decision today whether to meet or not, we would not feel safe to open just yet. Most of us would be in favor of a faster phased approach starting with more businesses opening and a monitoring of COVID-19 case increases. We are sympathetic to the responsibility the governor has.
We are discussing now what it will look like for us as a church as each phase comes. If a suit is filed and the governor is given a restraining order, we are weighing out what we will do. We will likely start with smaller groups and make considerations for those in the high-risk category. We will seek best safety practices for gathering.
There will be a path that both preserves life and allows us to re-open our churches. This is not the first pandemic and the church has always been able to press on. We will use all the wisdom from the medical community we can. We will follow government guidelines so long as they do not cause us to sin. Our aim is to gather. In doing so, we will seek to preserve life, value the vulnerable, honor the government. We will advocate for business to re-open sooner than later provided they can keep safe workplaces. We will also be careful to not throw stones at those who will re-open in defiance of the governor. Most acutely feel their accountability toward God the judge. We need wisdom, prayer and patience.