My gut reaction tends to be “people are crazy.” And I certainly am more concerned about what irrational people do when they panic than I am about the source of panic. However, I do think we ought to be thinking seriously about COVID-19 so that we can respond in a manner that is wise, prudent, and faithful rather than fearful. I’ve already had a few people ask me about church being canceled, particularly in light of the CDC’s recommendation to avoid gatherings of more than 50 people. So, how should Christians and churches respond?
My current leaning would be to continue meeting for church until your governor puts out a mandate, as many other states have, banning gatherings of a certain size, or until the virus shows up in your county or surrounding area. Then, I think it may be prudent to cancel services for a week or two at least.
In the back of my mind, I agree that this feels much too close to a test run of flexing government power. This whole crisis has shown that it is, in fact, completely viable to orchestrate large-scale, voluntary quarantining. And so I do think we should be wary of the indications this all might have for moves toward tyranny in the future—perhaps particularly the potential for targeting churches. However, I think that some level of quarantining and recommended restrictions are appropriate and within the lawful authority of the magistrate (not just constitutionally—for states that is—but also biblically: Lev. 13–15; Ex. 20:13; Rom. 13:4). So, I think churches, not only out of love for brother and neighbor, but as a matter of cheerfully submitting to the lawful directives (and not all are) of the governing authorities, should adhere to those directives with joy, patience, courage, and faith. And I believe we can do this without compromising our commitment to Christ or to His commandment not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (thought the spirit of that commandment ought to impel us to be diligent not to readily abandon the regular assembly of Christ’s church).
We, as Christians, must not panic. It’s wise to take common-sense precautions; but we are not overcome by fear. Even if this ended up being on the level of the Black Death, God is still sovereign; and we will never be asked for a reason for the hope that is in us if we aren’t demonstrating a hope that is in stark contrast to the panicking, fearful world around us.
C.S. Lewis gave a wise and balanced perspective in 1948, writing “On Living in an Atomic Age.” (His references to atomic bombs have been changed to the virus so you see the principle applying to our current crisis just as readily as his.)
In one way we think a great deal too much of the [coronavirus]. ‘How are we to live in an [viral] age?’ I am tempted to reply: Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the [coronavirus] was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an [virus], let that [virus] when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about [viruses]. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
Martin Luther once wrote a letter to Johan Hess about how he was responding to the Black Death: “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” His words here convey the calm confidence in God’s providence that ought to characterize all believers.
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.
Christians ought to be marked by a distinctive courage, love, wisdom, faith, and hope, in the midst of a world that is marked by cowardice, selfishness, foolishness, fear, and despair.
So, what does this look like in the weeks ahead? We will continue to meet for worship and study, remaining alert to the spread of the virus. When the virus reaches our area, we will reevaluate and keep our church updated. If you are high risk, it would be wise to stay home. If you or your children have been feeling ill, again, as always, it would be both wise and loving to stay home rather than risk the spread of any sickness, regardless of the scare surrounding the particular disease. This is a matter of course and common courtesy, but it bears reiterating here. Hebrews 10:25 indicates that one of the primary purposes of the local assembly is the mutual encouragement and edification of the church family. So while we recognize the concern surrounding the COVID-19 scare, we want to be slow to give up our time of corporate worship, study, and encouragement on the Lord’s Day, even for a short time.
So, to borrow some helpful direction from Christ Church Moscow:
As we all watch the evening news regarding the coronavirus, one question that naturally occurs to everyone is this: “what about Sunday worship?” We do not want to have any part of spreading either virus—whether we are talking about the coronavirus or the panic virus (which is also quite contagious). The two viruses have this in common—the carriers often don’t know that they are carriers.
So here are a few prudent measures that we would ask you to observe as we worship this coming Lord’s Day.
Please wash your hands before coming, and if you have portable hand sanitizer that you can bring, please bring it, and please feel free to use it; Please don’t shake anybody’s hand. Just beam at them, or do that new and interesting elbow bump… If you have a cough, or a cold, or any flu-like symptoms, please remain home; If you are elderly, or have any underlying medical condition that concerns you, please feel at liberty to remain at home… And if you are fearful or in any way panicky, we would ask you to remain home also (Dt. 20:8). If you are one of those who likes to share scary stories, statistics, or scenarios with the other saints, please stay at home. And if you do decide to come, please wash your hands and heart down with Ps. 91 and 121 first.