Some have said we need to step out on faith that God will protect us from the Virus. And we do, the problem is we should not expose the sheep to the wolves and hope and pray God shuts the mouths of the Wolves.
The image of a shepherd is one that scripture uses over and over again to describe God’s relationship to us, Jesus relationship to us and the Pastors relationship to their flock. In the Old Testament it was a shepherd boy who God raised up to be the second King of Israel and whose line God established, I do not think this was a coincidence. A shepherd understands what is required, the responsibility that comes with caring for large groups. By being a shepherd, David had developed the wisdom and skill to guide and protect a flock of people and so God elevated him to not shepherd sheep, but His people and though David did not always do a good job at this, he seemed to be better qualified than Saul. In the New Testament Matthew writes that: “when (Jesus) saw the crowds he had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt 9:36). Sheep without a shepherd roam from place to place, aimlessly and are easy prey for the bear or wolf or lion that finds them. In Jesus day the Religious Elite had abandoned the people to fend for themselves by creating laws and religious rules that the people could not possibly keep. Instead of shepherding the people, making them lie down in green pastures or lay beside still waters (ps 23), they had left them to see to their own eternity, failing to realize that their eternity was partly dependent on the welfare of the sheep they were called to shepherd. Jesus then is the Good Shepherd (John 10) who lays down his life for the sheep. He also demonstrates to us as pastors how to be shepherds, or under shepherds, ourselves as 1 Peter 4 reminds us.
When a wolf comes around the flock, when a bear or a lion, it is the Shepherds job to lead the flock away from the danger and even confront the danger on the flocks behalf, to give his or her life for the flock if need be to keep the flock from the danger. The pastor should never take their flock back towards the danger and just pray God will keep the danger from attacking the flock. Can God protect the flock with the danger right there? Of course he can, but it would be irresponsible to test God and say: “I am going to let the lion roam free and pray he does not attack the flock, you have this right God?” Or, I do see the thief coming to steal, kill and destroy the flock (John 10:10) and just let him do his damage or quickly send up a prayer saying: “Lord, there’s a thief there, just do not let him get into the sheep pen to steal, kill and destroy.” No, I raise the alarm, I fight the beast come to devour, I get the other shepherds and we confront the thief before he can get into the pen to do the damage he intends to do.
As a pastor I know this reality, I have to stand before God one day as one who was given the responsibility of serving as an under shepherd and give account for how I carried out that task. That is why those who seek to lead will be judged more harshly than others both on Earth and in heaven (James 3:1). We are being entrusted with the care of the flock under the true Shepherd, Jesus Christ. That thought terrifies me far more than this virus or this world but that fear is offset by the fact that I know I am covered by the blood of the lamb, that the true shepherd whom I serve is a lamb like me and that His blood was shed on the cross and that because I have confessed that He is Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). I know my eternity is secure, I have a personal relationship with God the Father through God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and even though I will fail multiple times at this task I am not in danger of losing that salvation He has given me. Still, I am not to squander what God has given me, in fact, one of the ways others know that Christ has transformed me is by watching how I live in this world and how I live out what Scripture teaches me to live.
That carries a certain amount of responsibility, that my actions will either draw people to the gospel or away from it. As a pastor, I am watched more closely by the world and one of the things that the world is watching right now is how I go about reopening my congregation. Do we fling open the doors (something I argued against last week) and abandon caution and discernment which require wisdom? Or do we take the time to make sure that we are not putting our congregations at risk for a disease that many of them could contract and die from? Again, if I know the wolf is lurking, I keep my flock away from the wolf, I even fight the wolf if necessary. If the thief is outside the pen, I do not open the pen and let him walk in. This virus is both a wolf, or a lion, and a thief. It comes into congregations and infects and kills, not just through the virus itself but all the false or misleading information available on the internet that has been intentionally manufactured to deceive and which many Christians are falling for (1 Timothy 3:1-17). The world has taken note of both approaches and mocked those who either ignored warnings altogether or blatantly refused to follow government orders. Many of these churches and pastors have already paid a high price by becoming epicenters for outbreaks. Over 30 Pastors have contracted and died from COVID-19 because they refused to listen to warnings. This is not brave, nor does it show your faith, it is irresponsible to put others at risk, not wise.
But what about the faith verse fear debate? Obviously we should not fear this virus as Christians just as we should not fear anything that is happening in this world. But to juxtapose faith and fear is to make a false dichotomy, fear is not and never has been the opposite of fear, doubt is. Fear can actually be healthy; I have a fear of God and I do fear this virus getting into my congregation because it could do irreversible harm to those whom God has made me responsible for. What I do not have is doubt, I do not doubt that God can protect us from this virus or that, if he wants to, can just remove it from the Earth altogether. I also believe that part of having faith requires me to pray for those two outcomes while at the same time addressing the very real circumstances that surround us here. I have faith God can protect my flock, but I am not going to put that faith willingly or recklessly to the test. That would be unloving and show a lack of care by the shepherd for the Sheep. If I love the sheep, I care for their needs, I feed them, I love them, I guide them to green pastures, I bolster their faith and lovingly address their doubts. But I also teach them that there are things in this life that are not to be trifled with and actively seek to defend them from those things that can harm them.
I urge my fellow pastors and church leaders to heed this warning. To love your flocks you have to guard and defend them from the evils of this world. We have largely failed at that task but now have a chance to step up and do what we should have been doing all along. Jesus is once again saying: “Pastor, do you love me?” “Shepherd my Sheep.”