Even if the rest of the world wants to throw the doors open and abandon caution, we as Christians have a long history of applying wisdom to situations just like this, one we need to lean upon if we want to avoid becoming centers of catastrophe.
It happened again yesterday, another person asked me if we were going to reopen our little church on the corner of 2nd street and 2nd Ave NW. The question is an innocent one, it is also a reasonable one, our Governor has relaxed restrictions for Churches and some around us are doing “soft” reopening’s over the next few weeks, so it is not one area pastors should expect not to hear. We have, in a way, never been closed, our building has, but we as a church have not. We have continued ministry and worship providing something that many of our members would not have otherwise but doing more with less personnel then we normally do. The activities of the Church are still going on, just in a different form and outside of our building. We will also be using our building again to record our worship services an hold Friday Prayer so long as social distancing guidelines are met.
Still, there is more to consider than just reopening. Christians have a long history of appling wisdom to these scenarios and we must continue that tradition because we have the ultimate wisdom-giver incarnate among us. For some congregations it may be safe to fling open the doors and return to some semblance of normal, for others, it may not, and prudence and wisdom are required to know which case is which. In the case of my congregation it may not be wise to go back to in person services even with the practicing of social distancing measures. The reason is that a vast majority of my congregation falls into the “highly vulnerable” category, not simply because they are 65 or older but because they have a multitude of underlying conditions that could greatly increase their risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19. As their pastor, the under shepherd whom God has entrusted them too, that means in part I am responsible for protecting their health during this time. I take that responsibility very seriously and I have no plan to shrug it off or treat it lightly. I have to stand before God one day and give account for what I did with the resources He gave me and if they all die from COVID-19, that is pretty poor management. If I feed my flock to the wolves, I am no under shepherd but a thief.
I also do not buy the argument that we need to reopen for mental health reasons, or economic reasons. The fact is, if I throw open the doors, they come back and someone brings the virus with them and they contract it and die, it will not matter what their mental or financial health is. That is not something scripture allows me to do nor is it something I want on my conscious. I hate the fact that we are even having a conversation like this, especially since if the Church were living out its calling as it should we would not have to worry about the mental or emotional well-being of our members because we would all be taking care of one another through whatever means they have at their disposal, I know many of my congregation have, a blessing for a younger pastor.
Factor in the reality that churches have been hotspots for the virus and that over 30 pastors have died from the virus, we should not be so quick to fling the doors open. Even if the Government had no guidelines, even if we were totally free to make our own decisions, it would not be wise to meet with a fast spreading, deadly virus that could kill most of our people. This was true of Martin Luther during the plague of 1522 when there was no such thing as the CDC or Iowa Department of Health. We have all seen the quote because it has been all over social media in the previous weeks, but I share it here for emphasis:
“Therefore, 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 infect 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.”[i]
Luther understood that during the Plague his responsibility before God was to be responsible and to not “cause their death as a result of my negligence.” He understood what I said above, If God should take him during the plague he would be able to stand before him and God would find that he has not caused the death of others or himself by being negligent in His pastoral duties. One could say that the modern idea of Social Distancing finds roots here in Luther’s sermon. That for the pastor, the responsible and wise thing to do is ensure that we do not lose one member of our flock because we ourselves were negligent.
Which brings me to the present crisis.
It is part of my responsibility to do three things, help my people Love God, Love People and Make Disciples. That means that I have to follow and be a disciple of Jesus and set an example for my congregation on how to Love God, Love People and Make Disciples. So, I study and read God’s Word and spend time in prayer and learn the commandments of Jesus which I am to pass down to others who are Disciples of Jesus. One of the realities that I am confronted with in Scripture is how valuable life is to God and how seriously he takes the destruction and undervaluing of that life. Even outside of the Pentateuch we find copious passages like Isaiah 1 which point to disobedience by Judah of God involving the devaluation of human life through murder and corruption. As Peter Enns writes in his commentary on Exodus: “”Life is something that the God of Israel does not treat likely, and it is thus incumbent on His people to behave likewise.”[ii] In the New Testament Jesus brings God’s moral law forward and with it the implicit value human life has because we are made in the image of God (Genesis 2, Matthew 5). Christianity is inherently whole life; we value life from the time it is conceived to the time we return to the dust simply because God created life and made human beings in His own image. Part of loving God is loving people and part of loving people is guarding their lives at all cost against even a deadly virus. Life does not become an idol, we are not to make images of man, that is also part of loving God, but we are to value life because God values Life.
The last few weeks have been tough because with every number added to the death toll, another family is grieving and mourning the loss of a human being and I mourn along with them. Now, I do not personally know anyone who has died from COVID-19, think of how magnified the grief would be were it one of the many men and women I love and have been entrusted as under shepherd. I have told my congregation that I do not want to bury any of them from this, I want them all back when this is over because I love them. It would be foolish to play chicken with their lives for the sake of an ego trip or because the Governor has lifted restrictions.
These are not easy decisions, please be patient and gracious with us as we work through this with you and find the best way to keep you healthy.
An Under shepherd of Christ, called and confirmed by Him.
[i] Lull, Timothy F.. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (p. 483). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Enns, Peter, The NIV Application Commentary: Exodus, 2000, Zondervan, pg 422
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.