Being the Church During a Pandemic

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Though few knew it at the time, the first few weeks of January 2020 would prove to be momentous. It was within those first couple of weeks of the new year that Chinese officials notified the United States federal government of a disease outbreak in the province of Wuhan. Within days, scientists would identify the disease as being caused by a novel coronavirus. Within a few short months the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be almost the only item of news around the world. This post was written in April 2020 and was first posted here. Much has changed since then yet this post remains relevant for the church in the first few weeks of 2022.

There’s an aphorism that’s commonly attributed to George Santayana, one form of which is that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In the first volume of his five-volume work, The Life of Reason, what Santayana actually wrote was: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I think the popular re-framing of Santayana’s words is, however, probably close enough to capture the spirit of what he meant to say.

To the extent that the statement is true, it applies no less to church history than it does to any other portion of humanity’s past. Perhaps it comes as no surprise that I would come to that conclusion given that I co-host a podcast on the topic of church history. But when it comes to history, we must not merely remember it, but we must learn the right lessons from it.

In all the upheaval caused by the coronavirus (or SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 or whatever you prefer to call it), there have been a number of Christians who have pointed to times in the history of the church from which today’s churches might draw lessons for the current situation that we face. One such reference to church history that I’ve seen passed around quite a bit has been Martin Luther’s pamphlet titled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague” (published in 1527 during an outbreak of the bubonic plague). For a short summary of the pamphlet you can listen to this episode of Five Minutes in Church History or read about it here.

Luther’s pamphlet reminds Christians that we are always to trust in God. He encourages prayer for protection. Yet he also writes about numerous practical steps that he would take (“help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it”) out of love for neighbor. As Andrew Davis, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina, points out in The Gospel Coalition article in the previous paragraph, “Ultimately Luther left all personal decisions on whether to flee to each individual in light of the Word of God.” That is, of course, how Christians must make all of their decisions: in light of the Word of God.

A second article to which I want to draw attention was originally published at the 9Marks website on the same date (March 12) as the TGC article about Luther. It was recently re-published (in a slightly shorter format) on the website of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, under the title “What can the D.C. church response to the 1918 flu pandemic teach us now?”

Caleb Morell’s article (in both forms) contains some very interesting historical tidbits from a period in the history of the church (and the history of the United States and the world more generally) that undoubtedly has received relatively little attention prior to the last couple of months. Whether it has merely been overshadowed in history books by the last days of the Great War or considered of little consequence given the major advances in the medical field, I certainly cannot say. In any event, Morell begins by relating the following facts.

The first active cases in the District were reported in September 1918. Between September 21–26, six people succumbed to the flu. By Sept. 27, three more people had died, and there were 42 new cases. From that point on, cases multiplied rapidly, and more deaths followed. By Oct. 4, after another spike in cases, city officials called for additional bans on public gatherings, including church services, playgrounds, theaters, dance halls, and other places of amusement.

It’s worth noting the precise language of that pronouncement of October 4: “be it ordered by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia that the clergy be requested to omit all church services until further action by the Commissioners.” It’s difficult to say with certainty, but the word “requested” certainly seems to imply that the city officials recognized (at least at that stage) that it was not within their power to order churches to close. Just a paragraph down from the one that Morell clips from the Evening Star newspaper of October 6, 1918, we find this:

Contemporary newspaper clipping
Evening Star, October 6, 1918

In case that picture is too hard to make out, the relevant portion says that “the point was raised that churches of other denominations might not regard the request as mandatory.” So while it is true that members of the “Pastors Federation of Washington” unanimously agreed to comply with the request of the D.C. commissioners, it’s equally clear that the request was not unanimously regarded as being something other than a request. The rest of Morell’s article is quite interesting and I commend it to you. My point lies elsewhere, however, and has to do with both this article and the many references to Luther’s pamphlet.

We are not presently dealing with the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. We are certainly not dealing with anything like the bubonic plague that ravaged Europe for centuries. Given those facts (which I do not think are reasonably open to dispute), I think Christians ought to be very careful about drawing lessons from what was done in those instances. I’ll focus my attention on the D.C. churches during the Spanish flu epidemic since that article is more fleshed out with details, but I think it will be clear that the same reasoning applies to Luther’s situation.

 

 

To begin with, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 was, by all accounts, far deadlier than SARS-CoV-2 has been or is even projected to be. In 1918-19, according to the CDC, there were an estimated 500 million people infected and 50 million deaths worldwide (including 675,000 deaths in the United States alone). Morell’s article notes that in Washington, D.C. there were 50,000 cases and 3,000 deaths from the Spanish flu. To date, by God’s grace (you heard me, Andrew Cuomo), there have been only about 2,600 cases in DC and 91 deaths from SARS-CoV-2. It should be obvious that comparisons between the Spanish flu and this current coronavirus must be, at the very least, carefully limited.

In determining what we can learn from how churches in D.C. responded more than a century ago, it’s also crucial to look at what the government was up to. As noted above, the initial statement about closing churches was phrased as a request. Given the circumstances, it was a reasonable request. As Luther put it, love for neighbor very well may dictate that we temporarily “avoid places and persons where [our] 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 [our] negligence.” The city officials in 1918 merely requested that the church do what Biblical love for others would compel the church to do anyway.

As Morell’s article points out, in 1918 the request to close churches was first announced on October 4 and was lifted on October 29. In other words, the church closures had been ended less than one month later.

On March 16 of this year, D.C. banned “mass gatherings” (initially groups of 50, then 10). They have now extended that order until May 15, a period of 60 days, i.e., more than double the duration of the 1918 ban on public gatherings.

As another point of comparison, consider what has been done in Virginia. On March 23, the governor issued Executive Order 53 (the original version has been removed from the Governor’s official website, but an amended version can be found here), which stated “Effective 11:59 p.m., Tuesday, March 24, 2020 until 11:59 p.m., Thursday, April 23, 2020, all public and private in person gatherings of 10 or more individuals are prohibited.” Subsequently, on March 30, Executive Order 55 was issued, under which “All public and private in-person gatherings of more than ten individuals” were prohibited.* The new order specifically named “religious, or other social events” and extended the ban until June 10. All in all, Virginia’s prohibition would keep churches from meeting in person for a total of 79 days. That more than triples the length of the corresponding prohibition in D.C. in 1918.

I give all of that information in order to ask the following question: given that the threat to health posed by COVID-19 is decidedly less than the dangers posed by the Spanish flu of 1918, is it not reasonable to question why governments are ordering churches not to gather for corporate worship for double or triple the time that they asked churches to refrain from meeting in 1918?

In Morell’s article, he points out that before city officials announced that churches and other groups could meet again, pastors began petitioning that the ban be lifted. He writes:

In a letter to the editor in that evening’s edition of The Evening Star [October 26], Rev. Randolph H. McKim, pastor of the Church of the Epiphany in Washington DC, protested the continued ban on church gatherings. In the opinion piece, he argued in strong terms that “nothing has so contributed to that state of panic which has gripped this community as the fact that the normal religious life of our city has been disorganized.” He further protested that when the Federation of Pastors met with the City Commissioners to consider the matter, the Commissioners reasoned purely on “materialistic grounds.” No weight or consideration was given to the power of prayer or the comfort against anxiety that church gatherings would provide. In the authors’ words, “That prayer had any efficacy in the physical world was an idea that was given no hospitality” by the Commissioners.

Letters and appeals from pastors to the Commissioners to lift the ban continued for several more days as deaths and new cases continued to decline. One Baptist minister, Pastor J. Milton Waldron, published an editorial on October 29, writing on behalf of “the eleven hundred members of Shiloh Baptist Church.” In the article, Pastor Waldron expresses his members’ concern that the city officials are carelessly “interfering with the freedom of religious worship.” In particular, his people feel that “the authorities are woefully lacking in reverence to God and wanting in a correct knowledge of the character and mission of the church when they place it in the same class with poolrooms, dance halls, moving picture places, and theaters.” As Waldron puts it, “The Christian church is not a luxury, but a necessity to the life and perpetuity of any nation.”

This seems to contrast at least somewhat with what was expressed by Pastor Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (also president of 9Marks), on the March 12, 2020 episode of the Pastors’ Talk podcast that he co-hosts with Jonathan Leeman (editorial director for 9Marks):

“Brother pastor, just stick with the government. You don’t have the competence on the health side or the economic side. There’s just a lot of things the government has to try to weigh out, like what’s gonna work, what’s gonna help the general population best. That’s not your responsibility and it’s not your competence. So just stick happily with the government.”

There’s not necessarily any direct contradiction between the advice that Dever gave in his podcast and the counsel that seems to be urged in Morell’s article. In light of events since March 12 (perhaps most notably the large miscalculations about potential deaths caused by the virus), perhaps Dever would even express his thoughts differently now.

However, this is the point at which a failure to think carefully about historical examples can be so dangerous. I posted some of these thoughts on Twitter already and was able to cordially interact with Josh Wester who works for the ERLC.

That might or might not be the most likely takeaway from the article. I tend to think there are other takeaways that are equally likely.

Consider, for instance, how short the prohibition was in D.C. in 1918; it lasted 24 or 25 days before being lifted. There hardly could have been a need for pastors to consider the prospect of civil disobedience, because before it got to that point the ban had been ended. Coupling this article together with Dever’s advice that pastors ought to “just stick with the government” could easily lead churches to conclude that they must merely endure the executive orders that prohibit corporate worship without doing anything about them. Or, as I explained to Josh Wester on Twitter:

The conclusion does not follow from the premises, because what was “the right thing” for churches in D.C. in 1918 might not be the right thing for churches in other parts of the country more than a century later. Yet, if Christians hear Dever telling them to just follow what the government tells them and puts that together with the historical example from Morell’s article, such errors of logic sadly seem likely if not nearly inevitable.

I’ll try to make the takeaway from this post as clear as I can. Let me start with a few things that I am not saying. I am not saying that we can learn nothing from Martin Luther’s experience or from pastors like Francis Grimke who pastored his congregation through the 1918 pandemic; we surely can and should learn from them. Nor would I even suggest that the onerous restrictions imposed on some American churches right now are outside of God’s control. I think I’ve written more than enough on this blog about the sovereignty of God for anyone to easily determine where I stand on that point of doctrine.

So here’s what I am saying: at some point we are compelled to say that the situation in 1918 (to say nothing of the bubonic plague) and the situation today are so different that the actions of those churches have relatively little to say to churches today. The disease they faced was far deadlier and the restrictions that they faced were considerably lighter than the disease and restrictions faced by churches at present.

Whatever else Christians think about the state and the extent of its power (and this is another issue on which I’ve made my views clear), I think we all should be able to agree that the state is ordained by God to be the state and that the church is ordained by God to be the church. Neither should usurp the legitimate, Biblical role of the other. Yet when agents of the state–as they are doing right now–dictate when and where and how the church should worship, they are stepping outside the bounds of the powers for which they can reasonably claim Biblical warrant.  


Post script: Even after all of that, I half-expect some will ask, “Well, what about Romans 13?” For an analysis of what Romans 13 requires in situations like ours, I would point you to Does Romans 13 Require Us to Obey “Shelter-in-Place” Laws? by Brandon Adams who I’m sure you will agree puts together a far more comprehensive discussion of these issues than I ever could.

* I didn’t notice this until I was doing a final proofread of this post, but the two orders are actually contradictory when it comes to the size of the gatherings it permits. The March 23 order said groups of “10 or more” were prohibited whereas the March 30 order said “more than ten.” Either something happened in the passage of that week that made it fine to add a tenth person to your gathering, or someone working for the governor wasn’t paying too close attention.

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