Churches Dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic Part 1
In the Bible
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).
- To be safe in a world of "wolves" we need to be careful.
Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Mark 12:17).
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 (Romans 13:1).
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
- We are to obey the government, but not when it requires us to disobey God.
You are to distinguish between ... the unclean and the clean (Leviticus 10:10).
... the priest shall shut up the diseased person for seven days. And the priest shall examine him on the seventh day, and if in his eyes the disease is checked and the disease has not spread in the skin, then the priest shall shut him up for another seven days. And the priest shall examine him again on the seventh day ... (Leviticus 13:4b-6a).
- The Mosaic Law prescribed quarantine for those with certain infectious diseases.
Drawing Lines in the Sand
Many controversial situations come down to drawing lines in the sand. The question is where, when, and how the lines are drawn. This is nothing new. Early Christians, facing Roman persecution, literally drew lines in the sand. When Christians wanted to know if the person facing them was a Christian, they would draw an arc in the dust/dirt/sand with one foot. If the other person was also a Christian, they drew a second arc, completing the image of a fish (the Greek word for "fish" was an acronym of "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior").
Today, drawing a line in the sand means, "This far and no further." Across the United States, people are choosing whether and where to draw a line in complying with state and local authorities' directives related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bishops, pastors, and church elders are no exception. The issues vary according to the actual orders of the state and local governments, state and local severity, and the perspectives of church leaders. One priority threads its way through all of this - keeping people physically safe and healthy while still ministering to their spiritual health.
Where Lines Are Drawn
Sun Valley, California, and Alpharetta, Georgia, August 2020 - Two nationally known and followed pastors on opposite sides of the country have come to opposite stances in dealing with state and local directives for dealing with the coronavirus. This reflects both the different orders of the two states (California vs Georgia) and the thinking of the two pastors (John MacArthur and Andy Stanley).
MacArthur's church had initially stopped holding in-person services when they were first banned by the California governor's orders. They live-streamed sermons and prayers. This was to have only been for several weeks. Then, after allowing services with small numbers of people, social distancing, and facial coverings, the state again closed in-person meetings and also banned singing and chanting. People began coming into the church to hear the preaching in person. MacArthur reviewed the situation, including the medical and scientific evidence, and decided to reopen the church to public worship. He concluded the threat was not as great as claimed, and not assembling together, as commanded in Scripture, was not justified. Additionally, the state deemed certain other gatherings (such as protests) essential, but not worship.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, Stanley's church suspended Sunday morning services through the end of the year. This decision considered the reported rates of COVID-19 infection in the Atlanta area and the difficulties of universities and public schools in trying to open. Stanley's greatest concern is not spreading the coronavirus.
In California, MacArthur of Grace Community Church is not the only church leader to challenge the governor and local officials. Other prominent non-conforming pastors have been Jack Treiber of North Valley Baptist Church and Ché Ahn of Harvest Rock Church and Harvest International Ministry. However, as of September 9, North Valley has gone to drive-in services.
Other churches have followed Stanley's lead. A campus pastor of a multi-campus megachurch in Ohio says they can't conduct their services in-person while following the state's guidelines. At the same time, many smaller churches are holding services with every other pew blocked off or rows of seats placed six feet apart, requiring face coverings, and holding multiple services.
Holly Springs, Mississippi, May 20, 2020 - A church in Holly Springs which had defied the state's ban on in-person services was burned to the ground. The arsonist(s) spray-painted a message on the parking lot: "Bet you stay home now you hypokrites."
Martinsburg, West Virginia, May 6, 2020 - The governor of West Virginia spoke about how churches could take measures to protect attenders from the current coronavirus. These measures are included in his "Safer at Home" plan.
Springfield, Illinois, August 2020 - A church in Springfield installed Plexiglas® barriers between the pews for virus protection. According to the pastor, having these barriers will allow more people to attend services. He said that many do not have the internet at home, and therefore cannot benefit from livestreamed services.
Coping with COVID
We cannot deny that a virus has spread around the globe, that many have fallen ill, and that large numbers of these have died. However, in the United States the actual reported numbers of cases and deaths and the extent of government orders have become issues.
Questions are raised about how many have actually contracted virus and how many deaths it has caused.
Testing for COVID-19 has been developing in availability, extent, and accuracy. This was preceded by the apocalyptic forecast of a UK computer model, which projected millions of deaths in North America. As more people were tested for the virus, some results were practically unbelievable, with some laboratories returning nearly 100% positive results. Auditing of tests showed far lower numbers. In many cases, testing machines and programs were at fault, so the numbers were revised. Nevertheless, some officials insisted on using the higher numbers.
As to deaths, most of the deceased had other health issues, making COVID a comorbidity rather than the primary cause of death. Nursing home patients had the highest percentage of deaths.
Also questioned by some is the effectiveness of face coverings, whether for protecting the user from others or protecting others from the user. In this light, authorities say to wear a mask in public unless you have a medical reason for not doing so - they do have some effectiveness, and the rule used here is "better safe than sorry."
Also at issue is the reasonableness and constitutionality of orders issued by governors and mayors across the nation. As expected, this varies by state and locality, with the most extreme examples being California and New York City. South Dakota does not have any of the restrictions except in Sioux Falls (where it is by local officials). In many states, individuals and groups have challenged the constitutionality of their governors' orders.
Nevertheless, a Church Safety Ministry is responsible for protecting the flock. Those who are most at risk understandably prefer safety and caution. How can a church protect its people from the virus and minister to their souls (their spiritual health) at the same time? In doing so, what problems may threaten the church in other ways?
Pandemic shutdowns have damaged economies in many places, and several small businesses have ceased to exist. People have been out of work, and many are just now returning to their jobs. This is taking a mental and emotional toll on large portions of our population. The stress has been increased by civil unrest. People need the spiritual help and guidance of the churches. This means that churches without in-person services and classes have to find other avenues of ministering to those in spiritual need.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, protective restrictions by many states have continued past the originally-projected end dates or have been resumed. In most of the nation, churches can resume services while taking precautions. Meanwhile, the number of churches conducting online services has increased. Services can be held in two ways: in-person and at a distance. Each mode has its own benefits and challenges. In Part 2, we'll consider these in detail.
- Leonardo Blair, "John MacArthur urges churches to challenge gov't and reopen amid pandemic, Andy Stanley disagrees," The Christian Post, September 5, 2020 [https://www.christianpost.com/news/john-macarthur-urges-churches-to-challenge-govt-and-reopen-in-pandemic-andy-stanley-disagrees.html?uid=3c2f3bd906].
- Erin Woo And Elliott Almond, "Coronavirus fines pile up as Santa Clara church continues inside services: North Valley Baptist Church has regular Sunday worship in defiance of Santa Clara County ordinance," The Mercury News, August 30, 2020, Updated: August 31, 2020 [https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/08/30/coronavirus-santa-clara-church-continues-in-house-services-despite-county-fines/].
- Anugrah Kumar, "Calif. church appeals governor's ban on Bible studies, in-person worship: 'Church more essential than ever'," The Christian Post, September 6, 2020 [https://www.christianpost.com/news/calif-church-appeals-governors-ban-on-bible-studies-in-person-worship-church-more-essential-than-ever.html?uid=3c2f3bd906].
- Caitlin O'Kane, "Church that defied stay-at-home orders burned to the ground in suspected arson," CBS News, May 22, 2020 [https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mississippi-church-burned-coronavirus-social-distancing-restrictions-arson/].
- Jenni Vincent, "Safety measures urged for church services," Herald-Mail Media, May 7, 2020 [https://www.heraldmailmedia.com/news/special/coronavirus/safety-measures-urged-for-church-services/article_3753d068-344b-56e8-a6cc-e43260dfcf51.html].
- WICS/WRSP Staff, "Local church installs Plexiglas between its pews," WICS/WRSP News Channel 20 (ABC), August 13, 2020 [https://newschannel20.com/news/local/local-church-installs-plexiglas-between-its-pews].