The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the entire world. Should time endure, this will be viewed as a defining moment in earth’s history for years to come. As people are coming to grips with the magnitude of the threat more steps have been taken to keep people safe, including social distancing. While people are trying to occupy their days, they are seeking out news and content online: sometimes going down search rabbit holes and stumbling upon new sites they may never have ventured to before. Quite a few churches have seized upon this opportunity to make themselves visible. Even for those who’ve never had a digital presence before, they’ve come to realize the importance of digital resources. Pastors are streaming services from their offices, bedrooms and living rooms. Some facilitate interactive services for Bible studies and prayer over Zoom, Skype, Whereby, and WhatsApp. But not everything online that folks are finding out about churches is demonstrating a positive witness.
Streams aren’t just taking place in homes or empty sanctuaries. Some pastors are still conducting in-person services. Some choirs have still been rehearsing. And these reckless actions are contributing to the exponential rate of transmission. If you believe the Christian mission is to bring light to the world, this should alarm you. This is a poor witness. Even others from within the faith are trying to warn their brothers and sisters not to contribute to the same sort of tragedy that has befallen their congregations. Yet some remain recalcitrant. Here are some of the protestations I’ve heard from those who justify congregating with their churches for in l-person worship:
“Orders restricting large church gatherings are persecution of worship.”
— No, the orders aren’t against worship. They are against any large gathering. You are free to worship. Large physical gatherings are not and should not be seen as prerequisites to worship. This isn’t about worship. It’s not even about fellowship. Because those things can be accomplished without packing sanctuaries with people.
“Gathering is a demonstration of faith.”
— No. It’s a demonstration of presumption. Like Satan tempting Christ in Luke 4, people who offer this excuse are testing the Lord. Jesus resisted taking this bait. Be like Jesus.
“We are displaying our trust of God to the world.”
— No. These types of actions are showing that Christians have no respect for their fellow man. Contrary to the advice of Romans 13, defiance of the government guidelines are showing that the church doesn’t care about societal rules.
“These government orders may be the rules and/or law, but just like legal slavery, apartheid, and segregation, these regulations are unjust. Pastors who defy these orders are just like Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. standing against unjust segregation laws.”
— Anyone who uses this flawed analogy has some unmitigated gall and is socially inept. Being requested to stay at home to stop the spread of a highly infectious contagious disease is absolutely nothing like being enslaved against your will and being bought and sold like cattle. There is no comparison to this and being denied basic decency due to the color of your skin. If for some reason you have the urge to utter this justification for gatherings, do yourself a favor and just don’t. Only someone uniquely obtuse or blindingly privileged would have the audacity to make such a comparison. Unlike civil rights leaders who were looking to provide justice to all seeking to live with equal dignity, Christians who take this stance are only thinking of the desires of their congregation to socialize.
“Walmart and convenience stores are open. The church building has to be open to provide an essential service too.”
— Firstly, you may or may not realize that Walmart is the sole source of groceries for a large portion of the population in America. For many, it’s the only place to purchase food, toiletries, diapers, feminine hygiene products, and other essential items. And, believe it or not, corner convenience stores and liquor stores often fulfill this same purpose in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. I know because this was a reality during my childhood. If someone has never lived in a “food desert” this may come as a genuine surprise. There is no other way for people in these areas to get their basic needs. No matter where in the world you live, it is likely that there are similar pockets in your country too. Though some think a church being open for congregational worship provides an “essential service,” those services can be delivered through other means including via internet or telecommunication. The church can remain functional without being physically open. Having this as an option you don’t prefer is not the same as having no other option. For people in these areas who need to eat, they don’t have an alternative.
Secondly, being together in a large group for an extended period of time exponentially increases the risk of exposure and transmission as compared to people spread out individually shopping throughout a store for a brief time. A gathering held for over an hour is more dangerous than quick limited exposure. Aside from this being basic common sense, it is backed up by epidemiological research. And even with that lesser risk, most essential retailers have been doing what they can to minimize contact and decrease risk. Several stores have a limit to the number of people that can enter at once. They are creating lines of demarcation showing how far people must stand apart while in line. They are discouraging people from remaining in the store for longer than necessary. They are doing what they can to be responsible. Christians should too.
“The purpose of church is for Christians to gather together. How will we be known to the world if we’re not visibly together?”
— Christ stated that the world will know we are Christians by our love. Not by our get-togethers. Being in a physical group is not a display of Christianity. Westboro Baptist Church was a great example of a very “visible” congregation that was known for their hate instead of love. If we love our neighbors, we want what’s best for them. We want them to prosper and be in good health. We take care of them. We put their welfare above our selfish desire to be “seen.” That’s love. That’s Christianity.
“Having these gatherings is a vital part of biblical tradition.”
— The congregational model as we know it doesn’t come from the Bible. Our tradition of mass gatherings for liturgical purposes was not established during the first century. Christians met together in small groups and house churches. People using this excuse are arguing to maintain a practice that doesn’t even have its origins in Scripture. The idea that it’s necessary to congregate en mass comes from extra-biblical tradition.
On the contrary, in Matthew 18 we are told that 2 or 3 is just as imbued with the Spirit of God as 20 or 30 or 200 or 300. And even with that, the God I serve is powerful enough to be “in the midst” of a “gathering” of two or three across phone lines and wifi.
“The government is trying to disband the church.”
— The church was never the building. If you thought it was, you’ve missed the point. Read 1 Corinthians 12. WE are the Church!
Let’s provide a positive witness. Let’s impact the world in a demonstration of love and concern for people outside of ourselves — especially the most vulnerable among us like the immuno-compromised and elderly. When we show love to the least of these, that is truly worshipping Christ. Stay home.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is a clinical psychologist and ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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