Alan D. Strange
Plagues have bothered us less as general health conditions have improved worldwide. Such threats as COVID-19 poses, however, are no surprise to those who’ve paid attention to other health crises of recent years. Bill Gates, among others, has warned that a pandemic was likely and that preventative measures needed to be taken to forestall it. Such measures, however, are expensive, and present life, for politicians of all parties, generally takes precedence over preparing for future contingencies. As a result of such unpreparedness, much of the nation is, as of this writing, in lockdown to “flatten the curve” and prevent the healthcare system from overload. Most of our churches cannot meet for public worship and are limited to livestreaming and personal ministry.
The church has encountered plagues before. The Black Death that swept Europe in 1348 killed a third to half of the population. The fear that the bubonic plague engendered is legendary, chronicled contemporarily by Chaucer and others. The fear of the times was heightened by the lack of clarity on the part of the medieval church, particularly on the questions, How can I gain a right standing before a holy God? and, Can I have assurance of acceptance with God?
The church often replied to such questions with the pablum of “God will not deny his grace to him who does his best,” but this offered little comfort to a dying population who feared eternal damnation. Luther’s great discovery was sorely needed in such a world: the righteousness that a holy God expects from and requires of his creatures, God himself provides as a gift, received by faith alone. Thus the work of Christ, his alien righteousness, came to be understood as the ground of our acceptance with God, and thus assurance was obtained by trusting in Christ alone, all a work of grace alone, as taught in Scripture alone, all to the glory of God alone.
There had been enormous plagues before the Black Death and more afterward. Another gripped London in 1665–1666. One of the great differences, though, in London in 1665 over the plague in 1348 was that the Reformation had occurred and there was truly good news for the Puritan pastors to bring to their regained flocks. In fact, a fuller covenantal understanding had come to prevail, and many preached that Christ came to save us not only by his death on the cross (his passive obedience), but by his whole obedience, including his keeping of the law perfectly for us (his active obedience). Hard times confronted London in 1666, but the diamond of God’s grace, as grasped and taught by the Reformers and Puritans, shone lustrously against the dark felt background of all the sin and misery of the times.
Examples abound of how Christians might act and minister during a health crisis. Luther and Calvin believed that we ought to help all who we can without harming (considering our own lives dispensable), always ministering Christ to all. The bottom line—now that we know more about disease, especially its spread and prevention—is that we follow the guidance of our public health officials and our civil leaders; to the latter, we owe some measure of proper submission, even if we disagree with them based on our own research or even expertise.
Some, both in and out of the ministry, have raised questions about the lawfulness of the civil magistrate issuing orders that impact worship, especially ones making it impossible for us to meet for worship. Does the civil magistracy, on the one hand, have the right to tell the church that it may not worship and serve the Lord, contrary to God’s command that we do so? No. May the civil magistracy, on the other hand, address that which pertains to the physical welfare of its citizens, even if it impacts the corporate meeting of the church? Yes, as in, this church is in danger of wildfire and must be evacuated, or a hurricane is headed this way and evacuation must proceed, and the like.
The civil magistracy has the right to address such exigencies, even if we disagree corporately as a church in a given case (or individually as persons). Perhaps we believe that the civil authority is acting unwisely. This does not invalidate their authority to act in such cases. If an appeal is open to us in the civil forum, we may take it; we are not free, however, simply to disdain civil authority when it professes to be acting in the public good and is not commanding us contrary to God’s will. Although civil rulers are saying that larger group meetings are forbidden, they are not, at least in the United States, saying that we can’t worship God on the Lord’s Day, only that churches must do so in some way other than mass meetings at the present.
We must distinguish here: the civil magistrate has not told any church here in this situation that it can’t meet as part of a campaign of religious persecution against the gospel. Some today believe that the civil authority has exceeded its bounds in ordering “no public gatherings” and that the church must ignore it, lest we fall under greater condemnation and judgment. This is not a sound understanding, however, of the proper roles of church and state, and churches should be quite careful not to appear needlessly as ones hostile to the state’s due exercise of its discretion and authority (or cavalier about the welfare of our neighbors).
A proper understanding of the spirituality of the church concerns itself with the roles and responsibilities of both church and state. The state has the right to prohibit larger group meetings if it believes that such imperil public health. One might argue against this in the proper forum, but the church should not refuse to heed such lawful directives of the civil magistrate, even if particular individuals within the church might think that they are badly misguided.
Online worship is not the same as public worship with a visible local manifestation of Christ’s mystical body. However, the desire to attend public worship on the Lord’s Day, though providentially hindered, counts as an acceptable act of worship on the part of the would-be worshiper. The Old Testament prophets make it clear that drawing near to God outwardly while remaining far from him spiritually involves a failure to render an acceptable sacrifice and is no true worship. Take heart, then, if your church is closed to attendees (you can’t help that), having only the option of livestreaming. Your desire to worship in person and your heart’s devotion to the Lord puts you in a better place than the one who is physically present but with a heart far from the Lord.
What ought we to do in such a situation when we cannot meet together as a whole church for public worship? Should we regard this as judgment? Well, we know that judgment begins with the house of the Lord (1 Pet. 4:17), and we certainly need to repent of our lack of love for the Lord (often manifested in our public worship, both by our absence from it or coldness in it) and of our lack of love for each other (seen in a host of self-centered ways). We ought to take this occasion to humble ourselves, mourn over, and repent of our sins. Our society is certainly guilty of manifold sin and merits punishment, but all outside of Christ always warrant judgment, and our call to them is to come to Christ, believing and repenting, noting that ultimate judgment is coming, and all must flee to Christ.
We must, at the same time, be careful not to think that we can comprehend God and his ways, which are past finding out (Rom. 11:33–36; see also Isa. 55:9). We should not concern ourselves with matters too high for us (Ps. 131), but we can know in a general way that the Lord calls us to repentance whenever he brings any difficulties our way (Heb. 12:3–17). We must not think that we can exhaustively understand the import of God’s providence, and we should be careful about proclaiming that we know what this or that particular thing means.
We should also not languish in discouragement. The Lord would never discourage us. He may chasten us and correct us. It is only, ever, and always the enemy who would discourage us.
In the most difficult of circumstances, let us pray that the Lord would further our sanctification and have us draw near to him. Let us make sure that, in all our proper expressions of grief at being bereft of meeting together at this time as we otherwise would, we not give way to discouragement. Let our hope in him burn brighter than ever so that, as we have opportunity, we might speak to others of the hope within (1 Pet. 3:15). May the hope, which is truly unfading, be undimmed even in this time of darkness and confusion, lending light to all about us.
The author, an OP minister, is a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. New Horizons, May 2020.