Responding to a Pandemic
Prior to 2020, I honestly had not given much thought as to how Christians should respond to a pandemic. While I didn’t have a “theology of pandemic response” written out, there have been some key guiding principles that have governed how I have approached the pandemic both personally and as a church leader. This is my first attempt to sketch them out in a more formal way -- trying to create something of a “theology of pandemic response” based on seven (a good, biblical number) key principles.
1. Love and Trust God (Matthew 22:38)
At the forefront of the Christian life is the belief that God exists and that He has a plan. This does not mean that suffering and challenges are not real, but it does mean that we are to trust Him...even when we are not in a situation of understanding. In the midst of panic and confusion, we need to put our love of God front and center; our love and trust of God should be above our fear and worry in all circumstances, including pandemics. Even as we talk practical steps in response to a pandemic, we need to trust God above all. This does not mean reckless living, trusting that God will never allow something bad to happen to us. Some have used Psalm 91:10 (“no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent”) in this season to say that Christians will be protected from COVID-19, and have moved forward in ways that ignore the suggested health protocols. This is a misreading of the promise of Psalm 91, which interestingly enough, was also the Psalm used by the devil (quoting v. 11) in his temptation of Jesus (see Matthew 4; Luke 4). While trusting God and turning to Scripture, we need to make sure we do not misuse or misinterpret Scripture. In this season of a pandemic, may our actions reflect our trust in God and our love for Him. As Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us, we need to trust in God and not in our own understanding.
2. Love Your Neighbor (Matthew 22:39)
Jesus told us the greatest commandment (and what the Law and Prophets hang upon) is to love God and love our neighbor. Therefore, in every situation we need to first love God and then think about how we are to love our neighbor. Loving others means putting their needs above your own rights. In a time of a pandemic, this may mean curtailing our freedoms to protect others as well as being willing to serve others in need -- even if it could be disadvantageous to ourselves. This may mean wearing a face covering even if it is uncomfortable or you don’t think it is effective, or it could be practicing social distancing when you would rather shake someone’s hand or give a friend a hug. These can be viewed as acts of love to help protect others. Another application of this principle in this particular season could be to look at how we used the government stimulus money that was given to most of us -- even those who had not been financially impacted by COVID-19. Did we use these funds to honor God and to help others or only spend it on ourselves and what we desired? We can also think of loving one’s neighbor when it comes to stewardship and stockpiling supplies; while we need to be ready for various occasions, we should not have a surplus if it prevents others from having a needed supply. A final application of this principle I have thought about in this time is the importance of loving our fellow believers who may have different opinions on the subject in line with what Paul talks about in Romans 14 (also see 1 Corinthians 8 and 10). This may mean doing something that you do not think is necessary, but will help put a fellow Christian’s mind at ease.
3. Make Disciples (Matthew 28:19)
The call that Jesus gave his disciples was to make disciples; this is a reminder that the church does not exist simply for itself. Therefore, in all times, we should be looking for ways to reach new people with the gospel message; we cannot let a pandemic distract us from the mission of the church. This mission led the Apostle Paul at times to give up his freedoms as a way to reach more people and call them to faith in Christ: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them … I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22b-23). In this season, it is tempting to just think of our own needs, but we need to recognize that this is a world in need of the gospel. We may need to adapt a different posture or take different measures to reach a world that is now afraid of large gatherings.While in the past, a primary means of evangelism has been to invite people to a church service with many people, the way we reach out and even the way we conduct our services and ministries may need to change to reach people that have not yet been reached. Furthermore, we need to think through how our conduct (including social media posts) may either create curiosity into exploring the gospel or push people away from seeking to understand more about the faith.
4. Maintain Unity (John 17 and Psalm 133)
In a time where there has been great division in our world, there is a great need for unity in the church. Unity does not mean that there cannot be differences of opinions and discussions, but it does mean that there is a deeper bond that goes beyond our opinions and thoughts. The church has an opportunity in this time to display a supernatural unity and point the world to a better way forward. May we see the importance of being unified and not allow the devil to sow seeds of discord and disunity in Christ’s body. Unity requires humility and grace. We can hold our beliefs in a humble way that does not view us as opponents of people with different beliefs; we also need to graciously discuss things with those who have a different perspective. Unity among Christians could speak volumes to the world in such a polarized time, showing what is most important (our belief in Jesus) and also showing the world there is a way to be kind to others even when we have different views.
5. Honor the Authorities (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-15)
Christians are told to be subject to the governing authorities over us (Romans 13:1), and to pray for those in positions of power (1 Timothy 2:2). This does not mean blind obedience to laws that directly contradict the commands of Scripture (see Acts 5:29), but we need to be careful before we place laws or directives in that category. Some Christians were upset about the orders that prohibit gatherings over a certain size and saw it as the government creating a law that violates God’s law. My perspective, however, has been that these directives were tied to the command to love your neighbor and did not forbid worship nor evangelism -- we were encouraged to worship and share our faith online or in creative ways. If the Christian church was told not to meet at all or if there was interference in online services from the government, we would be closer to the Acts 5 situation. While we might disagree with how certain government officials have conducted themselves in this season, we need to remember our call to honor authority and defer to their directives and leadership unless absolutely necessary to follow the commands of God (regardless of their party or whether we voted for them). If the early church could honor the governmental authorities as it tried to eliminate the Christian faith, we can honor those in authority over us, recognizing they may be doing their best to handle all that is going on (and being glad it is not up to us to make these difficult decisions). We can disagree and ask for changes in policy, but our requests must be filled with respect and honor of our fellow image-bearers who are in authority in this situation.
6. Use Science While Recognizing its Limits and Nature (Genesis 1:1, 26-31)
In many ways, a novel virus has reminded us of not only of the use of science, but also its limits. The Bible is not a book about hygiene or health codes and does not explain how viruses spread; it gives us a theology of how we should respond to the information that we discover and helps us to interpret the world, but we have to observe and study the world we live in. At the same time, we need to remember that science is researching the world and presents observations based on data at a particular moment. Because we have heard conflicting pieces of information at times that seem to be “flip-flops,” some want to discount science or say that certain findings are politically driven. I think a better way to filter through this is to realize that scientists are learning as they go and providing what they believe is the best explanation (and then best suggestions) based on the evidence they have at the moment. I have changed my mind on certain things through the years as more evidence is presented. We like to have certainty in this world, but that is not possible, as we are being reminded in this time. Science is important and can help us in this world, but we need to remember that it is “fluid.” Moreover, science describes what “is” (or maybe better in light of its inherently tentative nature, what “appears to be”) but does not explore the deeper questions of life and morality; science can help us understand and protect physical life but never will address why and will never give us hope and confidence to live in an uncertain world.
7. Remember The “Already-Not Yet” Nature of Our Faith and Hope (1 John 3:2)
There are two extremes regarding the nature of our hope that Christians to avoid. On the one side, Christians can become so caught up in the fact that our ultimate hope and home is in heaven that we neglect to do things in this world; we become so “heavenly-minded” we are of no earthly good. On the other side, Christians can forget about the fact that we await the return of Jesus and that is when all things will be made right, acting as if we can fix all the problems of the world. We need to remember both elements of our “already-not yet” faith -- do not cling to the things of this world too closely or place too much confidence into our methods of fixing things, but also do not minimize our call to live as His disciples in this world. We should not be afraid to lament when we see and experience brokenness in this world - for example, diseases and all their effects - as it points us to the fact that we look for a better world to come. But we should also seek to bless and work for the benefit of others in this time; let us live and act now with eternity on our minds.
Concluding Thoughts on This First Draft
As I said, this is a first step towards a “theology of pandemic response” - there are more principles that could be added and more that could be said about each one listed above. Hopefully this has helped you think through our present context a bit. As a way to model and live into some of these principles, I want to invite feedback to help improve and sharpen my thoughts on this topic.
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