Monday, April 20, 2020

Church In The Time Of The Virus: The Church's History During Plagues (Episode 7)

When churches suspended their weekly brick and mortar meetings, I decided to take some time to address online what it looks like for the church to be the church in times like this. Thus, The Church In The Time Of The Virus. I began posting this on my church's Facebook page several weeks ago; since then, I have had some thoughtful conversations sparked by some of the issues I addressed. Because of that - and because I like wrestling with important ideas - each post is going to follow this format:
  • Video
  • Transcript
  • Reflections
The beautiful thing about the reflections part is that I can constantly update it, so the conversation can continue! You are welcome to offer helpful comments in the comment section and be a part of this conversation/archival record (as local and modest as it is).

(Read and Watch Episode 1: Introduction)
(Read and Watch Episode 2:Fearless, Not Fearful)
(Read and Watch Episode 3: Bold, But Not Foolhardy)
(Read and Watch Episode 4: Sacrificial Of Self, Not Others)
(Read and Watch Episode 5: Faith-fullness Involves Trust)
(Watch and Read Episode 6: Faith-fullness Requires Humble Obedience)
(Read and Watch Episode 8: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Read and Watch Episode 9: Spurgeon And The Plague Of London)
(Read and Watch Episode 10: Thinking With Both Hands)
(Read and Watch Episode 11: A Few Thoughts Have Been Brewing)
(Read and Watch Episode 12: Is COVID -19 A Judgment From God)
(Read and Watch Episode 13: Romans 12-14 - Coronavirus Version)
(Episode 14: Dear American Christian)
(Episode 15: Civil (Dis)Obedience)

Episode 7: Faithfulness Requires Humble Obedience



I’ve been trying to find examples from church history on what happens to  church meetings during a plague, and – I’m not finding much. This section will cover six examples I’ve found. I suspect they probably capture the general response of other examples I am missing.

Disclaimer: I am worried that my sense of what we should be doing will distort how I process these example. I hope it doesn’t, but I want you to be aware that I am aware of the tendency toward confirmation bias. I welcome thoughtful and kind discussion to set me on the right path if you think it’s needed.

1. In the Old Testament – I know, it’s not the church, but since the Israelites were God’s people, it’s at least in the same ballpark – you couldn’t go out and about in the community if you were sick or unclean.  Leviticus 13:46: “As long as they have the disease, they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” That would certainly mean they could not engage in corporate worship in the tabernacle or temple with the others. I think that’s noteworthy because the Israelite community was centered around that kind of gathering. When someone was a danger to others in terms of spreading disease, it was better that they not participate in what was considered a crucial part of communal and spiritual life.

2. During the time of the early church – think first and second century - I’m not aware the Rome cancelled church meetings during the plague; they were already illegal, after all. I assume they kept meeting. However, because of the front line role of Christians in the plague -  in some ways they were our equivalent of first responders or medical personnel - their local assembly seems to have been populated with like-minded Christ-followers who stoically and faithfully assumed that sickness and perhaps even death was inevitable in their dual roles as medical personnel/church parishioners. This puts them in a very different place than where we are…but I’m not sure how different. Perhaps if all of a small local congregation now worked in a COVID-19 ward that everyone else had deserted, and all met together in the hospital chapel, stoically accepting an assumed fate, we would have a better comparison. But that’s not happening, so….

3. Fast Forward. During the Black Death in the 1300s, Luther thought the church should keep meeting in his city, but I am not aware that he was defying a governmental order by staying open. Luther also seems convinced that there was a spiritual force behind the plague; I get the sense from his famous letter that he saw coming to church as a form of spiritual warfare against a biological disease that had a supernatural and satanic force behind it.

4. During the plague in Milan in the 1500s, churches were closed. St Charles became famous during this time.

  • He had altars set up in the streets so that people could see Mass celebrated from their windows; small groups of magistrates and religious orders would walk through the streets so people could see that their officials and clergy had not fled.
  • He practiced social distancing, putting up a grille so those consulting him would not be infected if he were sick.
  • Those who gave Communion to the sick were told to hold their fingers in a candle flame immediately afterwards.
  • Priests heard Confessions through closed doors, holding a stick to measure the distance they should stand from the threshold.
  • Booklets were distributed with prayers to use at certain times of day, when the Cathedral’s bells would be rung so everyone knew that they were praying together.

5. In 1854, there was a cholera outbreak in London. Charles Spurgeon was a young pastor at the time. The neighborhood where Spurgeon’s church met was not quarantined, and I don’t believe churches were told to stop meeting, so we don’t have a record of what Spurgeon would have recommended for church life if that were the case.

6. DC churches responded to a ban on public gatherings by voting unanimously to agree with the decree. The pastors released the following statement:
Resolved, in view of the prevailing condition of our city (the widespread prevalence of influenza, that has called forth the request from the District of Columbia Commissioners) we do place ourselves on record as cheerfully complying with the request of the Commissioners, which, we understand applies to all churches alike.
One hundred and thirty-one African-American churches also abandoned services. Although responses to this order were mixed, churches demonstrated a unified response. One Presbyterian Church explained their cancellation of services in the following way:

Inasmuch as it has seemed wise to the Commissioners of the District to prohibit the gathering of the people on Sunday in their accustomed places of worship, may I suggest that at the usual hour of morning service you gather in your homes and unite in common prayer to the God of Nations and of families, that He will guide us in all wisdom in this time of trial, that our physicians and public officers may be led in their performance of duty and be strengthened by divine help, that the people may be wise and courageous, each in his place. Let us never forget that “Help cometh from the lord which made heaven and earth.” Behold He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

So, my takeaways on corporate meetings:

  • The Israelites practiced the quarantine of sick people, even when it interfered with rituals in the tabernacle or temple. It was seen as prudent, not cowardly.
  • I am not aware of churches defying a governmental order to close in the time of the plague. I don’t know what Spurgeon and Luther would have done about church services had the state said to close. When churches closed, they found ways to continue to minister as safely as possible. Thanks to technology, we don’t have to march through the street or hold a stick between each other, but we can march through social media and keep a bandwidth between us.
  • The church’s response in 1918 was widespread and consistent. They experimented with outdoor services (which eventually got cancelled as well). They pushed hard to restart services, and did so as soon as they could.

So where does that leave us?

It leaves us with room for disagreement about meeting in times of the plague, but as best as I can tell, the weight of the history of God’s people leans toward 1) honoring our governmental authorities when they demand closing and 2) doing what we can to follow solid medical advice in times of deadly contagion, and 3) longing and planning to reconvene.

I think Christians today have two fears. I know I do.

  • First, I fear that if I cancel services to honor the state or in response to community pleading,  history will view me as a coward, bailing on the demands of the faith out of fear of disease or judgment from the culture. 
  • Second, I fear that if I don’t cancel when the state demands it or in response to community pleading, history will view me as a killer, sacrificing the safety of others to assuage my conscience or my fear of judgment from others in the church. 
That’s called a rock and a hard place.

So what do we do?

Here is where my conscience places me.  We honor our authorities through obedience, and close our corporate gatherings. We love our neighbor by social distancing, as well as by preparing to be radically generous as need arises, and by knowing that if and when we must walk toward the sick and into the pandemic as part of our job or our ministry as Christians, we do so with faith, not fear.

Meanwhile, we pray for health for all and for wisdom as we navigate this together, and we pray that God’s grace uses tensions (such as the question of meeting or not meeting) as a means of building maturity within the church and in us for our good and God’s glory.


I found another interesting example after I recorded this video. In an article entitled "A pandemic Billy Sunday could not shut down," John Fea notes how prolific evangelist Billy Sunday went from claiming the Spanish flu was "fake news" by the Germans in WW1 ("The whole thing is a part of their propaganda; it started over there in Spain, where they scattered germs around, and that’s why you ought to dig down all the deeper and buy more Liberty bonds.") to agreeing to suspend his revival meetings when the Providence Board of Aldermen closed all the city’s public venues.  He said, “It is up to us to hope and pray. We are always willing to help anything that is for the public good and do it cheerfully. There is nothing drastic in the (aldermen’s) order, and it is issued in an attempt to stamp out this epidemic.” Meanwhile, before Sunday did this,

There is something to be said for Christian freedom here for individuals. Even within a church that closes or stays open, there is bound to be disagreement about what the wisest course of action is. I hope we have room to be full of grace as we clash. There is no "thus saith the Lord" in the Bible on what to do as a church during the plague. We are all trying to apply principles. Let's give each other some room.

My concerns about how history will view me is something I am sure most pastors are wrestling with (as are likely most politicians). While I must ask God to search me and know my thoughts, I am glad that the leadership team at my church and my local pastor friends are godly and wise people who challenge and support each other as we try to figure out how to best respond during this time. "It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us." (Acts 15:28)

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