The bona fides of the Church that Christians must consider
The Church has specific functions. They are not optional functions. The Church must perform these functions in order to be considered the Church. She must teach and preach the Word, engage in corporate worship, carry out the Great Commission of Jesus Christ to evangelize and disciple, administer ordinances (or sacraments) - baptism and communion, as well as tend to the care of its members.
While the functions are immutable, the form that the Church takes can change. Over its first 2000 years, it has met in houses, caves, and crawlspaces, boats when necessary. In times of persecution, corporate worship has taken the form of secret symbols and singing in silent sign language. In the midst of the pandemic, wisdom has dictated a short-term transformation of the Church in order to mitigate the risks of infection to its members and its communities. This truncated form allowed the Church to continue to execute some of its essential function in limited capacities. However, many of its functions are not possible in an online meeting and others are only partially possible.
It is necessary to pivot to a long-term approach. A life of isolation is not maintainable and there are a number of hazards that we face. The Church, for the Christian, is essential, and will need to play a major role in navigating the hazards ahead.
The Viral Hazard
Politicians have told us that we must follow the science. Models were presented that caused us to brace for impact for up to 2 million dead from this virus. We complied. We submitted. The Executive Branch of our states have the legal authority to curtail rights in the face of an attack or national emergency. The emergency was originally the risk of overwhelming our healthcare infrastructure with too many infections. We shored up hospitals, erected tent hospitals, and boats to care for the sick. We were called upon to not assemble, to stay at home, to flatten the curve so that we are not all sick at once.
The curve was flattened. The hospitals were not flooded, the tents are empty, and the boats have sailed away. The estimates were overblown, the models flawed, and the science trumped by politics. At the same time, in February, South Korea had the same number of infections as the US but it is effectively down to zero now. In lessons learned from previous infections, it developed plans that quickly isolate the sick or exposed into categories. Elderly or at risk to a hospital, milder cases to an isolation ward, and those exposed to mandatory self-isolation. The rest of the population is free to go about its business. Following the science should not be confused with following the politician that is wielding the word science like a chimp with a pistol.
Science is not an infallible revelation; it is a process and it has been all over the place. The WHO, originally recommending lockdowns now praises Sweden as the model because they avoided a lock-down. Japan avoided an outbreak altogether. We don’t know how it spreads and there is little correlation between the severity of lock-downs and the rate of infection.
At the same time, the virus is not trivial and waves of mutations can make it worse. We need to find ways to navigate that are based on voluntary actions, not one size fits all. The Church needs to perform its functions and that may mean that some can meet in person and others who may have compromised immune systems, are elderly, or are simply afraid, can be included remotely. For the Church this means making changes to accommodate a mixed audience - buying equipment, innovating, and taking care to include those who remain remote.
Justin Martyr (153 AD) described the Eucharist (communion) in the 2nd century:
Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.
And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to ge’noito [so be it].
And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
Notice at the end that those absent were included and delivered a portion of the bread and wine. It is this same Spirit that we need to incorporate. Physical distancing need not be social distancing and is certainly not spiritual distancing. The Church, with some intentionality and effort can navigate the extra logistics and possibly extra technology necessary in order to fulfill it’s essential and vital functions for as long as it takes to sound the all-clear or coax the timid out of their homes.
The Political Hazard
We listened to the science of epidemiology. However, we need to also focus on economic science and political science. Epidemiologists cannot tell us what the effects of rampant unemployment are and epidemiologists cannot stave off the necessary outcome of the inflation of our currency.
In the UK, a study shows there will be more avoidable cancer deaths because all the medical resources are being either shutdown or diverted to Covid-19 for a surge that never occurred. We need to also listen to the science that tells us that hundreds of thousands of children slipping into economic hardship has been caused by this. Millions will slip into extreme poverty because of the virus and the over-reactions.
Many people are out of work now and it is possible that many more will be later. At the same time, many are isolated and need assistance. Members of the Church need to engage each other through financial giving, finding work and resources, collaborating, trading, and voluntary cooperation. Relationships cannot be fostered in isolation. The Church is an organization that exists on a substrate of economic realities. It is like a muscle. The less exercise the Church gets in the life of Christians, the less vital it seems and it deteriorates.
Covid-1984 is a term I use to describe the response to Coronavirus. Covid-1984 is something far more fearful than the virus itself.
Of course, we need to be cautious and, as Christians, submissive to governing authorities. However, in a Constitutional Republic, the Constitution is our governing authority and the Bill of Rights is our responsibility. Submission to the right of citizens to assemble, have free speech, and worship as they see fit is not a passive act. It may involve the need to resist those who try to curtail those rights. Restricting rights temporally in the face of an oncoming pandemic is a far-cry from restricting those rights as an act of long-term healthcare maintenance.
People have the right to work and provide for their families. The wisdom of short-term quarantines can be discussed but it cannot be considered a long-term approach. The only reason that it is even considered an option is the creeping acceptance of socialistic ideas into all areas of our lives including health. i.e. We ALL have to lock down if any of us has to lock-down. Typically, the sick and compromised would be isolated but we have turned that on its head and have given those in power more power than they are Constitutionally allotted and have isolated the healthy from a means of feeding their families.
The Church can play a pivotal role in providing a concerted response to zealous and creeping government power-grabs. The Church should be teaching biblical civics because civic responsibilities are no longer a part of our society. Public schools no longer teach recognizable civics and I would not trust them if they did. We have a biblical mandate to submit to Constitutional authorities and resist those that attempt to inhibit them. These are two sides of the same coin.
The Moral Hazard
The moral hazard is the greatest concern and the least attended. Wisdom seeks root causes. The Church, the body of Christ, has a prophetic responsibility to speak about these causes. God brings adversity – to purify the Church. The Church is not a means to another goal - The purification of the Church is the end that God has in mind. The Church is the object of God’s actions. Adversity refines the Church.
Through the preaching of the Word of God, the Church can rise above political influences and discern root causes. The Church can do better than choose between Democratic socialism where both the profits and losses are socialized and Republican socialism where only losses are socialized. The Word of God can divide between flesh and bone, spirit and soul and certainly can apply morality to political, fiscal, and monetary policies.
The love of money is the root of all evil and it is through this love that many wanders away from the faith (1 Tim 6:10). It is essential that the Church remind us that God delights in “equal weights and equal measures” and that God loves to oppress those who use false balances (Hos 12:6-7, Prov 20:23, Lev 19:35-36). The Church has a prophetic responsibility to be aware and speak against immoral and unconstitutional fiat currency and immoral monetary policy. Those are modern examples of unequal weights and measures. Symptoms like abortion, collectivism, social engineering, the destruction of the family, and unjustified wars are all important to address. However, they are symptoms of a deeper evil. It is a little like protesting liver disease while ignoring alcoholism. They are all made possible by the institutionalized love of money that enables the State to redefine morality and trample over other spheres of governance like labor, the market, the family, and the Church.
When Jesus said to love your neighbor, he was quoting from Lev 19:9-17. Loving your neighbor involves providing opportunities for those in immediate need, not stealing, not dealing falsely, not oppressing or placing economic barriers in front of others, not bending justice for the rich or for the poor, and reasoning frankly with one another on how to achieve these goals without a grudge or vengeance.
At the time of Christ, the coin of the Romans was the silver denarius. It was about 95% silver. The currency was inflated (debased) leading up until the 4th century. By 268 AD it was about .5% silver. Inflation is a tax. It is a way for governments to take money from you to fund wars or to redistribute it in an effort to mold society in the moral direction it wishes or expand it in the geographic direction it desires.
We are told by the President that we have the greatest economy in history. Unemployment was at an all-time low, yet the deficit is over a Trillion dollars per year – before the Coronavirus! Why does the greatest economy in history fall short by over a Trillion dollars per year? It is because it is not the greatest economy. The founding Fathers insisted that only gold and silver can be used as money because the government would not be able to print gold and silver on a whim and interfere with the economy in this way.
In World War II, the stock market fell about 30% and over a million Americans were killed. People still were not bailed out and told that they deserve a stimulus because WWII was not their fault. The economy remained strong because it was based on production and savings. Our economy is based on consumption and debt and this type of economy cannot remain strong.
So, Rome finally collapsed as a result of its monetary policies. While it was debasing its currency, the Irish and British people were being evangelized by Saint Patrick and others. The Church of the British Isles grew and developed separate from the Roman Church. It was in a unique position to evangelize the rest of Europe. Throughout the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries, Irish/Celtic, and Anglo-Saxons missions were deployed to the European mainland. While we often think of Monks as people escaping the world, these were no separatists. These Monks started communities among the Europeans, taught them how to be economically self-sufficient, how to farm, how to read, and develop life skills. They replaced shrines and superstition with Churches and befriended pagans on the eastern border of the Frankish Empire providing greater security and later eastern expansion.
A Way Forward
In short, the State gave way (involuntarily) and the Church filled the gap with the great commission. This is why the Church is essential. Modern parallels to this might be on-the-job training and apprenticeships, skills training, teaching biblical family life and parenting and civics, community-based micro-lending, collaborative entrepreneurship, and education. None of this will seem so cliché or quaint when the government checks stop going out.
The book of Lamentations describes the fall of Jerusalem. “She sinned grievously” and “therefore became filthy” (Lam 1:8). Jerusalem is also condemned for “talking no thought of her end” (Lam 1:9) and therefore, her fall was terrible. I would not venture at a guess at the future but I do see that we have an increasing dependence on the State and its promises while it slips from one self-inflicted emergency to another with less and less resources to deal with them. The Church could be an ideal place to develop alternative strategies that train in self-reliance and allow families and Churches to take their rightful place in the formation of culture, morality, and markets that are free.