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Monday, April 13, 2020

What the Bible Says, in Terms of Evangelical Interpretation, About Religious Leaders Who Keep Churches Open During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As much as I've attempted to avoid writing about COVID-19, it's become too much a part of life to avoid. A matter in particular that has been getting under my skin is that of churches that remain open despite CDC guidelines and the directions of government.

We have no hard numbers on how many churches across the United States (and indeed, around the world) are holding services despite all medical counsel. It seems that Catholic and mainline Protestant churches have gotten the message and moved online for the time being, as have many evangelical churches. Through my roughly two decades of being evangelical I still have a number of contacts in that world, and from I'm seeing and hearing their churches are being responsible and not having in-person churches. Unfortunately, there are some noteworthy exceptions that are creating a serious and needless risk for many people.

Although I'm Unitarian Universalist, and the association was quick to get behind the science and encourage member congregations to go online (as mine did), this is an issue that effects us all, and I figure I might as well put that Bible degree I have to use. What follows is a case study composed of paragraphs lifted from a 1BuzzFeed article with my analysis after. This is particularly addressed to Christians of whatever denomination or tradition who are on the fence about whether churches should remain open or close for the duration of the advisory.
“My government is not my creator, my president is not my God,” continued [Pastor Tony] Spell, who was charged with six misdemeanors last week for continuing to hold in-person services despite the coronavirus pandemic. “The president did not give me my rights to worship God and to assemble in church, and no socialist government or godless president can take that right away.” 
Spell, of the Life Tabernacle Church in Baton Rouge, told BuzzFeed News he is sending 27 buses out to bring congregants to his church for Easter Sunday service, and that he expects about 2,000 people to attend. The service will last all day with a rotating cast of congregants as more are bused in and out — about eight hours for the morning service and three hours in the evening, he said. 
“Right now I have $5,000 in fines and am facing up to 900 days in jail,” Spell said Thursday, adding that his congregation continues to support him and is even growing with each service, people coming from all over the country, he said, from as far as Michigan and Minnesota. He has, at times, claimed his congregation is as big as 1,800. 
In Florida, state and local governments grappled with confusing executive orders that all seem to center around megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne of the River at Tampa Bay Church. Howard-Browne was arrested on March 30 after refusing to close doors in response to social distancing guidelines. 
Thursday afternoon, Howard-Browne posted a powerful minutelong video with the caption “The Church Shall Stand.” 
“And if it is the end, then so be it. We’re willing to die for the cause of the Gospel,” Howard-Browne's voice boomed, calling the directive to close churches amid the pandemic an “insidious plan to shut the church of Jesus Christ down.” It’s still not clear if the church will open for Easter. 
“I appreciate what doctors and nurses are doing. We pray for them. They are right in the middle of this — they're being separated from their families. It's horrible,” Glorious Way’s pastor Buntrock said.
To understand the importance placed on meeting together, it helps to start by knowing that 'church' isn't really much of a translation for the word ἐκκλησία (ecclesia). The word means 'assembly,' and was used to speak of many types of non-religious gatherings. In that sense, the Assembly of God denomination has a certain logic in its name, one that it loses when people refer to the local congregations as 'Assembly of God Church.' In ecclesiology, the study of the church, it's generally understood that the church gathered is the assembly, as is the church out in the world doing the work of God. In fact, the word 'mass' used to refer to Catholic and Anglican churches is derived from the Latin formula for the dismissal of the congregation: Ite, missa est (“Go, it is the sending”). There is the church gathered, and the church on mission.

A passage that has been cited by pastors and churches defying orders to close for public safety is 2Hebrews 10:25:
"...not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
The difficulty with using this verse is right there in it, indicating that rather than leaving off gathering for safety reasons, the problem being addressed was of disciples ceasing to gather at all. It seems that Holly and Lily Christians were a problem from the earliest centuries of the faith. Using this passage to justify a legally incorporated non-profit church against the best interests of the public is simply that it has nothing to do with that.

Further, another passage, found in Matthew 18:20, demonstrates that it really isn't necessary for those legal ecclesiastic entities to meet together in their full numbers. Jesus himself is quoted as saying:
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them."
There were several times in my time as an evangelical that I gathered with just my immediate family behind closed doors for church. There were songs, prayer, a Bible reading and commentary, and even the Lord's Supper. Unlike the Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant communions, there was no requirement to have an ordained minister on hand to administer any of that (though, granted, I was duly ordained). The same goes for the evangelicals in question right now, as they do not require a pastor to pray at home and worship God as the church. Even there's more than one Christian,  a quorum exists.

The defiance of certain church leaders to calls from government authorities is one of two ways that they not only misuse or ignore their own scripture, as described above, but actually violate it in both word and spirit.
"Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing."Romans 13:1-6 
"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." 1 Peter 2:13-17 
It seems to me that any time evangelicals want to justify wars of aggression, the death penalty, anti-immigrant sentiments, or anything else unjustifiable, they trot these passages right out. When it's inconvenient, and feeds the fiction of persecution that underlies their worldview, suddenly Romans and 1st Peter have nothing to do with it. The desperation to be seen as martyrs for their faith is expressed in moments like the one we are living through as a global society.

The second way that I see evangelicals going against the tenets of their own faith is arguably far more grave than the first, as it goes against what Jesus held up as most important of all.
"'Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?' And he said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.'"Matthew 22:36-40
We know that when people gather together, COVID-19 spreads among them. Every contact, and even breathing the same air, puts people at risk of contracting this potentially fatal disease. Those most at risk at the elderly and people with immune deficiencies, but multiple cases of otherwise healthy children and adults dying from it have also been documented. How is it loving one's neighbor to give them a dangerous disease?

It's interesting that in the quotes above from that article, one of the pastors speaks so highly of the health care workers doing their best to save lives. If he were so concerned with them, loving them as neighbors, he would be encouraging his congregants to worship from home, practicing social distancing and avoiding undue contact with others outside the home. The medical professionals working the hardest-hit areas are working multiple shifts and dealing with a lack of PPE, facing death on a daily basis in the eyes of their patients, and fearing death for themselves and the loved ones who they themselves live with.

It is the opposite of love for one's neighbor that is demonstrated by gathering outside the home and immediate family to worship.

People have argued that Darwinism is at work here, with those gullible or dumb enough to gather more likely to be weeded out of the gene pool. Not only is that morally reprehensible, it ignores the children who go unwillingly to these gatherings. The parents may be deluded, but the children shouldn't suffer for their emotional or psychological problems. Additionally, more sick people means a greater burden on the hospitals, and fewer resources available to care for everyone. This includes caring for those who have health issues other than COVID-19, or who were infected despite their best efforts to avoid it. Far more people suffer in these circumstances than those guilty of choosing to behave foolishly.

The writers of scripture addressed this type of situation, where someone comes along and behaves in a way that makes people believe their are legitimate, while in fact they are leading the believers into danger. In words attributed to Jesus:
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits." —Matthew 7:15-20
What is someone who tells people to defy the authority of government in matters of public safety, disregard health guidelines, misuse selected passages of the Bible, and actually violate the teaching of the faith itself? The answer is plain as day, if you're an evangelical who's serious about following Jesus.

Notes:

1"'My President Is Not My God": Some Churches Are Planning To Host Hundreds For Easter Sunday Services Despite The Coronavirus" Ema O'Connor Kadia Goba, BuzzFeed News, 11 April 2020

2All Bible quotations in this post are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles