Church and Contagious Disease

The New York Times is reporting on church attendance and COVID-19. This headline is well written and grabs your attention: “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are Confronting Coronavirus Cases.” The subheading: “The virus has infiltrated Sunday services, church meetings and youth camps. More than 650 cases have been linked to religious facilities during the pandemic.”

Whoa! Sounds scary.

[Aside: Does the virus have agency? Infiltration is something I associate with government intelligence organizations and mischievous young people, the first in something like a Mission Impossible film, the second in a story like Ladybugs.]

Silliness at The Times

Back to the Times. Read the opening two paragraphs:

PENDLETON, Ore. — Weeks after President Trump demanded that America’s shuttered houses of worship be allowed to reopen, new outbreaks of the coronavirus are surging through churches across the country where services have resumed.

The virus has infiltrated Sunday sermons, meetings of ministers and Christian youth camps in Colorado and Missouri. It has struck churches that reopened cautiously with face masks and social distancing in the pews, as well as some that defied lockdowns and refused to heed new limits on numbers of worshipers.

The virus is surging. Infiltrating. It has struck. Churches have reopened apparently because of the president’s demands rather than because of convictions that predated Trump by millennia. While there have been some who have reopened cautiously, others have “defied” lockdowns and “refused” government orders.

Terry Mattingly of Get Religion writes that The Times misses the point, and that the story should focus on how religious leaders have responded to the pandemic and the effects the virus has had on religious congregations. Mattingly offers this analysis of the storyline:

Part I: It was perfectly valid to cover the relatively small number of religious groups — most of them totally independent Pentecostal and evangelical congregations — that were rebelling against government COVID-19 safety laws and recommendations (even when local officials were treating religious groups the same way they were treating stores, bars and other public institutions).

Part II: The bigger story was the cooperation that the leaders of most major religious institutions — from Catholic bishops to Southern Baptist megachurch leaders — were showing. In recent months, many of these religious groups have cautiously opened their doors to small groups of worships, once again following state and local guidelines.

The Times is reporting on a story, and the above themes are relevant and present. This is a disturbing trend. So what’s wrong with The Gray Lady’s reporting? Mattingly writes:

How does “650 cases” over several weeks that are said to be linked to services and events compare, statistically, with the overarching trends that are seeing COVID-19 cases rising rapidly. A week ago, Axios noted that new case numbers had hit 50,000 in one day. Might there be some other settings that are more important than churches in this surge, just looking at the numbers? Oh, wait. Might this have something to do with news templates linked to Donald Trump, white evangelicals and “religious liberty” and all that?

The problem is that The Times has written a politics story masquerading as a religion story, rather than a religion story with a relevant political parallel.

Silliness in the Pews

While I’m on this story, I want to draw out one more quote from the article in The Times. The report closes with the following:

Mr. Satterwhite, the pastor in Oregon [mentioned earlier in the article], said that scrutiny had fallen unfairly on churches, while businesses with outbreaks did not face the same backlash. “I think that there is an effort on the part of some to use things like this to try to shut churches down,” he said, adding that he appreciated Mr. Trump’s supportive remarks about churches being essential.

When weighing his responsibility as a faith leader, Mr. Satterwhite said, he returned to his beliefs. “My personal belief is, I have faith in God,” he said. “If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.”

My response to Pastor Satterwhite is twofold.

First, even if a church ceases public gatherings for worship for a period of time, there are other ways to remain together as the body, ministering to the needs of congregants, praying for one another, shepherding one another, teaching, and drawing together resources financial and otherwise in puruit of shared mission. A government order cannot shut down a church. It can create challenges. It may result in disbanding. But not necessarily.

I know some Christians view Sunday worship as a divine command, an extension of the Sabbath principle applied to Sunday, the day upon which Jesus was raised from the dead. But I don’t think it is that simple. I think weekly worship is wise and meant to be edifying, and that Christians should continue meeting together regularly as instructed in Hebrews 10:25. I think that the marks of the church include what is described in Acts 2:42-47: worship, instruction, fellowship, evangelism, and stewarship. I think gathering together is a spiritual discipline, creating occasions where the people of the church can exercise obedience to the “one another” commands of the New Testament. But I also think that in the midst of a crisis like the one we face at the present moment, the church can discern other avenues of continued connection and faithfulness, and respond with wisdom.

Second, the dramatic flourish with which Satterwhite closes, read charitably, is meant to reflect a strong confidence in the sovereignty of God. It seems to echo the sentiment of “faith over fear” that I have heard so often in these past days. But faith and fear are not our only biblical and theological categories. The only fear we should maintain should be fear of the Lord. That is the beginning of wisdom. And if fear of the Lord leads us to desire to be the best possible steward of our lives and the lives of others, we will not ignore the best medical and scientific insights that might help us from spreading this disease.

While it may be true that God holds the power of life and death, I will not put the Lord to the test by asking those who have been infected to breath on me, nor will I brazenly breath on others if I am a carrier of the contagion. I’ll distance, where a mask, and love my neighbor as myself.

Discern, then Respond

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