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.

Women in Church Leadership: Yes!

Photo by Tabitha Mort on Pexels.com

David and I stopped in for a haircut at Champions Salon & Barber on Friday, and my stylist mentioned women in church leadership. She apologized for bringing up something that is divisive, so we talked about wearing masks instead.

Molly and I have been married for seventeen years, and even before we begun dating I had moved from complementarianism to egalitarianism regarding women in church leadership. In no way did I look past biblical texts which appear to prohibit women in leadership roles. Rather, I simply found complementarian interpretations of these texts to be less persuasive and the overall redemptive arc of the Bible’s narrative toward women in leadership to be more compelling.

I continue to read on this topic, and have only deepened in my conviction that men and women uniquely and together best serve the church when each, irrespective of gender, is honored in light of both calling and giftings. Experientially, I have continue to benefit greatly from the leadership and ministry of women, as I have done in the past, not only in children’s Sunday school, but in various other aspects of congregational life.

I suspect that over the course of my lifetime these questions will continue to be debated. The hermeunitcal questions are challenging. But among evangelical Christians, it appears that attitudes may be changing. Based on his research findings, Ryan Burge reports: “The results of a recent survey once again indicate that most evangelical Protestants are in favor of seeing women take on more prominent positions in the church.”

Burge and colleagues found:

In a survey I fielded along with political scientists Paul Djupe and Hannah Smothers back in March, 8 in 10 self-identified evangelicals said they agree with women teaching Sunday school, leading worship at church services, and preaching during women’s conferences or retreats.

Slightly fewer endorsed women preaching during church services, but 7 in 10 were in favor, according to the research, conducted by a team of political scientists in March 2020.

One detail that surprised me in Burge’s findings: support for women pastors was significant among Southern Baptist respondents.

It’s no surprise most evangelical Christians were most comfortable with women leading in Sunday school classes and when women are speaking to women. Yet despite a slight drop in favorability, there was still strong support for women preachers on Sundays, in congregational worship.

Burge’s group also uncovered interesting data pertaining to age demographics and theology. Evangelicals 65 and older are more likely to disagree with women preaching, while respondents 55 to 64 are more open. Younger evangelicals between 18 and 35 are more likely to align with the oldest demographic. The most surprisingly theological correlation: “When the sample is restricted to just those who believe that the Bible is literally true, three-quarters of those who attend services multiple times a week agree with women preaching during weekend services.” Those attending church most often also demonstrated the highest levels of support for women in the pulpit.

Just because something is popular does not make it true, and vice versa. Convictions should always be held on the basis of sound biblical hermeneutics and reason. Otherwise, sentiments will only be based on the direction of the wind.

Nevertheless, I take this as an encouraging sign. When women are given the space to lead according to calling and gifts, the church is blessed.

Online Theological Education

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Not everyone is called to seminary or divinity school. In fact, I’ve long contended that the local church is the center of theological education. Everyone can get serious there. I think you can learn more about ministers from the churches they’ve been part of than you can from their educational pedigree.

Nonetheless, institutions are important, and it does make a difference if someone has been trained at a reputable school. Two or three years of intensive theological study helps, and it is true that local churches can be limited in terms of depth, scope, and concentration of study made available. You can learn a great deal in the local church, but it helps when other avenues for learning are available.

Throughout the years I’ve come to know many people who have been well trained in their local church and are excellent leaders. You may be one of those friends, someone whom I consider a saint, a co-laborer in the good work of God’s kingdom. You might not be, too. This website is free and open to the public! You might be someone who found this post with a Google search. Glad to connect! But there’s another possibility (please read the following while imagining me with a wink and a smile): we may only be acquaintances, or someone I’ve been praying for for a long time.

What I’ve learned through experience is that there are those I know who could benefit from further training. We could do a lot in the church, but we couldn’t do it all. With the help of a designated course of study, these leaders would be helped to grow in biblical and theological knowledge, gain some outside perspective, learn pastoral ministry skills, and be better equipped to serve in their local contexts. More education would complement and strengthen what has been and is being received in the local church, and thus, by helping the individual grow, the local church would become stronger.

One of the cool things I learned after joining the staff of Truett Seminary is that we provide a form of online theological education. Truett’s Online Certificate Program is for bi-vocational ministers, congregants who serve as lay-ministers, deacons, Sunday school teachers, youth ministers, children’s ministers, and other ministry volunteers. The online courses are complemented with a few opportunities each year to receive in-person instruction during short on-campus seminars. David Tate directs the program. He’s great. And they have great staff who help to teach and facilitate these courses.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “That’s me!”, what are you waiting for? Check it out!

Another online option I’m familiar with is the Tony Evans Training Center. I have done curriculum development work for Urban Alternative, and while the TETC isn’t a seminary institution, it does provide opportunities for learning, growth, and online community, with a strong emphasis on the study of Scripture.

Other institutions offer online instruction as well, but these are the ones I know. If you are interested in broadening your biblical and theological knowledge, make a choice and pick your resources, dedicate yourself to the task, and get to work. By God’s grace, the church is strengthened when her servants are in pursuit of a deep, passionate, thoughtful, and active faith. Take the next step.