Certainly by now we are all aware of the measures the U.S. Government, the NBA, the NCAA, public schools, and even local churches are taking to help slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). In addition to these measures, the reaction of the general public has ranged from outright end-of-the-world panic to complete apathy. It leaves us wondering, is there a response that does not demand buying out the local stores to hunker down in bunkers or flippantly claim “death is inevitable” so we should just go on with life as normal?
Yes, there is: loving our neighbors.
This command of Jesus to love others as ourselves seems fairly straight-forward, but we sometimes have a hard time understanding what this looks like practically. But one thing is certain: the Bible doesn’t allow us to be content with just giving lip-service to this command. Biblical love is rooted in humility and self-sacrifice. Paul states in Philippians,
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.— Philippians 2:3-4
He then follows with this: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:5). What mind, Paul? The mind of humility and self-sacrifice as displayed by Christ in the incarnation, a mind which seeks the good of others over our own, a mind which puts the interests of others above its own, and a mind which seeks to do these things “without grumbling or disputing,” a point Paul later makes in the same chapter.
Is this the mind others have when they buy out items in the store others need, hoarding it to themselves or reselling it at a higher price to make a profit off of panic? Is this the mind others have when they disregard the seriousness of the coronavirus in the elderly? Is this the mind others have when they refuse to quarantine themselves when diagnosed with something that could cause the deaths of hundreds, if not more? Is this the mind others have when they say they will leave their church if the elders decide to suspend services temporarily for the sake of those who are in high-risk groups because “death is inevitable”?
All of the situations above have been reactions I have personally seen this week, whether it be through articles or social media. At the very heart of the issue is the very opposite of humility and self-sacrifice: pride. But as Christians, this is not our new mindset. As has already been shown, Paul states that the mind of humility and self-sacrifice is “already in Christ Jesus.” In other words, we are reborn into a new life with new desires and affections, but these are in conflict with our old life and our old fleshly desires and affections that seek to hinder and destroy the graces Christ has wrought in each of us who are in Him. We must seek to put these fleshly desires to death through the Holy Spirit (see Romans 8:12-14 and Colossians 3:5-10).
Social Distancing Helps Us Love The Weak
We certainly live in a time when the weak, especially the elderly, among us are vulnerable not only to illnesses and diseases but also to mistreatment, lack of compassion, and downright cruelty. This time of crisis has certainly not stifled this; in fact, it seems to have shown this problem is far deeper than we thought. The flippancy with which we speak about the coronavirus’ affect on high-risk groups is one way we show that this lack of compassion is evident even in the church. It’s not a big deal. It’s basically just a bad flu. Only the elderly and sick are dying. But these flippant thoughts/words lead to flippant actions and even judgment on others, particularly when it comes to corporate worship in this particular time of crisis. It won’t affect me, so I don’t need to practice social distancing. No one can tell me I need to avoid crowds because it isn’t a big deal for me. I am not high-risk so I don’t understand why my church is suspending services. I am angry we can’t meet for church, so I am going to leave and find another church or post on social media how much I think others are just letting fear rule them and aren’t trusting God.
While I certainly won’t deny some of our brothers and sisters have expressed a sense of fear, suspending public gatherings like worship services is not being done as a result of fear but because history and common sense shows this helps to flatten the curve. In a nutshell, this means that drastic measures to encourage social distancing helps slow the rate of infection so that those needing immediate medical attention will not be overburdening medical facilities to the point where they have to choose to ration medical care and pick and choose who to treat and who to turn away–the exact situation Italy is facing right now. Social distancing is a way we show love to our neighbors. The more we gather, the more we could expose others to something that could potentially be fatal. More meetings means more chances of getting ill, which means more cases, which means more severe cases, which means more people at hospitals, which means more chance for people with the virus and other serious issues (e.g., heart attack, stroke) to not get the care they need.
Putting the interests of others above our own in a pandemic context means we understand the risk at which we can put others if we choose not to practice social distancing. Children (a group not particularly affected severely at all by COVID-19 and who are also not particularly careful about personal hygiene practices like washing hands and not licking surfaces) are especially at risk of bringing the coronavirus to elderly grandparents, parents who are unhealthy or at risk, or their siblings who are medically fragile.
But adults can also be carriers. The peculiar thing about coronavirus is many who have it don’t have many symptoms, so they are unaware they are carrying it and spreading it to both high-risk and low-risk individuals who then in turn spread it to other high-risk and low risk individuals.
Churches Love Others By Protecting and Serving the Physically Vulnerable
So those churches that are cancelling are doing so because (1) some governments are recommending or even requiring they do so for the sake of slowing down the rate of the spread of the virus (again, “flattening the curve”) and (2) because they love their neighbor.
I think it’s important in a pandemic to remember one important thing: it is not about us. We have already discussed this in regards to Philippians 2, about having “this mind among , which is in Christ Jesus.” But how do we keep this mindset in a pandemic?
By recognizing we in the Church are part of a Body and are to care for those who are weak spiritually. We can do this by helping those who have anxiety and fear glean wisdom and gain comfort from the Word and through prayer.
By recognizing we in the Church are part of a Body and are to care for those who are weak physically. Part of caring for individuals physically is not just taking them food or helping them when they are sick but to help prevent the spread of something that could be harmful to those who are most vulnerable. This also means being mindful of our own personal hygiene if we do need to venture out.
By recognizing we are also part of our local communities and should seek to be a light for the gospel in the midst of chaos by serving those in the community. How do we do this? By the same things above. We also don’t act like the world is ending, but we also don’t act like it doesn’t matter because it won’t be as bad for us personally. We can also be a light by serving those in high-risk groups by running errands so they can avoid being in crowds — of course, while being mindful to wash our hands in the process.
But here is what we shouldn’t do:
1. Assume all churches are suspending services because they are afraid. That is a severe misunderstanding of the issue. We can trust our leaders did not make this decision lightly and felt the weight of their responsibility for their weak sheep. Wisdom requires we not be presumptuous. We don’t drive with our eyes closed because “we trust God” and we don’t throw ourselves off of cliffs assuming He will defy the laws of gravity to save us. We also cannot assume our weaker brothers and sisters will not get sick simply because we are meeting for a God-honoring purpose.
2. Panic. Panicking is not helpful and does not show forth to a lost and dying world the hope we have in the gospel. We are in the hands of our Father, and truly nothing, especially not COVID-19, can snatch us from His hand. This virus is also not outside of His knowledge and control.
3. Judge brothers and sisters who do not want to go to a public gathering because they have family members who could be at risk if they do attend or they are personally in the high-risk group.
4. Refuse to serve those who need it because we are afraid or we don’t want to bother. Christians have lived through all sorts of pandemics (The Plague, the Spanish Flu, etc.) and selflessly served those in need. But it would not be wise to do this if you will be around others who are at risk for developing complications on a consistent basis (that’s just common sense).
5. Hoard supplies like toilet paper, cleaning products, and other items from others in our community who need those things. Hoarding is self-serving. It is not concerned about what others need in a time of crisis. It is concerned about self, the opposite mindset Paul tells us we have in Christ.
During the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, local churches closed their doors at the requirement of the government officials because some of their members (this time the younger ones) were at risk of dying at an incredibly high rate. But the individual members remained serving in their communities as they saw fit (and wisdom would grant). We also must remember that church is never truly canceled, as Pastor Eric pointed out in an article he wrote recently.
Loving our neighbors, especially our Christian neighbors, is a something that is sacrificial. Social distancing at this time — setting aside our comforts, routines, and preferences — is a good and wise thing to do to protect the vulnerable among us. But let this not drive us to fear but rather let it drive our desire to further spread the gospel in the midst of fear and panic. We are in the hands of our Father, and He is faithful to His people.
I’ll close with a quote from Martin Luther who lived and served during the Plague:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash no foolhardy and does not tempt God.”— Martin Luther
For Further Reading:
What Courage Might Corona Unleash? | by Marshal Segal | Desiring God
Here is Why My Church is Not Meeting on Sunday | by Paul Martin | The Gospel Coalition
8 Things the Coronavirus Should Teach Us | by Mark Oden | The Gospel Coalition
Thinking Christianly About the Coronavirus (COVID-19) | by Tom Ascol | Founders Ministries
How DC Churches Responded When Government Banned Public Gatherings During the Spanish Flu of 1918 | by Caleb Morell | 9Marks
Jessie Roberson is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and member of Whites Run Baptist Church.