The global coronavirus pandemic is touching all walks of life and each nation with its unique ferocity and consequence. People are getting sick and many are dying. This has struck an equal epidemic of fear and vulnerability into the lives of everyday Americans. In times of great crisis, historically, people of faith turn toward God and the church. But where is the church at present? Most doors are closed, and their leadership is hastily sprinting toward YouTube and online prominence. This is certainly what leaders in Hollywood and the government want from them; but is this biblical? Do we, as Christians have a history of following in lockstep to the whims and panics of the world? Where is our biblical theology in all of this? It seems to be amiss. This article will no doubt land controversial, but it is time to take a stand and hold church leadership responsible for its lack of faith in such a time where it is needed the most. I ask that you read with an open heart and mind toward knowing God and faith in His sovereign presence as you read these words and look toward why the majority of the United States clergy and church leadership failed their flock amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The great theologian J.I. Packer wrote, “Those who know God show great boldness for God.” I ask, where is the great boldness in the church today in response to the corona pandemic? Where is church leadership in fighting back against tyrannical government that would close the doors of sanctuary? Who is fighting for the church? Why did leadership so quickly close worship services, cow-tow to the obvious suspension of the separation of church and state, and redefine what church is with an online substitution? What used to be ecclesiastical boldness has retreated due to the group-think mentality through bandwidth via virtual programming. Live-streaming church services are being heralded as the equivalent of the church with clichés such as “the church is not just a building” or “the church is more than brick and mortar.” The rise in church marketing, live streaming services, and the online commercialization of the church just struck black gold and the online presence of promoting Jesus and Christianity is an oil geyser. All it took was a virus from China, sold in fear to the Christian population in America, and every church slammed its doors shut, rushed to the computer, and now sits at the behest of social media outlets that would pull their content and police their speech in a millisecond once that service or sermon veered toward biblical truth. Bible studies and small group meetings were quickly replaced with interim public relations elders and computer media geeks who are fervently attempting to hold an online presence and market their brand of Jesus Christ.
What is perplexing is that non-biblical excuses are being promulgated by leadership but very few laymen and parishioners are soaking it in with any skepticism. Heartfelt social media posts reign with joyous platitudes of herd-like thankfulness. As if the coronavirus was side-stepped by the church via an online authority, instead of realizing that the coronavirus diminished the church and showed the leadership’s lack of boldness in a time of great trial. How bold is it to look into a camera and preach a sermon? Multi-millionaire televangelists and entertainment YouTubers do this every day. Boldness is action in opposition. Why haven’t Christians called out this misfeasance during such a pandemic? Could it be that the American Christian experience no longer really knows God? J. I. Packer concludes: “It is simply that those who know their God are sensitive to situations in which God’s truth and honor are being directly or tacitly jeopardized, and rather than let the matter go by default will force the issue on men’s attention and seek thereby to compel change of heart about it – even at personal risk” (Knowing God, 28). This is our task today.
It is vitally important that we begin with a distinction. Words and their definitions matter. Malfeasance is “the performance by a public official of an act that is legally unjustified, harmful, or contrary to law; wrongdoing (used especially of an act in violation of a public trust)”. In comparison, misfeasance is the “wrongful performance of a normally lawful act, the wrongful and injurious exercise of lawful authority”. There is a difference, one is lawful and the other is not. I agree that most clergy truly felt justified, civil obedient, and acted with good intentions (we know about that road paved with good intentions). The questions that are on the table are whether it was theologically justifiable, obedient to the will and purpose of God, and in good faith. We must be clear on the thesis that is being advocated here: The majority of clergy and church leadership in America are negligent in their knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19, in lieu of sound biblical doctrine and precedent and therefore are culpable of misfeasance toward its flock. This is the official stand of this author.
We must first essentially define what the church is. No doubt there are some truths to the aforementioned platitudes. The church is much more than walls, pews, bibles, and doors. But to regale this online supplementation is a crass and cowardly excuse for not standing up to the world. Ecclesiology (study of the church) is too vast and complex to tackle here but suffice it to say, these online substitutions are far from the biblical church of the New Testament. Jesus Christ spoke of the church in only two roles: the local church and the universality of the saints. That is, the church is local and personal and the body of the church is the makeup of all the people globally that ascribe to salvation through faith in Christ and recognize his work at the cross for our salvation. These are two very simple functions and definitions of what the church should (and has for thousands of years) look and acted like. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and we get together, in person, to know and worship God. Short and sweet. The argument for/against global ministries and multi-campus church facilities will be set aside for another time.
So, what happened? Simply put, when faced with national fear and threat from the government, most church leadership choose the world and not the word. Like dominoes of groupthink, church after church began to shut its doors, cancel services, and prevent people from coming together to worship God. While liquor stores and hemp shops remained open, churches shut down. For example, in the state of Ohio “shelter in place” ordinances excluded church organizations, but they shut down anyway. The first was the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. Think of the implications of that: churches deemed themselves not essential! Where most could have taken necessary precautions and social distance protocols, held more services, forged a way; they shut their doors. Out of fear from reprisal of society and bad press, they bowed willingly to societal stresses. Society and cultural axioms, out of fear and panic, pressured most local churches to lockdown, go away, and fade into obscurity online. And this all took place in a matter of weeks with very little, if no pushback. What a sad time; however, no outrage was touted. Most clergies did this willingly and even spoke out against other churches for meeting. Imagine the thought of first and second-century Christian martyrs looking upon this. While they were being hunted down, slaughtered, and sacrificed to live animals for congregating; two thousand years later leaders of the same church are castigating other Christians for doing the same under much less severe consequences.
Why? Why was the knee-jerk reaction of all denominations and clergy so quick to close its doors and suspend services? This hardly sounds like a universal church of the saints with faith in the Sovereign God of the biblical text. The answer is not hard to understand but the root of it is. What caused leadership so quickly to retreat and abandon the church is fear. Fear of death, fear of the bad press, fear of upset congregants, fear of denominational authority. That fear is from a theological absence of knowing who God is. God is sovereign, God is in control, God is here, and God wants his followers to know Him, worship Him, and fellowship with one another. This is as clear in the Old Testament: “Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, ‘calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:8-11 ESV); as it is in the New Testament: “ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36 ESV).
The bible is riddled with passages about coming together, in person, with each other for worship, communion, fellowship, rebuke, etc. Here are just a few examples: Acts 2:40-47; 20:7-8; Hebrews 10:25; 1 Timothy 4:13; 1 Corinthians 14:26; just to name a few. The whole of the Old Testament is full of narratives where God’s chosen people come together, in the middle of crisis and trauma, to worship and know him; the book of Genesis is a great starting point. Yet, current clergy spinsters misconstrue and twist scripture to convince us that this fear and separation is not only normal but theological. One common scripture being bandied about is Matthew 18:20; “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” I see this often as an excuse from meeting online as if online meetings are equivalent to in-home personal group meetings. Read the whole chapter in context. When we close the church down it is from fear. Fear that God is not in control and fear that the government dictates how we know and follow our God. Notice Matthew does not say where two or three are gathered out of fear in my name, there am I among them. Online congregating is not the same game as person-to-person fellowship. The same trust, vulnerability, and intimacy are not even in the ballpark. Using scripture to excuse ourselves from being bold in our faith is dangerous, cowardly, and anti-theological.
This may seem harsh but look at the early church and the persecution they endured. They met and continued to meet even under the consequence of torture and death. With the rise of Nero in AD 45 came about horrific persecution of Christians that lasted for centuries. They were hunted down, ripped from homes, massacred, crucified, and much more. Yet they still met, worshiped, fellowshipped, and served one another. The church continued to be the church because early Christians knew that God was present, even in their suffering (1 Peter 3:17). The book of Daniel is a perfect study to illuminate these principles. We do not forfeit our Christian prerogatives because society says it might be bad for culture if we congregate to worship. When those who love evil and hate the church come after true Christians (eschatology) where will the leadership be then? If a virus that is looking to be much less deadly than expected can force the church to self-close what is to become of the church when real panic arises. The implications of this cannot be overstated. Fear and government do not rule our faith. Faith is so much more valuable to the biblical Christian than life, after all: “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:6-10 ESV).
In the book of acts, the leadership and governmental authorities came to the apostles and asked them not to teach in the name of Jesus. Their response: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29 ESV). This was bold! Where is that boldness today? I am not advocating anything other than civil disobedience. In most cases, the shelter in place ordinances excluded church entities. In those cases, it would not even be civil disobedience but a departure from misfeasance. I ask that we open up our Churches again, this is theological madness! People are hurting, souls are lost, and church doors are closed, mostly due to leadership not taking courageous steps to defend the faith and Sheppard the sheep. No one is sounding a call to arms but a call to what God requires of us: to stand strong in our faith (1 Cor. 6:13), trusting that God is in control (Psalm 24:1-2) and His purpose is being fulfilled (Col. 1:16-17), knowing that we have a much higher reward in death than in life (John 11:25-26). After all fear of God, not COVID-19, allows us to present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. That we do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our mind, that by testing us we may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).
To Please God Rather Than Men (Anglican Book of Common Prayer, 669):
Our God, in whom we trust: Strengthen us not to regard overmuch who is us or who is against us, but to see to it that we are with you in everything we do. Amen.