The tumultuous election and conflicts of political ideologies and the government’s response to COVID-19 have divided the country and divided the church. As a result, many have questioned and resisted the government mandates regarding the church’s response to the pandemic. Some have argued that the church should fully reopen in defiance of the government restrictions. However, as an immunologist and a pastor, we believe a more cautious response is warranted. Our response should be informed both by the scientific data regarding the severity of the threat of Covid-19 and our theology and Scripture rather than the political rhetoric that only serves to divide us further.
The science behind the covid-19 suggests that this is a real threat and necessitates a cautious response to the pandemic. It is true that early in the COVID-19 pandemic, data was sparse and difficult to interpret. However, it would be incorrect to claim that the biological threat of COVID-19 is far less severe than first thought and does not warrant the restrictions the government has placed upon the church. On the contrary, increased restrictions did and continue to pay dividends in lives saved as we approach the pandemic’s potential ending through the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), projects that if a mask usage rate of 95% was adopted in public, that could save upwards of 100,000 lives over the next 3-4 months[i]. Now is the time to use a data-driven approach to drive our response to this pandemic disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable in our society, with 80% of deaths from COVID-19 in the early outbreak in Wuhan China coming from people over 60 years old[ii]. Furthermore, populations with lower socioeconomic status and increased inequalities have increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, and have consistently worse health outcomes than more wealthy areas[iii]. Taking all of this into consideration, now is clearly the time to band together as Christians to show that we value human life far more than minor inconveniences.
From the earliest data that came out of Wuhan, China, it was apparent to the scientific community that this was a once in a century pandemic with infection rates unlike anything we had seen in recent history. This virus, SARS-Cov-2, initially thought to have a mortality in elderly patients over 10%[iv] has not significantly decreased in its mortality, with a current estimated mortality rate of 7.6%[v] in patients over 60. The tragic combination of a rapidly spreading novel disease with an absence of potential therapeutic interventions meant that there was little we could do to curb the spread of the disease. It was and is a real threat to overwhelm the medical system as we witnessed in Italy, New York, and California. From the start the most effect response was to advocate increases in social distancing and mask-wearing. This was necessary to reduce the number of potential transmission events and was the only way we could protect those most susceptible to this disease. At this early stage in the pandemic, it was unclear if these guidelines would significantly impact curbing the transmission of the disease. However, a year later, we now have a surprising amount of data showing that masks decrease the frequency of transmission by 50-80%[vi]. This reduction of “super-spreader” events is key to saving lives[vii].
Some argue the premise that churches are being disproportionally targeted by governmental restrictions that are unfair and “tyrannical.” However, many churches have been the source of major spreading events. For example, one outbreak in South Korea was linked to one infected person attending an evangelical church has now been linked to at least 5,214 infections[viii]. Unfortunately, many of the traditional activities in a church service have been linked to increasing the spread of COVID 19. Singing dramatically increases the number of viral particles that are expelled, thus increasing the risk of transmission. Groups praying in close proximity to one another, sharing communion cups, visiting afterward, etc., all increase transmission threat. We should not put our concerns for our “religious freedoms” above our concern for the vulnerable. If we are concerned that there is a disparity in restrictions between casinos and churches, the response should not be to remove all restrictions on churches. On the contrary, if our concern for life is at the forefront of our prayers, we should be pushing for more restrictions on casinos and other places where people congregate.
While we have come a long way in our understanding of COVID-19, a full medical understanding still has a long way to go. Approximately 1-2% of people infected with this disease will die. But potentially more alarming is that studies estimate that 10-30% of infected individuals will have long term side effects, some of which we are only now beginning to identify[ix]. Compared to the seasonal flu, which ranges in mortality from .05-.1%, COVID-19 is around 20x more lethal[x]. Arguably the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is one of the great medical successes in recent history. However, the data is clear, until we have the entire population vaccinated, we must continue to take precautions to protect those most dear to us.
Our response as a church community to Covid-19 must not come at the cost of lives or betraying fundamental Biblical tenants about the church, the gospel, and the sanctity of life. While we agree that politicians’ attitudes have been troubling at times in that it reflects a view that the church is non-essential, the medical data coupled with several important Biblical principles should cause the church to be cautious.
First, we are commanded to obey those in authority, for they are appointed by God to orchestrate his will (Romans 13:1-5). The only time we are justified in our disobedience is when they are in direct conflict with the church. In this case, the government restrictions are not in conflict with our biblical mandate. We can still proclaim the gospel. We can gather as a church and receive the biblical instruction we need (albeit virtually and in smaller groups) and enjoy the Christian faith’s fellowship. The church is much more than just a meeting on Sunday, it involves the daily interaction within the body of Christ.
Second, we are to maintain an excellent testimony to the world so that we can maintain an effective witness for the gospel (Philippians 1:27). It is crucial in our response that the world does not see the church as callous to the health and well-being of the larger community. When we defy government restrictions, the message the world receives is that we demonstrate a disregard for others’ lives. Rather than showing love and concern for the broader community and their welfare (see Phil. 2:1-5), our actions are seen as a disregard to their safety which hinders the gospel message.
Third, we are to uphold the sanctity of life. When we respond to the Covid-19 with indifference to the reality of the threat, we are undermining the sanctity of life. While we rightfully uphold the sanctity of life of the unborn, we have become cavalier regarding the sanctity of life of those vulnerable to Covid-19. As the case law of the Old Testament demonstrates, if we disregard a known threat to life, and it causes the death of another, then we are violating the 6th commandment (See Exodus 21:28-36). If adhering to the government restrictions helps to save lives, then we should gladly do so as a testimony to our belief that all life is sacred.
Fourth, even with the government restrictions, the church is still the church. Tragically we have reduced the church to an impersonal gather of a group of people who have no daily interaction with one another, to be entertained as passive observers at a “worship service” where the focus is upon the performance on the stage rather than the interaction within the pews. Rather than viewing the pandemic response as governmental overreach to control the church, it may be that God is using the events to bring a corrective to the church. The church is not about what happens for one hour on Sunday, but what happens throughout the week (Acts 2:43-47). If we stop being the church merely because we cannot gather in large assemblies on a Sunday, then there is something wrong with our understanding of what it means to be a church.
Last, we need to recognize that there is no clear answer for a proper response to Covid-19, so we need to make allowances for differences (Romans 14:1-8). We must allow people the freedom to follow their conscience. Just as we should not condemn those who feel comfortable attending a live service, we should not pressure those who choose to stay online. We need to graciously allow for our differences and not condemn those who might disagree.
As the church navigates through this era of Covid-19, we need a balanced approach. One that is not driven by politics and the latest misinformation propagated through social media. It should be grounded in both medical research and theological reflection. As Christians, we should not dismiss what science is revealing nor should we disregard our mandate to proclaim the Gospel. We need to recognize that both people’s physical lives and spiritual lives are at stake, and they are not mutually exclusive. By listening to the medical field to protect people’s physical health, we are demonstrating our deep concern for people and the sanctity of life. But to disregard the threat to people’s health (especially as new, more vibrant strains are now appearing), we may find that we are losing our testimony to a world that sees our actions as uncaring regarding human life, and that is a mistake we cannot afford to make.
Glenn Daman has been a pastor for 34 years and has authored 5 books and numerous articles on church leadership. Andrew Daman is a Ph.D. Candidate in Immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College and has been part of a team conducting research on the Covid-19 Virus.