The coronavirus has spun the world around like the vindictive kid standing next to an old merry-go-round. As humanity has hung on for dear life, some church leaders have declared that the violent spins will fundamentally alter the when and how people assemble. To survive, pastors and their congregations must learn to navigate the spinning wobbles of the coronavirus world through appeals to leadership coaches, political theories, sociologists, psychologists, and biologists.
Though the rotations of the 2020 merry-go-round have given the riders the impression that the they are moving across the playground, the foundation of the church has not moved and will not move. It remains forever anchored to the unchanging God of the universe. The mission of the local church which is comprised of redeemed men and women who have convenented together to live out the gospel in community is and forever will be to glorify God. The church will always assemble to worship the one true God. The historical record proves the fixed nature of the church, revealing that plagues, masks, and social distancing have not fundamentally changed the church.
A Brief History of Churches and Plagues
The coronavirus is not the first virus that has spun around the people of God with all the care of a ten-year-old bully. Church has withstood past challenges which threatened to ‘radically’ alter the bride of Christ. In 165 A.D. and again in 260 A.D plagues ravaged the world of the early church fathers, killing as much as 30% of the Roman world’s population according to historian Rodney Stark. The Bishop Dionysius was able to successfully pastor his generation through terror that “prevails over all hope.” When the plagues subsided, the church remained. Dionysius believed the plague of 260 A.D. had been a positive “instrument for our training and probation.”
In addition to medical issues, the church has wrestled through the secondary challenges and moral dilemmas that the coronavirus has brought to the church’s attention. During the plague of 1527, Martin Luther harshly condemned Germans who knowingly exposed their neighbors to the plague as “prank like putting lice into fur garments or flies into someone’s living room.” During the Cholera Outbreak of 1866, Spurgeon had to remind Christians that science did not threaten their faith. He said,
I am thankful that there are many men of intelligence and scientific information who can speak well upon… the laws of cleanliness and health. So far from being angry with those who instruct the people in useful secular knowledge, he ought rather to be thankful for them…The gospel has no quarrel with ventilation, and the doctrines of grace have no dispute with chloride of lime.
The particularly challenging topic of whether or not to meet during times of biological peril has also been address by the church of old.
Spurgeon kept holding services because his church’s neighborhood was not quarantined during the second cholera outbreak.
Similarly, Luther encouraged his followers to attend church so that they could “learn through God’s word how to live and how to die.” But, he also thought Christians had the freedom to leave cities struggling with the plague and believed the sick should avoid large gatherings. He wrote.
It is even more shameful for a person to pay no heed to his own body and to fail to protect it against the plague the best his is able, and then to infect and poison others who might have remained alive if he had taken care of his body as he should have. He is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death.
Richard Baxter who lived through the great London plague of 1665, leaned toward the side of caution. He encouraged the church to suspend operations when facing medical and civil crisisses not tied to gospel proclamation. He wrote,
If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church-assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him….[we] omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity.
Ashbel Green concurred, encouraging the churches of Philadelphia to suspend their meetings during the plague of 1798 which claimed 3,400 lives. He refused to meet with his congregation from a “conviction to duty.” He believed that the “long and tedious” interval between services would help would perfect the church while she waited for divine deliverance.
Lastly, Francis Grimke who pastored in Washington D.C. during the Spanish Flu of 1918 supported the temporary closure of churches, theatres, and schools though other evangelicals grumbled. He wrote,
If as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in theatres and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches…it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger and expect God to protect us.
By God’s grace, the church of the past has successfully weathered spins on the pandemic merry-go-round, arriving in the form we recognize today.
Though some church leaders clamor about declaring the challenges of the coronavirus to be earth shattering, the history of the church proves the opposite to be true. As Ecclesiastics 1:10-11 notes,
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
If anything, the writings of Grimke, Spurgeon, and Green have revealed that plagues never substantial changed the nature of the church. Once the coronavirus merry-go-round stops spinning, history indicates most Christians and people will forget that the church was ever spun about. This is the greatest challenge the church faces today.
The Greatest Threat to The Church
The greatest threat of a pandemic resides not in is ability to change the church but in humanity’s ability to forget it ever occurred, missing the divine lessons which God promotes through trials.
In 1918, Grimke hoped the Spanish flu would, “beat a little sense into the white man’s head” because no one could deny that “White and black alike are dealt with indiscriminately: the one is smitten as readily as the other.” The need for the civil rights movement and the social unrest of 2020 have revealed that this lesson has not been taken to heart. Similarly, Spurgeon had wished that the plague of 1866 would usher in a revival, calling the people of London to forsake drunkenness, fornication, their lack of church attendance and their fascination with Catholicism. But the plague of 1866 like the plague of 1854 produced little change. Spurgeon later lamented,
Alas! for your piety! It was as the morning cloud, and as the early dew it passed away…We prayed; we sent for the minister; we devoted ourselves to God; we vowed, if he would spare us, we would live better. Here thou art, my hearer, just what thou wast before thy sickness.
Ashebel Green concurred, noting that populations often forget the lessons learned during plagues, returning to their earlier sins. He lamented:
We have actually grown worse, and not better, by all the chastisements we have been made to endure feel for this past five years.
Spurgeon feared that the church’s inability to heed God’s displeasure would result in the people of God being “ravaged by a pestilence worse than the plague: I mean the pestilence of deadly soul-destroying error.” Sadly, his warning has proved prophetic.
The merry-go-round will not change the church but it may afflict the church with gospel amnesia which will blunt the spread of the kingdom of God. Instead of strategizing about how to prepare for future changes that will prove insignificant in a few months time, believers should plead with God to bless the trials of today with gospel fruitfulness. Green reminds us:
Our past experiences has surely been enough to convince us, that no providence, however afflictive, awful or awakening in themselves, will make us any better, but rather much worse unless God accompany by the influences of his grace.
May God be with us all!