Many Christians have criticized the decision by governments around the world to ban public gatherings, including church worship. Margaret Blackie says that at the heart of these statements is an expectation God will protect the faithful from disease even if they place themselves at risk. These notions, she says, are contrary to the message of the Bible. She focuses instead on God who sustains us in times of danger because he loves us.
It is profoundly disturbing to me to see the number of Christians who are claiming that we ought to be allowed to gather for worship. There are some local variations on the emphasis of the claim which point to local politics. For some Roman Catholics it is founded on the belief that receiving the Eucharist somehow confers magical antiviral properties. For some, in liberal democracies, it is a sense of outrage that the ‘State’ should have the power to dictate to the churches. For some evangelicals, the blood of Jesus is the protection. The flavour doesn’t matter so much as the ground upon which the claim is made is that ‘God will protect us’.
The problem is, the position is fundamentally flawed. God makes no such promises. There is no guarantee that if we are good that we will be spared disaster. Have you read the book of Job? For those who gently ignore the troubling presence of Job in the Bible… This very week we are celebrating Easter. Last week, On Thursday, we commemorated the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus, himself, prayed that the cup would pass him by, and yet he was crucified.
On Friday, we commemorated the brutal execution of Jesus. If that is not sufficient because of an insistence on the necessity of the crucifixion, I would ask you to recall that the early church is steeped in the blood of martyrs. Just who was God is protecting in those times?
Listen to the science
Why would we think that we will magically be protected from a virus that we can radically reduce our chances of contracting simply because we choose to go to church? There is no precedent in the Christian tradition for the guarantee of such protection. We have the knowledge that we need to reduce the probability of being infected. Surely, we should use it? Why would we expect God to intervene when, with a little personal sacrifice, we can keep ourselves safe?
Perhaps more importantly, if we take risks (and the science tells us that we can transmit the virus whether or not we have symptoms), we put those we come into contact with in great danger. It is not just my life which I am putting at risk. My actions will potentially affect every single person with whom I come into contact. How can my call to follow my faith endanger others? If I think I am protected because I am a faithful follower of Jesus, does that extend to my non-believing grandmother; my atheist, diabetic neighbor; my Christian spouse who chose not to come to church?
Across the ages church leaders have encouraged us to pay attention to those who are experts in their field, even if they are not believers. Pope Francis in our day, John Calvin of Reformation fame, and St Augustine of Hippo before him, all point to the wisdom of using the best knowledge available to us to guide us in our actions.
Adhering to the requirements of social distancing isn’t cowardice or a lack of faith, it is a willingness to follow the best information we have available to us. That is wisdom, not an unfaithful submission to secular authority.
Trust that God will sustain us
Over the last several years the work of James Finley has spoken deeply to me. There is a phrase he uses frequently which speaks to this:
God will protect us from nothing but sustains us in all thingsjames finley
Finley himself is a survivor of horrendous abuse both in his home and by a religious superior. This sentence arises in and through his experience.
I do not believe that we can expect that God will protect any individual person from COVID-19. It is up to us to do that. We know how – social distancing and good hygiene are within our power. Testing is up to the Government.
Whatever course this takes, there will be deep pain and God will be with us in it all. Not because we are good Christians, not because we are good citizens, not because we are good neighbours, but because God is good.
God will protect us from nothing but sustains us in all things.
Let us do our part and leave the rest to God. We can protect one another. Let’s do that. And let us trust that God will sustain us in it all.