The obvious effects of Covid are easy to spot. Not only have millions died, but also many have long-term illness from the virus, and an unknown number of people are suffering from the various treatments. There are small children who do not remember a world where masks were not commonplace. Suicide rates are rising and emotional effects and affects are being reported to pastors and counselors. Christians are not immune from the effects of the fall as they have manifested themselves during the crisis. There will be a lot of after-action and post mortem reports.
There are also less obvious effects of the virus. One is the damage done to Christians and congregations. Long-time relationships have been ruptured. Faithful pastors have been accused of infidelity because they sought to submit, as far as conscience would permit, to health regulations. Sadly, some congregations have split. Pastors report that one side was more fearful of the virus and wanted to be more cautious, and the other side was less fearful and wanted less caution. Many congregations mirrored the cultural-political divide.
Those on either side of the division in a congregation have failed to grasp what the church is: the imperfect yet divinely instituted embassy of Christ to the world, where the Holy Spirit has promised to call efficaciously to new life and true faith all his elect. Christ’s church is not a cultural institution. It exists within a culture, and it will necessarily have a culture, but it is not principally an expression of the surrounding culture. The visible church was instituted by Christ as an embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven to the earth. Just as when a visitor enters an embassy of a foreign nation one has temporarily left one’s own nation and soil and entered the sovereign territory of another nation, so it is when one enters the church. A Christian who enters a Christian assembly has entered the sovereign, saving territory of the King of Kings. The embassy and its ambassadors speak the language of the King. The concerns of the ambassador and his staff are the concerns of the King, their policies the policies of their King. They are sent to a surrounding culture, but they are not of that culture, not as far as they represent the King.
Christians have a dual citizenship. Insofar as they are citizens of the Kingdom of God they have a loyalty that transcends language, blood, and soil. Insofar as they are citizens of a particular place, they have an appropriate, provisional loyalty to that place. As Christians they are called to submit to the magistrate (Romans 13 remains God’s Word) and to live quietly and at peace with all men as far as it is possible (Rom 12:8; 1 Tim 2:2).
After all, Christ is the only head of the church. Rome is profoundly wrong here. The Bishop of Rome is not head of the church. No magistrate is the head of the church. Americans, however, are also often wrong about the visible church when they think of it as just another institution against which to rebel. That revolutionary spirit, governed by a lesser magistrate, has its uses in checking tyrants but it has no place in Christ’s church, which represents no egalitarian democracy but rather a totalitarian Kingdom and King, Jesus of Nazareth, who sits at the right hand of the Father, a King who is presently subduing all his enemies (even if we cannot always see it).
To be sure, the visible church did not get everything right during Covid. Some congregations turned their worship services into political rallies. Others were perhaps too timid about opening, but most NAPARC pastors labored prayerfully, carefully, and faithfully during Covid to minister Christ’s Word to his sheep.
The truth is that there were a lot of ambiguities during Covid. Unless one was alive during 1918, there are not many now who remember how we handled the Spanish Flu pandemic. It is true that churches were also closed during the Spanish Flu, masks were imposed, and there were riots then too. It is also true that the mass media environment is radically different from what it was in 1918. Radio was an emerging technology—KDKA Pittsburgh went on the air in 1920—and television was a decade away. We simply were not in constant contact with mass media and thus neither the civil authorities nor commercial interests had the ability to stimulate our “fight or flight” response the way they do now.
In this new media environment, when we were all being bombarded daily with new and often conflicting (and even incoherent) messages from political, cultural, and public health authorities, when some communications media (e.g., Big Social Media) declared as “misinformation” things now accepted as fact, suspicion was bred and pastors, elders, sessions, and consistories came to be seen by some as just another agent of control and manipulation.
It is to those who left the church, or who left their congregations because of the way the church responded to Covid, that I am writing now.I understand that you are angry about what happened and that you lost confidence in authorities, that you think that your church leadership compromised with “the world” and was too compliant with a seemingly never-ending list of restrictions (especially in blue states) imposed ostensibly in the name of public health.
Please come home. As one who has done some marriage counseling, I know that there are usually two sides to every story. Except in cases of abuse, it is rare that one party is utterly righteous and the other utterly wicked. Your pastor, elders, and congregation may have erred, and they may even have sinned against you, but have you considered how you might also have sinned against them? Did you forgive them seventy times seven (Matt 18:22)? Did you allow love to cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8)? Did you forget how much your pastors and elders loved you before Covid? Did Covid really change that? Yes, you disagree with how the church and her leadership responded to Covid, but do you believe that they stopped praying for you, loving you, and seeking your spiritual welfare?
Let us imagine that the worst-case scenario is true, that all the authorities were lying from the beginning and that everything they did was for no other end than the increase of their control over our lives. On what basis do you think that your pastor and elders should have defied the public health orders? Do you imagine that Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and Nerva (the Caesars who ruled the Roman Empire during the first century AD) were looking out for the liberties and interests of the Christians? They certainly were not. Do you see any evidence that the churches organized protests against the unjust treatment of the Christians at the hands of the Roman government—even when some of the emperors put Christians to death merely for being Christians? You do not because there is none. Was the Apostle Paul weak for allowing the Romans to arrest him and put him to death?
It may be that elders and pastors erred during Covid, but is it not also true that your disagreement with them is less over the Christian faith and more over public health policy and the culture war? Were you not asking the visible church to “stand up” against what you regard as government overreach? I might agree with you about the government overreach, but can you show me from Scripture and the Reformed confessions the basis for the visible, institutional church speaking against the magistrate on such a matter?
The author of our Belgic Confession, Guy de Bres (1522–67) was arrested by civil authorities for doing nothing more than preaching the gospel. The Netherlands was in the early days of what would be the Eighty-Years War against Spain for religious and secular liberty. That war would cost tens of thousands of lives as the Spanish Romanists ruthlessly murdered thousands of Reformed Christians for no just cause.
Ultimately, de Bres would be one of those martyrs. After he was arrested in Valenciennes he was imprisoned and sentenced to death. There were offers of military and civil assistance. Had he wished to resist the authorities he could have done. He refused. He was so convinced that the magistrate is instituted by God that even when it acts unjustly we ought to submit to it, even unto death. I am not sure whether I agree with de Bres, but I admire the courage of his conviction and I wonder whether his martyrdom did more to advance the Kingdom of God than my (American-inspired) impulse to resist might have done. We will never know for sure, but we do know that de Bres was on solid biblical footing.
Even Jesus forgave those who crucified him (Luke 23:34). Will you not be reconciled to those who catechized you and your children, who baptized your children, who visited you when you were sick, and with whom you worshiped and served for so long? Is it that important to be right about how to react to Covid policy?
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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