By Levi Secord
At this point, frustration, bewilderment, and despair rule over much of our world. As a pastor, I’m tasked with shepherding my flock throughout life. This calling includes helping them live faithfully in the face of global uncertainty. Trials shed light on who we are, especially our weaknesses. Unfortunately, like with other controversies of our day, the responses offered by evangelical leaders have been disappointing and predictable. I do not pretend to have the authority or insight to tell every local congregation how they should respond to this crisis. Still, I do want to offer four bits of wisdom Christians, especially Christian leaders, must consider during this crisis.
Some claim the denial of science has led to the current pandemic. I’ve heard this one again and again, and the proposed solution is total submission to science and scientists. The problem is, this is not how science works. The scientific method invites and demands critical engagement. It is only by critical engagement, trying to prove someone’s models and conclusions wrong, that the scientific method works. Only through this process is a scientific consensus reached. At this point, there is no consensus about this virus because scientists are still evaluating and critically engaging with one another. To deny this important process and to proclaim the inevitable doom of the world is to deny the foundations of modern science. Christians must remember, God has ordered the world, and thus the scientific method works as we look for repeatable results.
Right now, many scientists are offering different models, projections, insights, and recommendations (for example, see here, here, here, here, here, and here). With so much variance among scientists, which ones should we believe? Despite this uncertainty, the studies with the highest projected death totals receive the most attention and are treated like settled science. Such conclusions demonstrate our ignorance of the peer review process that is fundamental to any academic discipline. For science to function, there must be critical engagement and a free flow of ideas. If a scientist from England predicts millions of deaths, science dictates that we don’t just accept it, but, rather, test and critically engage with his model. Sadly, many who are calling for obedience to science are being the most unscientific as they ignore where we are in the scientific process. Here is another sad result of our public education system—many people do not understand the basics of the scientific method and testing a hypothesis.
There is a wide disparity right now between different models, and that is precisely how it should be. I’ve seen scientists project death rates as high 3% and as low as .01%. Which scientists should we believe? Chances are neither extreme is correct, and if you read the fine print of these articles and studies, you see the scientists admit this. The one thing all these scientists do agree on is that the information we have is incomplete and inaccurate. Therefore, the models built on this data are also incomplete and inaccurate. Models are only as good as their assumptions and the data put into them. Right now, that data is unreliable; therefore, so are the models.
If anything, as our world turns to science for certainty and salvation, we should be noting the limitations of human science. Don’t misunderstand me; eventually, we will get useful data. Eventually, we will have a vaccine and reliable treatments, but until then, we must acknowledge the limitations of science. It is limited because science is a human endeavor and humans are finite and fallen. Much of our current fear flows from modern man recognizing how little he knows and how little he can control. The god of scientism is unable to save. Until our doctors, scientists, and researchers can get accurate information, Christians must recognize science demands we hear from different scientists offering different projections. If we reject the tentative findings that provide hope, we cannot claim to do so because of our respect for science.
Understanding Media & Politicians
While science relies on engaging with arguments and offering different projections through critical interaction with data, the media and politicians commenting on these studies are not so virtuous. Politicians and the media are not fact-driven but agenda-driven. The media either doesn’t understand how science works, or it is malevolently pushing its own agenda. It is no surprise that the models with the highest death totals attract the biggest headlines and greatest allegiance from the media. Such headlines generate interest, and news agencies need to pay the bills too. It shouldn’t surprise us that politicians use a tragedy to make themselves look good and attempt to cast shade at their opponents. None of this should surprise us, but it does surprise me that so many Christians, and Christian leaders, have forgotten this. Not long ago, the majority of Americans expressed a general distrust of the media, but now we’ve followed their every recommendation straight into a prison cell.
If a media outlet or politician only promotes the worst-case scenario from scientists while muzzling counterpoints from other scientists, then they care more about their agenda than finding the truth. While scientists understand the need to hear opposing views and critiques when testing a hypothesis, the media does not. Their dogmas and lusts blind them. To this end, it is alarming that no politician I am aware of has given a concise goal or threshold for measuring the success of these quarantines. There is no stated finish line for us to strive for in order to end our house arrests. Instead, politicians keep expanding the lockdowns, despite the fact that the worst-case scenarios have not come true. With no definable goal, our politicians have a carte blanche to continue this indefinitely.
Remembering Our God-given Rights
Many Christians have rightly expressed concerns about our civil liberties during this pandemic. In light of how little we actually know about the danger of COVID-19, it is genuinely shocking how quickly and peacefully we’ve temporarily abandoned our civil liberties. The government has the right and responsibility to contain outbreaks, but this must be measured against our God-given rights. The Founders asserted that God gives everyone “certain unalienable rights,” so why have we so quickly allowed those rights to be alienated? What precedent does this set? For example, it is one thing to quarantine the sick to protect others, but it is something entirely different to forcibly quarantine the healthy. It is one thing to try to slow the spread of a virus, but it is another thing to mandate the bankruptcy of many businesses. It is one thing to close down large gatherings, but it is another thing for the state government to declare some things as essential (i.e., abortion clinics, liquor stores) while saying religious services are not.
The First Amendment is rather clear, “Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of religion.” In my home state of Minnesota, the governor has said religious gatherings are not essential. By executive fiat, he has prohibited the free exercise of religion. At minimum, Americans need to consider whether or not such an action is constitutional. Christians need to consider whether, in this case, the government has the authority to ban the corporate worship of God.
Scripture reminds us: Man cannot live on bread from the grocery store alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut 8:3). If this prohibition continues, at some point, Christians must take action. Christians should consider two options. First, like Daniel, we can overtly defy such orders and continue meeting like normal and then happily accept any punishment. Daniel made no effort to conceal his prayers, thus inviting persecution. While there are apparent differences between Daniel’s situation and ours, we still need to consider his example. Will our current evangelical leaders find a boldness similar to Daniel’s? Second, Christians could follow Paul by appealing to Caesar. At this point in his life, Paul didn’t need to appeal to Caesar, but he leveraged his Roman rights nonetheless. For Christians, this may mean filing an injunction in court appealing to our modern-day Caesar, the U.S. Constitution. Christians, leaders, and churches should be weighing these options and considering what it would take for us to practice civil disobedience as we seek to obey God, instead of man. It is easy to preach on Daniel and Paul, but it is more challenging to live like them. Such living may find us labeled unrespectable and dangerous; something modern evangelicals appear to fear more than God.
Believing in the Resurrection
Finally, this week is Holy Week. How should the resurrection inform our response to COVID-19? This week the global church gathers to celebrate and declare the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and Satan. Do we really believe this? Looking at just the odds, unless you are a high-risk individual, it is highly unlikely you will die from this virus, and yet many Christians are huddled in their houses. Martyrs facing down lions, we are not.
As the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the threat of death must not prevent us from obedience. Scripture commands us to gather in Christ’s name, to build churches, to disciple the nations, and to reach the world, but the CDC says stay home. While Christians do value life, and we should take prudent precautions, we cannot be intimidated by the threat of a virus. The power of the gospel is that death has lost its sting. Yes, death is still terrible, but in Christ, those of faith have nothing to fear.
Will Christians proclaim this message in both word and deed in the face of the Coronavirus? Do Christians fear God or the government more? Or, do we fear a virus even more?
Christian leaders should consider this carefully during Holy Week, “What does the truth of the resurrection mean for how we do church during this pandemic?” Our theology matters, and it rings hollow if it doesn’t impact how we live.
The irony of not gathering in Christ’s name to celebrate the resurrection due to the possible threat of death should not be lost on us. As pastors shepherd their flocks through this crisis, they must be thinking biblically. The Christian worldview helps us navigate these uncertain times, but we must take our lead from Scripture, not The New York Times. Central to the Christian worldview is the death of death through the work of Christ. Will American Christians go out and proclaim the victory of Christ or stay at home, clutching their toilet paper and face masks? How we answer that question says much more about what we believe than any online sermon ever will.