by: Scott Little
Let me start with a disclaimer: I realize that the whole world has COVID fatigue. I don’t know of a single person who isn’t tired of dealing with the coronavirus and everything associated with it, including me. Of course, our fatigue includes being tired of talking about it, hearing about it, and reading about it, too.
So I’m acutely aware that in writing this post I’m testing your patience, but it occurred to me recently that I’ve never really shared the thinking behind PFMC’s COVID response with our congregation or our wider community, so the purpose of this week’s post is to try and remedy that.
If you’ve followed the news at all, you know that churches across the country have approached the pandemic differently, with sometimes widely differing philosophies and practices. Some churches have ignored guidelines and mandates altogether, while others have taken stricter measures than even the guidelines and mandates required. Some have taken a defiant stance toward what they see as government overreach, while others have taken a more cooperative stance in the interest of public health.
Over the course of the last nine months, the leadership of PFMC, starting with myself, have been in the difficult position of making decisions about the life and ministry of our church that affect every one of you who are a part of our fellowship, but I/we haven’t always explained the rationale behind those decisions. Some of you have probably had questions about that, but even if you haven’t, I’d like to offer some insight into why we’ve taken the approach to the pandemic that we’ve taken as a church.
I don’t have the time or space here to dive into the specifics of each decision we’ve made along the way, but I’d like to at least give you an explanation of the basic principles we’ve followed (and will continue following moving forward) that have formed the basis for our church’s COVID response. I know some of you, maybe even many of you, might disagree with some or all of what follows, which is probably inevitable considering how deeply divided people are over this topic. My goal here isn’t to persuade, but to simply inform. So here are the three basic principles that have formed the framework for PFMC’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic…
- Love for Neighbors – Everything starts with love for God and love for our neighbors. We believe part of loving our neighbors means doing what we can to promote & protect the health of our whole community. During a pandemic, this includes following the guidelines recommended by public health experts as best we can, even when they’re inconvenient or uncomfortable. While measures like face coverings, social distancing, and limiting group sizes have been controversial (to say the least!), the general consensus among experts in infectious diseases has been that these practices help limit the spread of the virus and save lives until more effective treatments can be implemented. We believe that ignoring or defying these basic safety measures represents a harmful disregard for the health and well-being of our neighbors.
- Submission to Authority – While the Scripture’s teaching on submission to authority requires careful thought and some degree of nuance to be exercised appropriately, the Bible’s general stance toward authority for the Christian is submission. PFMC’s approach to the pandemic involves submission to authority on two levels:
(1) Submission to spiritual authority – As a Free Methodist church, PFMC is under the spiritual authority of our denomination’s leaders, all of whom I know to be men and women of profound faith, wisdom, integrity, and humility. From the beginning of the pandemic up to the present moment, their consistent instruction for all FM churches and pastors has been to follow the health guidelines and requirements issued by state & local authorities. PFMC’s leadership, including myself, don’t have discretion to disregard the direction of our denomination’s leadership, and gladly submit to the spiritual authority God has placed over us.
(2) Submission to governing authority – “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…” writes the Apostle Paul in Romans 13. He most likely penned these words during the reign of the Emperor Nero, a notoriously immoral and violent persecutor of the Church. As I said above, Paul’s instruction requires careful thought and nuance to be appropriately understood and applied, but it generally reflects the Bible’s “default” position on how Christians should respond to governing authorities. Unless doing so plainly violates God’s commands, followers of Jesus are called to submit to the authority of our civic leaders as a form of submission to God. Some folks will cite Hebrews 10:25, “…let us not neglect meeting together…”, as an example of government restrictions violating God’s command to gather for worship, but that’s taking the verse out of context and misapplying it. While a number of high-profile pastors & churches in America have made public calls for Christians and their fellow churches to defy state health mandates, citing government overreach & religious liberty concerns, I believe they’re doing so in violation of the Scripture’s teaching, and cannot in good conscience follow in their sincere but, in my view, misguided footsteps. We may strongly disagree with or dislike the way our government has handled this crisis, and may have very legitimate concerns about the costs of their decisions, but according to the Scripture, these factors alone don’t justify defying or disregarding their authority.
- Err on the side of caution – Finally, from a purely practical standpoint, we’ve tried to err on the side of caution, attempting to minimize health risks as much as possible without being controlled or paralyzed by the risks. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, considering how polarized our society (and even our church) is with regard to the pandemic and the differing approaches to dealing with it. Still, I believe there is compelling, even overwhelming, evidence that the coronavirus represents a very serious health crisis for the nation and the world, and we reject or ignore that evidence at our own – and our neighbors’ – peril. We’re all living with the tension between taking unnecessary risks and trying to eliminate all risk, so we’ve tried hard to strike an appropriate balance between them.
A number of the other churches in our community and the surrounding area have responded to the pandemic with less caution than we have at PFMC (in some cases, little or no caution at all). That’s between their leadership and the Lord, but the reality is that several of them have experienced serious outbreaks of COVID as well. That’s not to say PFMC won’t experience an outbreak at some point – with the virus spreading the way it is right now, we still might. And of course, we pray earnestly for the health and safety of our brothers & sisters in Christ, and for all the churches of our area regardless. But it’s reasonable to assume that along with God’s grace, we’ve been able to avoid a serious virus outbreak at PFMC to this point because of our more cautious approach.
Ultimately, whether you agree with our response to the pandemic or not, whether you’ve been frustrated by it or appreciative of it or something in-between, I hope you understand that the health & well-being of our church family and surrounding community have been and remains uppermost in our hearts and minds as we address these issues. You might question our wisdom, but I hope there’s no question about our motivation. Please join us in praying that the Lord will continue to protect, heal, and bless His church and our community for His glory and our good.