If I attend church this morning, I could be fined $1,000 or imprisoned for 90 days.
In small-town, midwestern America.
I’m not a convict.
I’m not a fugitive.
I’m not infected (to the best of my knowledge) with COVID-19.
But, just in case, last Sunday my church told everyone to stay home.
Yes, last Sunday, it was against the church to go to church. (They provided a videostream service instead.)
This Sunday, today, it is against the state to go to church. I could get arrested just for trying.
Not a dream.
Not quite a nightmare, either.
More like a tragedy. “Tragedy,” in the tradition of the Greek playwrights, had a peculiar meaning: it wasn’t just that the story ended in sadness, but rather that it must do so, that it inescapably would have a bad ending, and, moreover, the main characters knew this but were powerless to do anything about it. They act, and sometimes aim to act freely, but always, it is as if someone else is pulling their puppet strings.
If we could do it all over again, what would we do differently?
Since we can’t go back to re-do any of it differently, what should we do now?
Following are some resources to help you think through how we got to where we are, and how we might get to where we’d like to be. There is no formal position statement here. Even if I tried to write one, it would be obsolete by the time you read it, in this rapidly changing COVID-19 era. I offer simply some food for thought and some resources for encouragement—including some timeless resources.
Is the Church the Problem or the Solution?
- A New York Times editorial blames Christians for being (supposedly) anti-science and thereby thwarting (supposedly) scientific methods for mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
- A Los Angeles Times op-ed exonerates Christians for using the common cup for Holy Communion, citing scientific studies that show this is just as safe as using individual cups.
Must Services Be Canceled? (Dare We Postpone Easter?)
- An article in the Federalist expressed hope that social distancing could be prudently practiced while people continued to gather for public worship.
- The Lutheran worship experts (or, better to say: “divine service” experts) at Gottesdienst caution against rescheduling Easter Sunday in view of prohibitions against attendance. They also offer suggestions for marking the resurrection of Jesus Christ whenever congregations do resume meeting publicly, noting that every Sunday is a mini Easter anyway.
- A Georgian Orthodox Church has labeled the closing of churches as “an unjustified offense against God.”
- Minnesota’s Executive Order 20–20 exempts clergy as “essential” workers, “wherever their services may be needed,” which would seem to permit pastors to make home visits, while the main thrust of the order is to prohibit any public gathering (including, obviously, worship service at the church).
- The President of Brazil, by contrast, has exempted churches from the general prohibition of public gatherings; church services are “essential services.”
What Counts as Essential?
- Christianity Today notes the variety of responses that Christians have had to the new segregation: essential services that continue and non-essential services that are forbidden during local lockdowns.
- Even the New York Times is not sure how long our communities can survive without public church gatherings.
- Is the church non-essential? Does the state have a right to categorize it either way? An article in First Things explores such questions—examining not merely the civic function of churches, but more especially the sacramental dimension.
Celebrating Holy Communion by Remote Control?
- Some churches think that just as sermons can be livestreamed into people’s homes, so also the Lord’ Supper can be celebrated home by home as everyone receives the consecrating words of the pastor via WiFi.
- The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod addressed this issue some time before COVID-19, concluding that the pastor and the congregants must be physically present together in order for the pastor to consecrate and distribute and the people to receive the Sacrament.
Are There Innovative Ways to Maintain Old Traditions?
- The Texas District of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has outlined several possibilities, for consideration by each local congregation according to its unique COVID-19 era circumstances.
- Is it already too late for a proactive checklist, or might we still try to get ahead of the game?
- What would Socrates think of our communities’ responses to COVID-19, and how might Christians always be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in them?
- How does one pray the Lord’s Prayer anew in a time of pandemic?
- How does one confess the Apostles’ Creed in such a time as this?
Is There Anything New Under the Sun?
- Hymnist Paul Gerhardt poured out his heart to the Lord amid a 17th-century plague. Might you learn something from him?
- Martin Luther offered recommendations to pastors on how to serve their people during times of pestilence. Can his advice be adapted to our present needs? A recent Issues, Etc. radio show explored this question.
Are We in Danger of Losing Our Civil Liberties to Opportunistic Technocrats?
- The ACLU has cautiously condoned some short-term restrictions on civil liberties in view of the apparent emergency, but also soberly warned that the corner too easily could be turned toward tyranny.
- Harvard legal scholars have raised the question about balancing concerns for public safety with protections for individual liberty.
- Do public restrictions on church gatherings during a pandemic violate the First Amendment right to religious free exercise? Maybe. And yet, many churches voluntarily imposed restrictions upon themselves before the state acted.
Are We Subject to the Unyielding Tyranny of Fate, or Are We Blessed by the Providential Hand of God (No Matter What Anyone Else Tries to Bring Against His Church)?
Recall the reference to Greek tragedies: there, fate controlled all. The Bible, by contrast, teaches the doctrine of Providence: God daily and richly provides for all our needs of both body and soul. We cannot always identify when or how God does so, but here are some possibilities for your consideration. In addition to “flattening the curve,” look for these blessings:
- Will the shutdown make the air cleaner in major metropolitan areas?
- Will stay-at-home orders help spouses to reconnect? And an opportunity for renewing fatherhood in particular?
- What unique opportunities do Christians now have to affirm God’s gift of life?
- Do you have a game plan for home devotions?
- Can you recognize how very blessed you are, despite the present trials, and having recognized God’s blessing, turn a generous heart toward those whose needs are far greater than your own—as real as your own concerns may be, too?
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.