The elders of the church took seriously their task, not only of ministering the compassion of Christ to the sick (at great danger to themselves!), but also of reminding Christians of their duties to one another in the Gospel. Christians were not to abandon one another or their family members in the face of disease.
Church history can be of great help to us as we try to understand our calling to faithful Christian living in the times in which we live. In particular, it is helpful to remind ourselves in the year 2020 that we are not the first generation of believers to experience an outbreak of infectious disease. What can we learn from Christians in the past about our duties to one another in the present?
Scott Manetsch has written a very useful reference on pastoral ministry in 16th century Geneva called Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609. The book examines the pastoral work of Calvin and other ministers during the early period of the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. Manetsch has done the church a great service by combing through the records of the Genevan churches in order to understand better what church life and pastoral ministry actually looked like in those days.
One thing we can glean is the commitment of the ministers and elders in Geneva to maintaining the ministry of the Word and the bonds of Christian fellowship and unity during times of deadly plague. The elders of the church took seriously their task, not only of ministering the compassion of Christ to the sick (at great danger to themselves!), but also of reminding Christians of their duties to one another in the Gospel. Christians were not to abandon one another or their family members in the face of disease:
The Consistory’s campaign to protect the weak and vulnerable was especially important during visitations of the plague, when death, fear, and suspicions threatened to unravel family loyalties and undermine social harmony. During the plague years of 1568-1572, the ministers and elders intervened in nearly a dozen cases in which plague victims were assaulted or abandoned by terrified family members and neighbors. The account of the Bourgeois family in the village of Malval serves as one shocking example. In September 1571, a daughter of the family contracted the plague while in the final days of pregnancy. Fearing infection, the young woman’s mother, brother, and sister abandoned her. Even when the pains of labor overcame the sick woman, neither family members nor neighbors responded to her desperate cries for help. In the end, she delivered her baby alone, all the while screaming for water and assistance. Both mother and infant died within hours. The woman’s family, listening to the entire ordeal outside the family’s house, had already dug a grave for the woman. The Consistory’s response to this horrifying account was more than perfunctory: in addition to suspending family members [from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper] for their inhumanity, the ministers sent a delegation to the city magistrates, demanding that ‘sick villagers should be cared for, either by people from the city or from their own villages’ so that ‘no one would suffer a similar thing ever again’” (p. 216).
In Calvin’s Geneva, Christian ministers were expected to minister to the sick, whether their illness was regarded as contagious or not. Just as a sick person was not to be deprived of medicine for his or her body, it was even more important that the sick and dying receive medicine for the soul. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (equivalent to our OPC Book of Church Order) required any church member to call for pastoral care when they or a loved one had been confined to bed for three days or more. This was because it was the minister’s duty to visit the sick and to apply the comfort of the Gospel to those who might be tempted to discouragement or despair.
The city of Geneva had a hospital outside the city, located near the cemetery. During the plague of 1542, specific ministers were assigned to visit the hospital and to comfort the sick and dying. It was unthinkable that anyone might be confined to a hospital without having the privilege of hearing the Gospel and praying with a minister of Christ. As Manetsch writes,