The notion that the church can manage just fine online on any kind of ongoing basis is a fatal error. It is an unscriptural theology of creation and incarnation that believes the body of Christ can exist and function equally well in an abstract digital world, reducing the Lord’s Table to relative unimportance, and the preached Word to a ‘talk’ just as effectively delivered digitally via pre-recorded video or live feed. Such an idea is a modern form of Docetism, the heretical belief that Christ merely took on the appearance of humanity, and that his human form was an illusion.
The Allure of Syncretism
Like many historical crises, the present societal response to the threat of a new virus is highlighting the condition of the Christian church and exposing long papered-over fissures in evangelicalism in terms of the nature and priorities of the Christian faith and the foundations of our public theology.
In Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) responded to the mass government lockdown in reaction to the virus by signing an interfaith statement of hope, not only with Islamic, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist leaders, but with heretical cults, urging Canadians to hopefulness because the generic, nebulous concept of religious faith “assures us of the caring embrace of the Creator, a sacred relationship sustained by prayer.” This ‘creator’ is an unknown God in the document, an idol like the one Paul confronted in Acts 17:22-34.
Canadians are urged in this multifaith manifesto to recognize that “Religion and spirituality can indeed contribute to building people up, to providing a sense of meaning, inner strength, new horizons and openness of hearts.” In view of this, the statement goes on, “As religious leaders, we wish to emphasize, especially in times like these, the power and importance of prayer.” Since Hindus and Buddhists neither recognize nor pray to an infinite-personal God, Muslims worship an unknown, non-relational being that is not triune, and Mormons deny the divinity of Christ, exactly what kind of shared meaning and inner strength can be gained from this polytheism is unclear. Before what or whom, exactly, are Canadians being urged to supplicate in prayer?
These kinds of spiritually bankrupt gestures are actually informed by pagan spirituality. They do nothing to witness to the salvation and Lordship of Christ, the hope of the gospel, the power of prayer to the living God or the cause of the religious freedom of any community. What they do accomplish is to obscure the clarity of Christian witness, the defense of the faith and true love of neighbor. Where in this statement is the God Paul preached at Mars Hill, and the Man he has appointed as judge of all the earth by raising Him from the dead? The Christian God vanishes into the empty vocabulary of pantheistic spirituality.
As far as the lockdown of the churches is concerned, the EFC joins other religions in calling for an unquestioning compliance with government policy in which they promise to be a model: “We urge all people in Canada to listen and follow attentively the directions of our public health officials and government leaders. We, as religious leaders, pledge to lead by example.” There is no call for serious civic engagement, keeping elected and non-elected officials accountable, nor a commitment to reopen churches as soon as possible; neither are any concerns raised over religious and civil liberties. It is a document with which any dictatorial regime would have been most happy.
Yet the EFC is clearly not representative of large swathes of scripturally faithful evangelical churches in Canada. Despite a widespread apathy in regard to culture, loss of distinctly Christian vision and naive statism among Christians – as seen in Canadian blogger Tim Challies’ recent article thanking God for government – many leaders do not think that interfaith statements of hope, lemming-like support of government measures, and lockdown of the church for the foreseeable future is fine and necessary, and they are challenging the status quo. I had the privilege of spearheading, with Pastor Aaron Rock, a provincial campaign to reopen churches in Ontario which have been shut down despite businesses, retail and factories opening up. Over 400 churches have now signed our letter and counting. The EFC would do well to begin a similar campaign for faithful churches to get behind.
The Illusion of Safety
Yet things appear to be worse elsewhere. Turning to the influential and frequently trend-setting motherland, a recent Evangelical Alliance (EA) article by Danny Webster is making the rounds, entitled “The Media Have it Wrong. Churches are not rushing to reopen their Doors.” If this is a true reflection of evangelical opinion across the Atlantic, then the Covid-19 related social crisis has only further highlighted the precipitous decline of the evangelical mind in Britain. Perhaps we should all be asking ourselves whether in some measure we deserve our present exile and if so, will we learn anything from it? Because of the popularity and prevalence of the opinion expressed by the EA in the Western churches generally, Webster’s article warrants further analysis.
Webster and the EA apparently believe that the state’s treatment of churches as equivalent to restaurants, bars and cinemas is appropriate. It strikes me as tragic that the EA can find no evidence of UK church leaders anxious to get the churches open as soon as possible, suggesting instead that the vast majority of pastors implicitly support the notion that the people of God gathering for Word and sacrament and its wider ministry in the community is non-essential at this time. For the EA, being a good witness in our cultural moment means passive compliance with government policy and protecting people, or being ‘safe’ means not meeting at all. If it were in fact the church’s primary mandate to keep everyone safe from all risk, then the persecuted churches in communist and many Islamic nations today are dangerously irresponsible for continuing to meet and develop underground movements, because all such action exposes their congregants to extreme risk. Perhaps those Christians have something profoundly significant in mind in terms of the overall wellbeing of the church of Jesus Christ that makes trusting the sovereign God with the ordinary risks of life more important than the illusion of safety.
Webster uses familiar missiological phrases about the role of the church being to “proclaim Christ and to witness to his kingdom coming,” but he argues, “we do not do this by increasing the risk of harm to those we love and those we want to come to know Jesus.” Of course, this argument begs the real question about how to measure the harm of the present lockdown of the churches weighed against risks of infection, and overlooks the radical reductionism involved in reducing human health and wellbeing to biology and avoidance at all costs of exposure to viruses. And exactly how the indefinite lockdown of churches and mass quarantine of God’s people does enable us to ‘faithfully proclaim Christ’ and ‘witness to his kingdom coming’ – as like children we hide in the sofa cushions and heroically save the nation in our pyjamas via Zoom – is left unexplained.
I should add, whilst the Bible has important things to say about quarantining the seriously sick, you will not find a scriptural text where Christ or His apostles hid from the diseased and destitute, the lonely, depressed or dying in the interest of loving and saving them. If ever Christians should be wearied by empty evangelical platitudes to justify our inaction, it’s now.
The Abandonment of our Post
I have no doubt the article expresses a majority ‘evangelical’ opinion, but the real question is whether it represents a biblical and faithful response to an unprecedented indefinite lockdown of the church by civil government; is our response consistent with the historic witness of God’s people? At times like this, the truth and power of the gospel of the kingdom must be seen and heard – the Christian faith should come into its own as it has since plagues and panic-struck Rome in the time of the early Church. Yet some are actually abandoning the historic practices and gospel ministry tradition of God’s people in times of panic, sickness and crisis by hiding or fleeing. Some weeks ago, it was widely reported that members of the Church of England hierarchy (not the civil government) actually banned their own clergy from ministering to the sick and dying (whether from Covid-19 or not) and even prevented them from streaming Easter services alone in their church buildings.