Covid-19 vs Pastoral Concerns

In the (not great) movie “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” (based on a popular novel I have not read) there is a scene where big bad guy has commandeered the titular “home” and gives the “peculiar children” an order. Despite his mastery of the situation, Miss Peregrine reprimands him for speaking to those in her care and refuses to allow the kids to comply with his order until she affirms it. It is a great picture of rightful authority refusing to abdicate based simply on the circumstantial ebb and flow of power. Rightful authority doesn’t yield, even when it is in the weaker position.

Rightful, lawful, and good pastoral authority has taken a big hit over the last couple of centuries. Deservedly so in the case of those who stand behind the pulpit and exchange that which gives them authority to speak – the Word of God – with that which is worldly philosophy and entertainment baptized in the holy water of relevance. Against the oncoming Titanic of materialistic science, many have fled, unaware that that our sovereign God knows where to place icebergs. Against the intellectual claims of sociology, many have refused to meditate deeply on the truths of Scripture that rightly define us. Against the novel (and often laughable) claims of psychology, many have scattered faster than roaches when the lights comes on.

So it is incredibly important that right now, in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, we should not confuse the issue of pastoral authority. Let me suggest 3 ways to do that:

  1. Speak truth about Covid-19, about civil rights, about our economy, and whatever else God has authorized and commanded us to teach (Matt 20:18-20). To refuse to speak to this situation is to set yet another precedent of yielding ground.

“But we are not infectious disease experts,” you sagely protest. And I agree you are not. You are probably also not economists. You are probably also not political scientists. You may not have a degree in sexual studies. You may have no familiarity with the teachings of Freud and Jung. You may even have failed biology. But you know what you are charged with? The care of people. And do you know what diseases infect? People. Do you know who earns, spends, gives, and hoards money? People. Do you know who lusts and burns with passions? People. Do you know who votes? People. Do you know who fear? Yup, you guessed it. People are bodily moral agents who behave like flocks of helpless sheep (Matt 9:36) if their shepherd does not care for them.

Why are you summoned to deathbeds? Why are you consulted over bankruptcies? It’s neither your expertise in finances or healthcare. It is your God-given role as caretaker of His people. And Covid-19 with all of its ramifications concerns people.

2. Remember that only the eldership of the church has the authority to declare a cessation of gathering.

So I am already on record for submitting to rightful civil authority in the current Covid-19 pandemic. I believe they are in their lane. My hope today is to convince you that your lane and their lane overlap. The government has mandated that the people of God not gather, and the people of God should instinctively look to their pastor to see if that is right or not. They should do so knowing that their pastor is wise and loves them with the love of Christ. That in his heart, he is caring for them – body and soul.

The eldership of the church is the only authorized body to cancel the gathering of the church. The government may have the power, but the eldership still has the authority. This is vitally important because the vast majority of times governments have called for the cessation of religious activity is for the purpose of religious suppression. When believers have refused to comply, persecution has built the church and spread the name of Christ (Acts 11:19). The fact that, for the moment, there is a reasonable case to enforce no-gatherings does not affect the hierarchy instituted by God.

This is not like a little kid finally picking up his room after a good butt whipping whilst saying, “I will pick up my room, but only because I want to!” Proper authority and hierarchy guard the flock of God. If and when religious oppression takes place, the flock needs to be asking for direction from its leadership, not the government. So whether fully expressed or not, the understanding of those in our flocks ought to be, “Pastor/the Elders have canceled services to comply with a government regulation.” If they think like that, they may one day get to think, “Pastor/the Elders have not canceled church because they refuse to comply with a government regulation.”

For those who might interpret this as a dangerous compelling of behavior, I would remind you that believers already exercise wisdom over their lives (and show love to others) during times of illness, poor driving conditions, etc… A (good) pastor would never reprimand failure to attend an evening service when the elderly parishioner in question has poor night vision and should not be driving in the dark! We are not dealing with individual cases, but with the rule of thumb.

3. Don’t let down your guard. (Acts 20:28-29)

It would be relatively easy at this time to take a sabbatical. I must admit I am more rested than I have been in a while. The pressure of Sunday morning is off. There are benefits of enforced distance. But remember that the thief comes at a time when the home-owner is unaware. We are to be on our guard, and here are some things I’m noticing:

First, there is always a danger when the wind only blows from one direction. Generally speaking, group-think is bad. When the world with all of its composite parts (governments, media, philosophy, etc…) are all the same page, I am troubled. When media frenzy compels governments to “shut it down”, and then turns around and uses the shut-downs as evidence that this is A REALLY BIG PROBLEM, I have to pause.

Second, fear is a poor path towards peace. There is, of course, a good kind of fear. But we haven’t seen that. We have not seen mankind humble themselves in genuine fear of the Lord. We have not seen people trade their fear of that which can destroy the body for the one who can destroy the soul. (Matthew 10:28). How much repentance is out there right now? Fearful people are people who are ready to be manipulated.

Third, the behavior-shaming towards those whose response to the crisis is less urgent is troubling. That was a pretty nice way of saying it, right? So calling people “covidiots” would be a violation of Matthew 5:22 (unless you’re the one that stole the TP out of the 85 year old man’s cart!). This is new territory for us as a society, but there should still be a broad range of acceptable behavior based on individual conscience. What kind of post-pandemic society are we headed towards if we make people legally responsible for any germs they might share? What kind of social stigma are we willing to sentence one another to for failure to conform? Should not people, even the elderly, have some say over the risks they are willing to take with their health? I think these are big questions that should be thought through before we start swimming with the current.

We are hurtling down the highway at 110MPH and we need to look out the window to see what we’re missing. I am not minimizing the problem; I am just trying to think through the proposed solutions. There are thousands of news-sites, blogs, and facebook posts telling everyone how bad this is and I AM NOT (NECESSARILY) DISAGREEING WITH THEM (well, most of them). I am just looking for some perspective. I’d like to see a little more.

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