Public Health and the Essential Nature of Worship
To all the saints at Christ the King,
This is not a very practical letter. As such I am posting it here rather than distributing it through our regular means. It shares some thoughts I have about how our nations’ churches have responded to the current CoVid19 crisis.
Many church leaders have argued that national, state, or local orders to close are to be obeyed during this time of public health crisis. In fact, many have argued that churches should be at the forefront of willingness to close their activities (a well-reasoned and thoughtful example is found here https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/26/obedience-to-god-and-love-of-neighbor-in-the-face-of-a-coronavirus-a-christians-mandate).
Most of these arguments, like the one linked above, boil down to two main lines of thought:
1) Love for Neighbor - As Christians, we are called to love our neighbor. Loving our neighbor requires preserving and promoting public health. Continuing to gather in worship would risk our neighbors’ well-being by risking public health. Therefore, loving our neighbor requires we not meet publicly. This is the first line of thought.
2) Submission to Earthly Authority - As Christians, we are called to submit to the governing authorities unless their commands directly contradict God’s. The governing authorities are asking churches to close because of public health, not because of opposition to the Gospel of Christ. The governing authorities are functioning within their God-given authority when they instruct churches to close. Therefore, submission to governing authorities requires we not meet publicly. This is the second line of thought.
I find both of these streams of logic compelling, Biblically-based, and loving. I completely understand why any given church body or church leader might find them so and follow their implications.
However, I do not agree with them, nor do I intend to follow their implications. Though I am probably punching above my weight class, let me attempt to explain why…
The Public Health Assumptions – I am frankly surprised how quickly and consistently many people have equated “Virus-Free” with “Healthy”. Allow me a hypothetical… Imagine a country that, because of the oncoming spread of the virus, successfully managed to close every citizen in a cell, delivering hygienically-prepared food and providing ample TV and streaming services to each. Each citizen, thus provided for, is forbidden from leaving their cell. The nation would be entirely virus-free. Would it be healthy?
Notice that I am not even delving into the economic question, only one of quality of life versus quantity of life. As a Pastor, I am frequently called on to help provide counsel into decisions where one option might prolong life while severely inhibiting it, while another option might allow a less-inhibited life which will likely be much shorter. These are challenging questions. Many factors must be taken into consideration. The decisions are usually marinated in tears and baked in an oven of significant prayer and counsel.
When did that conversation happen in regards to CoViD19? I am not denying that it is a virus that is unprecedented in living history. But when did we weigh the potential public health cost of the virus against the potential public health cost of our reaction to it? (Again, I am entirely avoiding the economic discussion, which has a legitimate place, too).
I think there is a meaningful discussion to be had regarding “Public Health” in a time of widespread illness. I think compelling cases can be made in different directions. A case can be made that every precaution is good, no matter the ancillary costs. But I also think that a case can be made that protecting the most vulnerable by taking away what they most value is not a good trade. I am reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) line from Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village to save it.”
Serving public health in love is absolutely our call as Christians and as Christ’s Church. But I don’t think that decision is as simple as some have portrayed it to be.
Free Exercise of Religion – Which brings me to my second concern. In America, we are guaranteed that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. I know that we have shades of flexibility in times of emergency. I also appreciate the distinction between prohibiting the content of a proclamation, and prohibiting the format or location of that proclamation. If I try to lead worship in the center of a busy Interstate, it isn’t persecution if I am told to cease and desist. Such an order would not violate my constitutional rights.
But even acknowledging that… the assurance isn’t “no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion…unless it’s for a really good reason.” I agree with much of the reasoning that would cause government officials to urge churches to close. They are the same reasons all public gatherings are closing.
Except not all public gatherings ARE closing. People are still entering stores and pharmacies; people are still entering some factories and nearly all distribution centers. I agree with these exceptions – because these are necessary and essential activities. And I am deeply blessed and thankful that my state has deemed religious services to be essential and has only required a 50-person limit and all CDC guidelines to be followed.
But that colors the discussion, doesn’t it? The government in some places has decided that religious services are an essential activity and in other places the government has decided that religious services are not essential. This isn’t just a public health question (a debate of its own), but has now become a question of whether the government considers religious services essential.
Even though I am thankful that my own state’s decision aligns with my beliefs, I will be honest: I don’t want the government to be in the business of telling churches (or other assemblies of worship) whether or not their activities are essential.
Even going back to the Interstate church example – to be told we must move to a different location is not the same as being told we are not allowed to meet at all. Similarly, to be told what precautions we must take if we meet is not the same thing as being told we are not allowed to meet at all.
When, as some state and local governments have done, officials tell a church to close because of CoViD19, the full implication is this: “You cannot freely exercise your religion because your activity is not essential and is a threat to public health.”
I don’t think that either love for neighbor nor proper submission to authority requires that I or any other Pastor or church leader assent to that statement.
I believe that in Christian love and freedom, any individual church or church body can make that decision, but I also hope to soon write about what I believe other healthy alternatives may be.
With thanks for God’s continual love and care,
Pastor Rob Morris
Pastor Rob Morris is celebrating his eighth year of serving at Christ the King Lutheran Church. He was ordained into the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod after a colloquy process that involved one semester of classwork at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana and a supervised vicarage here at Christ the King. His previous training included both a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Biblical Languages from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in S. Hamilton, MA, where he also served as a Teacher’s Assistant leading classwork for both the Greek and Hebrew departments.
Before his call to Christ the King, Pastor Morris served as a full-time staff member at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Topsfield, MA, focusing on both the youth and worship ministries. Going even further back, Pastor Rob’s background was in software sales and his undergraduate work was in business and organizational behavior.
Pastor Morris is joyfully married to his high school sweetheart, Christy, and July 2019 marks their 17th wedding anniversary. They have been entrusted with two wonderful boys: Elijah, 13, and Isaiah, 10. As a family, they love to hike, bike, kayak, explore, read, and play music together.
In his free time, Pastor Morris loves reading, playing music on a growing number of instruments, biking, camping, woodworking, and working on old trucks – currently an old Ford and an even older Studebaker.