We need to do better at deep and charitable theological engagement (another lesson from COVID)

You are a church leader and you’ve just been told by the government that due to a pandemic ripping through the population, you will now need to suspend public services as part of a national lockdown. You know that schools, pubs, restaurants, theatres and sports stadia are being closed. You know that people are being told to stay home and minimise social interaction.

How do you respond to this? Should you comply with the Government’s orders or should you defy them? What can you provide for a congregation during lockdown? Is it possible in some sense to meet using online methods and does that count as church? Can things like communion and baptism still happen?

What does Scripture tell us about such things?  Well, here are some things that are relevant and can explicitly be found in Scripture.

  1. God made us in his image to worship him God created us with bodies. Material creation and physical bodies are good things. We should treat each other as “whole persons.”
  2. As worshippers we are called to draw near and not to neglect/giving up on worship but rather to meet to sing, hear scripture, break bread, and encourage one another. 
  3. Elders have a responsibility to provide for (feed) and protect the flock.
  4. We are all called to make disciples
  5. We are to love our neighbours and we are to witness to our love for God by our love for one another
  6. We are to obey the law recognising that governments are in place for our good. The exception to this is where obedience to the law of the land will lead to us disobeying God’s law.

Those are the things Scripture has to say. It does not explicitly prescribe exactly how or even when we are to meet together nor are we given exhaustive lists of things that might be counted as a conflict between what God  asks and what the law asks, though we can no doubt work most of it out from Scripture.

The result of this was that

  1. Some people concluded that only physical meetings in buildings counted as church gatherings. Therefore zoom, Facebook, telephone conferencing did not count.  They therefore concluded that government restrictions went against God’s Law and that it was right to gather publicly.
  2. Some people shared that conclusion except that they saw the requirement to love neighbour as overriding the command to gather and so suspended gatheirngs. They may have provided some online content but insisted that this did not count as the church gathering.
  3. Others believed that whilst less than ideal, technology did provide for a form of gathering that counted as the local church meeting and that aspects of church life including communion could and should happen in those contexts. Their argument was that it was important to understand the purpose and intent of gathering to enjoy fellowship, hear teaching, share communion etc and that this was more important than meeting a specific standard of what could be considered “meeting”.

Notice that in disagreeing, no-one in any of the three positions could be accused of directly going against an explicit and clear command of Scripture or even of disagreeing on a matter of first importance regarding the Gospel.  And yet at times we saw a tendency towards divisive conversation. People were accused of failing to love their neighbours and being bad witnesses from one side and having gnostic tendencies, disobeying God and fearing man from the other.

I think we could have done better. For those like me who considered it right to refrain from in person meetings, did we take time to reflect more deeply on what it means to love our neighbours. Did we consider enough that being a good witness may at times include choosing to do things that our society reacts strongly against.  However at the same time, I still await a proper, in depth Biblical and theological case against Zoom being an acceptable form of gathering. Beyond the instruction to gather and philosophical speculation about what counts as “embodied” I still await this.

Now that has been the crucial issue in terms of the need for deep and charitable theological reflection touching directly on practical decisions but there have been others during COVID. One example, which again related to how we viewed decisions about lockdown was concerning the confidence of Governments and scientists that they could beat the virus.  There was some reaction to this and indeed a view that restrictive measures were being put in place because we were not prepared to face the possibility that some would get ill and die.  This led to the accusation of hubris against governments and scientists for thinking that they could control a virus. 

Again, this is an area where I believe we need to do better in terms of reflecting on what God’s Word says and how we apply it to our world now.  There are three things that I believe we need to consider on this one.

  1. That God specifically blessed humanity with the privilege and responsibility of filling and subdue the planet.  
  2. That yes we have to engage with the question of physical mortality
  3. That we must consider the implications of the Fall in that they do bring hindrances to the work of filling and subduing and yet to not remove the responsibility to do so.

Here are two examples where COVID shone a light on our thinking and our conversations. I hope that reflecting now will help us identify other debates and discussions we need to have and how we can do better at holding them.

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