Principles By Which We Shepherd During the Pandemic4
Dear Heritage Baptist Church,
It would be an understatement to say that we live in unprecedented times. From the internet to cellphones, from social media to LGBTQI…, from globalisation to vaccines, we are all living in a world that in so many ways never existed before. We are inundated with information on a never-before-seen scale: from CNN to FOX, from BBC to ENCA, from self-publishing to blogs and now vlogs. Every Tom, Dick and Thabo can tell the world their opinion. It has been said that reading a whole newspaper today will give you more information than someone living 200 years ago would have received in their entire lifetime! So how do we navigate all the pitfalls and landmines out there? How do we sift through the mountains of fake news and scaremongering to find the golden nuggets of truth?
Apart from the quantity of information bombarding us there is also the lack of humility that we have to deal with. Everyone seems to be an expert on everything nowadays. I for one am amazed that nearly everyone in South Africa must have postgraduate degrees in Virology and Epidemiology. Everyone is also very angry or at least faux angry. Being angry has become the new virtue. As the West moves to an honour/shame culture it is trendy to mock and humiliate anyone who disagrees with you, the angrier you can be on social media, the better. The biblical mandate to be slow to speak and quick to hear has largely been forgotten. The numerous injunctions to careful, gracious, winsome speech are seen as outdated for a social media world.
So, if you are still with me, after 150 words, then please get yourself a cup of coffee as this will be a longer than usual letter. While soundbites are great fun for antagonizing your opponents and confirming your followers, they are useless (actually dangerous) in Jesus’ Kingdom where we are called to make thoughtful, wise, discerning, disciples.
This article is written because shepherds are called to shepherd the sheep of Jesus Christ. We are not the Gestapo and so cannot control who or what you listen to. “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” (2 Cor 1:24) We are called to make mature disciples who are not tossed to and fro by every new wind of doctrine. Who are not driven by political agendas, political parties, economic or social ideologies. Who do not confuse their cultural preferences with Christianity and who certainly do not equate nationalism or anti-authoritarianism with faithfulness to Jesus Christ.
In this letter I will lay out the biblical principles that we as under shepherds seek to follow when we make our decisions. Because the issue of church gathering has become such a contentious and divisive issue recently, with some church leaders even slanderously accusing those pastors who do not call their congregations to civil disobedience cowards or hirelings, we felt the need to respond. To adjust the Proverb, “The one who speaks first, loudest and has the most followers sounds right until another examines their position.” (Pro 18:17).
This is no easy topic, the effects of the pandemic have been terrible: Anxiety, death, bankruptcy, emotional and mental breakdowns. We must continue to pray for our leaders, political and pastoral, that God would give them much wisdom. There are no simple solutions. Our prayer is that these principles will help you to think through things carefully and will give you a greater appreciation for why, as an eldership, we make the decisions we do.
- Principle 1: Jesus is Lord
- Scripture is Our Ultimate Authority
First of all, in every decision we as an eldership make, we seek to be faithful to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. While we do not receive any mystical revelation, this does not mean that we are at sea. Jesus has given us His Word, the Scriptures, as well as the Holy Spirit. We have the promise that if we ask for wisdom, He will give it liberally (cf. James 1:5). While we do not have any verses that speak directly about lockdowns during a pandemic there are many Biblical principles that we should apply.
- Love God by Loving Your Neighbour
In Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus distilled how we should live into three verses:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
Notice that Jesus declares that the second commandment is like the first one. You cannot say that you love God but not people nor can you truly love people but not love God. As pastors we seek to love the people that God has placed under our care as well as those in the world. This is a holistic love: body, mind and soul. We care about the physical health of our congregation. While we must not be governed by fear we must certainly not be reckless with our lives or the lives of others, especially those who are unsaved.
Just because people wash their hands and wear masks doesn’t mean they are living in perpetual fear. Perhaps it is because they care for and love others and don’t want to spread disease and sickness unnecessarily. When you invite a family for dinner and they cancel because they have all come down with a stomach bug no one in their right mind says. “I can’t believe you are so enslaved by fear! You should trust the Lord.” We say, “Thank you for being so thoughtful.”
The pandemic may not be as deadly as originally thought but it still real.
Many Christians are upset that casinos and malls are allowed to be open while churches are closed. Please remember that people are not hugging, and expressing physical affection in these locations. You could see how one could argue that social distancing naturally occurs. However, when churches gather there is a God given desire to embrace and be close to one another. It is not a one for one restriction.
Admittedly, we as pastors may argue that the most loving thing to do is for us to meet. Some have argued for this and are committed to this. They must stand before the Lord as we will. We will not slander them, but we do think that there are other principles that need to be taken into account.
- Witness to the World
One of the major themes throughout Scripture is that God’s people are to be a light to the nations, a witness to those around us. The book of Revelation is full of the church as a witness. Paul’s second letter to Timothy shows how concerned Paul is with what the world thinks of the pastors and the behaviour of the church. Peter tells us to, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable.” (1 Pet 2:12) Paul writes, “Give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all.” Rom 12:17. Even the way we structure a church service must make sense to outsiders (cf. 1 Cor. 14:23). And Paul, scandalously some might say, says “I try to please everyone in everything I do. Not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” 1 Cor.10:33.
What message is civil disobedience at this time sending to the world? From a teenager I have read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and other similar books. So many were converted by seeing that these martyrs were so in love with Jesus that they would rather die than renounce Christ. No unbeliever is watching what happened in Sebokeng and thinking, “Wow! Look how much they love Jesus!” Rather, they are saying, “Look how selfish these Christians are, they don’t care about others.” This is not about being a people pleaser, this is about obedience to God’s Word.
- Honour the Government
What is the tenor of the New Testament when it comes to civil authority? Please try and be honest. Don’t impose your French Revolution, American War of Independence, Mkhonto Wesizwe paradigm. You will find that the New Testament is very clear that Christians are to be the most faithful, honourable and submissive of citizens. Is that what we find today?
I am seeing that it has become a virtue in some Christian circles to mock, criticize, demean and disobey the government. This is not the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles! My claim is not that this principle is some vague implication, it is not a symbolic inference. It is crystal clear apostolic doctrine. Below are some easy-to-understand verses, no Greek knowledge needed, please read them slowly and carefully. Remember, it doesn’t take a brave man to disobey, by that logic sinners are very brave. It takes a brave man to obey even when they don’t want to:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet”, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Rom 13:1-10
Or this passage,
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the emperor. 1 Pet 13-17
Notice that both Paul and Peter link obedience to civil government with love for others. Obedience to those in authority is not some interesting theoretical discussion rather it is fundamental to love for God. Paul also links obedience to the health of your conscience; I will deal with conscience later in the letter.
The following argument is a well-trodden one, but it needs to be travelled again. Remember that the time of the early church was a period of tyranny, no democracy, no republic, just old-fashioned tyranny. The emperor, never mind king, was absolute, even deified. Given the situation that existed isn’t it remarkable that the New Testament calls us to obedience, submission, even to honour and pray for the government? I wonder what Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 would look like if they were written by some today? A contemporary study Bible may look something like this:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every (some) human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good (good here means disobeying the government) you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people (Foolish people are those who don’t disobey). Live as people who are free (radically, hyper, individualistically free. No one can tell me nothing), not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil (sometimes it is allowed), but living as servants of God. Honour everyone. Love the brotherhood (not the weak and sickly ones). Fear God. Honour the emperor (that’s a bit ridiculous, must be a textual error). 1 Pet 13-17.
Has the government been inconsistent, even foolish? Certainly, but that does not give you or I permission to dishonour and disobey them. Which husband or parent hasn’t been inconsistent or foolish, but that does not mean that the wife or children are allowed to be disrespectful.
Having said all that is there ever a time to disobey the government? Yes there is. In a future blog post, we will deal with this in detail. But we are convinced that this is not that time.
- Principle 2: Use Sanctified Wisdom
- Not Swayed By the Left or the Right
When people start talking about the wearing of masks as denying the image of God or vaccines that will make us pliable in the hands of the Antichrist I find the theme song from The Twilight Zone playing in my mind. Christians are to be clear thinkers, those who worship the Lord with their minds!
We are those who belong to another Kingdom, we are not of this world, and yet so many have become so caught up with the kingdoms of this world. Multitudes are buying every conspiracy theory that hits Facebook as though it is gospel. It gets forwarded a million times before it is revealed to be a hoax but that doesn’t stop anyone from doing it again and again. One of my mentors said that if one of your doctrines doesn’t have any tension in it then it is probably wrong. Think of every major doctrine in Scripture and you will see that this is true (The Trinity (One God, three persons), the hypostatic union, God’s sovereignty and human responsibility etc.). Yet so many Christians are so absolutist about politics, economics, culture, vaccines, pandemics, the church gathering during a pandemic etc.
Christians shouldn’t be liberal or conservative, left wing or right wing, capitalist or communist. We are a new humanity, not a via media but a third race, not Jew or Gentile but Christian. Yet a visitor from outer space looking at social media would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a Christian and a Qanon or BLM member.
So, no conspiracy theories, the pandemic is real and if it hasn’t touched you or taken a loved one from your church or family then thank the Lord but don’t belittle the suffering of others. The arrogance to claim that all the Drs, virologists, epidemiologists are deluded is quite startling. Are they infallible? Of course not. Do they make mistakes? Obviously. Are they trying their best to figure this thing out and save lives? I certainly think so; the ones we know are.
To declare that this is all some grand conspiracy theory orchestrated by the Illuminati or some such group shows an incredible trust and belief in the genius and unity of human beings. Watch some ultimate fail videos on YouTube to get a better perspective. Am I naïve? Certainly not. Are there evil people out there taking advantage of the situation? Definitely, but I exhort you to not to say that the virus isn’t real and we should just let people die because we die anyway.
- Give Ear to Trustworthy Experts
Pastors, perhaps more than any other calling, have to be proficient in a very broad range of issues and skills. These include but are not limited to administration, public speaking, economics, relationships, hospitality, politics, science, history and aesthetics. This past year we have had to learn about pandemics and epidemiology. While we are able to learn a lot online it is still difficult to filter through the clickbait. When we come to a situation like we are experiencing we also speak to trustworthy experts and those on the frontline in our own church. We have several doctors who are working in the hospitals and studying the virus telling us that the situation is dire and that the protocols will help you stay safe. We are being told that ICUs are full, and that on our health system is under severe pressure.
At Heritage we are blessed to have several doctors who are on the frontlines. They are not armchair experts scrolling through Facebook. They are risking their lives to help others and we as pastors rely upon them for guidance when it comes to complex issues like this. As a sidenote, honour these people. Pray for them. They are serving the Lord in how they risk their own lives for the sake of their fellow men.
- Principle 3: Learn From Church History
We are not so arrogant as to believe that we have a monopoly on wisdom. God has given Pastor-Teachers to The Church for 2000 years and we do well to learn from them. Our position is no Johnny come lately view. The Church has experienced similar situations before and many faithful ministers have responded as we are doing now.
The following is an excerpt from The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, the fifth volume, in his Christian Ecclesiastics, where he details answers to nearly 200 questions dealing with Christians and matters of conscience. Included in the list is the very issue that we are dealing with. Here is his response:
Question 109: May we omit church assemblies on the Lord's day if the magistrate forbid them?
Answer 1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time upon some special cause as infection by pestilence fire war etc. and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.
- It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.
- It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the law; and another thing to omit them in prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.
- The assembly and the circumstances of the assembly must be distinguished:
(1.) If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. 1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples violation of the external rest of the sabbath. “For the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath.” 2. Because affirmatives bind not ‘ad semper,’ and out-of-season duties become sins. 3. Because one Lord's day or assembly is not to be preferred before many, which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained.
(2.) If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them.
(3.) But it is lawful prudently to do that secretly for the present necessity, which we cannot do publicly, and to do that with smaller numbers, which we cannot do with greater assemblies, yea, and to omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity for more: which is not formal but only material obedience.
For those of us who speak English, Baxter is saying that when the government forbids gatherings for the greater good then we should obey. However, if they forbid meetings for evil reasons (for example in Communist or Muslim countries) then we are to disobey but in secret.
Presbyterian minister Francis Grimke sums up our current experience when he writes about the pandemic in 1918:
“Another thing that has impressed me, in connection with this epidemic, is the fact that conditions may arise in a community which justify the extraordinary exercise of powers that would not be tolerated under ordinary circumstances. This extraordinary exercise of power was resorted to by the [civil] Commissioners in closing up the theaters, schools, churches, in forbidding all gatherings of any considerable number of people indoors and outdoors, and in restricting the numbers who should be present even at funerals. The ground of the exercise of this extraordinary power was found in the imperative duty of the officials to safeguard, as far as possible, the health of the community by preventing the spread of the disease from which we were suffering.
There has been considerable grumbling, I know, on the part of some, particularly in regard to the closing of the churches. It seems to me, however, in a matter like this it is always wise to submit to such restrictions for the time being. If, as a matter of fact, it was dangerous to meet in theaters and in the schools, it certainly was no less dangerous to meet in churches. The fact that the churches were places of religious gathering, and the others not, would not affect in the least the health question involved. If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us.
And so, anxious as I have been to resume work, I have waited patiently until the order was lifted. I started to worry at first, as it seemed to upset all of our plans for the fall work; but I soon recovered my composure. I said to myself, Why worry? God knows what He is doing. His work isn’t going to suffer. It will rather be a help to it in the end. Out of it, I believe, great good is coming. All the churches, as well as the community at large, are going to be the stronger and better for this season of distress through which we have been passing.”
The Westminster Larger Catechism has a specific exception on the requirement to meet on the Lord’s Day, and we would argue that the current restrictions are for the aim of mercy:
117. How is the sabbath or the Lord's day to be sanctified?
A. The sabbath or Lord's day is to be sanctified by an holy resting all the day, not only from such works as are at all times sinful, but even from such worldly employments and recreations as are on other days lawful; and making it our delight to spend the whole time (except so much of it as is to be taken up in works of necessity and mercy) in the public and private exercises of God's worship: and, to that end, we are to prepare our hearts, and with such foresight, diligence, and moderation, to dispose and seasonably dispatch our worldly business, that we may be the more free and fit for the duties of that day.
If you would like to see more similar responses throughout church history click here.
- Appeal to Conscience
Appeal to conscience is not a get out of jail (or get into jail) card. We are Baptists, we know the importance of freedom of conscience, but this does not mean that you can make everything a conscience issue. The government has told us to wear masks when in public around others, it has nothing to do with your conscience. By that logic I can justify any disobedience. I personally enjoy a glass of wine. Is it OK for me to procure it illegally and simply say I am obeying my conscience? By that reasoning I can break any law and blame it on conscience. Remember what Paul wrote in Romans 13:5, obedience to government is for the good of your conscience, it is illogical then to argue that disobedience to government is good for my conscience. Even if you believe that masks are not effective, we are still told by God to obey the government.
- This is Not Persecution of the Church!
If this is persecution of the church, then the church seems to include some strange groups. It seems ZCC members, Muslims, Hindus, prosperity charlatans and even the whole of SA Breweries are now a part of the church! That is a very strange ecclesiology. The fact that the alcohol trade and in times past the cigarette industry and the transport system were all shut down show that this not some form of religious persecution.
Let’s be clear, the South African government’s position has nothing to do with persecution of the church. All gatherings are prohibited, including political, tribal, night clubs and Sunday sports. This is not some Devilish plan to persecute the church. We have to represent the government with charity. Their aim, however fallibly they implement it, is saving lives.
- We Are Not Being Brought Under the Law
This is not a fulfilment of Romans 14 or any other passage regarding being brought under law. We do not have the time to exegete every passage that deals with bondage to the Law but let me say that these passages have nothing to do with government restrictions. Paul is speaking to believers who are flirting with returning to the Mosaic ceremonial law. It has nothing to do with telling us to wear masks! (I know, too many exclamation marks!) To use that logic then we shouldn’t obey the Government when it comes to wearing a motorbike helmet or using a car chair for our kids. Let me be clear, I am against BIG Government or an extreme Nanny State but that is not what the church is called to fight against. We are called to make disciples, not whine about everything.
- Hebrews 10 Does Not Apply to This Situation
Hebrews 10:25, which calls believers to not forsake the assembly, is addressed to believers who were in danger of voluntarily forsaking church gatherings because they were slinking back into old Jewish ways. It has absolutely nothing to do with extraordinary events. If it were read in such a literalistic way then the church leaders who get arrested and miss church are disobeying! You couldn’t go on a business trip where there was no church for a few weeks. Or a holiday. Or sick in bed. We must realize that Scripture has context, and the non-contextual, literalistic application of verses has caused great damage in church history.
In conclusion, I am deeply concerned about what has happened to the Church in the last few years. Most of my Christian life I have had to prove the veracity of Christianity and defend the cardinal doctrines such as the Trinity, justification by faith alone, etc. I never expected that the church would be ripped apart because they confused political ideologies and cultural practices with Christianity.
The early church was about the Gospel and making disciples, not enforcing political views or cultural preferences. The early church thrived in the pluralism and chaos of the first two centuries. Today we think it is our mandate to preserve some sort of status quo. I know of Kenyans who are learning Mandarin so that they can share the Gospel with the Chinese workers who are being brought in. They are not trying to get rid of these Marxist immigrants. They are loving them and sharing the gospel with them.
Dear Heritage Church family, please do not drink the Kool-Aid that is being offered on the internet. Christian, don’t cover your sinful attitude to those in authority. We exhort you, as those who will give an account for you, do what is right in accordance with God’s Word.
With that said, we will not be meeting at the church while the level 3 adjusted regulations are in place. Please know that we long to meet face-to-face and enjoy congregational singing and worship. We have made many exciting plans for the expansion of God’s Kingdom in this part of His vineyard and we are saddened that we may not be able to implement them. But, as Francis Grimke said, “God knows what He is doing. His work isn’t going to suffer.”
On Behalf of the Elders
 Incidentally this is the 2020 Dictionary.com word of the year.
 If you are Reformed and respond by saying, “Don’t worry about that, none of the elect will be lost.” Then you are actually a hyper-Calvinist and to be consistent you better never take any medicine, wear your seat belt or lock your door at night.
 Grimke was a presbyterian pastor in Washington, D.C. He wrote in the context of the worldwide pandemic of the Spanish Flu in 1918-20. See also Andrew Myers, ‘Reflections by Francis J. Grimke on the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu”.
‘Some Reflections, growing out of the recent epidemic of influenza that Afflicted our City’ (Washington D.C., 1918), p. 6