As parts of Africa go on lockdown, and perhaps increasingly so over the coming weeks, I want to address 5 common concerns expressed by Christians on our continent. Many, but not all, of the Christian concerns have great merit and deserve to be addressed as part of us wrestling with our response as followers of Jesus in these current circumstances.
Below are the concerns and then initial responses. It’s important to stress that the situation on the ground is changing all the time. That may mean some of our responses will likewise need to change and adapt.
“I’m uncomfortable with the fact that we simply seem to be doing what the government wants us to do”
This concern is expressed in various degrees, from the one above but also to the degree that some think the government is under the control of satan! We need to be clear that the government is not inherently evil, following some kind of false sacred-secular divide. God has established the government (Romans 13:1). It’s function is to help with law and order. And like all leadership it is to care for people, particularly the most vulnerable.
The government’s function is to help with law and order, and like all leadership it is to care for people, particularly the most vulnerable
And then, while we try wash the ‘s’ word away as dirty, Christians are called to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13:5; 1 Peter 2:13-14). Christians don’t submit to authority begrudgingly. We don’t simply follow the letter of the law either, for instance, allowing 99 people into the building if the limit is 100. Instead we obey authority ‘from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people’ (Colossians 3:23; Ephesians 6:5-7). We set our eyes on the Lord who established the government.
Furthermore, at this stage and to my knowledge, the government is not asking us to do anything ungodly. They’re asking us to help flatten the curve so that our various health care systems are not initially overwhelmed. Unless there is a cunningly devious plan I can’t see, that simply seems to be aimed at loving people, especially in our countries with limited resources and boundless problems. And we’re for loving others, right? Yes, we may not hold large public gatherings (more on this soon) but they’re not asking us to not follow Jesus.
Unless there is a cunningly devious plan I can’t see, that simply seems to be aimed at loving people
If/when it gets to the stage where they make ungodly demands, then we can discuss what it means to show them honour while most of all fearing God (1 Peter 2:17).
- Romans 13:1-14 – the Christian’s response to the state, as well as the call to love and put on Christ
- 1 Peter 2:11-3:7 – a call to good works as we submit to various relationships of authority
- Colossians 3:22-25 and Ephesians 6:5-9 – what principles from the relationship between a slave and master might we want to consider?
“Historically, didn’t Christians go into the trouble and plague? Instead we seem to be withdrawing to safety”
Here’s a top-quality concern to take seriously!
And we must wrestle with it because we know our sinful instincts of self-protection. We should read about the historical actions and concerns of those driven by the love of Christ in past outbreaks of plagues. (And here is an excellent primer article from the US TGC). Let’s pray that their examples of faith will be used by God to stimulate courage and faith-driven love for others. To the praise of the One who holds our souls.
It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between being those who risk infection out of love and concern of others, versus being those responsible, by our presence, for making the infection worse
However, it’s worth noting that there’s a difference between being those who risk infection out of love and concern of others, versus being those responsible, by our presence, for making the infection worse. Currently, to the best of my knowledge, we’re being asked to keep out of the way and not contribute to the spread, so that the professionals can do their jobs. In a day and age where we do have health-care professionals, and those roles are not filled by us rushing to the front lines… us putting ourselves in certain places will probably make things worse, not better.
So, we need wisdom and godliness to discern between love and foolishness.
What I most appreciate about the concern is the encouragement to check our hearts and motives, and even more simply our belief in the Gospel. What’s going on in our hearts? Are they full of fear, or faith-fuelled love? Fear will drive us to self-protection and a lack of outward love towards those we’ve been called to love and serve, especially when we sense danger to ourselves. That’s clear, and it’s far from what we desire as those who know Jesus. Love will always be outward focussed; it will always look for ways to practically love and serve – even when we face risk.
Love may, at times, wait and sit. In other words, love will be discerning – knowing there are times when fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Our presence may not always be the best way to love
But love will also trust in God’s provisions through the medical systems – those, like the government, come from the generous hand of our Father. And so, love may, at times, wait and sit. In other words, love will be discerning – knowing there are times when fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Our presence may not always be the best way to love. Perhaps just initially.
So, let’s check our hearts. And let’s let perfect love cast out fear.
But Yes, the Situation May Change
At present, the most loving and wise thing appears to be helping the most vulnerable by staying put. But if even that doesn’t help, and our already-fragile health-care systems and professionals are overwhelmed…. well, then comes the crucible of conviction: do we hunker down, this time driven by self-protection? Or, do we step out in love and service, even at the risk of our own lives?
That decision point may come sooner than we think, and if it does then I pray we will shine like lights in the darkness. But actually, we’ll only be able to do that if we’re full of the Light who went into darkness for us. Lord, strengthen us.
- Read one of the gospels (perhaps Mark) to remind yourself of the Jesus we trust in.
- Read 1 John for assurance (1 John 5:13) and as a spur to love in action because of the God who first loved us.
“Christians are strongly encouraged to meet together. So, isn’t it wrong for us to stop meeting together even in this?”
The optimum way to grow as Christians is together. I need you, you need me. That’s the way God created it. And it’s to our peril when we don’t pursue the rich and raw Christian fellowship and community God has provided. And so yes, Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” Why might we neglect to gather together?
It seems to be driven by a desire to watch out for one another. And I think we’re all hoping (perhaps overly optimistically) that this will be short term
Sheer laziness, unrepentant sin, conflict, lack of desire, pursuit of idols, selfishness, ignorance of God’s purposes – those could be some reasons. And when sin or ignorance is at the root of us not gathering together, then let’s take it head on. And it may get to a point where us not gathering during this current outbreak is driven by either sin or ignorance – and then again, we’ll need to confront that. But, at this early stage I’m not convinced it is; it seems to be driven by a desire to watch out for one another. And I think we’re all hoping (perhaps overly optimistically) that this will be short term.
But there’s also a little more to say:
1. What’s a Gathering?
Hebrews 10 might not have had in mind gatherings of 50 or 100 or 200 or 500 people. Maybe it did, I’m happy to be corrected. But many of the earliest Christian gatherings were smaller house church type gatherings – a handful, a dozen, or more.
I desperately need my brother to point me to Christ in ways I often can’t do for myself. Without the encouragement of other saints, I will certainly not grow as I should
And for many of us, with caution, that’s still an option. Personally, in this initial phase, we’re still heavily pursuing 1-to-1 gatherings, provided no public transport is needed, and in open spaces, often standing. And there are many of the most vulnerable (the elderly, or those prone to depression in isolation) that will need us to not give up meeting with them – even if it’s through an open window.
The point is: we can still gather together, and we should. We might just need to readjust certain, not all of them biblical, expectations.
2. Can you Still Encourage?
Let’s keep in view the main thrust of much of the New Testament concerning Christian life together: encouraging one another (Hebrews 3:13; 10:25; also 1 Corinthians 14:26; 1 Thessalonians 5:11). Again, I do need you, and you do need me. In Life Together, Bonhoeffer speaks about how much we need our fellow brother when he states: ‘The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother.’ In other words, I desperately need my brother to point me to Christ in ways I often can’t do for myself.
Without the encouragement of other saints, I will certainly not grow as I should. Therefore, I need to seek encouragement, as well as be a source of encouragement. If large gatherings are cancelled, we will need to be creative in how we can still encourage one another. But large gatherings, while a blessing, are not the only way and place to encourage one another. I hope that is clear.
I need to seek encouragement, as well as be a source of encouragement. If large gatherings are cancelled, we will need to be creative in how we can still encourage one another
It interests me that several truth-telling tests may emerge from temporarily restricted larger meetings:
- I’m not sure of the stats in your country but in mine, the overwhelming majority of the country professes to be Christian. And perhaps this period will be a major test of whether we are only Christians in larger gatherings, or also Christians in private hearts and homes and smaller meetings. What chaff of cultural church-going may be burnt up by this fire?
His people will keep pursuing Him (we simply must!). And they’ll keep pursuing Him with the Christians around them, even if it isn’t in larger gatherings.
- Local churches and ministers know the danger of being driven by numbers (how many can we get in the door on Sunday?). Numbers are not bad – after all, we rejoice at the 3000 saved in Acts 2:41, and we want more saved and matured. But numbers also make terrible masters if they rule how we do things, or what we view as most valuable. Numbers are not always the determining factor in God’s economy! And so, for many local churches and ministers, this time will be a test. It may test our identities – will they stand if there are no larger Sunday gatherings: are we still a church, am I still a Pastor? It will also test whether we have rightly focussed on the deep work of discipleship over bums in seats. And the fruit of past work will be seen in how our people respond and cope in this time.
This time may well be used by the Lord to remind us of the need to pursue a deep discipleship that goes beyond mere numbers on Sundays. A discipleship more focused on depth of relationship across the saints than on crowding our lives and calendars with events, or outsourcing ministry to ‘professionals’.
This time may well be used by the Lord to remind us of the need to pursue a deep discipleship that goes beyond mere numbers on Sundays
The original concern captures so well the goodness of us meeting together. There’s simply no substitute for the relational proximity of Christians gathering together – in larger or smaller groups, or even 2 or 3 people. I hope we will enjoy some of the reaches of technology in working out how we can creatively continue to encourage one another. But I also hope we come to see how dreadfully limited Wi-Fi data is versus bodily proximity: Christian discipleship is meant to be done in community.
I pray God may strengthen us if we go through an unnatural season of restricted meetings and ‘virtual’ community. And I also pray that he would grow some of our joy and delight for when we are able to meet, or for when we are more free to meet even in larger gatherings. I suspect that this current crisis will give us many case studies into the nature of Christians discipleship and Christian community. Studies that I pray will be used by him to strengthen us as his people in the years to come.
Some Resources for Reading:
- Hebrews – You can read in context why us meeting together is so important especially considering Christ’s perfect sacrifice and our desire for godliness.
- Let me recommend Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic treatment of Christian community, Life Together.
“When we’re being asked to shut down our gatherings, isn’t this is a form of persecution?”
Out of all the concerns expressed, in my opinion, this one deserves a curt response: stop being ridiculous! At least in my country, all larger gatherings, not just Christian ones, are being asked to close. And for a rather unique emergency. If you want to know what persecution looks like: read Acts, read Church history, or Nigerian current affairs. That’s persecution of Christians! Of course, I don’t know how, but it is possible that persecution of Christians could come off the back of this. But at the moment, this is not persecution. So, stop saying it is.
I don’t know how, but it is possible that persecution of Christians could come off the back of this. But at the moment, this is not persecution. So, stop saying it is
“If we’re just doing what everyone else is doing, how is there any Christian distinctiveness?”
We’re obeying the government at this point, perhaps by practising social distancing and refraining from larger gatherings. And the person expressing this particular concern is… concerned that at a comparative level, there’s no real difference between the Christian and the pagan. Or none people can easily see. At one level, that might be right. Especially in this initial phase. But I also don’t think it’s the full picture.
The Christian practises social distancing out of love of neighbour, especially for the most vulnerable. The God who judges our motives can see the distinction. And it’s worth realising he does
Firstly, consider motives. The world may practise social distancing out of fear; the Christian practises social distancing out of love of neighbour, especially for the most vulnerable. The God who judges our motives can see the distinction. And it’s worth realising he does.
Secondly, I would hope a number of Christian distinctives are already showing. It could be in the sharing, rather than hoarding, of resources. Or the way we’re actively trying to reach out to the most vulnerable or those most wracked by fear in our building complex or street or village – a phone call, a WhatsApp, that chat through a window, an offer of getting some groceries. It could be shown by us not treating those declared infected with COVID-19 like pariahs, and like people instead – being cautious, yes, but they’re not 6 headed monsters. Or it could be shown by us not spreading fake news and unhelpful information from unqualified sources. And it could be shown by a joyful, rather than begrudging submission to the government. Finally, it could be shown by us still attempting to help small and big businesses function at this time – we’re being cautious, yet creative.
Christian distinctiveness could be shown by us not spreading fake news and unhelpful information from unqualified sources. And it could be shown by a joyful, rather than begrudging submission to the government
In other words, for eyes that see, there should already be plenty of significant ways in which we’re being distinct.
Now, of course, I don’t know how the virus situation is going to go – what things will look like in 1 month or 6 months or 1 year. Deteriorating circumstances may create opportunities and needs that require us to step directly into the front lines of caring for the infected – at risk of losing our own lives . I’m not certain we should hope for that. But let’s be prayerfully ready for it – counting the joyful cost of following Jesus as Lord, as we look to the resurrection life that will perfectly burst forth from his Return.
One the best ways to be ready for more public sacrificial life/death distinctiveness, if it comes, is surely to already be cultivating and practising a distinctiveness in everyday living. Even now. By God’s grace, let’s get on with that as his people.
One the best ways to be ready for more public sacrificial life/death distinctiveness, if it comes, is surely to already be cultivating and practising a distinctiveness in everyday living. Even now. By God’s grace, let’s get on with that as his people