Thursday, August 10, 2023

'The Essential Church': Faith vs. COVID By Jamaica Plain

 The Essential Church opened in theaters nationwide last weekend.  The documentary reminds me that many individuals throughout history fought state-mandated interference in how Christianity could be practiced, often sacrificing their lives.  As I watched three pastors whose churches reopened in May 2020 shepherd their flock, I was encouraged by their faith but also reminded of all the leaders who failed me.

After churches were ordered closed by California's Governor Newsom, the documentary's protagonist, Pastor John MacArthur, preached to a mostly empty 3,000-seat sanctuary.  The church doors were not locked, and people, including uniformed police officers, started showing up.  The need for church was evident as more and more people, many who had never been to church, gathered on Sunday to hear his sermon.  Many heard God's word, and many accepted Christ.

Most pastors and Christians, however, allowed the state to deem church services "non-essential" and adopted the false morality touted by public health officials, where the virtuous treated his fellow man as a biohazard, with keeping him at six feet's distance as the loving thing to do. Five Santa Clara County churches sued California for discrimination against houses of worship, but ultimately, they settled and moved their services outdoors.  My CA church's Sunday service remained online with the doors locked.  My husband opened the church library one May 2020 Sunday morning with a group that included our family and one church elder.  We've since outgrown the library space.  People craved community and the solace of discussing God's Word, the Bible. 

A month after starting in-person Bible study, my church started outdoor church services with a televised sermon to attendees, subjected to temperature checks and hand sanitizer.  When doors finally opened, families were required to mask, sit distanced from other family groups, and do drive-through communion.  After being asked to mask, I told the pastor that policing isn't his job and left.  In contrast, Pastor MacArthur's church provided sanitizer and masks, posted signage of public health orders, and left decision-making to his congregants.

Some churches echoed the lie that churches should close (and people enter lockdown) for our safety and health while denying the importance of mental and spiritual health.  Some governors exempted houses of worship from shutdown orders, including Florida's DeSantis, who declared religious services "essential."  For the first time in history, healthy people were quarantined along with the sick.  Despite dire predictions of mental health harms and learning loss in wealthy nations and starvation and malaria resurgence in poor countries, lockdown persisted.  The Great Barrington Declaration espousing focused protection of the vulnerable and normal life for children and low-risk people wasn't discussed.  Probably more concerning is having a lockdown mandate instead of a recommendation. 

Quoting Romans 13 — "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established" — is the ultimate denial of responsibility.  If Christians are required to comply with evil mandates by government leaders, we lack freedom and moral imperative.  Romans 13 would then provide cover for worldly wrongs and an excuse for Christians not to speak against the public health narrative.

Despite early signs in April 2020 that lockdowns would cause depression and learning loss in the U.S. and widespread starvation and poverty in Asia and Africa, Christian leaders largely remained silent.  Some churches became the vehicle for communicating public health lies — faith leaders, including Pope Francis, called getting the COVID shot "an act of love" and used the pulpit to persuade parishioners to get vaccinated.  Some churches held vaccine drives or required vaccination for attendance, like in Vatican City.  Standing up against the government narrative was costly, resulting in censorship or ostracization, and the silent chose self-preservation over protecting the vulnerable.  God knows our heart and asks us to love our neighbor, speak the truth, and stand up for the vulnerable.

Churches are not the sole purveyors of truth or moral guidance, and less than 1% of CA Bay Area churches declared church "essential" by opening their doors in 2020.  In the world, very few individuals risked condemnation to speak truth against government lockdown and lies.  Most were non-Christians who felt a moral imperative to tell the truth.  Only one truth exists, and all truth is God's Truth.  All can see the truth and speak the truth.

Adopting inverted morality, echoing worldly values, and self-censorship all stem from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls "cheap grace."  When Martin Luther said acceptance into the kingdom of heaven requires "faith and not works," people readily declared their faith on Sundays. They failed to understand that true faith requires trust in God.  Either God is the Creator of the universe, the author of your salvation, and has a plan for your life or not.

If you chose a path to be a pastor, you should shepherd your sheep and trust God with the details.  I chose a path to be a physician, swore an oath to provide care to the best of my ability and judgment, and kept my office doors open to see patients in my clinic throughout the "pandemic."  I put my life in God's hands.

True faith is ultimately expensive.  See The Essential Church and witness the power of true faith.  It's not too late for you to repent and gain God's greatest gift.  You can follow Him, live in Truth, love your neighbor, and gain true freedom.