In light of the interesting times we find ourselves living in, the historical moment of this pandemic, I think it’s always a good idea to revisit Christians of the past and learn from them.
The same type of thing was happening in Martin Luther's day (1483-1546) when the bubonic plague swept the land. In Luther's day, the question was, "May one flee from a deadly plague?" We live in different times with a different cultural mindset, so the question in our day is basically, "Can Christians still meet together responsibly?”
Some in Luther's day felt it was "outright wrong" and a "lack of belief in God" to flee while others saw no harm in it as long as one didn't hold a public office.
In his pamphlet titled Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague, he writes: "Since it is generally true of Christians that few are strong and many are weak, one simply cannot place the same burden upon everyone." In other words, everyone's faith in the matter will determine how they react to it.
Then Luther further clarified things by saying, "To flee from death and to save one’s life is a natural tendency, implanted by God and not forbidden unless it be against God and neighbor, as St. Paul says in Ephesians, 'No man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.'" So, it is not a sin to only have services online. Nor is it a sin to avoid public gatherings. As a matter of fact, wanting to avoid the coronavirus should be everyone’s natural human tendency.
Yet, he also says, "If someone is sufficiently bold and strong in his faith, let him stay in God’s name; that is certainly no sin. If someone is weak and fearful, let him flee in God’s name as long as he does not neglect his duty toward his neighbor." But he also says it's not a sin to continue meeting or to continue to minister. From a pastoral standpoint, it would be a sin to stop ministering.
Luther summarizes his viewpoint of fleeing the plague or continuing to minister in the midst of a plague like this: "If it be God’s will that evil come upon us and destroy us, none of our precautions will help us. Everybody must take this to heart: first of all, if he feels bound to remain where death rages in order to serve his neighbor, let him commend himself to God and say, 'Lord, I am in thy hands; thou hast kept me here; thy will be done. I am thy lowly creature. Thou canst kill me or preserve me in this pestilence in the same way as if I were in fire, water, drought, or any other danger.' If a man is free, however, and can escape, let him commend himself and say, 'Lord God, I am weak and fearful. Therefore I am running away from evil and am doing what I can to protect myself against it. I am nevertheless in thy hands in this danger as in any other which might overtake me. Thy will be done. My flight alone will not succeed of itself because calamity and harm are everywhere. Moreover, the devil never sleeps. He is a murderer from the beginning [John 8:44] and tries everywhere to instigate murder and misfortune.’”
I think that's a fair and balanced viewpoint of how Christians are free to respond during a plague or a pandemic.
However, that’s not the controversial aspect of Luther’s pamphlet. The thing that much of the church would find controversial today would be the idea that God sent the coronavirus. Listen to what Luther said:
“First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor.”
Because the church at large has not developed a robust theology of suffering (in fact, just the opposite thanks to the influence of the property gospel), as Christians we struggle with the idea that God would send such a thing to show us the tenuous nature of our trust in Him.
Then Luther asks some biting questions to the Christians of his day, questions that might serve us even today:
“What would it avail you if all physicians and the entire world were at your service, but God were not present? Again, what harm could overtake you if the whole world were to desert you and no physician would remain with you, but God would abide with you with his assurance? Do you not know that you are surrounded as by thousands of angels who watch over you in such a way that you can indeed trample upon the plague, as it is written in Psalm 91 [:11–13], ‘He has given his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up lest you dash your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and the adder, and trample the young lion and the serpent under foot.’”
I think Luther’s pamphlet still has a solid biblical viewpoint regarding how to live during a pandemic.
Here is an extensive quote that is great food for thought.
And I quote:
This brings me to one of the more controversial elements of historic Christian plague ethics: We don’t cancel church. The whole motivation of personal sacrifice to care for others, and other-regarding measures to reduce infection, presupposes the existence of a community in which we’re all stakeholders. Even as we take communion from separate plates and cups to minimize risk, forgo hand-shaking or hugging, and sit at a distance from each other, we still commune.
Some observers will view this as a kind of fanaticism: Christians are so obsessed with church-going that they’ll risk epidemic disease to show up.
But it’s not that at all. The coronavirus leaves over 95 percent of its victims still breathing. But it leaves virtually every member of society afraid, anxious, isolated, alone, and wondering if anyone would even notice if they’re gone. In an increasingly atomized society, the coronavirus could rapidly mutate into an epidemic of despair. Church attendance serves as a societal roll call, especially for older people: Those who don’t show up should be checked on during the week. Bereft of work, school, public gatherings, sports and hobbies, or even the outside world at all, humans do poorly. We need the moral and mental support of communities to be the decent people we all aspire to be.
The Christian choice to defend the weekly gathering at church is not, then, a superstitious fancy. It’s a clear-eyed, rational choice to balance trade-offs: We forgo other activities and take great pains to be as clean as possible so that we can meaningfully gather to support each other. Without this moral support... life can quickly become unendurable. Even non-Christians who eschew church-going can appreciate the importance of maintaining just one lifeline to a community of mutual care and support.