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Back to Unity: COVID19 and the Church

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By Johannes Reimer and Eberhard Jung

1. Corona has divided us

Johannes (1): My friend Helmut and I are passionately on the way for our Lord. God’s Mission in the world – that is our life. And we always got along well. Also in those cases when others misunderstood him or me, turned one of us down, or even ousted us from their circle of friends. I could not have imagined that there ever were a subject which would divide the two of us. And then corona came. No, we have not become enemies yet, but the question how to interpret this rampant pandemic is dominating our conversation and digging an ever growing gap between us. Helmut cannot (or does not want to) understand how I can be so blind and overlook the obvious around me.

EberhardIn my personal surroundings there have not been heated arguments about corona and counter measures so far. Maybe people have consideration for the relatively serious form of corona I suffered from in the spring, from which I have not completely recovered until this very day. However, in the last couple of weeks I have noticed an increasing dispute about the issue of church gatherings. Unchurched people increasingly object against the ‘special treatment’ of churches. And among Christians there are partly truly apodictic arguments about whether it is responsible and solidary, when there still are physical church gatherings. Even when all hygiene measures and regulations are followed, the reproach of irresponsible and non-solidary conduct resounds. On the other side churches which have decided for online gatherings only are prone to the reproach of having small faith and easy submission to the rule of the secular state.

The same is happening to many, many other Christians. This gap cuts right through churches, congregations and communities, right through all denominations. Whether a pandemic exists as such, who has staged the worldwide turmoil and who will eventually gain from this and why and how Christians should defend themselves against it – all this is dividing millions of otherwise faithful followers of Jesus.

Why does this happen? And how can Jesus’ followers unite themselves again? Can this scattered unity be restored? And if so, how?

2. We can’t do without unity

Followers of Jesus have principally yielded their lives under the guidance of their Lord. That is the very reason why they call themselves followers. And Jesus did not leave his followers without knowledge what He expects from them, where He sends them, and in what disposition. It is noteworthy that the Lord in this context gives unity among the Christians a very high, if not the highest priority. In his high-priestly prayer, Jesus prays to the Father:

“18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. 19 For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified. 20 My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:18-23).

According to Jesus, unity of his followers is one of the essential requirements for effective mission in the world. They should become ambassadors just like Him. The apostle Paul even underlines that they should be ambassadors of reconciliation in his stead (2 Cor. 5:19-20). Not arguments, divisions and fights about opinions should characterize their lives, but unity among one another and with their Lord. Paulwrites:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” (1 Cor. 1:10).

So dispute is not an option. To the Romans Paul writes: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.“ (Rom. 14:1). And then he lists a number of controversial issues from that time. They were about the right conduct, observing certain days, food regulations, and so on. All that should not divide the church of Jesus. The apostle Paul would probably have included the disputes about the right Christian way of dealing with the current pandemic in his list of differing opinions in Romans 14.

We Christians are called to seek unity in our faith and to do so despite all differences of opinion. On this unity hangs our credibility in the world. By this people should recognize Jesus our Lord. And what can be more important in the life of Christians than this!

Corona is dividing us more and more. Not only do we have different opinions, but these are about to cause a deep division among us. That is why we need reconciliation.

Biblical reconciliation proceeds in principle from the following steps toward unity: (a) recognizing truth and naming the causes of division; (b) accepting God’s perspective; (c) confessing and forgiving hurts; (d) working toward a common perspective(2). We consider it necessary to take to heart all the steps of this process.

3. Recognizing truth – naming the causes of division

What divides us Christians with regard to Corona? On closer inspection, it is (a) the question of the origin of the pandemic or of what is presented as a pandemic; (b) the presumed intentions behind Corona; (c) the behavior of the state in the so-called fight against the pandemic; (d) the sense and nonsense of intended vaccinations.

A) The question of the origin of the pandemic or of what is presented as a pandemic.

While the vast majority of Christians follow the common version of the emergence of the pandemic and believe so-called scientific explanations of the emergence and spread of the virus(3), a substantial number of Christians, especially in conservative circles, suspect a strong conspiracy behind the phenomenon, oppose all social measures and clearly express their surprise at the reaction of the majority of Christians, who still do not recognize or do not want to recognize the eschatological and anti-Christian spirit of the conspiracy.

Yet the origins of these allegations are hard to trace. Where do such accusations come from, who formulated them, and why should Christians believe these voices? All this remains in the dark. By the way, it is almost the same on the side of the believers in science. If one makes inquiries with them, then indeed well-known scientists, authorities in society and the like are mentioned, but a critical discussion with the scientific theories is too often not recognizable. In the end, most of those involved are left only with their “faith” in what they have heard or read. They themselves can prove little or nothing really. The dispute is therefore a dispute of faith.

Of course, Christians are familiar with disputes about faith. After all, all divisions in the church go back to such disputes. Especially where the disputes were neither biblical nor theologically based. So the question is, can a biblical-theological basis be found that makes the dispute compelling? Or are the disputes rather theaters of a secondary war that result in the division of brothers and sisters and congregations as a consequence?

The Bible does indeed talk about pandemics. Jesus himself answered his disciples who asked Him about events of the end times in Luke 21:8-11: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.”

So plagues will come. Where they come from is not said and that the disciples of Jesus should deal with their origin and their effect, of this we also find no word. Admittedly, even the opposite can hardly be said of the text. It is obviously not a fact that should cause dispute among Christians.

At any rate, the postscript mentioned by Jesus gives food for thought:

“But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.” (Luke 21:12-21).

After the natural disasters and pestilences comes persecution, and not because of the pestilences, but for the sake of Jesus’ name. And this persecution leads to testimony. Christians will confess their Lord!

If anything strikes us about the current debate around corona, it is that it does not contribute in the least to proclaiming the name of Jesus, but is driven by the fear of losing the right perspective. Yet this is clearly stated – Christians are to proclaim their Lord in all circumstances of life. Their mission is and remains the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)! And this is what we Christians can reflect on anew. Nothing will unite us more than this. And this is exactly what we urgently need to talk about with each other, beyond all differences of opinion.

B) The presumed intentions behind Corona

Christians argue about the forces behind corona and their declared and undeclared intentions. While some see a disease and its spread, others assume influential people who seek to gain power and influence through the pandemic or what passes for one. The American multi-billionaire Bill Gates is often mentioned in this context. Again, there is a lack of conclusive evidence. Much are dubious derivations, personal revelations and speculations.

Of course, a factual discussion can be held about this and it is certainly appropriate to pray for this matter. However, the question is also whether such an awareness-raising initiative is part of the congregation’s core mission. And this question can, indeed must, be decisively answered in the negative. At no point does the New Testament talk about the duty of Christians to investigate conspiracy theories. But where Christians have engaged in such speculations despite knowing better, more heartache than real blessing has usually followed suit. Consider the claims of Lutheran theologian Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687-1752) that Jesus would return in 1836(4), popularized by the multi-talented German scholar, Freemason and Pietist Johann Heinrich Jungs (Jung-Stilling, 1740-1817). Thousands of Swabian Pietists then set out for Southern Russia/the Caucasus in 1816-1817 to meet the Lord. But the year 1836 came and went, and whole villages of disappointed Christians remained behind(5). So, with all love for a conversation between brothers and sisters, let us conduct it in a factual manner.

C) The behavior of the state in the so-called fight against the pandemic

Christians argue about the role of the state in fighting the pandemic. While some support their respective governments and go along with all actions to contain the pandemic, others take to the streets and demonstrate against the politicians who rule by decree. They suspect the erosion of democracy, and rampant populism even seems to prove them right.

No question, the church of Jesus must raise its prophetic voice when rights are disregarded and freedoms oppressed(6). No state authority in the world may simply go on ruling. God has appointed the state as a servant for good (Rom. 13:1-4). And the church, God’s royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9-10), should constantly remind the rulers of this. Of course, the mission of the church is not limited to reminding. As God’s priestess, she will not only be breathing down on the state’s neck, but above all else will go down on her knees before God on behalf of the state and, wherever possible, royally intercede for the concerns of the common good.

So, as Christians we have to talk about our responsibility for society and the state. Neither detached compliance nor angry protest correspond to our nature as ambassadors of reconciliation in the world (2 Cor. 5:18-21). We are, after all, the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:1-15) and God’s assembly (ekklesia) called out of the world to take responsibility for the world(7). Such a gathering begins its protest on its knees before God and formulates its protest under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Prayer meetings and listening prayer are appropriate, especially in these difficult times, before deciding either to remain silent or to demonstrate along.

D) The sense and nonsense of intended vaccinations

Christians are arguing about the sense and nonsense of vaccins which leading pharmaceut­ical companies in the world are developing. A large majority of Evangelicals in the U.S. oppose getting vaccinated because the preparations were developed from cells of aborted fetuses. According to a survey conducted by the prestigious Pew Foundation in the U.S., only 43% of Protestants would choose to be vaccinated. Among Evangelicals, the number is even lower. Only 38% of white Evangelicals consider vaccination(8). It is rejected as immoral and ethically irresponsible, and of course the health effects of such preparations are questioned as well.

The ethical discussion about whether cell cultures obtained from aborted children may be used for research purposes even if the abortions took place decades ago is appropriate and should not only be conducted with regard to the development of anti-Covid-19 vaccines. After all, the pharmaceutical industry uses such cell cultures for a whole range of its products, which are eagerly used by consumers. However, the question of the usefulness of such research must also be raised(9). And the discussion must, above all else, be conducted objectively. What is not possible is simply to make correlations, i.e. to put scientific research and abortions on the same level. One must, with all readiness to look at things critically, argue objectively. Neither blind faith in science nor religiously motivated rejection of all scientific research proves helpful in the long run. And, in the first place, it is indispensable to always and in any case remain truthful. In “conspiracy circles” often unsubstantiated theories, which assume a direct use of fetus cells, are disseminated indiscriminately.

Yes, we Christians must talk to each other about the usefulness of such vaccinations, but please in a factual way and as well informed as possible. Anything else will only deepen the dispute and speed up the divisions. And suffering will be our testimony.

4. Organizing discussion groups

As Christians we absolutely have to talk to each other again instead of about each other. The many existing platforms for discussion and prayer, such as the Evangelical Alliance, national or local interdenominational alliances are well-equipped platforms as to create a framework which can facilitate a clarifying and unifying conversation. Most interdenominational platforms are organized locally, and this is where you have to start.

What does it take to host such a conversation? And where can you find factual help if you need it?

Firstly, it is necessary not to let the situation escalate further, but to seek conversation between brothers and sisters. Even in times of corona, such conversations can be organized via Zoom or else in a hybrid form.

Secondly, it is helpful to bring in a facilitator for the conversation from outside. The Taskforce for Peace and Reconciliation in the WEA is happy to help and provide such a person who has experience in mediation and facilitating conversations.

Thirdly, invite experts on this particular topic to join your discussion group. They are very welcome to take controversial positions. However, they must be obliged to share their information on a factual level. Here, too, the WEA will help to provide your local group with appropriate contacts.

Johannes Reimer (Bergneustadt, Germany) and Eberhard Jung (Augsburg, Germany), on behalf of the Taskforce for Peace and Reconciliation of the German Evangelical Alliance,

Notes

1. Dr. Johannes Reimer is a professor of mission science and intercultural theology at the Theology College in Ewersbach, Germany, and member of the executive direction of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). | Eberhard Jung is leader of the Taskforce for Peace and Reconciliation in the Evangelical Alliance in Germany.

2. On the political mission of Christians, see more details in: Johannes Reimer: Missio Politica. The Mission of The Church and Politics. (Carlisle: Langham 2017), 53-92. (English source)

3. See the statements of the vast majority of denominational, national and international church associations.

4. Friedhelm Groth: The Return of All Things in Württemberg Pietism. Theology-historical studies of eschatological redemptive Universalism of the Württemberg pietists in the 18th century. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1984), 61-88. (German source)

5. Johannes Harder: Jung-Stilling, Russia and the End-Time Expectations among 19th Century Russian-German Colonists. – In: Jung-Stilling-Studies by Johannes Harder and Erich Mertens. 2nd revised and expanded edition. (Siegen: Published by the J. G. Herder Library Siegerland e. V. 1987), 9-25; Ernst Benz: The Kingdom of God in the East. Jung-Stilling and the German Emigration to Russia. In: ibid: The End-Time Expectation between East and West. Studies on Christian Eschatology. (Freiburg: Rombach 1972), 118-133.) (German source)

6. For more on the political mission of Christians, see: Johannes Reimer: Missio Politica. The Mission of The Church and Politics. (Carlisle: Langham 2017), 53-92. (English source)

7. Johannes Reimer: Embracing the world. A Theology of social relevant church building. Transformation studies Bd.1. 2. Aufl. (Marburg: Francke Verlag 2013), 42-48. (German source)

8. https://religionnews.com/2020/11/25/trust-vaccines-fetal-cells-conspiracy-covid-catholic-evangelical/ (11.12.2020). (English source)

9. See a very balanced article on this topic by Dr. Gene Rudd: Is Vaccination Complicit with Abortion? In: https://cmda.org/article/is-vaccination-complicit-with-abortion/ (11.12.2020). (English source)