Our Mission in the Days of Coronavirus

Matthias Swart

“We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

My friend virtually shouts the words at me: “Anyone who hasn’t yet recognized the signs of the times doesn’t want to see them! These times demand that we act!” “Amen!” Let’s go and bring the gospel to some friends while it’s still day! But that isn’t what he means. I’m supposed to watch YouTube videos; that’s what he means. Videos about Bill Gates and vaccines. Sermons about the Christian’s mission to compel the state to safeguard basic democratic rights.

“We must obey God…” An important truth: our conscience is bound by God’s Word. But in what context is this phrase from the Apostle Paul mostly circulating these days? Public health policies, which to some extent severely restrict our civil liberties, are understood to be illegitimate, especially where they also impact our church life. The basis for this interpretation is usually that the assessment of Covid-19’s dangers isn’t shared, or that other measures with lesser economic and social consequences are preferable. That’s why pulpits and YouTube channels are calling for action, ranging from vigilance to resistance. Legal action is being taken against prohibitions on worship services, a confrontational atmosphere prevails, and lines are being drawn in the sand of livestream worship services.

I wonder, is that our mission? Do we really want to “declare a state of emergency for our faith” over temporary measures that are affecting all parts of the population equally? These are not inherently meant to be political in nature, and are already declining.

An age of persecution, or the gospel? You gain the impression here and there that most Western Christians no longer know what persecution means. Some are now constructing an inflated redemptive-historical significance by placing a general crisis (that doesn’t affect Christians specifically!) in the context of historical Christian persecution. But that’s a frivolous exaggeration of the situation. The precedent cited above for disobedience to the religious authority, is the Apostles’ refusal to be forbidden to preach the gospel of the resurrected Christ—the Christian faith’s core message. I don’t recall being prevented from testifying to the hope that I have anytime recently. The campaign for the book, Where Is God in a Coronavirus World? by John Lennox, was extremely well-received in many places. There were evangelistic awakenings in many cities around the world, and many of us have seen colleagues and friends suddenly being open to conversations about God. Wonderful!

Pandemics have always been times when God’s Word could gain ground, because Christians could see opportunities for self-sacrificing service—not rebellion against the state.

I know brothers in India who are the only ones distributing necessary provisions in leper colonies and settlements of stranded migrant workers—places where the coronavirus is now raging and no government official will go. What a testimony—it’s great that they don’t have to be responsible for any YouTube channels, and instead 

have time for their service! To my dear brothers and sisters with coronavirus-themed messages, I’d like to ask a question: Isn’t this the age of the gospel? Just where are you getting the time and the calling to preoccupy Christians with third- and fourth-priority issues right now?

Obedient to Nazis? Many preachers and social media proclaimers are currently drawing subtle parallels between the Nazi State and current circumstances. It is usually (but not always!) accompanied by a comment that we aren’t there yet, but you can see where it leads when Christians are too subservient to the state. And that’s true: the risk of slipping into that kind of situation is at least as great today as it was then. Because we are no better as people, and no more courageous as Christians. In this sense, the coronavirus pandemic can be understood as a wake-up call. Perhaps the measures taken were sensible in this case (I can’t be the judge of that), but the shock to our complacent existence remains.

Along with our comfortable, minimally-objectionable, and largely socially- compatible church life, we’re resting on freedoms and rights that are far less secure than we’d thought. That’s not a bad realization, possibly at the right time. Nevertheless, it must be made very clear that the current circumstances under Covid-19 have nothing to do with the Nazi State’s interference in church teaching and practice.

Nobody is swearing by an ungodly “Führer”; nobody is forcing us to adhere to racist church bylaws, or threatening our lives if we confess Jesus as our Lord. Do we really want to compare the lectures that can be given at any time online and in the real world, no matter how far-fetched, with a sermon by Wilhelm Busch or Paul Schneider during the Nazi era? Sermons that cost these men their freedom, and some their lives? There’s no parallel by any stretch of the imagination. When a Wilhelm Busch, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or a Paul Schneider risks or gives up his own life while objecting to an insane, dictatorial state (“[I] must obey God rather than men…”), then it’s really not a good idea to associate the current situation with theirs. Such grand gestures and fundamental positions wear out if they’re wasted on relatively trivial occasions.

Fight for your rights? Peter and the other Apostles don’t fight a legal battle over their right to express their opinion. They do what they do, face the consequences, and experience wonderful things. Peter didn’t do anything wrong; so when the opportunity to get out of prison presents itself, naturally, he takes it. Why not? He doesn’t flee overseas, but heads right back into the streets. In the end, he pays for his preaching with his life. His struggle wasn’t for his rights and his freedom; his struggle was for the souls of his fellow men. He went into the streets, into prison, out of prison, and to his death for them. Should I experience times like those, I pray that I can prioritize like Peter did. 

Paul is tangled up in several trials, because he was dragged into court. But once he’s there, he doesn’t discuss state theory and civil liberties. He preaches the gospel and testifies to his commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Admittedly, this is an eminently political act in a world that is committed to the emperor. And there is indeed a parallel to Wilhelm Busch and the heroes of the Confessing Church, as evident in 

Busch’s lectures on his “encounters with the secret police.” [Editor’s Note: “The Confessing Church was a movement within German Protestantism during Nazi Germany that arose in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi Protestant Reich Church” (Wikipedia).] But that’s not where Germany is today. Let’s not mock the brothers and sisters who were thrown into prison for their beliefs, with careless comparisons!

Identify conspirators? Nor can I find the hawking of speculative theories about the rich and powerful in Paul, Peter, or even our Lord. Why don’t the Gospels tell us more about the “entanglement of the Sadducee priesthood with Roman power structures?” Why doesn’t Paul explain networks in idol production in Asia Minor, based on “unspecified sources among the Asians?” Or, to put it another way: Do preachers need to be talking about Bill Gates (including highly controversial allegations) in a sermon? Between the state of emergency during the pandemic and the lawless space on the internet, you’d think that some Christians believe themselves released from their obligation to the truth. But that’s fatal: Just because someone is rich and powerful doesn’t mean that Christians are allowed to publicly say unproven things about him. Christians must not make unchecked claims just because it seems to support their theory.

There’s so much at stake. And this standard always applies: “…you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Deut 5:20).

Spreading uncertainty? Fortunately, speculative whispering isn’t the New Testament way either. Count the question marks in some sermons these days: “What if we’re still not allowed to worship together in a few months? What if there’s a vaccine mandate? What if…” That’s the style of populism: don’t claim anything, just ask and make the hearer feel insecure—a gloomy future, wafting in the mists of the subjunctive! What if the future gets harder than the present? Well, that’s not entirely out of the question when you look into the Bible. Hopefully, in the years leading up to it, we’re not just stirring up fearful visions of the future, but rather things that cause “the heart to be strengthened by grace” (Heb 13:9). In some coronavirus sermons today, it’s difficult to see where the added value is for Christians in times of crisis. On the contrary: “You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matt 7:16). I see the fruit of these sermons as only increasing fear, rampant uncertainty, constant circling around current politics, divisive zeal, and growing hatred. How tragic! Imagine what the Lord could do with these brothers and sisters, if their missionary zeal were focused on the Lord and the gospel, and not on coronavirus investigations.

Preparing wisely for difficult times. Needless to say, it’s a valid question: How can the church prepare for times when the government will attack the faith? One important method is not to sound false alarms. What Christianity has already suffered from false end-time prophecies; what hysteria has already been triggered by newspaper sensationalism! I’m not saying that Christians shouldn’t observe the signs of the times. Jesus rebukes His contemporaries for their inability to see these signs. However, He doesn’t call for political rebellion, but for repentance and faith, and for using the limited time wisely: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).

“Be faithful in the little things today” is good advice when asked how to prepare for times of decision-making. We should use freedoms faithfully while they exist, instead of lamenting their possible future loss! Far more of this “gospel age” is being lost to laziness, worldliness, social media, and video streaming services than to persecution. Let’s faithfully bear witness to our hope in Jesus whenever someone asks! For us Christians in the West, the reaction of the Chinese believers to Mao’s Cultural Revolution is still remarkable. It was entirely according to the sober, realistic verse, “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:16). In light of the doors that were rapidly closing to the gospel, they started an evangelistic campaign with all their strength.

Our mission: to be salt and light. What is my mission in times of crisis? “You are the salt of the earth […] You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13-14). What is the impact of salt? It makes you thirsty! Being salt means a life that generates questions, one that arouses longing for “the hope that is in us.” What is the impact of light? It makes things visible. Not the “real” reasons behind various social developments (as if we’d figure them out); these are all just clouds of mist and shades of darkness. This light shows the actual, ultimate reality—the truth, Jesus Christ (John 14:6). This is my prayer: that an otherworldly hope will be visible in me in these times, and that whoever listens to me will learn something from Him who is the truth. How will you see that hope and truth have entered my life? Certainly not through my spreading messages full of hopelessness, uncertainty, and potential falsehoods! “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Believers in China and India chose the better way.

We are the ones with hope! We are the ones with peace! We are the ones with the truth! I ask, my friend: When we enter into eternity, do we really want to give an account of our time by saying, “I’m the one who almost uncovered the conspiracy behind the coronavirus?” Or, “I’m the one who opened people’s eyes to Bill Gates and forced vaccination?” 

But I do know one thing: I have more important things to do, greater things to announce, and my destiny is a higher one. 

And yours?

(This article was first published at gesundheit-gemeinden.de; republished and translated with permission.)

Midnight Call - 02/2021

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