Responding to the Pandemic – Biblically (Part 1)

BY David Collins

Editors note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 will be available soon.

For the first time in a generation the Church is in the middle of a historic global crisis. It’s been likened to a World War, yet neither of the great wars of the 20th Century were waged over practically every country on Earth. In New Zealand we were not called to battle a military foe on our soil - our troops were sent overseas to fight; but now an enemy - a virus - is moving among us.

Eighty years ago we didn’t have black-outs, blitzes, curfews and daily casualty counts - that was Britain and other nations far away, not New Zealand. This is unchartered territory - lockdowns, vaccine mandates and certificates, businesses, sports and schools closing, unprecedented Government regulations. Because we’re unfamiliar with a crisis like this we are unprepared for it - we are scrambling for a Christian response, not just to the dangers of the pandemic, but to the nationwide measures asked of us - all of us.

Also unprecedented is that we can imbibe of the strategic advice, analysis, opinion and urgings flooding our browsers (if we allow it) of actually anyone who dares. Cyberspace doesn’t separate the political opportunist from the altruistic humanitarian, the scientist with a life-time of service from a self-appointed expert - they all vie for our attention. This is also why this crisis is unprecedented.

The First Century

Let’s go back much further than the last great war to biblical times. It’s from these times that we want to find a biblical ethos and response After all these were the days in which the biblical writers gave us their letters and history narratives. Consider the crisis and circumstances in which Christ and the early church found themselves.

  1. Through all the New Testament the people of Israel and the countries where the gospel spreads are living under the dictatorial rulership of a foreign military power - Rome. They have no democracy, there is no representative government. They are being governed by decree. It’s been that way for hundreds of years. Famine is an ever-present danger. More than half the population is dependent on the regular distribution of free grain. This is the scene all over the empire, including Jerusalem.
  2. Soon after the New Testament opens, a horrific slaughter of infant children is perpetrated by their tyrant King. It would be the beginning of the New Testament record of gross injustices instituted or allowed by the State: harsh requirements, imprisonment, persecution and death.
  3. The circumstances under which occupied Israel suffered provoked insurrection, but not from the Jesus followers. Barabbas was the anarchist, not Jesus or his disciples (1). It was because of Jewish revolt that Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed in 70AD - a slaughter from which the Christian believers would miraculously escape as Jesus, forty years earlier, said they would (2) - not by resistance or fight, but by trusting everything Jesus had said.

This was the world in which the New Testament was written … the world into which Jesus spoke and brought hope. This was the world in which the early Church thrived, multiplied, expanded and suffered. A world of State-sponsored injustice, harsh poverty, religious opposition, where personal rights and democratic freedoms were unknown. The ultimate victim of this world being, of course, Jesus himself.

This was the world from which we seek to learn a biblical response to danger, severe requirements and the curtailing of rights and freedoms stemming from a global pandemic twenty centuries later.

The Twenty First Century

Finding a biblical response is challenging because our world and our crisis is so vividly different.

  • Our crisis is a pandemic in which worldwide almost 5 million people so far have lost their lives and almost 20 million more have yet to recover from Covid-19 infection - many of whom will suffer with “Long Covid” for the rest of their lives. A huge toll in less than two years. (3)
  • The governance of New Zealand, like most of the rest of the world, is not by a foreign occupying military power with tyrant client-kings. We enjoy a multi-party democracy that goes to the people every three years with hopes of election.

Furthermore, every political party represented in our Parliament agrees that we face a formidable foe in Covid-19. And each one of them advocate for vaccines and other protective measures to combat this coronavirus. Of course there are differences around the edges of a response to the pandemic and the degrees of implementation of protective measures; nevertheless there is a good deal of agreement across all parties.

  • The strategies for this battle are not dreamt up by political leaders, they are formed in the meticulous forums of distinguished expert advisors free from political agendas or fringe science - they would provide the same strategic advice no matter who the Prime Minister was or what party had formed the government. Our political leaders are mostly choosing between differently nuanced options, and giving voice and authority to the advice of distinguished servants of science, business, education and health (4).

Although this was not the crisis of New Testament times, the inhabitants of that world had plenty of which to be anxious - more than we’ve ever had to face (5).

The Kingdom of God

Despite the crises of their time the early Christians were gripped with a vision and a mission that appeared to make them oblivious to the dangers and injustices that they faced (6). Jesus had brought hope of a new kind of freedom, a new kind of society, a worldview different to that which motivated their despotic rulers, the anarchist among them, and the poor who were just trying to feed their families (7). Jesus and the Apostles had cast a vision for communities living as part of a radically different kingdom. This Kingdom would be characterised by …

  • Love of God and love of neighbour as one loves themselves (8).
  • Love of enemies (9).
  • The laying down of lives - of rights and privileges (10).
  • Good news that instilled hope not fear (11).
  • High regard for the marginalised (12).
  • Freedom from the want of possessions (13).
  • Building communities of disciples who displayed the self-giving, radically forgiving and transforming love revealed by Jesus (14).
  • Disengagement from the politics of the world (15).
  • Choosing peace and order ahead of unrest and strife when threatened by authorities (16).
  • Belief in an ever advancing kingdom that would penetrate every aspect of society for the benefit of all mankind (17).

It is that last point that helps us with today’s crisis. God is good and gracious toward all, and His kingdom reflects that. The advances in science, medicine, education, equality, justice … the list is endless … are manifestations of God’s goodness and the advance of his peaceable kingdom.

Today we are able to fight a pandemic with vaccines - something unheard of in biblical times. The invention of the hollow needle syringe dates back less than two hundred years, but consider the good that advance has brought to all mankind.

The science of immunology dates back not much further than that, but today our vaccine developers are backed by a vast body of knowledge accumulated since then.

What would the early Christians make of this? Amazed we would think, yet not surprised, for they believed in an unstoppable good kingdom that would infiltrate every field and discipline for the benefit of all.

Gifts differing

There’s another bullet point to add to how the Kingdom of God was understood by the first Christians …

  • An understanding that God bestows differing gifts to different people - we’re not all the same, but we need the gifts possessed by others (18).

The early believers learned to trust the gifts in others, to celebrate them. They lived with a freedom to be who they were, without trying to be someone else, with someone else’s gifts.

Here we have another vital Biblical concept to shape our response to the pandemic. Learn to trust the gifts of science, of governance, of medicine that God has bestowed on others. Be thankful for them. If we can’t trust the person, at least trust their gift. In the end, trust the Father from whom every good and perfect gift comes (19). No, you’re not an immunologist, but trust the Father who bestowed on others that gift.

We’re discovering that a small but vocal percentage of Christians just don’t trust the immunologists and the vaccine developers. Because they are vocal, there is another small percentage of Christians who are hesitant about being vaccinated. Few of them have been hesitant before about following the mainstream advice or the things their family doctor would say - they simply trusted the gift their doctor had and the Father from whom every good and perfect gift comes.

Jesus had something to say about crisis and how to get through it well. He used a story about two house builders and a ferocious storm (20). The storm was as terrible for both builders, but the foundation upon which their houses were built determined which one stood. The foundation equates to building one's life on obedience to the teachings and example of Jesus.

For the storm that’s raging right now, this parable is an invitation to trust …

  • Trust the gifts God has placed in others; that the immunologists and our doctors are not trying to poison or deceive the world, they are servants of science and medicine doing the good they are gifted to do.
  • Trust that the protection authentic science is giving us through the vaccines will truly empower us to protect ourselves and the marginalised who live among us; that this truly is for the common good and a way we can love our neighbour.
  • Trust that laying down our rights and privileges to comply with regulations asked of us to stop the spread of Covid-19 truly does honour God - even if that right is our freedom to worship as we’re accustomed.

You’ll recognise these areas of trust to be completely consistent with the values spoken and lived by Jesus and of which the first apostles wrote. A foundation from which the “house” of faith in Jesus Christ has weathered the storms of every century and flourishes on earth today in every place.

Deft and Dynamic

Which brings us to one last bullet point.

  • The early church was dynamic. Temple colonnades and houses, caves and catacombs, public buildings and open spaces (21) - the believers learned to shape themselves around the conditions of their time. The State owed them nothing.
  • It took another three centuries before their place in society would be assured with basilicas and buildings to which people would gather for services. The State gave them rights - and everything changed.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the opportunity is knocking of being that dynamic church without rights, shaping itself around the conditions of our time … and feeling the thrill of it!

We began this article by saying “… because we’re unfamiliar with a crisis like this we are unprepared for it - we are scrambling for a Christian response, not just to the dangers of the pandemic, but to the nationwide measures asked of us - all of us.”

However, we should never had been unprepared for a storm of any kind. The trust, the love, the selfless life, the deftness that Jesus and the early believers showed us would prepare us for everything we’ve faced and are facing. This foundation is our Christian / Biblical response to the pandemic.

Dear friends, the world is desperate for some hope. Christians cannot become suspicious, superstitious and stubborn, consumed with their own rights, if we are to be beacons of hope. Our trust, our love and our selfless humanity is our gift to the suffering world.

1. Mark 12:17
2. Matthew 24:16
4. and Distinguished Advisors
5. John 16:23; Matthew 5:11.
6. 1 Corinthians 4:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:4
7. John 18:36
8. Matthew 22:37-39
9. Matthew 5:44
10. 1 Corinthians 9:1-23; John 15:13
11. 2 Thessalonians 2:16–17
12. Matthew 25:34-36; Luke 14:12-14
13. Luke 12:15, 33-34
14. Matthew 28:19-20; John 13:34-35; Colossians 4:13-14
15. Matthew 6:33; Romans 14:17
16. 1 Peter 2:13; Romans 13:1 submit (hupotasso) = respect that maintains social order. 1 Peter 2:21-24, James 3:17-18
17. Luke 13:18-21; Matthew 6:10
18. 1 Corinthians 12:14-18
19. James 1:17
20. Matthew 7:24-27
21. Acts 2:46-47