With the COVID-19 outbreak, attending Sunday services is now problematic for some Christians. Since services are essentially made up of congregations of people in confined air-conditioned spaces, they are potential avenues for the contagion to spread. Two local churches have already been identified as outbreak clusters, and it is no wonder there are Christians unwilling to attend services for now. Despite MOH’s assurance that church services may continue with precautionary measures, there would be those who remain unassured. On the other hand, there are Christians who resolutely continue with “business as usual” because they believe God will protect them from the outbreak. Already one local pastor has declared to his church that “No virus can come near you.” These responses to the outbreak prompt the question: Is it a lack of faith when one stays away from service to avoid the contagion?
It has not been uncommon to hear Christians encouraging one another to “have faith” during this ongoing outbreak. However, when uttered too often as a spiritual panacea to any kind of crisis, the phrase soon degenerates into an empty platitude. What does it really mean to “have faith” in the face of COVID-19? Faith is a concrete response to the gospel, and it has three components: knowledge, assent, and trust. Here, Abraham is instructive for us. He became aware of God and his promises through God’s own revelation (knowledge). After considering those promises and the One who made them, he acknowledged them to be true (assent). This was developed into trust when he uprooted his family from their homeland to sojourn in Canaan. For Christians on this side of the cross, having faith means knowing the person of Christ and his good news to us (as mediated by Scripture), assenting to who Christ is and the veracity of his message, and thereby entrusting ourselves to him. It is not something which remains in the realm of abstraction but is concretely expressed in our lives. How then should this faith in Christ be expressed in this outbreak?
We may be thankful for guidance from church history, for this is not the first time that Christians have to reflect on the problem of infectious diseases. In the 3rd century, a mysterious and deadly contagion hit Roman North Africa such that in the city of Alexandria “there are lamentations everywhere, and all are mourning … by reason of the number of the dead and the dying day by day.” Yet Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, had this to say about his flock:
At all events most of the brethren through their love and brotherly affection for us spared not themselves nor abandoned one another, but without regard to their own peril visited those who fell sick, diligently looking after and ministering to them and cheerfully shared their fate with them, being infected with the disease from them and willingly involving themselves in their troubles. Not a few also, after nursing others back to recovery, died themselves …
This he compared to those who were not Christians:
But the Gentiles behaved quite differently: those who were beginning to fall sick they thrust away, and their dearest they fled from, or cast them half dead into the roads: unburied bodies they treated as vile refuse; for they tried to avoid the spreading and communication of the fatal disease, difficult as it was to escape for all their scheming.
Much about faith may be gleaned from Dionysius’ words, but one thing is painfully obvious: Faithful Christians do die from contagion. None can accuse the Alexandrian Christians of being unfaithful, yet it was precisely their faithfulness that killed them. It is irresponsible and nonsensical to claim immunity from any contagion on the basis of faith, and the millions of Christians who would later die in the 6th century Plague of Justinian and in the 14th century Black Death testify to such vanity. However, faith does embolden Christians to be fearless before disease and death. It was not as if the Alexandrian Christians were unaware of the contagion’s virulence, yet they demonstrated their faith through sacrificial charity after the manner of their Lord, trusting that their lives were truly hid with him on high.
Carthage was another North African city similarly affected by the contagion. Cyprian, who was its bishop, gave a sermon encouraging his flock to face it without fear:
… what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one … Even although this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians and to God’s servants that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death. These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.
Cyprian minces no words when it comes to how the faithful should respond to the contagion. While the outbreak may be judgment for the impious, it is “departure to salvation to God’s servants.” Therefore, disease and death are but a test of a Christian’s faith, that he may be fearless before it so as to obtain eternal glory. It is incongruous to him for Christians to believe in a glorious afterlife with their Lord yet be so fearful and anxious of falling ill and dying.
That Cyprian delivered this sermon amid a deadly contagion implies Christians were still gathering for services. This comes as no surprise, for Sundays were hallowed for the corporate communion celebration. From the reign of Nero to Constantine (64-312 AD), widespread Christian persecution was sporadic, but it remained a capital crime for anyone to take part in communion services (this was how the Romans knew one was a Christian). Despite that, Christians risked their lives to participate in them week after week for two hundred and fifty years.
According to Anglican liturgical scholar Dom Gregory Dix, they took this risk because they believed it was only by participating in the corporate act of the communion service that each Christian fulfilled his personal duty, and so expressed the essence of the church before God as the Body of Christ. Furthermore, Dix observed it
was the conviction that there rested on each of the redeemed an absolute necessity so to take his own part in the self-offering of Christ, a necessity more binding even than the instinct of self-preservation. Simply as members of Christ’s Body, the church, all Christians must do this, and they can do it in no other way than that which was the last command of Jesus to His own.[i]
To assemble on pain of death is to have faith, because it is obedience to Christ’s instruction to remember him (in the communion; 1 Cor. 11.24b), and an offering of oneself to God after the sacrificial manner of Christ. It is poignant Cyprian insinuates elsewhere in his sermon that if Christians are fearful of contagion, then they would scarcely face martyrdom for Christ.
From this brief historical survey of how the ancient Christians responded to contagion, we may conclude that part of what it means to “have faith” in the face of COVID-19 is not to be overcome by fear of catching the virus, but having courage to assemble with other Christians on the Lord’s Day. This is even more so when the state has given the green light for services to continue with the appropriate precautionary measures (even if that were not so and services have to be suspended, it would still be appropriate for Christians to meet in small groups for worship). There are certainly factors which legitimately prevent Christians from assembling: when we are unwell and need rest to recuperate; when duties of our vocations forbid (e.g., healthcare professionals on shift work); and when charity to others forbid (e.g., tending to dependents). The last factor is also why someone with the flu should refrain from attending service – it is charitable not to infect others with it! Yet, fear is not one of these factors. If we should need more encouragement in this, then let us remember our Lord on the way to the cross. Although he faced deep feelings of dread prior, he was determined to obey the Father and so purchased salvation for us through a most torturous death. May the Spirit continue to increase our faith and imbue us with our Lord’s fortitude in such times of testing.
[i] Dix regards Jesus’ command at the Last Supper “Do this in remembrance of me” as his last command. Note that for the greater part of the church’s history, what is now regarded as the Great Commission (Matt. 28.19-20) was never interpreted as a command to the church but only to the Apostles. Dix probably stands in this interpretive tradition.
Pr Png Eng Keat
February 23, 2020