Pandemics, Protests, and Purpose
Often things aren’t as simple as they seem. Sometimes they actually are.
An article titled “NAE calls on Christians to pause, mourn 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in US” was featured a few weeks ago in an on-line publication. The piece stated that “The National Association of Evangelicals is calling on Christians and churches to pause and lament the death of more than 100,000 Americans from COVID-19 on Pentecost Sunday, ” and quoted the NAE’s president’s observation that “It’s a reason for us to pause, to remember the dead, to mourn their passing, and to lament the fact that we have not been able to grieve as we typically would as Christians.” The piece further noted that “The call is being made by “an unprecedented group of 100+ national faith leaders—from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions representing major denominations, national faith-based organizations, local congregations, and millions of people of faith across the country.”
The same article related that the founder of the organization Sojourners said “One hundred thousand people, citizens, friends, and family dead is a terrible marker we must not miss or pass by quickly or easily. We must stop. We must weep. We must mourn. We must honor. And we must lament which is to feel and bear great grief and sorrow, and to reflect upon it.” The executive director of Sojourners commented that “Every one of the over 100,000 lives in the U.S. lost to COVID-19 is precious and sacred. While the need for social distancing has precluded funerals and other traditional forms of mourning, we can and must find ways to grieve and lament together as a nation. These tragic deaths include so many heroic frontline and essential workers who risked their lives to heal, protect, and serve others.”
These are not necessarily doctrinally solid organizations, but there is nothing explicitly wrong with and in fact everything right about sound churches and individual Christians supporting people who have lost loved ones and friends to the virus. Paul wrote in Romans 12:14-16, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble.” But what about the tens of thousands of survivors of diseases like malaria, typhus, or dysentery, which largely occur in less developed countries, and those who have lost loved ones to such diseases? What about tens of thousands of cancer survivors or those who have lost loved ones to that condition? Or auto accidents? Or seasonal flu? Or old age? Or poverty? What about a special day for them? Why single out COVID-19 just because it dominates the secular news cycle? Is it a hook to somehow attract people concerned with a current and on-going event? Or is it maybe because some would let society and current events set the agenda for the church with the thought that addressing solutions to the societal problems of the day is primary to the mission of the church?
Sound churches sometimes purport to aspire to “change their city” or perhaps “transform their community for Christ.” But is that really the role of the church? Or is the purpose of the church to be something both more basic and ultimately more important? Jesus commissioned his followers to go into the world and preach the gospel and to make disciples. To reach people with the message that Christ came to atone for their sin and if they will respond to the gospel and call on Christ in faith they will be saved, not just from disease and calamity, but from eternal judgement. The church cannot cure any disease. But in understanding and fulfilling its real purpose the church can help people see the One and Only Cure for their most fundamental underlying condition, sin.
In a book published in 1983 titled “Idols for Destruction,” Herbert Schlossberg wrote that “Now American religion is full of the contradictions and paradoxes that come from the attempt to merge a true gospel with the faltering creeds of the surrounding society” (Page 9). Later (Page 38) he observed that “God is still active in history and still makes himself known in blessing and judgement. The message is as unpopular now as it was then, and there are many places in which the church is faithless to its charge, preferring to preach on popular themes that find ready acceptance among those who have rejected the first principles of the Christian faith.” Surely those words are even more true now than they were in 1983.
What is the mission of the church? What are we supposed to be doing? The changing of people is surely fundamental to the mission of the church, but the only way to change people is to lead them to Jesus Christ – the Jesus Christ of scripture. The only way for the church to change people is to declare the gospel. The mission of the church is primarily redemptive. The mission of the church is the gospel, the scriptures, declaring the gospel and then “teaching them to observe all things” that God in His Word has commanded.
Attempts to be contemporary, to be “relevant,” ensures irrelevance. By constantly responding to current events, the disease or disaster of the day, or the media event of the week, churches completely lose their unique and fundamental function. The desire to sympathize with suffering aside from declaring the nature and cause of that suffering – human rebellion and sin against God – sacrifices eternal truth on an altar of misguided sympathy and emotion. The church becomes just another voice in the crowd. Current societal upheavals pose a huge risk of being sidetracked for many in the American church, even in sound circles where the gospel is believed. “Social justice” concepts are not merely a distraction from the gospel; rather, such things are antithetical to gospel. Where social justice is accepted, the gospel is twisted.
The Great Commission speaks of Christ’s followers being a witness to people of all nations, men and women of all races and cultures. Evangelism and the gospel message is the absolute and only starting point for all Christian teaching and discipleship. “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Believers and churches thus must be engaged in confronting the lost and presenting to them the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But Christ did not limit His teaching to the message of individual salvation from hell. Discipleship follows and involves training in the Christian faith. The New Testament affirms the Old Testament teaching on fundamental marriage and family relationships. Both testaments speak much of material goods, affirming private property rights, affirming the necessity of industry and work, saving and deferred gratification, honesty, and instructs as to the relationship between rich and poor and employer-employee relationships. Throughout the Bible is instruction on all areas of life and relationships to others. Scripture enjoins believers to live all of life under Christ’s authority. When that occurs and becomes the focus, when individual believers throughout society begin to live out the gospel and its ramifications for life, governments, societies, and communities are changed.
In a sermon reprinted in the February 2020 Decision magazine titled “The Answer to Our Deepest Needs,” Billy Graham said,
“Yet here is where the tension in the church becomes acute. What is the church’s primary mission? Is it redemptive or social—or both? When most major Protestant denominations have their annual councils, assemblies or conventions, they make pronouncements on matters having to do with any number of issues, but very rarely are any resolutions passed that have to do with the redemptive witness of the Gospel.
The changing of people is the primary mission of the church, and the only way to change people is to lead them to Jesus Christ. Then they will have the capacity to live up to the Christian command to “Love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:39).
There is no doubt that today we see social injustice everywhere. Looking on our American scene, Jesus would see something even deeper. The great need is for the church to call in the Great Physician, who alone can properly diagnose the case. He will look beneath the mere skin eruptions and pronounce on the cause of it all—sin. If we in the church want a cause to fight, let’s fight sin. Let’s reveal its hideousness. Let’s show that Jeremiah was correct when he said: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Then, when the center of man’s trouble is dealt with, when this disease is eradicated, then and only then will man live with man as brother with brother.”
People don’t need a vaccine for the virus so much as they need the cure for sin that is found in the blood of Christ.
We don’t need to pander to the crowd. We need to declare the gospel to the crowd.
People don’t need sympathy or advice from the church. They need clear teaching from the Scriptures.
We don’t need politics or more government. We need to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Eternal King.
We don’t need to argue. We need to in deed and in word clearly, lovingly, and forcefully proclaim Christ as the only hope.
We don’t need to march arm-in-arm and sing “Kumbaya” with protestors. We need to invite them to join us in the eternal chorus of “Worthy is the Lamb.”
Lost people don’t merely need physical healing or reconciliation to each other or social reform. They need the reconciliation to God that comes only through Christ and the gospel.
We don’t only need to decry the oppressor and sympathize with the oppressed. We need to tell both of their need to repent and believe the gospel.
Simplistic? Maybe so. Maybe not.