Should swine flu close churches?

A large church here in Nottingham has taken the decision to suspend their Sunday meetings this week after a member of their office staff caught swine flu. There have been an increasing number of cases in the East Midlands over the past two weeks, though as far as I can gather there are still fewer than a hundred people in the region (population 4.2 million) affected. I have to say my initial reaction was disappointment – I don’t think that an outbreak of swine flu should close a church; though I can see why the church in question might have taken the decision they did.

At a stage where the health authorities are trying to quarantine cases of swine flu, as in the East Midlands (unlike in the West Midlands where containment is now impractical) it could be seen as selfish for Christians to put the community at risk by holding large public meetings when there is a known case of swine flu in the congregation. But I think it’s only really possible to see it as selfish if a church service is viewed as being a social gathering, like a social club meeting – but this is not what a church service is. A church service is somewhere where the word of God should be being preached and where people can worship him together in a visible expression of the Church’s unity in Christ. As such, the church service also serves the community by providing an opportunity for people to hear the gospel proclaimed. I don’t think this should be cancelled because of a comparatively mild virus. In fact, I don’t think it should be cancelled even in the case of an epidemic with a high mortality rate, because dying prematurely through disease is not the worst thing that can happen to people. Dying not right with God is the worst thing that can happen to people, and cancelling the most obvious public proclamation of Christ, who makes us right with God, would be perverse in a situation where mortality was increasing due to disease.

Perhaps suspending church services (even if done with the motive of appearing unselfish) gives the wrong impression to the community of what Christian priorities and attitudes to death are. Does it not say that spiritual health is less important than physical health; when this is not so? Does it not say that sin is a less serious illness than swine flu? And perhaps worst of all, does it not undermine the Christian claim that Jesus has defeated death and that those who trust in him have nothing to fear from it?

The sociologist of religion, Rodney Clark, put forward the view in his book The Rise of Christianity (Princeton: 1996) that Christianity flourished in the second and third centuriesAD partly because of the difference in the Christians’ response to the plagues of their day, as witnessed to in a letter of Dionysius, quoted by Eusebius here:

The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. And they died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action, taking their departure as the others’ ‘offscouring’.

This response was due to the difference in the Christians’ theology, not any socio-economic factors. Stark writes (pp.79-81):

… let us imagine ourselves in their places, faced with one of these terrible epidemics. Here we are in a city stinking of death. All around us, our family and friends are dropping. We can never be sure if and when we will fall sick too. In the midst of such appalling circumstances, human beings are driven to ask Why? Why is this happening? Why them and not me? Will we all die? Why does the world exist anyway? What is going to happen next? What can we do?
If we are pagans, we probably already know that our priests profess ignorance. They do not know why the gods have sent such misery – or if, in fact, the gods are involved or even care. Worse yet, many of our priests have fled the city, as have the highest civil authorities and the wealthiest families, which adds to the disorder and suffering.
Suppose that instead of being pagans we are philosophers. Even if we reject the gods and profess one or another school of Greek philosophy, we still have no answers. Natural law is no help in saying why suffering abounds, at least not if we try to find
meaning in the reasons. […]
But if we are Christians, our faith does claim to have answers. McNeill summed them up this way:

Another advantage Christians enjoyed over pagans was that the teaching of their faith made life meaningful even amid sudden and surprising death … [E]ven a shattered remnant of survivors who had somehow made it through war or pestilence or both could find warm, immediate and healing consolation in the vision of a heavenly existence for those missing relatives and friends … Christianity was, therefore, a system of thought and feeling thoroughly adapted to a time of troubles in which hardship, disease, and violent death commonly prevailed.

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, seems almost to have welcomed the great epidemic of his time. Writing in 251 he claimed that only non-Christians had anything to fear from the plague. Moreover, he noted that although

the just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good. The just are called to refreshment, the unjust are carried off to torture … How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted … Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.

This kind of attitude is the one that the gospel fosters in Christians. Disease and death are not to be feared, but constitute an opportunity to prove both the genuineness of our faith and that the Christian way works. In response to the swine flu pandemic, we modern Christians have a choice of whether to “flee the city” and cancel church meetings as Roman pagans would have done, or to be as transformed by the gospel as these early Christians were, and to remain fearless of disease, knowing that our inheritance in heaven is secure and that God is in control – and to continue to proclaim the gospel to the community around us, and minister in Christ to the sick, even if it means we ourselves suffer as a result. May God grant us all the strength to witness faithfully to the gospel if swine flu does get severe, and may his perfect love cast out all fear.


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17 Responses to “Should swine flu close churches?”

  1. jeremiah17 Says:

    You said “I don’t think that an outbreak of swine flu should close a church; though I can see why the church in question might have taken the decision they did.” Why do you think they closed?

    • agyapw Says:

      I think they suspended the services to prevent the further spread of the virus among the congregation, and from the congregation to the wider community. As I said, I don’t think this is the best approach, although it might look unselfish and/or prudent.

  2. jeremiah17 Says:

    Is it a lack of faith?

    • agyapw Says:

      I don’t think so; like Phil Jackson has commented, I don’t wish to stir things, which is why I haven’t named the church involved, but rather used this example to talk about the wider issues at stake.

  3. Phil Jackson Says:

    Phil, I’m still apparently in the depths of some database of said ‘large church’ so I got the email, I can forward it. I would caution against church bashing – which you aren’t, but Jeremiah17 be careful stirring, they love Jesus and are, like us, treading the fine line between reckless faith and folly.

    The early church and the plagues of the time are cited frequently by the Resurgence as by the Shane Claiborne school, trying to draw Christians to a Jeremiah 29 engagement with the city, and how powerful it is to risk your health to this end. Thanks for sharing the further quotes, oh to be able to study theology some time, I’m glad for you who blog condensed versions on pertinent themes 🙂

    I would say in their defence that they emphasise that ‘church’ is not a sunday event alone, nor indeed would the relational, caring-for-the-sick, home-making aspect of church we admire in the early church be possible in that context of a mega meeting.

  4. Phil Jackson Says:

    I was surprised that they would miss these opportunities. First the opportunity of the email which could have provided a biblical context for their decision, and second of the cancellation altogether given their emphasis on healing ministry.

    God can be glorified through swine flu, as through any suffering, though I’m not sure entirely how I would make the call, if I were the leader of a large church, or even in smaller decisions in my life right now, I’m not sure balancing risk and folly.

    You call it a ‘mild virus’, true, it is treatable and just the flu, but it seems a more rapidly contageous flu by flu standards, we should not dismiss prayerful caution, and there is the government’s advice which they are following, as we are right to give respect to the expertise of the NHS trying to contain a pandemic.

    I would also venture that to a significant extent the sunday gathering is a social event, in the best possible sense. In a age when they could podcast the sermon, and at a church which proactively organises itself around a small-group network, they could function faithfully and effectively without meeting as a group of 1000 – (with or without swine flu, but this is another mega-church discussion..)

    And for all my trying to defend them, they have framed the sunday meeting as non-essential, which sets a certain tone for the whole enterprise, its a missed opportunity. My concern is that, as swine flu is going to get worse, they have set a precedent and allowed circumstances to dictate, and so their reactive, rather than proactive or biblical position will keep the church closed as long as swine flu continues – ?through autumn and winter.

    • agyapw Says:

      Thanks Phil; this is really valuable. I have called it a comparatively mild virus, which I think is accurate. Even if it were more virulent, I hope my reasoning would hold. I do appreciate the arguments for respecting the expertise of the NHS, but the most recent advice is only that individuals with a confirmed or suspected case of swine flu need avoid their normal activities.

      Your point about the precedent is bang on the money… what can they do if others catch it? If a significant portion of the city or their congregation are affected?

  5. Phil Jackson Says:

  6. jeff Says:

    be careful? ok

  7. jeff Says:

    Should I ask it like this so I think the better of them? Is it faith that led them to close the church so no swine flu would infect them?

    • agyapw Says:

      I don’t think the question anyone should be asking is whether God will protect them from getting swine flu or not. The gospel we are called to believe doesn’t promise that we will never get sick in this world; and in fact many of the early Christians who Dionysius wrote about did get sick and even died. Their faith was not that God would prevent them from getting the plague, but that whatever happened, God was worthy of being brought glory by them ministering to their city in Christ, serving their community and preaching the gospel. Those guys knew what Mark 8:34ff. was all about. That takes real faith.

  8. jeremiah17 Says:

    The gospel means your saved everyday, and true believers dont get sick, look at paul and the snake he shook off.

    • agyapw Says:

      This would be the same Paul with the thorn in the flesh and the many afflictions, right?

      The gospel does mean we are completely saved and will not have any disease or suffering in eternity; however, God does not promise that we never suffer or get ill or die in this present age. If anything, the gospel tells us that we must expect suffering; that indeed the saints are destined for it (1Thess 3:3); that we must suffer for Christ’s name (Acts 9:16) and that we enter into the kingdom of God through suffering (Mark 8:34ff.; Acts 14:22). This is not punishment, but it is necessary for our glorification, and God’s glorification (Romans 8:18ff.) and that we might learn to rely on God (2Corinthinans 1:9).

    • Kathryn Says:

      Hmm, I’d agree with Phil there. Especially as if the statement that ‘true believers don’t get sick’ is true, it follows that ‘true believers cannot die’, or something similar (at least not die of illness, as they won’t get an illness to die from?).

      And I would also say that it is logical to close the church (although I don’t entirely agree with it) – not due to a lack of faith, but for the health of others. I know that the church in question has non-believers come to its services (so then they could become infected); also, 1000 people together in a room is a big opportunity for the disease to spread! And then those 1000 people go to work the next day, and spread the virus to their colleagues… do you see how this progresses? That’s the practical view, anyway.

      • agyapw Says:

        Thanks Kathryn.

        Yes, I realise that I could have explained a bit further the arguments for suspending services – and given due weight to the argument that it is an act of love for others to suspend the services during an epidemic. A church service is an opportunity for a virus to spread efficiently, just as any public gathering is. However, a church service is different to other public gatherings in terms of its function of being somewhere the word of God is proclaimed, the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist celebrated, and the unity of Christians in the body of Christ visibly demonstrated. I would argue that these functions are so important that they ought not to be cancelled even in the face of an epidemic. The reason for this is that a person’s spiritual health is more important than their physical health – I realise the phrasing is clumsy and I don’t mean to say the body is irrelevant, but rather that our status before God is more important than whether our bodies are healthy. Christians need to hear the word of God to be reminded of the gospel (so it can work upon our tough, idolatrous hearts!) and non-Christians need to hear it even more, so that they can hear how to be made right with God in Christ. The church service is one of the best places for this to happen. Furthermore, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper can only happen in a physical gathering of Christians; not via a podcast, so there are important reasons for the service to be a physical assembling of people.
        I am not sure what to do in terms of individual members of the congregation who have swine flu – it seems to me that they might choose to stay away themselves to avoid passing the disease to others. What I would be wary of is any suggestion to non-Christians that if they have, or have had, or may have swine flu, they are not welcome at the service – why should they be turned away from church and from hearing the gospel just because we Christians are anxious to preserve our own health?

  9. jeremiah17 Says:

    Suffering temptations, not the physical

  10. Should swine flu close churches? « Nottingham Is Crap Says:

    […] […]

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