We started 2020 with the news of the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) in Wuhan, China. I remember presenting a range of global events to the church during our first 2020 Sunday gathering. These included the USA–Iran military tension, wildfires in Australia and of course the coronavirus, among other things. At the time, this virus was a distant crisis that was affecting parts of China’s society. As we moved into the second month of the year, the virus was clearly spreading across the globe with numbers of infections increasing particularly in Italy and Iran. Then the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a global pandemic and identified Europe as the new epicenter of the outbreak after China. We equally began to see the inevitable reality of infections right within our nation – South Africa. By this time, coronavirus was no longer a distant crisis, it was right at our doorsteps as numbers of infections were slowly but surely going up. At the time of the president’s press statement last Sunday evening (15th March 2020), we had 61 confirmed infections in SA.
All these developments necessitated for the cabinet to discuss this unfolding crisis and chart the way forward. We all watched our TVs and smartphones with anticipation as the president presented to the nation of South Africa the outcomes and resolutions of his cabinet meeting on the outbreak of coronavirus. During this press statement, the president informed us that the Disaster Management Act (state of disaster) had been activated as a constitutional mechanism to help the government manage the crisis at hand. The purpose of this Act is “to provide for an integrated and co-ordinated disaster management policy that focuses on preventing or reducing the risk of disasters, mitigating the severity of disasters, emergency preparedness, rapid and effective response to disasters and post-disaster recovery”. With this state of disaster comes a range of powers and regulations that will help the government to contain the spread of the virus, preventing it from causing more harm to the citizens of the Republic of South Africa. Of particular relevance to the churches is the prohibition of gatherings of more than 100 people. However, it is important to state that the same regulation affects Arts and Culture, Sports, political and cultural gatherings and a range of other sectors, including Education. Consequently, we’ve seen a range of events being cancelled or postponed. Important to also state that this is not only a South African phenomenon, events are being cancelled worldwide.
The church or churches are now faced with making decisions in line with the stated regulations of the Disaster Management Act. The following factors and issues are some of the things that the church has to consider in the decision-making process…
It’s important to acknowledge that church is an apostolic community. The apostolicity of the church means that we operate with the spirit of forward movement that has no reverse gear option. Anything that affects the fulfillment of our apostolic mission to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God can very easily be seen as an interruption and irritation. However, like the early church, we must serve God with faith, but acknowledging circumstances that surround us and that must be considered in the process of ministry. Whenever the early church was faced with such interruptions, they went back to the drawing board to pray. It was in those moments that the Lord directed them. They often discovered God and His purpose in the midst of a crisis. The current time and situation calls for the church to pray. The power of prayer must not be rooted in big public gatherings, perhaps in stadiums or other platforms, but saints must lift up their hands and pray to God from their homes. This is the time to show the reality of the priesthood of all the saints – a church experience that is guided by leadership and that is characterized by the power of the Circle of Life and the bonfire of the Holy Spirit.
It’s equally important to acknowledge the fact that the prohibition of gatherings of more than 100 people is not an attack on the church. This does in fact affect other sectors of society, i.e. Sports, Arts and Culture etc.
The state of disaster is perhaps a good precautionary measure in a country like South Africa with a section of the population with pre-existing underlying health problems.
We understand and uphold the values of human interaction and community as primary mechanisms to impart and transfer the Life of Christ from one person to another (Rom. 1:11). The very mechanism by which this virus is spreading, which is human contact, is the same Biblical mechanism by which the Life of Christ must be transferred. We are to go out and interact with people as we make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). We are to lay hands on the sick (Mark 16:18) – this speaks of human contact. We are to exemplify the Life of Christ before others (Matt. 5:16, Phil. 4:9) – this speaks of access, proximity and fellowship. We are not to forsake (physically) gathering together (Heb. 10:25), for how nice and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity (Ps. 133).
Church has a moral duty to cooperate with the State in promoting human well-being. This is done out of recognizing the State as the agency of divine authority with a mandate from God to administer justice (Rom. 13:1-5). In 1 Tim. 2:1-3, the mandate of the Church (which is to bring salvation to man) is put alongside the mandate of the State, of establishing peace and prosperity. Although Church and the State work independent of each other, one with the mechanism of grace and the other with the mechanism of law, one with the vision of eternal life and the other with the vision of earthly well-being, they do share a common interest in the human enterprise. They are the two streams of God that must come to a point of confluence, for human well-being to be effectively realized. This is despite the fact that history shows a hostile relationship between Church and the State – from the times of Moses and Pharaohs, through the Prophets, to the time of Jesus, the early church and the Roman Caesars. History does equally show times of cooperation between kings and prophets like Joseph and the Pharaoh of his time. During this time, God released His blessing upon mankind (Gen. 50:20). So when the relationship between these two dimensions of government (Church and the State) is established according to God’s order, the result will be peace, cooperation and harmony.
Equally, church has the moral duty to do ministry in a Biblical and responsible way, and to ensure the safety and well-being of believers and congregants. Surely that duty should not have to be imposed by the government on the church.
Church is called to be a community and not just a Sunday morning congregation (Ps. 133). And the principle of community must originate from internal structures of the faith, and not from external elements like physical church buildings. We associate with Christ and the community of fellow disciples, and not with church venues and buildings. If our inability to access the church building results in a crisis of faith and or of church membership, then we have a problem deeper than the coronavirus.
It is time for church to realize that whilst we desire for more people to get saved, simply because this is God’s desire, but what makes us strong as churches is not public gatherings, it is the Acts 2:42 pillars of doctrine prayer, fellowship and the breaking of bread.
We equally must realize that the five-fold duty to equip the saints in the faith and in life is going to become important, as we face more sudden interruptions in our church programs in the future (Eph. 4:11-13).
In the context of the current state of disaster, the “gatherings of 100” should not be followed legalistically as a way of “conforming to law”. It should be understood to mean that currently, there is a risk in holding public gatherings of any scale. This risk is obviously minimized with lesser numbers. Moreover, the profile and nature of lifestyle, professions or careers of people gathered should be carefully considered and understood. It is possible to have a meeting of 20 but with a high-risk threshold simply because of lifestyle or careers of those gathered. It is equally possible to have the meeting of 90 people with a low-risk threshold simply because of the profile of those gathered. These dynamics and nuances must be considered. And this further calls for pastors to intimately know their people.
Just like the early church was able to use the technology of the pen and paper to dispense the life of Christ (e.g. letters of Paul to churches), we must be able to use current technologies available to us, to advance the Life of Christ in our day. We must however ensure that such technological mechanisms do not replace the fundamental principles of human interaction and fellowship.
The principle of quarantine is not modern or strange. It was practiced in ancient societies. Miriam, the prophetess, and Moses’ sister was quarantined for 7 days because of leprosy, until she was healed (Numb. 12:1-16). The inspiring story of the faith of the four lepers reveals another situation of humans being quarantined (2 Kings 7:3-4). Jesus also healed the ten men who were quarantined because of leprosy (Luke 17:11-19). When these men saw Jesus, they stood at a distance and asked him to heal them. Standing at distance was a clear observation of self-isolation and avoidance of physical contact. Quarantine is a health protocol that has been followed since ancient times, in order to avoid transmission of disease. As we continue to pray that those who are infected and quarantined will meet the healing power of Jesus like the ten lepers, we must equally promote this health protocol where necessary, for the containment of this disease. If God instructed for Miriam to be quarantined for a while, saying, “confine her outside the camp for seven days”, who are we to stand against this practice?
We cannot impose our convictions on others. And we are to identify with the weak. This is a fundamental principle of the faith (Rom. 14). If people do not feel comfortable attending meetings (where we continue with meetings within the framework of the state of disaster regulations), others in our ranks must have freedom to stay home if they so wish.
Faith vs. hygiene protocol: just like we eat every day for physical health and well-being, we drink water when thirsty and we wash our bodies for cleanliness – we do not neglect these daily physiological practices in the name of faith. That is, we don’t say, “I’m hungry but I believe I shall be filled by faith or I haven’t had a bath but I believe I shall be clean by faith”. So must the frequent washing of hands and the following of hygiene protocols not be seen as lack of faith, but an exercise in proper and responsible humanity.
The current pandemic will most likely change how we do life from now onward. However, it should “normalize” at some stage. That is, we should recognize the fact that we are in a transitional period of some kind, we therefore need to give ourselves space to “study the times” and to understand the groaning of creation (or mankind) so we can not only be a prophetic voice representing God’s Will to mankind but also be a priestly voice representing man’s groaning before God. It is time to pause, pray and assess the human condition. So let’s endure the next couple of weeks and months (if we need to) and see how the situation develops, while we participate in the effort to mitigate the current crisis.
The current situation triggers fear and anxiety (especially for those who do not believe), it therefore creates an environment in which church must trade her precious spiritual commodities of – faith, hope and love (1 Cor. 13:13). We believe in God’s divine providence of healing. But we equally believe in eternal life in Christ in case of death (1 Thes. 4:13). These fundamental beliefs must be preached as basic principles of the Gospel of the Kingdom.
We must confront the pastoral paradigm of numerical growth as a driver of ministry and replace it with the drive to display the nature and love of Christ. The paradigm of numerical growth equally triggers the insecurity of losing members and locks us up in this “numbers game”. This is a dangerous Christianity of books and of the bottom line, which in turn blinds us from administrating matters of life beyond the sphere of Sunday morning or devotional activities. The current crisis requires a new paradigm – one of demonstrating the righteousness of God over the human condition.
We must distinguish between faith and testing the Lord. Faith is inspired by fulfilling God’s agenda, not our agenda. Faith is not an exercise in self-induced, self-highlighting ministry practices. We are not to throw ourselves “down the valley of coronavirus” (by being reckless in our actions), to either make a name for ourselves or “to see if the Lord will not command His angels to save us” – this too is part of the enemy’s temptation and it constitutes sin of testing the Lord (Luke 4:9-12). God is the Healer. He is not a Magician – ie. He does not exercise power for theatrical amusement, entertainment or to prove how powerful a man and woman of God we are. Equally, the quoting of scriptures like Ps. 91 as an act of of rebelling against stipulated health protocols does not prove powerful and responsible faith but recklessness.
If some among us fall sick of this disease, faith must be exercised while respecting health protocols and guidelines. Our duty is to believe and pray, but to also respect the guidelines provided by health authorities. If God decides to supernaturally intervene by healing ministry, that will surely not go unnoticed. But if we claim to speak or act on God’s behalf when He hasn’t sent us, this too will be clear to all. This is not the time of fake or superficial ministry. Equally, we must cooperate with godly medical practices and interventions – this too is a gift and revelation from God. This too is God’s hand of healing. This too is blessing to mankind.
Let us be evangelists of salvation, faith, healing, healthy living, hygiene and ministry of care.
It is the time for the church to restate the theology and prophetic nature of human crisis – crisis turns mankind to God (2 Chron. 7:12-16, Rev. 9:20-21), and it is part of the spiritual mechanism that the Holy Spirit uses to purify and establish us in Christ and in His Kingdom (Rom. 5:3-5, Acts 14:22).
25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken — that is, created things — so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.” NIV
We cannot ignore the fact that every shaking that happens in life removes artificial and ungodly components of life (the dross) and establishes the King and his kingdom (i.e. life as originally created by God) in our lives and environments. In the time of the current crisis or pandemic, we must have eyes to see what it is that is being removed and what it is that is being established. Perhaps the ff. values are being established – true authentic faith in Jesus Christ; community or fellowship centered around Christ and fellow believers, and not on physical buildings; trans-congregational kingdom life and ministry, the priority for nations to be united around true natural human problems instead of being divided by artificial geopolitical agenda (aren’t nations being called around the table to work together in search for a common solution to this pandemic?) Etc.
The duty of leaders is to prepare people to be church in a time when leaders “are not there” (Eph. 4:11-13, Phil. 2:12). This is a fundamental principle in the ministry of Jesus Christ (John 14:1-4). And this was the story of the early church (Acts 11:19-24). We will be seeing more of these “interruptions” as in a woman in labour pains. We must get ready for a coronavirus dispensation of church and ministry!
Lord, we pray for the coming of your Kingdom in our hearts, churches, neighborhoods, cities, nations and continents.
Pastor: LivingStones Agency
Visionary Leader: Kingdom Humanity Fellowship
Durban, South Africa