In the coming weeks, church leaders must choose whether to hold public meetings, or continue to cancel them because of the coronavirus pandemic; to obey the scriptural command to not give up meeting together, or the government’s command to stop meeting together; to feed souls or to protect bodies.
Souls and Scripture trump bodies and governments, so it would seem to be an easy choice. Indeed, Rusty Reno of First Things argues churches are wrong to close their doors. He believes that closing in time of pandemic disease is to adopt the world’s fear of death as its overriding priority, when the gospel should be about the celebration of life.
First Things is a leading periodical for Christian intellectuals, and Reno’s argument will carry weight with church leaders—many of whose congregants will have their own pocketbook reasons for wanting a return to normalcy as soon as possible. The pressure to open the church doors in coming weeks will become intense.
Church leaders should resist this pressure. Churches should remain closed until the government deems it safe. Opening too early isn’t an act of pious defiance against an unjust or irrational panic; on the contrary, waiting is a reasonable act of obedience and an act of love for our neighbors.
Is Saving Lives Idolatrous?
Reno’s reasoning is slippery. He moves from sound premises to unsound conclusions. For example, he believes, rightly, that avoiding death isn’t the highest good, either spiritually or politically. Preserving physical life at all costs shouldn’t be public policy’s supreme goal.
Opening too early isn’t an act of pious defiance against an unjust or irrational panic; opening when it’s safe is a reasonable act of obedience and an act of love for our neighbors.
From this premise, he jumps immediately to condemning “the false god of ‘saving lives,’” and suggests “there is a demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.” He argues that social distancing and the closure of public spaces amounts to an “ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.”
But surely there is a way to save lives that is short of idolatry? Perhaps some people may want to save lives out of a demonic sentimentalism, but I hope Reno would recognize that others genuinely want to save lives out of love for their neighbors.
Jesus fed people—and not just with the Word. He fed them actual, mere bread—grain, water, and yeast, kneaded and cooked, chewed and swallowed, digested in stomachs as nourishment for bodies. The church in the book of Acts is recorded as having shared possessions and provided a pension for widows. James told us that true religion is to care for the orphan and the widow. We show our love through acts of physical service, including to one another’s bodies. Reno sets up a false dichotomy—give in to the pandemic or you are worshiping the false idol of your body—that is nowhere rooted in a Christian understanding of love.
Reno also notes, correctly, that in our public policy we don’t actually place infinite value on every single human life. We already perform moral triage, deciding which goods to secure and which goods to not secure. We make tradeoffs and accept more risk and higher death rates—for example, by driving cars—in exchange for other goods, like faster transportation.
He uses this insight to argue against social distancing. He suggests we can passively accept the course of the pandemic as it causes a number of preventable deaths so that we can, in return, continue to enjoy normalcy, convenience, and economic life, and so that the churches might remain open.
Reno misunderstands the nature of the triage he calls us to perform. True, we can choose to live freer, riskier lives for ourselves, trading risk for freedom or pleasure. We can’t choose that others live shorter lives for our benefit. That should be an obvious point. In fact, the reverse is true: we’re called to lay down our lives for others, not lay down their lives for ourselves. It takes a special kind of moral and spiritual blindness to fail to see the difference.
Heroism Is Not Rejecting Authority
The last global pandemic occurred 102 years ago. Reno admires the Americans who responded to the 1918 flu pandemic by going about life as normal. “They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives.” For Reno, their insistence on normalcy was noble, admirable, and worthy of emulation.
It’s not fear of death that should guide church leaders to stay closed, but love of life and, specifically, our neighbor’s life. Christians should be known for that.
Six hundred thousand Americans died.
This isn’t a model of heroism, wisdom, or piety. It is, rather, stubbornness, ignorance, and folly. Christians shouldn’t look on the Americans of 1918 as a model to follow. Churches should not remain open to make a point, stand on principle, defy the authorities, symbolize their rejection of the fear of death, or whatever Reno thinks remaining open will do.
COVID-19 Won’t Last Forever. Christ’s Bride Will.
The pandemic will not last forever, social distancing will come to an end, and businesses and churches will reopen. We don’t know when, because most of us are not epidemiologists, actuaries, or governors. Reno is right that at some point we will have to make a choice about when to reopen. But it isn’t really “we” who will make the choice. It is “they,” the governing authorities. And given the nature of exponential rates of infection, it’s unseemly and unwise to rush them to decide now, at the early end of this crisis when the most lives might be saved with swift action.
Our choice is a simpler one. Church buildings should remain closed to help the authorities save lives and avert a humanitarian crisis that could kill more Americans than World War II did. The church will endure when its buildings are closed; the body of Christ can’t be killed by a virus. The body will continue its work of loving, serving, and sacrificing for others. It’s not fear of death that should guide church leaders to stay closed, but love of life and, specifically, our neighbor’s life. Christians should be known for that.