Archie J, Spencer, ThD, Professor of Theology in The John H. Pickford Chair of Theology, Associated Canadian Theological Schools, Trinity Western University, Langley, BC.
The first question to ask in respect to Christian witness in the contemporary context is, “what is the actual situation of Covid-19?” There are several intermediate factors that need some description before we proceed to the primary goal of this blog series. The first concern is the status of the viral outbreak of Covid-19 being designated as a pandemic? Before 2009, Covid-19 would not actually have met the strict criteria for designation as a pandemic (which should involve 1 percent of world population and large-scale mass casualties), of which there is nowhere near that with the 3,700, 000 cases recorded as of the writing of this article. It is more or less an epidemic with pandemic implications, but has yet to reach the full status of a pandemic according to the pre-2009 definition of such. The reasons the World Health Organization (WHO) elevated it to the level of a pandemic without all the criteria being met are related to a number of factors, including its potential to become a pandemic, the severity of its effect on some of the infected individuals, its resilience against all mitigating efforts, treatments, and its highly contagious nature. The debate as to whether the WHO made the right call will carry on for decades and is not the focus of our ethical-ecclesial inquiry here, though it does impinge upon the Christian ethical imperative, since it appears to have resulted in the closure and the somewhat incapacitation of Christians to engage in the situation.
Our Mass-Dissociative Situation
Second, the most extraordinary aspect of this “pandemic” is the unique social conditions it has produced, due to efforts to mitigate its impact and infection rate. No previous pandemic in history can claim such a sharp alteration in the human social experience. It is in some senses a mass-dissociative condition. It has been largely made possible due to technological advances in communication and the concomitant sophistication of government capacities to monitor such macro impositions as “lock downs” and “home isolation/social distancing” directives. The scientific necessity for these mass-dissociative conditions itself raises ethical concerns within Christianity, not just in terms of the visible representation of the church but also its foundational theological anthropology, rooted as it is in a relational account of the Imago Dei. In fact, as we shall have to detail below, the social conditions created by the governmental and populational response to Covid-19 is unique and poses a serious challenge to the ongoing relevance of the Christian faith within society. It most certainly has ethical, theological and practical implications for the Church’s ability to carry out its mandate in the world. Whereas in previous pandemics the church has been a central actor, with very significant impact and influence on mitigating and dealing with the human consequences of, for example, the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-19, the current social conditions created by social distancing and social lockdown/isolation have had a tremendous caustic effect on the church’s capacity to respond out of its ethical/theological imperative. The full treatment of this theme needs a separate effort in ecclesiological research. We only mention it here because, as we shall see below, it has a direct bearing on our ethical/theological/practical ability to properly respond to current conditions.
The question arises as to the outlook for sociality in the immediate future and how that will continue to challenge the Christian enterprise. In other words, what is the situation for the Christian Church under Covid-19 conditions? How is the Church still the Church? Will these conditions lead to the demise of the remaining social-cultural impact the Christian Church has had, historically at least, on the future direction of Western Society? The first point to make is that rumours of the Church’s demise in the west are greatly exaggerated. The theological foundations of the Church already preclude that possibility. Here, it is simply wise to remember the basic features of the biblical-historical, and therefore theological, conception of the Church, its founding, its purpose and its destiny.
The founding of the Church and Covid-19
As to the founding of the Church, there is a difference of theological interpretation as to origins and founding experiences. In the Catholic Tradition the founding of the Church rests upon Christ’s response to Peter’s confession, and Christ’s seeming designation of Peter’s authority, together with the keys of the Kingdome being intrusted to Peter, (Matthew 16:15-20). In the Protestant faith the founding of the Church is relegated to the Pentecost experience of Acts (chapters 1-2), with the authority of the church vested in the overarching power of the Holy Spirit, who then invests its members, leaders and overseers with all the power necessary for witness, equipping and teaching. Notably, Peter is central to both experiences.
However, in that respect we could easily be diverted here into a delineation of the differences and relative theological strengths/weaknesses of each of these opposing traditions. In reality, only one point needs to be highlighted here for those of us wondering about the continuation of the church in such times as we are experiencing. Whether it is Christ, or the Holy Spirit (or for that matter the Father) who founds the Church, the point of agreement is that it is divine and trinitarian in its origin. That is to say, the Church is not a mere artifact of human sociality and its tendency towards that. It is a divinely ordered and empowered community called into existence by a power that transcends human social drives. It is thus dependent upon that power for its continued existence and not, in the first instance, upon any human social convention. The human social impulse is, in the end, a merely secondary feature of the Ecclesia, and one could argue, divinely given as a complementary aspect of ecclesiology. Make no mistake, however, the Church comes into existence as a divinely founded and ordered community, against which, according to Christ, “the gates of Hell shall not prevail” (Matt. 16:18).
Furthermore, rooted as it is in the arrival of the Kingdom of God expressed in the incarnation and the New Testament as both “now and not yet”, the Church is concomitantly visible and invisible; visible as a witness to an eternal invisible reality that transcends space, time and physical reality. However, there is never a case in the New Testament where the visible church is constituted as the whole Church. That is a universal reality being founded, gathered and secured by the power of God from all eternity. The Church has never merely depended upon visible form as a confirmation of its reality. In the history of the universe the Church will be what it is because of divine action and no force, micro-biological or otherwise, shall determine the ultimate outcome. More could be said, but this fact should offer good comfort to us all. That is, while Covid-19 is a temporal situation, the realization of the Church is an eternal matter and our faith in God’s determination that it will fulfill its purpose should never waver. The Church invisible will long outlive Covid-19 and the social conditions it has imposed.
The Purpose of the Church in a Covid-19 Age
Perhaps more relevant to the current Covid-19 situation is the question of the Church’s purpose. Again, as classically described, ecclesiological existence is a God-given reality for the purpose of witness and the equipping of the saints and their being built up as the community of the redeemed (Eph. 4:11-16). It is therefore impossible to conceive of the Church’s purpose apart from a recognition of her divine origins. They are conjoined realities. God desires the redemption of his creation and employs the agency of the Church as a primary mode of witness to that divine redemption. Looked at in terms of the pattern of history, we may well mark out the geographic centers and features of this redemptive purpose in visible terms. The church visible has emerged and disappeared from time to time in various geographic locations. The seven churches of Asia Minor demonstrate this phenomenon. Various reasons can be offered for the various appearances and disappearances, but we can have faith that the principle of agency of redemption has not been disrupted. No circumstance thus far seems to have thwarted God’s plan for the Church and its role as an agent of redemption, empowered as it is by the Holy Spirit. In fact, on the scale of history, Covid-19 can be seen thus far as a possible mild disruption of the church as a visible community.
It is too early to tell if the implications of Covid-19 will have more significant implications for the church visible in the West. It may have the effect of dispersing the church into smaller communities by virtue of necessity, at least until a vaccine is developed. That may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. In the late 1970s, George Lindbeck discussed the future of the Church in a post-liberal age and offered up the possibility that the Church would find herself back under the conditions in which she was founded, for reasons of secularity and declining membership participation. He suggested that the time would come in the new millennium when the Church would have to rediscover the virtues and advantages of “littleness.” Nevertheless, it will still be the Church, and history could well repeat itself as it did under the conditions of Roman rule. At any rate, it would have to be a Holy Spirit driven rebirth. Who knows but such a renewal will hold even greater promise of impact on the world than the pre-covid-19 situation?
Covid-19 in Light of the Destiny of the Church
So far as the church’s destiny is concerned, again it is an ingredient in the Church’s founding and purpose. If God establishes the Church to a certain end, we can take it on faith that its end will be achieved. None of us are in the position, save God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to see the final shape and form of this destiny. We have been given some indicators in Scripture as to final form, but no definitive descriptions of the Church’s final state. We do know that this is what constitutes the Church “invisible,” variously called “the Body,” “the Bride,” “the Children of God,” “the People of God,” and “the Assembly” and/or “the Flock of God” throughout the New Testament. Whatever we do to respond to the current Covid-19 situation, it cannot and will not militate against this divinely appointed end. This ingredient will not be an entirely satisfactory answer to help us in our current situation as many will agree, but it remains the theological position of the Church in all times. The ethical and evangelical imperative under which we operate in the Church is largely motivated by the end towards which the Church moves.
This imperative is obedient to our mandate to be in the world, yet not of the world, to the degree that we fulfill our role as partners in God’s redemptive work. The fulfillment of our role has to be worked out on multiple levels, following the patterns for our engagement with the world as laid out in Scriptures. The Church has a duty to God, to be obedient to his Word first, and secondarily, in relation to that principle, a duty to our fellow human beings, the establishment of the orders of Creation, including government and, in terms of our social relational responsibility, active engagement in work on the practical and proclamational level.
The founding, purpose and destiny of the Church involves us in a unique situation in respect to Covid-19. All of the duties of the Church appear to be suspended under current conditions, raising significant issues as to how we will fulfill our divine mandate as described above. Finding our way forward will involve us in careful, theological-ethical considerations, which we will take up in subsequent submissions to this blog. The end product will be a multi-level discussion of these considerations in a full-length essay on the active Christian in a Covid-19 world. In our next blog we will continue with a discussion of the theological-ethical way forward for the Church. Stay tuned!