A Pastor’s Lockdown Dilemma image

A Pastor’s Lockdown Dilemma

There is growing disquiet about the fact that Christians in England and Wales are once more unable to gather in worship. How should church leaders respond? We’ve seen a strongly worded letter from ‘faith leaders’ to the government, and a legal challenge is being mounted, but as yet there have been few instances of more direct disobedience to the rules. Is that about to change?

Let’s imagine a dialogue between two pastors: one more sceptical of lockdown, the other more positive. Let’s call them Pastor Sceptic and Pastor Lockdown. They are friends but are thinking quite differently about things. Their conversation might help our own.

Pastor Sceptic: As you know, I have been sceptical about the government’s response to the virus all along. I have tried to keep this scepticism reined in, considering it unhelpful to express a strong personal view with the potential for division within the church this could cause. However, I am finding this ‘neutrality’ increasingly difficult to maintain. How long can we go on like this? How long can I go on like this?!

I have never denied that covid is real, or that those who are vulnerable to it should ignore it. I know it kills people. But I think SAGE have got it wrong and lockdown is a mistake. This isn’t an eccentric or conspiracy-based position but one endorsed by many senior scientists, best represented by the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration. I don’t know how much longer I can stay ‘neutral’ when I don’t in anyway feel neutral about the scientific evidence of where we are at.

Pastor Lockdown: I agree with much of what you say. The government’s handling of this situation hasn’t been impressive. I agree that disease modelling is, at best, educated guesswork and that the worst-case modelling we’re being presented is problematic. This coronavirus season isn’t a short-term one, and we have many tough months ahead because a solution isn’t presenting itself – vaccines are a long way off, if at all. I’m sure we’re creating serious problems of mental, emotional and spiritual health. We are in an unprecedented situation with the state effectively controlling the role of the church in the community, dictating when we can meet and how we administer the sacraments.

But there is a second side to the coin.

I also believe these decisions have been made with a heavy heart, with people at the centre, and based on science, and not to harm any particular group. I know doctors who are being eaten up with worry about a health service that is becoming overwhelmed.

That the scientists can’t agree is hugely problematic. This means that following the science isn’t simple and with experts on all sides, how do we as pastors distinguish the ones we trust from the ones we don’t? To adapt a phrase from John Piper, ‘Brothers, we are not epidemiologists’. We don’t have the answer as to which side is right, or most accurate, and the honest answer is that it is likely somewhere in the middle. For a pastor to stake a position in this would be running into all kinds of trouble.

You’re right about the arguments about the science. But even if I’m reading that wrong and the virus kills more people than I think it will, my real problem is with all the negative impacts of lockdown. As you say, we’re creating all kinds of problems – problems which I think outweigh the threat posed by the virus. This is why I support the Recovery campaign – and would like to urge the members of my church to do so too. I’d like to stop being so ‘centred’ and stake a position! Actually, I think your strategy of not choosing a side is to choose a side – in reality you are collaborating with the lockdown and all the negative impacts of that. It is worth saying repeatedly: all the evidence suggests most people are not at serious risk from covid, but they are at risk from lockdown. I think it’s time to state that from the pulpit.

True, covid might not affect the majority of people, but it does affect some and even some who you would not expect it to. That’s why the doctors in my congregation are so concerned. They are warning about the dangers of what they are seeing, not imagining. Surely, if we’re going to err it should be on the side of caution – the risks of not doing so are just too great.

OK, look at it this way: if this were simply an argument about which group of scientists are correct it would be a bit like the Brexit debate – something that is really important, but not an issue that should shape our ministry approach. But of course this is different from Brexit in the impact the response to the virus has upon us. I really do think there are some fundamental issues at stake in terms of our witness.

The story of Joseph is normally told as one of redemption, which of course it is. But there is more to the story than that, because it is also a story of Joseph subjugating the Egyptians. We’re told in Genesis 47:20-21 that,

Joseph bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh. The Egyptians, one and all, sold their fields, because the famine was too severe for them. The land became Pharaoh’s, and Joseph reduced the people to servitude, from one end of Egypt to the other.

It feels to me that we are in a similar position to those Egyptians. The State has in effect performed a huge landgrab in terms of what it now permits us to do and it has made all of us increasingly dependent upon it for our survival. We are being reduced to servitude.

I agree that the rules the State has imposed on us are a problem, but don’t believe they are doing it to stifle faith itself. This is an important distinction for me. If the State’s control of our actions in this season was based on stifling our spiritual freedoms or controlling our expression of faith, I would be as ready to stand as you are. But this decision has not been made with the church in mind, any more than they are thinking about hairdressers or publicans. I do not believe these restrictions to be an affront to our faith, or our expression of it. We can still preach the gospel, spur people on in their faith, read the bible and pray, albeit in a different way than we are used to.

These are temporary measures – for our good. We should abide by them. Afterall, this lockdown is for just four Sundays. 

I can’t see this as being about just four Sundays. We have already had seven months in which the government has dictated who we may or may not see, how we interact with one another, has limited or banned corporate worship, has made weddings illegal, restricted where we can travel to, and on and on. There is no guarantee that this lockdown will be the end of it. And even if lockdown does help reduce the spread of the virus this will only – as Professor Carl Heneghan has put it – kick the can further down the road. We’d normally expect respiratory infections to be worse after Christmas than before it, so what then – another lockdown in January?

We know that institutions generally, and governments in particular, are always very reluctant to surrender powers once they have obtained them. When this begins to ratchet out of control the result is the beast of Revelation 13 – the State developing a ravening appetite for evermore power, and this always results in persecution against the people of God. I have little confidence that our government will hand back all the authority it has seized during this crisis. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to recognise that.

You talk about this being a moment of survival and servitude – I see it more as a moment where God has tested us, and where God has blessed us. Our role as pastors is to bring unity, to be a light in the community, rather than a disruption, to put the fire of God in our people by showing them that God is alive, that nothing can stop the Lord Almighty, and that the church will prevail, as it has done for centuries. Our message should be a positive one of a church in action, a church which works for the good of the community, for the good of its members, and the good of the gospel. We should assume the good intentions of the government, which has been given its authority ultimately by God. It may be flawed in how it goes about this, but that doesn’t mean we should be sceptical about it.

I don’t think you’re seeing things clearly. A mechanism by which the State accrues disproportionate power is through the exercise of fear. This can be direct (‘Disobey and we’ll fine you £10,000), or indirect (‘If you don’t do what we say the consequences will be disastrous – your granny will die and it will be your fault.’). This government is dealing in fear on an epic scale! But the gospel tells us that,

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:14-15).

That is, the gospel directly challenges the narrative of fear the government is propagating around covid. Fear is slavery, and we are called to be free! Applying this would surely be challenging if we were facing the Spanish Flu or living in North Korea, but it would still be true. In our context, I’m not sure how to preach this gospel without telling people they don’t need to fear – especially (I’ll say it again!) as the reality is that for the majority covid poses no serious threat at all. It is easy for us to sing ‘no fear in death’ but that doesn’t mean much if we succumb to the fear narrative that surrounds covid.

Yes, the fear and anxiety generated by the response to the virus might be worse than the virus itself. Yes, we need to preach against that fear. Yes, we need to sing ‘no fear in death’ and mean it. Ultimately, though, I believe the church in this season is more effective in preaching that message from inside the tent, rather than outside.

The government preaches fear, let’s respond with faith; the government speaks about death, let’s preach life. Are they right? Are they wrong? That isn’t central to our ministry! We need to leave our personal perspective on how the government is handling things, what the accuracy of the science is, to one side, and keep the main thing the main thing.

In our shepherding of the people under our care, I believe this to be the way in which we can build them up and care for them best. That means, in spite of our own personal convictions, it is right at the moment to ‘sit at the centre’. My role is to give faith to, sit with, and protect the scared and vulnerable and help people constructively voice their concerns too. You and I are called as shepherds of the people God has entrusted to us. Our first responsibility is to the flock. This isn’t the time to speak truth to power, but to speak faith to the downhearted.

But how do we do that if we don’t actually believe the narrative? When I only comfort someone who is fearful it feels as if I am lying – that I have become a collaborator too. These are such difficult issues but I think you know I’ve always tried to lead with a strong sense of conscience. I don’t want to be numbered among the cowardly who find themselves outside the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:8). I’m wondering if it is time to act – whether it is time for civil disobedience, or at least passive resistance. I’m not advocating doing anything crazy but I do think we should ask ourselves, ‘if this isn’t the line at which we refuse to budge, what would be?’ And, ‘if we give way at this line, how do we know we wouldn’t at a later one?’ Surely, at the least, we should be more vocal about all this?

I don’t, as you say, want to be numbered among the cowardly; I want to stand for Jesus the way He did for us. I admire that resolve in you, but in writing this, and in taking this position, I don’t see myself as a coward, but a father. Civil disobedience is a huge step. Continuing to meet, or being publicly against current restrictions, could bring with it negative media coverage, possible police action and significant fines. I appreciate you might think this underlines your argument about the State overstepping its rightful authority, but I also believe it won’t be conducive to our role in the community, or our ability to preach the gospel in this season either.

There is also the very risk of causing pain and division among the people we are leading – not just in that we may ask them to stand with us against their own conscience, but in so doing we would be asking more than their mere attendance. This could mean putting jobs, wages, finance and friendship on the line.

I don’t much like the lockdown either, but don’t believe our response should be civil disobedience. Ultimately, I do not believe this is a ‘line in the sand’ moment where the State takes power that it will not give back. We will face many battles ahead when it comes to faith in what is undoubtedly a secularised society that thinks we’ve got it all wrong – a time will come where we will need to put lines in the sand – but this isn’t our moment to fight. This is not a moment of attack on the church. Our line in the sand moment comes when targeted infringements are put on us that restrict our freedom to worship, to practice what we believe, in a way that is disproportionate to the rest of society, and that is not what we’re seeing here.

You’re right, the measures aren’t directed specifically at churches, but I think all sectors of society should be resisting! If we could organise a day on which the churches opened, along with the pubs and hairdressers, in defiance of the lockdown, I would be all for it. At root this is a justice issue for me, because I think the costs of the lockdown are too high, and penalise the poor most of all. The people making the decisions – and working in the hospitals – have guaranteed job security. The poor single mum working a couple of jobs to make ends meet has very little, if any, security.

Also, crucially, the church is not in the same category as pubs or hairdressers. What we do is more important than what the NHS or schools do. We have a direct command from God to gather in worship. The existence of worshipping congregations is essential to the wellbeing of society. We mustn’t lose sight of the unique calling and responsibility of the church!

I agree about the unique status of the church, but ultimately our role should be one of unity, not disobedience, but not subservience either. I’m with you – I don’t want to blindly dance to the tune of a State that might not have our best in mind, and I don’t want to sleepwalk past a point of no return when it comes to our spiritual freedoms. The day might come when we have to fight for that – I just don’t think that time is now.

I think you might be too optimistic! Governments do not hand back powers they have assumed. (Remember, income tax was only ever meant to be a temporary innovation!) It is not difficult to imagine a government in the not too distant future saying something like, ‘You don’t believe someone born male can become female? We need to close you down for health reasons!’ The more ground we concede now, the less we will have to stand on in the future.

I’m going to take some time to reflect on what you’ve said and I’m not rushing into action. But I’m not sure you have convinced me I am wrong! I still think that by not putting up some resistance we are in effect supporting what is a disastrous policy. The church has made that kind of mistake too often in the past. It never ends well.

I’m not sure you’ve convinced me that I’m wrong either! But I’m grateful for the dialogue. May God give us both much grace and wisdom at this time. We need it.


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