Facts and Faith: What We Know To Be True in the Face of a Pandemic

Dear Members of St. John’s,

One of the best pieces I have read during this Covid-19 pandemic was a “faculty opinion” written by the professors serving at the Lutheran Church—Canada’s Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario.  I want you to read it , but I also know that if you’re not accustomed to reading 10-page documents written by seminary professors, it may be difficult.  Here I’m providing a readers' digest version that may be helpful. 

Doctors Winger, Stephenson, and Ristau have written a faithful, wise, and pastoral opinion that informs how we Lutherans should look at the world we face.  Once again I hope you will read their full piece and simply use this digest of bullet points and outlining to help guide you. 

I. Introduction

A. Looking back once this is over will reveal decisions that were reasonable and others that were unreasonable

B. Public officials do their best to balance many issues, but in modern, secularized times they are not considering the value of the Church and spiritual health

C. “The Church will therefore assess the evidence and gauge the needs of her people according to different criteria.” And we know we cannot encroach on others’ vocations which may be public-policy-making or scientific research

D. Christians are concerned with spiritual health as well as their physical well-being and when these two are in conflict: the Christian chooses his spiritual well-being over his physical (Luke 10:42). 

E. The seminary faculty offers the following thoughts as they are called to serve as “theologians” – teachers of the Word of God for the benefit of His Church


II. A “New Normal”?

            A.  History does not just belong to the Church.  Epidemics are not “unprecedented” and the Church has seen her way through them with God’s help. What is “unprecedented” in the current case is “the governments’ side-lining the Church’s ministry, locking her doors, and presuming to tell her that live-streaming services is an adequate substitute.”

            B. Without a doubt there will be aspects of society that change forever as a result of this pandemic, as the phrase “new normal” suggests

            C. Christians should not give in to this talk of “new normal” as we view all history through Jesus Christ, “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8)

            D.  We will return to the “normal” that God the Father graciously established for us, especially:

1. receiving the Lord’s Supper as a congregation worshipping together

2. removing masks and no longer social distancing

3. singing and making music to the praise of God

E. The “new normal” that Christians look for is the resurrection at Christ’s glorious return on the Last Day- “On That Day He will judge us for our faithfulness in maintaining or abandoning what He has given us to do. Until He chooses to do so, we must leave the ‘normal’ in His hands.


III. The Virtue and Vice of the Virtual

A.  We can recognize and rejoice that technology allows the proclamation of the Word to continue, but we should never grow content with such “limited, virtual access to the grace of God”

B. The very difference between the Old and New Testament is the presence, the real, incarnational presence of God.  He did not stop with words from afar (prophets), but came in the flesh (Jesus).

C.  “Christ is by no means afraid of meeting with us and wants us to have no fear in meeting with Him.”

D.  The Lord’s Supper is where Christ enters our sin-sick lives and is the high-point of the weekly gathering, “The gifts are given from mouth to ear and from hand to mouth as through the minister Christ once again enters into the midst of ‘tax collectors and sinners’ like us.”

E.  Screens (T.V. or computer) do affect how we take-in what we’re watching (worship)

            1. The screens are usually used for entertainment and information

2. Reverence is almost totally lost as standing/kneeling in a living room just feels awkward and “not real”

            3. Screens are a one-way medium and worship is meant to be a two-way path

4. The Lord’s Supper is obviously not for this medium, even worship itself is questionable and worth caution

F.  A father leading his household in a devotional service may actually be choosing a better option than tuning-in to a Live-Stream service, so churches should be slow and cautious not to criticize members who do not view a Live-stream service; we also must prepare for how to speak convincingly to those who want to remain virtual even after this pandemic is over.

G.  Our safety precautions also have unintended consequences to watch out for:

            1. What are our children learning?

            2. Is the Divine Service something to be afraid of?

3. Hiding the face of the pastor called to serve in the place of Christ can send the exact opposite message of what is needed by those who come in weakness and distress

H.  “Masks and physical distancing, whether they are necessary for a time or not, must not become the norm among the family of God gathered in their Father’s house.”


IV.  What Did Our Lord Institute?  And What Did He Know?

            A.  Jesus Christ decides what is “normal” in the Lord’s Supper, not health officials

B.  God could and did know everything that would happen in history and He chose to institute the Sacrament as He did and commanded us to “do this” as He did.

C.  Most arguments for changing the normal practice of the Lord’s Supper come from modern arrogance

            1. The Church of the Middle Ages did know disease was passed person to person

            2. They did debate whether to hold public worship or flee the plague

            3. They tended to trust the Lord

D.  Even in Jesus’ day they had widespread disease, and yet our Lord instituted a common meal with a shared cup

1. It is wrong to suggest that if Jesus knew what we know now He would have instituted it differently

            2. They had many and worse diseases than we are facing right now

3. This suggestion also casts doubt on the divinity of Jesus (He did then and still now know what diseases we would face)

4. The suggestion also casts doubt on the gracious purposes, the reason why Jesus instituted the Supper: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation

            E.  Can we get sick from taking the Lord’s Supper?

                        1. Scripture does not say, “no”

                        2. Christians can suffer for doing something good (1 Pet. 2:20)

                        3. God’s purpose in suffering is not always clear to us

4. “Faith accepts that it is better to be faithful to God and receive His gifts as He wishes to give them than to say, ‘no, I know better.’”

F.  The world fears physical death because it does not know Christ’s victory. We do know that death has lost its sting (1 Cor. 15:54-57), so we act differently


V. A Family, Not a Crowd

A.  Even public health acknowledges the family as a unit, spouses staying together “in sickness and in health” and gladly risking all to suffer with their children.

B. We should learn from the example of extended-family gatherings and remember that the Bible sees the Church as a family, not a collection of strangers.  The Church is our family- not a mere platitude- a reality of our bond in Christ

            C. The Lord’s Supper is a family meal, not a restaurant serving strangers


VI. Is the Science against the Faith?

A.  Christians must not idolize “scientism” as if it and it alone can answer all our questions of human life, especially since it cannot speak to spiritual things

B. Concerns about the Sacrament are understandable, but seeking answers only from medicine and not from God’s Word denies that there are other knowledgeable sources besides “scientism”

C.  Even during a pandemic doctors must continue treating patients with other serious illnesses, “the Church has an obligation to offer vital spiritual care to treat the ongoing illness of sin, with its consequent distress and despair, that remains deadly serious even during a pandemic.”

D.  Distinguish between the possible and the probable (assessing risk)


VII.  Conclusion

“Thus, what is most important is to approach the dangers and worries of life from the perspective of faith. ‘If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!’ (Mt. 7:11).  ‘Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows’ (Mt. 10:31).  God’s perfect love drives out fear (1 Jn. 4:18).”