Op-ed: Against public worship in the age of coronavirus


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I have taken full advantage our public officials’ shelter at home order. The last few weeks provided me an opportunity to get much-needed rest, to catch up on paperwork, and to ponder our previously unimaginable circumstances.

As a clergywoman without a pulpit, I have relished not having Sunday duties. I have been mostly quiet on all things spiritual in the public sphere and on social media. Yet, like millions of other people, I have stood mouth agape watching the news of pastors holding worship services and Bible studies knowing that medical professionals and scientists advised social distancing – standing at least six feet apart. Some of these “men of God” have even been arrested, as they should have been.

Many of my clergy Facebook friends and their friends decried the “bad theology” espoused by these pastors. As one who possesses two advanced degrees in theology, as well as a law degree, I agree wholeheartedly. The church is rife with bad theology. Indeed, the church often blooms in the soil of bad theology. Any theology not rooted in, and manifesting, love and healthy, safe dynamics is bad theology. Consequently, I wish to address what is at stake, theologically and morally, when congregations worship in-person during a pandemic.

Even the greenest of Christians knows the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament, which derives from the Jewish Torah or Pentateuch – the first five books of the Bible. “Thou shall not kill” is the sixth commandment. Some interpretations communicate this commandment as “Thou shall not murder.”

We know the coronavirus, which is contagious, has the great potential to kill. We also know that a person can carry the virus while being asymptomatic. So, a person can carry the virus unknowingly, transfer it to other people, and some or all of those people may die. That is irrefutable based on medical science.

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While I do not know the intricacies, I do know specialists can trace the physical location of a viral outbreak. Today, the news is replete with stories of victims of COVID-19 having gathered at churches or funerals, or convalescing or enduring their end of life in nursing homes. Proximity to the virus, in these cases, proved deadly or at least dangerous to one’s health. Similarly, we read stories of closings and subsequent sterilizations at grocery stores, academic spaces, buses and bus shelters because specialists traced a positive result on a coronavirus test to contact with someone in these locations.

Clergy, unless they are privy to government debriefings, are members of the general public too. Their “faith,” while beautiful and blessed, has its place. Amid a global pandemic, religious leaders ought to be sensible. Holding public congregational worship is not reasonable. On the contrary, it is unwise and potentially deadly, and devoid of the spirit of love.

We know the coronavirus kills. We know that some states have advised against or prohibited public worship. So, to engage in an activity that authorities have warned against – publicly and repeatedly – qualifies as recklessness.

In the end, where deaths result from willful public worship, the sixth commandment – thou shall not kill – is violated. To claim that the demonstration of one’s faith in a public setting is superior to the sixth commandment is a willful, blatant, audacious claim. The level of arrogance is astonishing. To witness the enactment of bad theology is sad, even painful. May all pastors cease and desist from public worship immediately.

Christian folk are using a number of doctrinal sayings and biblical passages to justify attending public worship. “I’m covered by the blood of Jesus.” OK. So, the other Christians who succumbed to COVID-19 were not? “Scripture says, ‘Where two or three are gathering, there God is in the midst.’” Does God require a quorum? No, ma’am. That passage from Matthew 18:20 is merely an encouragement of communal worship, not a constraint on the presence of God.

For people of faith, God is with us individually and collectively. Often, it is said that the church is not an edifice, but the people in it. The people of God can and should worship within their homes during the pandemic. Private prayer and worship is a practice that ought not be foreign. Were people not praying in their houses all along?

The church still has the capacity for outreach in the age of technology. Granted, the elderly and the technologically disadvantaged may not be privy. Hopefully, societal forces will bridge these tech gaps in short order.

Bad theology bred by religiosity, fundamentalism and religious psychosis is deathly. Always has been and always will be. Religiosity, fundamentalism and religious psychosis have led to the deaths of innocent virgins, cult members, sacrificed animals and countless relationships. What willful pastors and churchgoers are doing in the age of coronavirus is more egregious than murderous acts of ages ago. Why? Because in the 21st century, we live in what should be a rational age.

Whether we live in a rational age, however, is questionable. What is not doubtful is that we live in a scientific age. Vast portions of the scientific data are clear, precise and emerging daily. At present, science dictates that we shelter at home, and that we practice social distancing when we must venture into public spaces, that we thoughtfully and methodically wear gloves and masks.

In death, the only consolation for people of faith is found in 2 Corinthians 5:8: “To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord.”

Public congregation worship in the age of coronavirus is simply far too dangerous

Rev. Leah Lewis has a law degree from Howard, a divinity master's from Yale and a divinity doctorate from Ashland. She currently leads the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference and runs an educational nonprofit focusing on literacy and technology. She lives in Ohio, a state whose governor executed a smart coronavirus plan early enough to protect his citizens.

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