COVID-19: A Perspective by James White
By: Deji Yesufu
Todd Friel of Wretched Radio and Wretched TV is arguably the funniest Reformed Theologian alive. Todd has a unique gift of passing across sound theological thoughts via anecdotes that leave his listeners reeling with laughter while at the same time going away with a gospel message. In a recent broadcast, Todd criticized a New York Times article, where the writer suggested that Christians were at the root of the burgeoning COVID-19 numbers in the United States. The writer had claimed that by electing Trump, the whole spectrum of Evangelical Christians in the USA should be held accountable for those dying of Coronavirus in that country. Todd Friel, in his usual sarcasm, said that the New York Times’ article was “Nero Blaming Christians for COVID-19”. Of course, putting this subject in that term brings to mind how the first century Roman Emperor blamed Christians for the fires of Rome. Those who remember this will also quickly understand that this is not the first time Christians will be blamed for accidents and plagues in the world. It is only typical of the “accuser of the brethren” to point fingers at Christians for all the ills in the world.
When one considers the precarious position that evangelical Christianity occupies in the world today and the tendency for Christians to be easily misunderstood and blamed, one would appreciate the bold position that a certain Church in Phonenix, Arizona, has taken to continue to hold Sunday worship services in spite of government’s call for all Churches to shut down their places of worship in this period of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Apologia Church in Phoenix, Arizona, has not for once shut down their house of worship. They have held all Sunday services since the second weekend of March when most churches had shut down. In fact their decision to continue to gather together and hold Sunday worship services drew the anger of those renting out the building to them. They were thrown out and had had to move to another place for worship. This has, however, not stopped them from continuing to gather. In fact, their numbers have increased because word got out that one bold assembly had defied government orders and still held meeting; and people seeking a place of worship have found this congregation a home – at least for the time being.
Two of the elders at the Apologia Church, who are more prominent to many people around the world, are Jeff Durbin and James R. White. Dr. James R. White was guest of Chris Arzen’s Iron Sharpens Iron Radio Program on the 11th of May, 2020, and he spoke at length on why the Apologia Church had continued to meet in spite of the ravaging effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. First, he made it clear that their decision to continue to meet as a local church was not a defiant move against the State; they were not in any way doing this to say that those Christian assemblies that shut down were wrong in doing so. White explained that after the state of Arizona had made the public announcement about the need for lockdown and for places of worship to suspend meetings, the elders at Apologia examined the document and came to the conclusion that the State of Arizona had actually given them the freedom to worship or not to worship. And that they felt they could continue to gather and still not contravene the laws of the land. He explained further that Phoenix, Arizona, was quite a spaced out city, unlike some other urban cities in America, and that the State was naturally built in a “social distancing” manner. So the possibility of rapid transmission was low. This might be the reason why the State is one of those with the lowest numbers of COVID-19 infections in the USA. The church decided that while they would keep to social distancing during worship hours and ensure the use of many hygiene practices, they believe they could actually continue to meet without being a threat to the State’s effort at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
The Apologia Church’s decision to continue to worship in these times has not gone without criticism. A lot of people have pointed to scriptures like “love your neighbor as yourself” to reach the conclusion that if Apologia was actually keeping to this scriptural injunction, they would not be meeting. James White felt that this was another of the world’s penchant for ripping the scriptures out of context to make a point. James emphasized the fact that Apologia’s commitment to continue to worship was a sincere and genuine commitment to God’s command for his people to gather together and worship him on the Lord’s Day. They also had at the heart of this meeting the need for the receiving of the sacrament, the Holy Communion; an act that could not be done if they were holding church services via the internet like most other churches are doing today. Apologia thinks that our generation of Christians is not the first to witness a plague and that even when the Black Plague swept across Europe, leaving in some extreme cases 75% of the population of a town dead, Protestant congregation still met to receive the Lord’s Supper. Apologia’s gatherings are not out of lack of love for their neighbors but a commitment to God’s command.
James White then makes these salient points. He explains that it appears to him that many churches received the announcement of lockdowns on places of worship uncritically. While clearly there was a pandemic at hand, many churches have quite easily acceded to what could be termed government’s highhandedness in shutting down people’s rights for association, meeting, businesses, and so on. James fears that people might actually be empowering government beyond the powers that the constitutions of countries have given them. It might appear okay for now, but in the light of a health crisis the same powers can easily be exercised in the future and this would have set precedence.
He also pointed out that after close to two months of lockdown, everyone is now finally realizing that what is really killing people is not the disease but people’s poor immunity. He said that this was the time for Americans (and all people around the world) to begin to pay attention to the vital matter of healthy eating and healthy living. He pointed out the fact that the records show that most of those who are dying, besides the elderly, are people who are overweight and who have developed underlying diseases because of poor eating habits in the past. He said the pandemic is simply a call to every person in the world to eat healthy, exercise and work at building a strong immune system. What is clear, he argues, is that this disease is going to be with us for a long time; two years at the minimum. There is no economy in the world that can shut down for that long. In the next few days, everyone is going to be coming out of their holes and returning to the public to face this disease. Social distancing and hand washing might work, but the greatest weapon against COVID-19 will be a strong immune system. If everyone will work at this, we can be sure that even if we contract the disease, we would beat it in the end. The world cannot shut down because we have a pronounced case of influenza in our midst.
As James White made these arguments, I could actually reason with him and this is why I have chosen to share these thoughts here. When President Buhari first announced the lockdown in Abuja and Lagos, Prof. Wole Soyinka criticized the President’s executive orders, saying that it was tantamount to autocracy. At the least the government should have received legislative backing for its pronouncements, Soyinka argued. The Buhari government then returned to the National Assemblies and got legal backing for its declarations. Weeks after the lockdown, the Nigerian government itself has realized that it was not practical for the country to continue in this state. The lockdowns have been lifted.
Nonetheless, places of worship still remained closed. David Oyedepo, Bishop of the Living Faith Churches worldwide, criticized government’s continual closure of churches while opening markets. He argued that there are more social distance violations in the markets than in churches. He was heavily criticized on the social media and some of us felt those criticisms were valid, considering that Oyedepo has spent the better part of his ministry amassing personal wealth from the multitude that gather at his church. One can never be too sure of his motive for calling for the lifting of bans on places of worship. But if for a moment we overlook whatever warped motive the Pentecostal pastor has, we can agree that he has a point in calling for the lifting of the ban on worship in churches. Truth is that while COVID-19 could be the reason for banning worship today, heaven alone knows what other reason a totalitarian government would cook up tomorrow to curtail religious worship in the future. Autocratic tendencies grow from infancy and we had better develop the capacity to discern them now or we would regret it tomorrow.
My point in this essay is simple: I agree with James White. While I would not say that congregational worship should continue in cities where COVID-19 is ravaging people, I still hold the position that it is not in the powers of government to make pronouncements that are binding on churches. The duty of government is to make their position clear on matters; individual churches should have the freedom to determine how to carry out their worship in light of government pronouncements. I continue to make this point because the gain of civilization is that there is a clear separation between the duties of government and the tenets of religion. Everywhere government regulates religion the people suffer. But everywhere there is a separation between government and religion, people have freedom. Freedom begets rationalism and intellectual developments. This leads inevitably to the development of society as a whole. Everywhere government represses people’s freedom to worship, there is usually underdevelopment.
Whether you agree with James White and me is immaterial. What is abundantly clear is that in the days to come, we would all be coming out of our quarantine to face this disease in the streets. The numbers of infections will rise but those who have paid attention to healthy living will beat the disease and live. In another few years, COVID-19 will be over and we would be back to our normal lives. What White and I fear is that if we do not pay attention to the manner in which government uses her powers, COVID-19 will cease but countries would have over-empowered governments. It would be a case of one deadly disease leading to the emergence of a much more deadly situation. These views can easily be regarded as views from an extreme Christian mindset. In fact, it could be said, like Friel quipped earlier, that Christians are the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would not change the point that these are truths that we are waking up daily to face even as the pandemic continues to kill hundreds around the world.