I do a lot of face-palming these days, during the COVID-19 scare (even though I am not supposed to touch my face!). It seems that some Christians can do and say some downright awful things (particularly when it comes to science), that give the Gospel a bad reputation. But I think that there are some lessons to be learned here.
A few weeks ago, I was greeted by the following headline in an op-ed for the New York Times.
The headline was so offensive that even the normally secular-liberal New York Times later toned down the headline to read, “The Religious Right’s Hostility to Science Is Crippling Our Coronavirus Response.” It was still a pretty scathing article, that went over the top at crucial moments. Nevertheless, the article sadly had some cogent and sobering points to make.
When I read stuff like this, I either get really mad at the journalist, or I get upset with the folks being criticized by the writer, depending on the validity of the evidence being presented and on the perception of bias. Sometimes I do both. But I think it is worth taking a deep breath, and think carefully through what is going on here.
The author, Ms. Katherine Stewart, clearly has no love for Child Evangelism Fellowship, an evangelical ministry my wife and I support, as a few years ago she wrote a scathing, one-sided critique in a book, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children. If you want to see an example of journalistic bias gone mad, read Ms. Stewart.
But in her NYT op-ed, she wrote about a Baton Rouge, Louisiana pastor who refuses to abide by the federal health guidelines. He will not close his 1000+ member megachurch from meeting on Sundays, as he believes this whole COVID-19 lockdown thing is merely a cover for politically-motivated, government-sponsored religious persecution. In a recent Reuters piece, grabbing the international headlines, the Reverend was reported as saying that “God will shield us from all harm and sickness.”
This is the prosperity gospel at its very worst, but before anyone freaks out too quickly, there are about ten things to note about this:
- First, a lot of folks read articles like the NYT op-ed and they inform their opinion of what Christianity is like. It bears remembering that we should draw people’s attention to Christ, first and foremost. If we draw too much attention to Christians, and not Christ Himself, then the “Christians behaving badly” will tend to lodge in the minds of non-believers. We should focus our attention where our attention is due, in our witness: to Jesus Christ. Therefore, my intent here is not to narrowly criticize particular persons, but rather to take a step back and reflect on how we think about such matters more broadly. “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). Ignorance in these matters is not bliss.
- Secondly, about the author of the op-ed: A lot of Christians will simply dismiss an article like this completely out of hand. Insert the name of whatever “demonic” political party you want, and go from there. We can decry that this is yet another piece of evidence that our nation has “forgotten God,” and that the American Christian church is in serious need of repentance, etc. But here is the thing. I obviously do not know the spiritual status of Ms. Stewart. But more than likely, she is not a Christian. So, it is not simply that she has “forgotten God.” Rather, it is more likely that she has never heard the Gospel winsomely presented to her, in such a manner that she even knows who this “God” of the Bible really is, much less how to “forget” such a God. The bottom line: You simply can not expect a non-Christian to think and act like a Christian… Why? …. Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, because that person is not a Christian. Rather, we need to pray for a person like this, that they may winsomely hear the Gospel! A good verse to memorize that teaches this is Colossians 4:5, “Walk in wisdom toward them that are without.”
- Thirdly, most Christians are abiding by the federal social-distancing guidelines. In fact, the overwhelming vast majority of evangelical Christians are taking COVID-19 seriously. We should remind our non-believing friends of that. So, when someone reads something like this NYT op-ed piece, hopefully that person has a relationship with a Christian who can demonstrate for them, in living color, that Ms. Stewart’s description of a typical “evangelical” does not square with the actual evidence.
- Fourthly, about the Louisiana pastor, making those international headlines. He has some information-source problems. Like the Louisiana pastor, journalist and editor of The American Conservative, Rod Dreher, and the author of the provocative The Benedict Option, is from Baton Rouge. According to a Rod Dreher essay, which towards the end is quite gut-wrenching, the Louisiana pastor believes that COVID-19 has a “99.3 percent recovery rate.” I do not know where the pastor gets his information from, but this is completely incorrect. According to the WHO, the mortality rate, according to research done in early March, is about 3.4%, not 0.7% as is claimed. Of course, we know a lot more about COVID-19, as of mid-April, than we did back in early March. By collecting more data over time, we will get a better handle on the mortality rate. That rate varies depending on what part of the world you are in, and how much testing has been done. Nevertheless, we should continue to do what we can to minimize that rate. If the eventual rate, over the long term, becomes greatly lower than 3.4%, it would mean that “social distancing,” and other public health measures (more ventilators, better testing, etc.), have proven to reverse the earlier trend. Would that not be awesome?? But the pastor is not alone here in passing on incorrect information. I have Christians friends who contend that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu. The problem is that the mortality rate for the flu is 0.1%. Even allowing for some margin of error, the math used by those who think that COVID-19 is just like the flu, just does not add up. Some even suggest that the current lower-than-expected death rate in the United States is all due to political misinformation. Yet perhaps there is a simpler answer: As of mid-April 2020, most Americans are abiding by the federal social-distancing guidelines, and perhaps those efforts are actually working to reduce the amount of fatalities! I do not like it when non-believers misrepresent the Christian faith, but we do not do anyone any favors when we pass on misinformation, particularly when we call ourselves Christians, for whom the truth should matter more than anything else.
- Fifthly, the Louisiana pastor belongs to a Pentecostal church. Now, not all Pentecostals and charismatic movement Christians are alike. Most of my Pentecostal friends truly love the Lord, and they are truly seeking to do the right thing. So, it is all too easy to lump all Pentecostals in the same category. But when you read the doctrinal statement on the church’s website, it should give you pause. If anyone can explain to me how this church teaches about the Triune nature of God, I would like to know, as I am completely mystified. Sadly, a lot of Pentecostal churches are havens for the prosperity Gospel, and do not ground themselves on a solid understanding of God’s Word. The current debacle concerning this pastor has everything to do with whether or not a church is teaching sound doctrine. There is no substitute for good, solid Biblical teaching!
- Sixthly, here is a particular objection to how this pastor handles the Bible: The Louisiana pastor’s interpretation of Romans 13 is badly misinformed. He believes that when Romans 13:1 says “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” what Paul really meant to say is “Let every person be subject to the governing church authorities…. not political authorities.” I do not know any New Testament scholar who reads the text in the original Greek who would concur with that particular reading…… Furthermore, we must seek to know the whole of Scripture well enough to compare Scripture with Scripture. In this case, it would be important to recall 1 Peter 2:12, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
- Seventhly, because this is a Pentecostal church, other Christians should take note. Pentecostal churches, like this one in Louisiana, are highly-integrated, multi-racial churches. This church represents the cultural and ethnic diversity in Baton Rouge in such a way that they put the vast bulk of evangelical churches, across America, to shame. In particular, this church is reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised, with greater effectiveness, than most evangelical churches. These are very difficult days for many people, who are out-of-work, due to the COVID-19 crisis, and this pastor is feeling the effects of this crisis on his people first hand, unlike a lot of wealthy evangelical churches, who can probably ride out this crisis without that much suffering. So, before you completely throw this Pentecostal church under the bus, for how their pastor is handling the COVID-19 crisis, it bears to keep that in mind.
- Eighthly, many Christians and non-Christians alike will be tempted to look down upon this controversial Louisiana pastor and conclude that he is “in it for the money.” The desire to draw this conclusion is understandable. After all, he is part of the prosperity gospel movement. But I would caution against this. Arrogant self-promotion is one thing, but greed is a different animal. Many of this pastor’s congregants are on the worst receiving end of the devastating economic consequences millions of Americans are experiencing, due to the COVID-19 crisis. Those most likely to throw stones his way probably are not experiencing the dire consequences experienced by those who could not make their rent payment this past month, because the restaurant or retail store they worked in laid them off indefinitely. I do not agree with the pastor’s decision, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he is acting with the greatest amount of sincerity. Some things are worth a lot more than $$$ … but it does not mean that you make well-informed decisions. It is quite evident that this pastor’s recklessness in ignoring public health concerns tells us how his own inflated sense of self-importance is blinding his sense of moral judgment.
- Ninthly, I will give the Louisiana pastor some credit when it comes to church attendance. He is obviously concerned that once the COVID-19 crisis is over, that some people might find the habit of not going to church a hard habit to break. It will be interesting to see how many people will stop going to church, once the crisis is eventually over. On the other hand, the current “stay at home” orders provide a good opportunity for others to rethink their relationship with God, or lack thereof. Pray that we see new faces coming to our churches, at the end of this crisis, and that we know how to receive them.
- And finally, if you view this YouTube video interview with the controversial pastor, you will get the sense that he is mostly concerned about the freedom of religion. He does a have a point here about the threat of government coercion, and respecting the right of a person to act upon the convictions of their conscience. It is kind of odd to think that a liquor store is considered an “essential business,” when a church meeting is not. Point well taken. But is the real issue here about religious persecution? No, it should be evident that religious persecution is not in view here. Christians are not being singled out for their beliefs. If anything, this pastor’s grandstanding about “religious liberty” only trivializes freedom of conscience, and gives opponents of the Christian faith cause to attack genuine religious liberty. During a public health crisis, Christians should do the right thing, not ultimately because the government tells them to do it, but because it is the right thing to do. We should not allow a persecution complex to become an excuse for not being properly informed, and thus not acting in a way that demonstrates how a Christian might best love their neighbor.
So, why is it that there is this perceived hostility towards science, that encourages people to think that either (a) Christians are “anti-science,” or on the flip side, that (b) the claims of modern science today are simply a part of a deceitful, politically-biased narrative?
I believe that the answer comes down to trust.
Take the example of how a number of ultra-orthodox Jews have been dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in Israel. During the early period where Israeli authorities were trying to warn their citizens about COVID-19, and encouraging them to abide by “social distancing” techniques, many ultra-orthodox Jews eschewed such public health directives. Such conservative Jews do not accept the New Testament as authoritative, yet they do accept the Hebrew Scriptures (the “Old Testament” for Christians) as the Word of God. Their allegiance to the Scriptures far outweighs their respect for government-issued directives.
But in recent days, Israel’s ultra-orthodox community is beginning to take the public health warnings seriously. Israeli authorities are trying not so much to be heavy-handed in their approach, but are focused more in building relationships of trust.
It can be really hard to build relationships of trust, particular among people with whom you have serious disagreements with. I know from personal experience that such efforts at making friends, and breaking down barriers takes a lot of hard work, and a lot of humility. But to see how the Jewish ultra-orthodox community is starting to come around to “do the right thing” is an encouraging sign that such relationship building is really worth the effort.
It may not be so much an issue of there being a supposed conflict between science and the Bible, as the New York Times revised op-ed title put it , the so-called “Religious Right’s Hostility Towards Science.” Rather, it is more likely a sense of distrust of scientists and medical doctors, in conservative religious communities, that drives what appears to be an “anti-science” antagonism. Building a sense of trust between religious conservatives and scientists (including medical doctors) will go a long way in addressing the so-called “warfare thesis” behind science and the Bible.
I missed worshipping in physical proximity with other believers this past Easter Sunday, celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord together. “Virtual” worship was better than nothing, but it is not the same thing. I pray that current public health crisis will end soon, and life can return to normal.
But the blatant distrust of science that some Christians feel compelled to accentuate is harming the witness of the faith. We need to do better in reaching out to our fellow misinformed Christians for the sake of protecting the reputation of the Gospel, as we proclaim the Good News to an unbelieving world.
(For a more in-depth response to the Louisiana pastor defying the “stay at home” order, I have included the video of Rod Dreher making his analysis of the controversy)