by Tim Faulkner
Learning from Times of Epidemics
With no end in sight, the devastation caused by the COVID-19 virus continues to wreak havoc on our world. It is indisputable that the virus is highly contagious and does not discriminate. We may never know the exact numbers, but we do know that men and women of all ages, and particularly those advanced in age or with medical conditions, have felt the impact. There has been a tremendous loss of life!
In times like these, followers of Jesus Christ shine even brighter as they lay down their lives for others in service to their Lord and Master. They are no less susceptible to the virus; in fact, many Christians have lost their lives. What has set them apart is their unflinching determination to love their neighbour and make disciples in a context of social distancing, mask wearing, and constant hand washing. As a result, although it is difficult to measure the numbers of people that are served, churches are growing. Prayer meeting attendance has risen. Small groups are being started “spontaneously.” And as loved ones have fallen to the virus, there is the solace of knowing that we who are in Christ will see each other again one day when we all stand before our Father in heaven. Christians find comfort in the face of death!
Society at large is able to get a sense of a difference. Science may be able to explain what the virus is and provide a way to at least slow it down, but it falls short in providing resources to overcome fear. Christians go farther. They insist that life is meaningful and find solace in the God who reigns over creation. The amount of love demonstrated by Christians in the face of the epidemic is, in fact, a primary argument for the truth of Christianity.
If Cyprian had lived today his words may have sounded like the ones that I have written here. When his time arrived, the age of acts of the apostles was in the past and a multiplicity of elders or presbyters, bishops, and elders were leading the church. Subsequently there was the development of a single bishop to oversee the church in a given region. In AD 251 Cyprian was the Bishop of Carthage, and he provided spiritual guidance in the context of a virus that at its height killed 5,000 people in Rome in a single day. In his epistle entitled On Mortality, he writes:
“Although this mortality has contributed to nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for a crown...” (quoted in Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, p. 81).
Even though Cyprian’s commitment to Christ eventually led to martyrdom, during the plague of the 3rd century he chose to exile for 14 months to direct his flock with pastoral epistles (History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff, vol. II, p. 847). His epistles paint the picture of a church that is full of suffering and death like the rest of the world yet is responding differently and therefore providing a clear demonstration of the life of Christ in the lives of His disciples. Rodney Stark goes so far as to suggest “that had classical society not been disrupted and demoralised by these catastrophes, Christianity might not have become so dominant a faith” (Stark, p. 74).
Fast forward to 2021 and the question of how to lead the church during and after the COVID-19 epidemic. As I speak with our leaders, I can hear the frustration. We are asking, “Can we be done with this already please?!” This is not offered as an affront to God’s sovereignty as much as an exclamation of exasperation. How much longer will this go on? What will life be like on the other side?
Church history is not alone in assisting us. When you consider the broad scope of biblical history and the times that God’s people were obedient and courageous, it generally followed a time of preparation that was difficult. I expect no less from this current moment in history.
Through the latest epidemic, God is at work preparing His church. As you read the articles that follow, let me suggest some takeaways from which to pick:
- Disciple–making requires opportunities like these for engaging our neighbours.
- New times provide new ways for God’s people to rally together to edify the church.
- These times highlight how differently various age groups offer and expect to receive communication.
- “Hybrid church” has opened up the doors for people who have difficulties in traveling to meetings and getting off work in time to attend Bible studies and prayer meetings.
- Moving more content online helps us to be equipping churches and to creatively engage people in the membership process/discipleship pathway.
- A forced move away from normal services towards smaller discussion groups may cause the church to become closer relationally.
- “Hybrid church” continues to serve those who only want to do things in person.
- Decisions to meet in person necessitate robust communication, generous amounts of time spent in prayer, and God’s wisdom and grace as we navigate the laws laid down by authorities, our primary obedience to Christ over Caesar, and our commitment to love our neighbour and make disciples.
Thank you to the IBC pastors, leaders, and church members who have shared with me their experience at this time! We have a lot that we can learn from one another. Let me know how I might comfort and encourage you! We celebrate a God who is good and who has a plan that He wants to accomplish in and through us in times like these!
Note: I am grateful to my friend and seminary professor Dick Kantzer who pointed me to the historical lessons during the times of Cyprian and Dionysius and sent me some articles to read. I read further about that moment in church history in books by Latourette, Schaff, Shelley, and Stark.