Covid has not only killed millions of people and left many debilitated, it has also been a pandemic of disunity in the church. The last eighteen months or so has been an epidemic of church division: elders and pastors resigning from churches where they had served for ten or fifteen years, long time members leaving churches and going elsewhere, some churches reduced from thriving assemblies to “virtual churches” with empty buildings. Covid has revealed sides of our fellow Christians that we did not know existed, and close friends have become virtual strangers nearly overnight. Those we thought were spiritual giants have turned out to be paralysed by fear of germs; some we thought were shy and retiring have surprised us with their bravery and resolve.
One thing is becoming clearer: Covid is here to stay. Many people are no longer referring to Covid as a pandemic, but as an endemic. A pandemic is a disease that spreads rapidly, but the worst of it is over in two years. An endemic is a disease that becomes part of life for the foreseeable future.
There are some signs that Covid is not going away within the next year. Some countries with very high vaccination rates are continuing to see fairly high infection rates, and continued hospitalisations. Herd immunity has been reached in those countries, but the disease is still there. The vaccines do seem to reduce hospitalisations and deaths, but perhaps not in the way some had hoped for. If the current or future vaccines succeed in defanging Covid and making it a background flu disease, we will all rejoice; but if they do not, it does us no good to live in a state of suspense for when life will supposedly become normal again. You cannot perpetually live in a state of emergency if circumstances are no longer an emergency. So how do we live if Covid-19 is now an endemic, the new normal?
I suggest four vital principles for the church to live by, the first of which I’ll deal with in this post and the next.
1) Live By Revealed Truth, Not By Unfiltered “Facts”.
Christians are people of truth. We believe in something called the truth. Truth is what corresponds to God’s reality. To whatever degree we know the truth, we must live by it. But getting at the truth is most of the problem when it comes to Covid. We have now seen the Christian world divided into pro- and anti-mask, pro- and anti-gathering, pro- and anti-vaccine.
Why is there so much disagreement over Covid? Why isn’t there consensus in the church regarding the truth about Covid? There are at least three reasons.
First, there has been a breakdown of authority. The Internet has now flooded us with competing ideas, contradictory views, all in the guise of truth, science, expert views, or alternative “true truth” views. Once trusted authorities in a society break down, people polarise. They either flee to the historically trusted elites: scientists, academics, doctors, or they flee to the revolutionaries who defy the elites. Much of this has little to do with the quality of the information, and much to do with how people were pre-disposed already. People who have trusted doctors and prescriptions and vaccinations up till now are likely to remain so. People who mistrusted and leaned toward alternative treatments lean that way. The Internet can be a hall of mirrors that gives us what we want to hear, not what is truly there. What is clear is that innan Internet age, authority has broken down, and getting at the truth is difficult.
Second, Covid-19 is new, and our understanding of it develops and changes with time. Getting at the truth is difficult because our knowledge about the disease is not settled. To make things even more complicated, every variant of Covid changes matters even more, adding to the complexity. Managing a pandemic on a national and global scale is new to everyone. Figuring out what actually prevents the spread and what doesn’t is still happening before our eyes. The novelty of Covid-19 means truth about how to respond to Covid is in flux. This also helps explain why some of the disagreeing voices on Covid are themselves medical experts: immunologists, viral disease specialists, vaccine developers and others are themselves differing on what the best response to the disease is.
This newness means some responses to Covid are experimental. Some responses will turn out to be useless. Some are absurd. Some are draconian. Some are unjust. In a litigated society, some are medically unnecessary, but legally required. This is the confusion brought about by a new disease.
But perhaps the biggest driver of disagreements over Covid is a failure to understand the third point.
Third, our responses to Covid are driven by our worldview, not by medical facts.
Secularism has taught us that facts equal truth. Supposedly, if you get medical facts on Covid, then you will have truth, and your response will be the reliable, solid one. But facts don’t equal truth. Facts simply equal facts. They are raw data. Facts are just objects or events without any real useful meaning until we have properly interpreted them. For example, if someone says, “I haven’t bathed in three weeks”, that is a mere fact. But what does the fact mean? Does it mean: he doesn’t want to wash himself? His water has been cut off? He only showers? He was stranded on an island? Only when we have interpreted the fact rightly do we have its true meaning.
Facts such as “99.2% of people survive Covid”, or “the Delta variant has a reproductive number of 5” are raw data. Facts about age vulnerability, co-morbidities, and viral loads are mere phenomena. Facts are meaningless until they are interpreted. Facts have to pass through the interpretive grid or filter that we call a worldview to make sense of them, and then to suggest responses. If that filter is biblical, then the facts will be interpreted in a way that leads to a truthful response.
A worldview is a collection of beliefs, desires, loves, hopes, and assumptions. It includes your belief about who God is, what the world is, who you are, what other people are, what life is for, why we are here, where we go when we die. That worldview is your filter for the facts that come to you. Once the facts have passed through that filter, you then either have truth or error.
The truth is what corresponds to reality. Whichever worldview corresponds to God’s reality is the one that will rightly interpret the facts and the response to those facts, leading to truth.
Why does this make it hard to arrive at truth about Covid-19? We might have a secular medical expert who has correct information regarding the nature and spread of Covid-19. But his interpretation of what do about that is shaped, perhaps slanted, and skewed by a secular ideology. He doesn’t have incorrect data, but he does have an unbelieving filter. And if you cannot filter what he says back through a Christian worldview, then you are allowing medical credentials to preach to you how you should live as a human, and as a Christian. You have swapped Christianity for scientism – the belief that scientific pronouncements provide ultimate truth.
To illustrate the same phenomenon in another realm, you might have a financial analyst who gives you very exact figures on what the economy is doing and what your investments are doing. Those are the facts. But what to do about them is not a question of economic data: it is a human, ethical, even spiritual, question. If he tells you to emigrate and get your money out, or tells you to sit tight, or tells you to enjoy your money while you can, those are moral questions to do with interpretations of life, safety, security, or of stability.
Many Christians don’t understand this, and think that we can go straight from the facts given by the doctor or medical expert (whether on the left or the right) to a response. We must not forget the important point: everyone, on either side, is a human, and therefore a sinner. That means, whoever is speaking or writing is a) capable of truth b) capable of shading, distorting, evading, or omitting the truth c) capable of mistakes and errors.
A medical expert might give you the exact figures regarding infection numbers, mortality rates, or transmission rates. And numbers don’t lie. But the mistake is to think that there is a direct transfer from those numbers to his recommendation as to how to live. There isn’t. The doctor filters those numbers through his worldview, through his filter. And if his filter is an unbelieving, secular, godless filter, then you should expect that his recommendations are going to have those assumptions and those attitudes embedded in his advice. Maybe he believes this life is all there is, maybe he believes there is no risk worth taking, maybe he believes the randomness of Covid-19 means you can never be careful enough. Out of that filter, he might tell you that it is best to just stay home until Covid-19 is over, avoid social contact, or that you should wait until there is an almost 0% transmission rate.
If you take his advice, you are not following the cold facts of medical science. No, he is giving you his view on human questions. He is going to tell you what he thinks is worth doing; what he thinks is valuable enough to do. Those are questions of value, not of numbers. He is giving you ethical guidance, not medical guidance. Indeed, if he is telling you not to gather or meet others, he is telling you to disobey Scriptural commandments to gather, fellowship and disciple others. If you follow his advice, you are following the unbeliever’s interpretation of what to do with those medical facts. You may be allowing a person without faith to guide you as to how to live in God’s world. You may be taking essentially spiritual counsel from one who does not know God.