By Aaron Earls
With COVID-19 cases once again climbing and churches scrambling to adjust, many pastors and leaders face the unenviable position of angering a passionate portion of their church.
Some churchgoers remain hesitant to be involved in any in-person activities, including worship services, while others vehemently reject the adoption of any potential mitigating procedures like masking or social distancing.
Many of those most opposed to wearing masks or getting vaccinated have argued they are living by the mantra “faith not fear” or “faith over fear.” Obviously, no Christian should be governed by their fears, but there is substantial debate surrounding what it looks like to live a life of faith in our current circumstances.
“Fear Not” in a Fearful World
There is no doubt that many Americans and people around the world are deeply afraid. In 2020, the World’s Negative Experience Index rose to its highest level in the 15 years of Gallup tracking the score. Four in 10 adults around the world said they experienced worry or stress during much of the previous day.
Dealing with these issues, almost twice as many Americans say they want to avoid fear (41%) than shame (24%) or guilt (22%), according to Lifeway Research.
As the culture around us seems saturated with fear, Christians can take comfort that Scripture is full of fear as well. Not that the Bible is fearful, but that God’s Word has much to say about fear and the Christian’s victory over it.As the culture around us seems saturated with fear, Christians can take comfort that God’s Word has much to say about fear and the Christian’s victory over it. — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
The Bible directly references “fear” more than 300 times and provides assurances for God’s people that He is with them even in the most terrifying situations.
In Psalm 23, David says he doesn’t fear any danger even when he walks through the darkest valley because God is with him. Repeatedly in Isaiah, God instructs the prophet to tell His people not to fear. “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
In 2 Timothy 1:7, Paul rejects the idea that followers of Jesus have a spirit of fear. Instead, he says, we possess a spirit of “power, love, and sound judgement.” It is this idea, however, that should cause us to think about what exactly would qualify as possessing a “spirit of fear.”
Life Without Fear
For many Christians, taking precautions to avoid catching and spreading COVID-19 is embracing not a spirit of fear, but one of power, love, and sound judgment. Even if one does not agree with the effectiveness of such precautions, their adoption does not require being motivated from a place of fear.
Someone could socially distance in certain circumstances so they have the power to care for an immunocompromised loved one. A church may decide to require masks indoors because they are motivated by love to not potentially spread COVID in their congregation and community. A Christian can get vaccinated because, using their sound judgment, they believe that is the best way to value and save human lives created in the image of God.
Many of those advocating for COVID-prevention measures have said their adoption of those measures are driven by Jesus’ instruction that His followers are to love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). And in the story Jesus gives to explain such love, the parable of the good Samaritan, part of the care given includes medicinal care. The Samaritan man went over to the one beaten and left for dead “and bandaged his wounds, pouring on olive oil and wine” (Luke 10:34). Those acts were not done out of fear, but out of love.
Was Paul, the man who endured beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, and more for the sake of the gospel, being fearful when he advised Timothy to drink wine “because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Timothy 5:23)? Surely not.Motivations are notoriously difficult to untangle. Therefore, Christians should seek to show grace to each other in trying times. Click To Tweet
Neither today is it necessarily living in fear when Christians do all sorts of activities to help them stay healthy, like taking vitamins, washing hands, and exercising. No one should accuse a brother or sister of being fearful for taking precautions to avoid spreading diseases, like covering their mouth when they cough or not shaking hands as they’re fighting a cold.
Could those actions be motivated by fear? Sure, just as refusing them could be motivated by pride, an idolatrous view of personal autonomy, or any number of other sinful roots. Motivations are notoriously difficult to untangle, even for the person themselves, much less for others trying to deduce them from the outside. Christians should seek to show grace to each other.
But there is already precedent for churches to engage in precautionary activities that could create barriers to outsiders or dissuade some from attending completely. As churches have become more aware of potential threats from armed gunmen, many have responded by instituting procedures designed to keep congregants safe, according to a 2019 Lifeway Research study.
Churches may lock all entry doors once services start to limit the risk of someone coming in who means to do harm to attendees, but this may also make it more difficult for guests or those running late. Close to half of churches (45%) say part of their security measures include armed church members. While many may feel this helps them feel safe, some unchurched individuals may be reluctant to attend any event where they know numerous people are armed.The odds that your church will be the site of a mass shooting on a given Sunday in a year are around 1 in 23 million, while almost 30% of U.S. Protestant churches had someone die from COVID by February 2021. Click To Tweet
The likelihood that a gunman will storm a church and open fire is miniscule. There have been 19 fatal church shootings in the U.S. since the Columbine school shooting on April 20,1999. The odds that your church will be the site of a mass shooting on a given Sunday in a year are around 1 in 23 million. But as church security expert Carl Chinn says, the odds won’t matter much if your church does face a serious threat.
Currently, churches and churchgoers are facing a serious threat from the coronavirus. Prior to the current spike in cases from the delta variant, 88% of Protestant churches in the U.S. had someone diagnosed with COVID-19, and 29% had someone die from the disease, according to a Lifeway Research survey of pastors in February 2021.
If churches are not embracing fear when they prepare and work to prevent an unlikely mass shooting, neither should they be accused of giving into fear over faith when they use the available means to attempt to prevent the spread of a deadly disease that has already killed more than 675,000 Americans.If churches are not embracing fear when they work to prevent a mass shooting, neither should they be accused of giving into fear when they seek to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. — @WardrobeDoor Click To Tweet
No, Christians should not be held captive by fear. Jesus’ entire earthly life was surrounded by encouragement for us to not fear. At both His birth and resurrection, angels encouraged people to not be afraid (Matthew 1:20, 28:5). Jesus Himself constantly told His followers not to fear, but that does not mean He advocated for them to treat their physical bodies recklessly. When Satan took Him to the pinnacle of the temple and used an out-of-context verse to tempt Jesus to throw Himself off, Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not test the Lord your God.”
Yes, God can and does miraculously save people from injury or heal them, but He also works through humans to accomplish those works as well. Christians may disagree on the best means by which we can protect and save lives, but we should be slow to accuse others of operating out of fear. They may, in fact, be walking in faith with a spirit of power, love, and sound judgment.
Aaron is a writer for LifewayResearch.com.