Pandemic Lessons from Church History

Pandemic Lessons from Church History

A lot of things are changing these days. As the coronavirus continues to spread, things look very, very different than even just a week ago in our culture, in our daily lives, and in our church.

However, Jesus is not frightened or confused by what’s happening. This is very new to all of us; but it is not new to Jesus or the church.

How has the church survived outbreaks of disease in the past? We could identify many other lessons from other figures or other eras, but here are three of the lessons we can gather from church history:

Lesson 1: The church can survive a time of suspending Sunday gatherings for a health crisis.

In 1918 the Spanish flu created a serious danger to our country. In Washington, D.C., in response to government appeals to limit public gatherings, many churches suspended their services. Some Christians resisted the idea and grumbled about the idea.

In the end, however, churches not only survived, but looked back with gladness on the difficult decisions they made to close their doors for the sake of health and safety during a health crisis. Rev. J. Francis Grimke recalled later that “If avoiding crowds lessens the danger of being infected, it was wise to take the precaution and not needlessly run in danger, and expect God to protect us.”

Lesson 2: Christians should prioritize safety, AND should also ensure care for the vulnerable, sick, and dying.

In 1527, the Plague struck Wittenburg Germany, where Martin and Katie Luther lived. They had the opportunity to leave the city—an opportunity which some of Martin’s colleagues gladly accepted. Yet Martin and Katie chose to stay to serve the church, and the sick and the dying. He wrote a defense of his decision in a Letter later published with the title, “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.

To be sure, Luther took personal and public safety very seriously. He says, in surprisingly modern terms for a sixteenth-century man, “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence…[I will do all of this] so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.”

As a laughable bonus, here is Luther’s characteristically unfiltered and overstated communication style. In talking about “those who keep it secret that they have the disease and go among others,” he said, “I appeal to the authorities to take charge and turn them over to the help and advice not of physicians, but of Master Jack, the hangman!” Now, I’m not advocating executions! But you see the strength of his conviction about public health.

Nonetheless, Luther appealed to other Christians to consider how they also might serve others during the dark days of a deadly disease. After listing several reasons to love the sick and dying (including the promises of God about refuge and future rewards), he lands with this appeal: “This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running. And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me’ [Matt. 25:40]…If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word.”

We might not call this a fully nuanced teaching—Luther is not known for “balance.”  But in his life and teaching, we do discover this tension of how neighbor-love can lead a Christian BOTH to take wise precautions AND to serve others with courageous faith.

Lesson 3: It is an honor to suffer with Christ.

This is perhaps the most difficult lesson to grasp. When a dangerous virus spreads, some Christians will catch it. Some will die from it. Some may even lose their lives precisely because they were busy serving others. This was the case in the days of the early church.

In the year 260, the Roman Empire had already been decimated by a decade-long deadly pandemic. Christians became renowned in this era for caring for each other—and even for their polytheistic neighbors—instead of retreating in fear from the disease. On Easter Sunday, AD 260, Dionuysius soberly remembered how some of “the best” in their church had lost their lives in the course of serving others.

“Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

These surprising words of Dionysius echo with a kind of hope that is only found in those who believe in the one who raises the dead.

Our Chapter

Without overestimating the importance our small moment in history, we can at least say that this month is one you will remember for years to come. This season will stand out as a unique moment when we look back at our own lives.

Let’s make it our aim to love & trust God, and to love & serve our neighbor—in anticipation of the day when we will hear our Savior say, “Well done good faithful servant.”