Coronavirus and the Church: A Casuistic Approach

Conscience will not be satisfied without due diligence.

The problem that is presented to pastors and sessions is a problem of conscience. Are we justified by the information available in ceasing to minister the word, sacraments, and prayer on the recommendation of the government? Will we have a satisfactory answer on judgement day when we have to account for our actions? This article is an attempt to work through the variables and principles in a casuistic fashion. Casuistry is the practice of solving cases of conscience through the sober application of biblical principles.

 

With the growing concern over the coronavirus and the pressing recommendations to cease gatherings of groups of people of 10 or more, churches are being placed in the awkward position of having to decide whether or not to hold services. Some of the calls for ceasing gatherings of this size or greater are suggesting a period of at least 15 days but could be extended to 8 to 12 weeks. In the worst-case scenario, that means the public administration of the means of grace would cease for up to three months. Since the Christian faith is not an individualistic faith, but one that is chiefly expressed in and among the believing community, this poses a serious problem for the church. Pastors and sessions need to satisfy their consciences that canceling services on the Lord’s Day is the right course of action. One of the primary duties of the eldership is to gather God’s people together for public worship. For it is in the public administration of the means of grace that the Lord meets with His people.

Again, the problem that is presented to pastors and sessions is a problem of conscience. Are we justified by the information available in ceasing to minister the word, sacraments, and prayer on the recommendation of the government? Will we have a satisfactory answer on judgement day when we have to account for our actions? This article is an attempt to work through the variables and principles in a casuistic fashion. Casuistry is the practice of solving cases of conscience through the sober application of biblical principles. It recognizes that the conscience operates on rational grounds and deduces conclusions based upon information of circumstances and formation of itself through God’s Word.

The factors to consider are manifold. The duty of public worship, the nature of scientific conclusions (of which medical science is a subset), the authority of the state over the church, the duty of the church to the state, and the nature of mass media and propaganda are all factors that play into the decision of pastors and sessions in leading their flocks at this time. The overarching element in this whole discussion is the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, carnal thinking and faithful thinking. When made to wait upon the fulfillment of the promise of a son, Sarai carnally sought an expedient through Hagar. When commanded by God to sacrifice his only son, Abraham faithfully reasoned that God was able to preserve the promised heir even from death. Pastors and sessions are called to faithfulness at all times and more so in these times.

The Duty of Public Worship

That this is a duty of the covenant people of God is held out by the feasts of Israel, the calls to worship in the Psalms, and the spiritual nature of the church in the New Testament.

Leviticus 23 lays out the ceremonial provisions for the feasts of Israel. During these feasts, the Israelites are to bring an offering “unto the LORD” (Lev. 23:8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 25, 27, 28, 36, 37, 40). In these passages, the sacrifices are to be done “before the LORD” or “unto the LORD.” This indicates that the offerings to be performed during these feasts were to be done at the Tabernacle/Temple. That was where the altar of the Lord was located and where the Lord had made his name to dwell (Deut. 12:11). To present an offering to the Lord was to travel to the place where his name dwelt. This was commanded of all Israelites and amounts to a duty to gather corporately for public worship. This conclusion is further buttressed by the “holy convocation” that the priests are to call during the festal seasons. During those times, when the Israelites were bringing their offerings, they were gathered in a holy assembly to worship the Lord. The Hebrew word in Leviticus 23:3 and the Greek word in the LXX translation of the Hebrew text are both based upon the root which means to call. That is, these gatherings were a calling together of the people.

This principle of calling together for the sake of worship is reflected in the calls to worship found in the Psalms. In the Reformed tradition, the worship service begins with a formal call to worship read by the minister which initiates the holy assembly of God’s people for worship. This call is read from the Scriptures as they are the only warrant we have for gathering as we do, week in and week out, to worship the Lord. Some examples can be found in Psalms 95:1-2, 96:1-3; 7-6, 98:4-6. Others could be multiplied. Note that in all these examples or in the broader context of the Psalms in which these calls are found, that there is a Temple gathering in view. Phrases such as “before the Lord,” “in His courts,” and “praise His name” all imply or expressly require a gathered assembly at the Temple to fulfill. As we saw above, the place where the worship of sacrifices was to be offered was in God’s presence at the Tabernacle/Temple. Here, the praise that is to be offered is “in His courts” or “before His presence,” that is, at the Temple.

The Book of Hebrews finds the fulfillment of these Old Testament types in the Person and Work of Christ and in particular our gathering together to Him in worship. In Hebrews 10:25, the author exhorts his readers to not forsake the gathering together but to encourage one another all the more as the Day draws near. The immediate context of this exhortation is worship. In 10:19-22, the summation of the benefit of Christ and his priestly mediation is that we can draw near to the Holy of Holies, heaven itself. What the Israelites enjoyed only by way of type and shadow, we in the New Testament enjoy by way of substance. This is the governing image of the exhortation not to forsake the assembling together. It is not, primarily, for fellowship with other Christians. Rather it is primarily for entering into heavenly worship through Christ and then for the mutual encouragement that we enjoy when we gather.

In Chapter 13, the author polishes off his letter with an exhortation to go out to Christ in worship. From 13:7-17, the whole paragraph is focused on the gathering of the saints, under the oversight of church officers, for the purpose of offering up the sacrifices of praise and eating from the table by which we commune with Christ. In the spiritual worship of the New Testament, Christians gather to worship the Lord in fulfillment of the Old Testament types by feeding upon the final sacrificial meal, Christ Himself.
Finally, Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul teaches us that the gathered people of the New Testament Church is the realized dwelling place of God. The New Testament Church is the New Temple, fulfilling what the Temple of Solomon only typified. From the above sketch of the biblical theology surrounding the Temple and its antitype, the Church, it is clear that corporate worship in God’s presence is a duty of the Church.

The Nature of Scientific Conclusions

The recommendations being passed down from state and federal governments are based upon scientific conclusions. Medical science is but one of the many subsets of scientific reasoning and it is medical science that is propounding the conclusions upon which we are being asked to cease gatherings of 10 or more people. Thus, to assess the part this should play in our decisions as pastors and sessions as to whether or not we should cancel our services, some attention must be paid to the nature of scientific conclusions.
It is, technically, improper to call a determination of science a conclusion. This is due to the inductive nature of scientific reasoning. In argumentation, there are two broad categories of reasoning by which one can make a case. Logic proper follows a deductive approach which draws out conclusions from premises. A deductive argument can properly produce conclusions for the nature of a deductive argument is to draw out a conclusive premise contained in supporting premises. As an example:
A: All coronaviruses are infectious.
B: Covid-19 is a coronavirus.
C: Therefore Covid-19 is infectious.

In this example, the conclusion (C), is already contained in the premises A and B. All that is required is to combine the premises by means of the middle term (coronavirus) and draw out what is already there.

Induction works otherwise. Induction observes fact and phenomena and posits an inference or supposes a hypothesis which accounts for the collected data. As an example:
A: The swans in England are white.
B: The swans in France are white.
C: The swans in Russia are white.
D: The swans in America are white.

One is tempted to conclude that all swans are white. But, the most that can be said from this data set is that all of the swans that have been observed are white. One cannot conclude that swans cannot be black. An inductive inference cannot be true or false, absolutely (as in deduction). Rather it can be weak or strong. In the swan example, the inference that all swans are white was a strong inference, but proved to be wrong in the end. Thanks Australia.

Induction is the method of medical science. And though we have a mountain of empirical data and certain sound scientific principles at work in the medical community, the best that medical research can do is provide a strong inference. But with every inductive inference, there is always the element of uncertainty. This is why medical practice and procedure always comes with a certain level of risk. Doctors do not know conclusively, since their reasoning is not done deductively. They do know inductively and probabilistically, but still with a level of uncertainty.

Why is this important? All of the recommendations are based upon inductive medical reasoning. What pastors and sessions have to weigh is the clear duty to worship God corporately against the probabilistic inference that this gathering will cause the spread of the Covid-19. We are tasked with determining if the probable danger of Covid-19 outweighs our duty to gather for worship. Another factor that is at play is the precedent that ceasing worship this Sunday will present. In all likelihood, the recommendations will be to cease these gatherings of 10 or more for up to 12 weeks. The question before us then, is it a sound decision to cease the public administration of the means of grace for three months?

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