In this time of suffering and uncertainty, are we primarily concerned with the preservation of our lives or the proliferation of the gospel?
You’ve never seen a river that runs in a perfectly strait line from beginning to end – not a naturally occurring river anyway. Why is that? It’s because as it flows it meets obstacles, and at every obstacle it collects until it either goes over the obstacle or finds another low spot to the left or the right and then it continues its journey. If one avenue is blocked, it will find another.
In Phil. 1:12 Paul writes, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…” What had happened to him? We read of what Paul knew would, and did actually, happen to him in Acts 20:22-23: “And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” He went to Jerusalem, got arrested, stood before the council, and evaded an assassination plot. He eventually ended up in prison in Rome, which is where he wrote his letter to the church at Philippi.
Paul knows that it is God’s will for him to go and to suffer, and one of the clearest points of Paul’s beautiful testimony to the church then and today is this: He is not primarily concerned with the preservation of his life, but with the proliferation of the gospel.
The Persistence of the Gospel
You might assume, as some did, that what happened to Paul would delay or even stop the spread of the gospel. But no, Paul says, quite the opposite. Despite what seem to be intimidating obstacles, the gospel is making unexpected progress! What has happened to him has actually, by God’s providence and grace, created a new avenue by which the gospel could advance.
Rivers make winding progress. They flow, they go around obstacles. Rivers are persistent, and the gospel is persistent in the same way. If you put a barrier in the pathway of the gospel it always finds a way to go over or around.
The chief obstacle for Paul was his imprisonment, but he saw this as no obstacle at all. In fact, he saw this as opportunity. By way of this opportunity the gospel is advancing in new areas. The message of the gospel cannot be stopped because it is the message of a God who cannot be stopped. It is futile to try to contain it; it cannot be contained. So Paul says, ”You might think this has set me back. But actually, it has put the gospel forward.”
Not An Obstacle to Overcome But An Opportunity to Embrace
Paul knew that many types of affliction would come, but he was confident that God would be at work in it all. He sees it as his assignment to be a willing vessel of affliction and to see that God’s plan is accomplished not despite his affliction – this wasn’t an obstacle to overcome – but because of his affliction – this was an opportunity to embrace.
As Paul writes this letter he sits in prison. He is suffering, and by way of his suffering the gospel is advancing. Long after Paul’s letter was written, Elisabeth Elliot said something that I’m sure Paul would have agreed with: “The will of God is never exactly what you expect it to be. It may seem much worse, but in the end it’s going to be a lot better and a lot bigger.”
It’s safe to say we’re in the “much worse” phase of God’s will right now. But we can look forward with hope and trust that in the end this will work out for our good and God’s glory. And the gospel will advance by way of this affliction if we see COVID-19 not as an obstacle to overcome but an opportunity to embrace.
Have your say:
Why Conservatives and Liberals Are Not Experiencing the Same Pandemic – The Case for a Mandatory COVID-19 App – COVID-19 Conspiracists and Their Discontents – Why We Focus on Trivial Things – Why Canadians should wish Sweden well in its no-lockdown approach to COVID-19
Some snippets of what I’ve read this week. These are the highlights but I encourage you to go and read these posts in their entirety.
Luke Conway – Why Conservatives and Liberals Are Not Experiencing the Same Pandemic – (Heterodox Academy)
“Conservatives oppose the government telling them when they can or cannot leave their homes; liberals support such policies. Because a threatening disease might validate government interventions that conservatives dislike, conservatives appear motivated to downplay the severity. Or conversely, because a threatening disease might validate government interventions that liberals do like, liberals seem motivated to magnify the threat.”
Sean Welsh – The Case for a Mandatory COVID-19 App (Quillette)
“COVID-19 offers governments no attractive policy options. Those in power are in a no-win situation. The choice is not between good and bad, nor even between bad and worse, but between grim and catastrophic. On one hand, there is the “butcher’s bill” of death that results from inaction or inadequate action in the face of the virus. On the other, there is the “banker’s bill” of bail-out and bankruptcy that results from quarantine measures. The “butcher’s bill” that results from delay or inaction in the face of the virus is grim.”
“The butcher bills fortnightly. Two weeks of inaction or delay in the face of COVID-19 can kill thousands. The banker moves at a more leisurely pace, billing quarterly. Most businesses can survive without revenue for a fortnight. Fewer can survive one quarter let alone three or four without income.”
Michael Shermer – COVID-19 Conspiracists and Their Discontents (Quillette)
“Conspiracism always flourishes when people are faced with uncertain, open-ended sources of suffering or evil. The mind abhors a vacuum of explanation. So when gaps in knowledge open up, the empty spaces are filled with available explanations that, however implausible, seem morally compelling. Usually, conspiracists target the suspected evildoers they had their eye on anyway.”
Why We Focus on Trivial Things (Farnam Street blog)
“The Law of Triviality states that the amount of time spent discussing an issue in an organization is inversely correlated to its actual importance in the scheme of things. Major, complex issues get the least discussion while simple, minor ones get the most discussion.”
“The key is to recognize that the available input on an issue doesn’t all need considering. The most informed opinions are most relevant. This is one reason why big meetings with lots of people present, most of whom don’t need to be there, are such a waste of time in organizations. Everyone wants to participate, but not everyone has anything meaningful to contribute.”
Chris Selley – Why Canadians should wish Sweden well in its no-lockdown approach to COVID-19 (National Post)
“When we postmortem this pandemic, we will hear about sexual and domestic assaults, suicides and other isolation-related harms. They will need to be weighed against the risks inherent in a less draconian approach.”
Is the gospel under assault right now in Aylmer, Ontario? Are we Christians being persecuted? Should we be doing something different than we’re doing right now? What does it look like for us to “speak the word without fear”?
Related post: Should This Aylmer Pastor Be Breaking the Law?
One result of Paul’s frequent imprisonments was that other Christians were emboldened, they were energized by his witness of suffering for the sake of Christ (Phil. 1:14). That’s the exact opposite result some would expect. Paul was being punished for speaking the truth of the gospel and the intent on the part of those punishing him was to make clear to others what they could expect if they tried the same thing.
But this doesn’t reduce gospel preaching, it increases it. People who are committed to God and captivated by his word are stirred to speak whenever the gospel is under assault. When you tell Christians not to speak of Christ, as the apostles were in Acts 6, you can be assured that they will speak of Christ at the next opportunity.
Types of Boldness
Bold Christians inspire and energize other Christians, but there are two types of boldness. One leads to good results and the other does not. Bold confident Christians who are wise can inspire other Christians to step out boldly in wisdom. But bold confident Christians who are foolish can inspire other Christians to step out boldly in foolishness.
The small town where I live and pastor a church has been in the national news these last weeks because of a local church that has been disobeying the police by meeting in their cars in their parking lot for worship services on Sunday mornings. The pastor of this church is bold and is attempting to energize his flock to step out boldly.
Making the Case
What should we think of this? We are Christians who count ourselves as people who are bold and confident in the gospel, just as Paul was, just as those who were inspired by Paul were. And we would certainly defend the gospel if it was under assault.
So, is the gospel under assault right now in Aylmer, Ontario? Are we Christians being persecuted? Should we be doing something different than we’re doing right now? What does it look like for us to “speak the word without fear”?
Is the Gospel Under Assault?
The first thing we need to understand clearly from scripture is that we may not like or agree with decisions that are made, but unless the authorities are compelling us to sin then we are not free to disobey. We are free to challenge but we are not free to disobey.
The questions we must answer, then, are these:
- Is the government, in prohibiting us from meeting together – even if we stay in our cars – compelling us to sin?
- Are they mocking us as the Philistines mocked Israel before David slew Goliath?
- Are they commanding us not to pray, as Nebuchadnezzar did Daniel?
- Are they commanding us, even metaphorically, to bow down to an idol, to pledge our sole allegiance to a false God?
- Are they commanding us not to speak the name of Jesus, as the council did to the apostles?
The answer to all those questions is no. To mock us in this situation would be to allow other large groups to gather in this way for corporate events but not Christians. That’s not happening. We have not been commanded to stop preaching or praying or worshiping. In fact, we are still doing all those things. We have not been asked to bow to any sort of idol that would cause us to betray our allegiance to God. We have not been forbidden to speak the name of Jesus. We’re free to do that all we want.
The Conditions For Disobedience
The conditions for disobedience have not been met, so to disobey the authorities at this point would be for us to sin.
One more possibility that might justify disobedience: Are they compelling us to sin by causing us to ignore the command to meet together that we find in the book of Hebrews? Again, no, because there is a greater command, which is to love God and love your neighbour. And to love our neighbours in this time is to abide by the the rules of those who have been placed in authority over us.
We will continue to obey these orders unless it becomes obvious that Christians are being specifically targeted by them. Until that time, we will obey and we will advocate for a reasonable way forward, as we are doing here.
Have your say:
A weekly collection of interesting bits I didn’t have enough time to write any paragraphs about…
“After you do the reading, then what are you going to do? Good judgment and a thoughtful point of view are now scarce assets worth seeking out.”
“People generally aren’t wearing masks and socially distancing out of long-term philanthropy and insight about resources and epidemiology. It’s happening because of the panic of self-preservation…
A narrative of “save yourself right now’ is effective in this culture. In other cultures, less industrialized but hardly less sophisticated, an alternative could be a focus on “us” before “me.”
Without a doubt, short-term market needs are often efficiently filled by short-term selfish behavior. Resilience comes from a longer-term and more community-focused outlook.
The question is: Once people catch the virus and get through it (as most people will) and recover (as more than 9 out of 10 will), what will replace the selfish panic?”
“Paul did his most lasting and well-known ministry by distance. We read the names of specific friends and co-laborers because he cared deeply enough to write letters, sometimes even to people he had never met and never would this side of heaven. Paul has this delightful way of passionately holding to two extremes simultaneously.
He speaks often and with obvious depth of feeling of how much he “longs to be with [them] again.” And yet, he also clearly feels a deep sense of connection with the churches simply by writing, praying for them, being involved in their affairs from afar, and by hearing good news of their deepening faith and love.”
“Bear in mind that our sovereign God, who has taken your sin and bore its wages on the cross, has promised never to lose His child, and has promised that all things will work together for the good of those who love Him: even the haunting effects of sin. Though they can be troubling and painful, He is using all things to accomplish His purposes in your life. He will finish the work he has started in you…”
- Are These Two Doctors Telling the Truth About COVID-19?
- COVID-19: The Limits of Control and Civil Disobedience
- COVID-19: Should This Aylmer Pastor Be Breaking the Law?
- Taste-testing the Daily COVID-19 Expert Opinion Buffet
- COVID-19: Compliance and the Thinking Christian
Here’s the biggest challenge we’re facing right now: There are no COVID-19 experts, only people gaining expertise. Thorough studies and reliably peer-reviewed evidence isn’t available yet so everybody is, in a sense, flying in dim light and doing their best to find an unlit landing strip.
Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi
Millions of people watched a video of doctors Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi giving a press conference about COVID-19 before it was taken down by YouTube on April 27 for violating their “community guidelines.”
As viral videos go this one was long and dense, but it was not filled with ideas we haven’t already heard. So why all the interest? It’s because these ideas were spoken by two experienced doctors with a combined 40+ years of study and practice in the fields of microbiology, biochemistry, and immunology.
The purpose of the press conference, according to Dr. Erickson, was to answer a question about how we are handling the COVID-19 crisis: “Are we following the science?”
My original plan was to analyze most of what was presented in the video, but I think that would be less helpful than examining how the information was presented and offering a couple of principles we should keep in mind and errors we should avoid in our evaluations.
Errors to Avoid(1) – Confirmation Bias
Maybe, like me, you initially greeted what you heard with enthusiasm. A lot of what was said confirmed thoughts I’d had, so it was easy to cheer them on. But here is the first trap we need to avoid: confirmation bias. “Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one’s prior personal beliefs or hypotheses.” (Wikipedia)
It is all too easy to affirm the opinions of those who have come to the same conclusions you’ve come to. However, that doesn’t make your conclusions more true or more valid – it just means others are having the same thoughts. It doesn’t make you conclusions any less true either, but we have to be careful to avoid the error of being fully convinced based on confirmation bias, especially when what we’re believing is based largely on the extrapolation of anecdotal evidence.
Errors to Avoid(2) – Anecdotal Evidence
An anecdote is a short and interesting story about real events. “Anecdotal evidence is evidence from anecdotes: evidence collected in a casual or informal manner and relying heavily or entirely on personal testimony.” (Wikipedia)
Anecdotal evidence, presented honestly, is, by its nature, true but also limited. It is a true telling of a real experience, but it cannot be proclaimed as universally true. Anecdotal evidence should never be discounted, but neither should it be given top position on the altar of truth. It is often given that place of importance out of ignorance, or laziness, or sometimes intentionally in order to weaponize the information to suit our bias.
The extrapolation of anecdotal evidence, then, must be handled even more carefully. The stories that support anecdotal evidence can be entirely true while the resulting trajectories and extrapolations can be completely misguided. Using anecdotal evidence in this way quickly garners a lot of attention but it is not helpful in the quest for truth.
A better way is to present this type of evidence humbly and in context. Done this way, it can provide a great starting point to uncovering the wider truth. And if anecdotal evidence is to be acted upon at all, it should be acted upon humbly and with an openness to more evidence, especially contravening evidence.
Here is what’s most important to understand about what these doctors are saying: their presentation is full of verifiable numbers but also much speculation based on their limited view of a global pandemic.
The Discerning Eye
The discerning eye is always fixed on separating evidence that has proven to be true from that which is anecdotal, relying more heavily on the former and treating the latter with caution. Please make sure you’ve done the hard work of discernment before you crusade either for or against these doctors.
As I mentioned, I am not going to spend time here weighing everything that was said in the press conference. I have my opinions, but I have to remain constantly aware of confirmation bias. I see clearly where statistical evidence was used to confirm certain statements, but I also see where anecdotal evidence was used unwisely to come to bold conclusions that run counter to the current consensus.
So, are these two doctors telling the truth about COVID-19? They are telling SOME truth about it, yes, but they are also engaged in a lot of bold speculation based on partial or anecdotal evidence.
One thing we can agree on is that we’d like for what they’re saying to be true, wouldn’t we?
We’d like it to be true that the death rate is much lower than we’ve been told.
We’d like it to be true that the lockdowns are no longer necessary.
We’d like it to be true that everything can go back to normal and we can all venture out again without masks to embrace our loved ones.
Let’s hope it is all true. But since we’re talking about decisions that will affect, literally, billions of people, we must discern and discuss and weigh and push back, and we must do all of this with an abundance of humility, admitting that our knowledge of this disease is limited.
This humility was lacking in the presentation of doctors Erickson and Massihi, to their own detriment.
In the end, the entire incident could have been more fruitful and less controversial if the doctors had said to the press: “Here’s what we’re seeing in our little corner of the pandemic. Here are a hundred leads for you to follow. Please let us – and everyone else – know if this is what’s happening everywhere.”
In that way they could have sent an army of journalists out to prove whether or not the anecdotal evidence provided was, in fact, more than anecdotal. As it was, they did their own cause a disservice by mixing the factual with the speculative. In the process they stirred up a lot of people who who didn’t take the time to separate the two and aren’t aware of their own confirmation bias.
Have your say:
If we begin to see overreach – that is, if reasonable social distancing rules are used as a platform to exercise unwarranted control over the lives of citizens – we should all be concerned.
The daily glut of information on offer is a challenge to sift through, much less deeply engage with. I’ve been trying to stay tuned-in, to read as widely as possible, and process my thoughts here, publicly, to see if I can move the conversations we need to have in a positive direction. Here’s what I’m pondering today.
The Limits of Control
When it comes to the enforcement of recently enacted laws, if we begin to see overreach – that is, if reasonable social distancing rules are used as a platform to exercise unwarranted control over the lives of citizens – we should all be concerned.
And what we seem to be seeing is a growing number of examples of over-enforcement of rules that aren’t exactly clear in the first place. People are being fined or threatened with fines for shooting hoops alone in a public park, having a social-distancing birthday parties from their cars, and a host of other examples.
This is concerning because of its downstream consequences. If you ticket people for “creative compliance” there will be a cratering of morale in the population, and this will have widespread negative impacts. In addition you run the risk of angry citizens throwing their hands in the air in frustration and pushing back. We are beginning to see this happen and, obviously, it is not a good development.
While in my previous post I stated that as Christians it is our desire and duty to obey, respect, and comply with those in authority over us, civil disobedience cannot be taken off the table of options. At the same time, the bar for civil disobedience must be set very high. Kyle Borg, in a post at Gentle Reformation, explains:
“There are times when as Christians we need to disobey our governing authorities (see Acts 5:29). But it is only when they require us to be disobedient to God — when the only way we can obey them is to be unfaithful to God. For the Christian, civil disobedience doesn’t arise out of patriotic flag waving while holding the Bill of Rights; it doesn’t arise out of anti-government sentiment or political leanings; it doesn’t arise because we’re inconvenienced by the law or draconian measures; it doesn’t arise out of some macho sense of being able to stick it to the man. For the Christian the only motivation for civil disobedience is a deep biblical conviction that obedience to man would be disobedience to God.”
The in-progress case of civil disobedience by a local church in my hometown – and the town where I currently pastor – is an interesting case study. The pastor of this church, Henry Hildebrandt, has determined that the threshold has been met and has decided to hold services in defiance of the authorities.
Anyone is free to comment, but if you are a Christian – and especially if you are a church leader reading this – where are you at in weighing the evidence for and against the justification for civil disobedience at this time? I’d love to discuss this with you. Leave a comment or send an email below or comment below the article on Facebook or send me a private message there.
- COVID-19: Should This Aylmer Pastor Be Breaking the Law?
- Taste-testing the Daily COVID-19 Expert Opinion Buffet
- COVID-19: Compliance and the Thinking Christian
- George Orwell, COVID-19, and the War Metaphor
- Who Will Save Us From This Pandemic?
Have your say:
If we are truly concerned that people in their cars with their windows rolled up are a threat to stopping the spread of COVID-19, how are we not horrified that 300m down the road many people are mingling out in the open with no barriers between them whatsoever, except the one sheet of plexiglass at the checkout? – Michael Krahn (About page)
Here is what’s happening right now in my hometown of Aylmer, Ontario. (Pictured above: Pastor Henry Hildebrandt of The Church of God)
An infectious disease is spreading through the world. It is highly contagious and there is no cure. It is so serious, in fact, that we are taking extreme measures to reduce the spread. As a result, many new restrictions are in place.
Last weekend, a local church gathered for worship in an unusual way. They drove into the parking lot just as they normally would on any other week, but this week they stayed in their cars the whole time with the windows rolled up so there was no chance of spreading the disease. While they were gathered they listened to a live sermon preached onsite via FM radio. This sounds like what we might call “creative compliance”: the goal of the restrictions is met and the church is still able to have some semblance of a gathering.
But in a demonstration of just how serious we are about stopping the spread of this disease, the police showed up to let these people know that this was a dangerous and illegal activity they should not engage in. (This is no knock on the police, who are simply doing their best to enforce the laws that have been made.)
[UPDATE/CORRECTION: In speaking to a church representative I was informed that the police did not show up at the actual service. According to this church leader, the church had been working in cooperation with the local police and had permission to meet in this way. Then on Monday they received notice that they were in violation and if they met the same way again this coming Sunday action would be taken.]
Fair enough – it seems a bit extreme, but we have all accepted that it’s just the world we live in right now.
Another world entirely, apparently, exists about 300m away from this church parking lot. The local grocery store also has a parking lot and many people park there every day. But nobody shows up to warn them not to do so.
But wait, there’s more! These people don’t even stay in their cars. They open their doors and get out of their cars. They then grab a shopping cart and enter the building. Inside the building they grab the groceries they need, together with plenty of other people who are doing the same.
But wait, everyone is wearing masks and being careful to stay six feet apart, right? On staying six feet apart, yes, people seem to be doing their best, but the last time I visited this store I didn’t see a single mask.
Is This Disease Serious or Not?
And all of this begs some questions: Is this disease serious or is it not? And should the pastor of this church, Henry Hildebrandt, break the law and encourage his congregation to meet again the same way next Sunday?
But wait – you say – the grocery store has been designated an essential service and the church has not. Ok, but does that mean there is blanket immunity available on location at these essential businesses? It’s like we’re being told not to gather in groups of more than five – unless you’re at an establishment that has been deemed an essential service. Then it’s free range! Like a city under a protective bubble.
In other words, if we are truly concerned that people in their cars with their windows rolled up are a threat to stopping the spread of COVID-19, how are we not horrified that 300m down the road many people are mingling out in the open with no barriers between them whatsoever, except the one sheet of plexiglass at the checkout?
The incongruence is a little too stark for us to ignore.
The Nature of Church
As Christians we believe that the Bible calls us to regularly meet together in person (Hebrews 10:25). A church family is like an extended biological family. It requires the presence of others to maintain its vitality.
Because of COVID-19 we’ve been asked not to meet and an overwhelming majority of churches have complied with that order. We believe that God is pleased with our compliance as we seek to love our neighbours by taking reasonable precautions to not do them harm. And we will continue to do so unless it becomes apparent that the orders are actually being used to prevent our gatherings in a targeted way. It seems Pastor Henry Hildebrand believes that’s what’s already happening, which is why his church is defying the order.
To be clear, it is our desire as followers of Jesus to respect and submit to those in authority over us because we believe they have been placed in authority over us by God (Romans 13:1). But we also believe that this authority is delegated to them by God and it is therefore not absolute in their hands. God’s authority is absolute, and when human leaders use their delegated authority to unjustifiably discourage what God commands, Christians are obligated to speak up.
Most Christians I know do not believe that faith communities are being intentionally targeted with these laws, but with a few more incidences like this one that is bound to change.
We must find ways to allow for this kind of creative compliance. If we don’t, we run the risk of giving the appearance that these laws and their enforcement are both targeted and arbitrary. So let’s have this conversation before we get to that point.
Feel free to get in touch…
We are offered a daily buffet of expert opinions, and in many cases these opinions are in conflict. So wisdom must be applied to our listening.
Asking the Right Questions
Here we are, weeks deep into a pandemic, and many decisions have been made. How did we come to those decisions? Are the decisions we’ve made the very best decisions? Do they protect the maximum number of people from dying from COVID-19 while also providing livable conditions for everyone? Is the relevant demographic data being taken into account?
For example, as reported in the Toronto Sun last week, “Provincial health data shows those over age 80 account for just 19.6% of all cases but 64% of all deaths. Age 60 and over accounts for 42.8% of all cases and 93.7% of all deaths.”
If those 60 and over accounted for 93.7% of traffic fatalities, would we pull everyone off the road or would we look for ways to address, specifically, drivers who are 60 and over? Traffic isn’t an infectious disease, of course, so the comparison has its limits, but this is certainly worth thinking about.
Isolating everyone over 60 would have its challenges, but those challenges can’t possibly be greater than trying to isolate everyone when you consider the present and future economic toll of the extreme measures that have been taken.
Or how about this: “One study that got a lot of attention last week came out of Stanford, and suggests that the number of people who caught the COVID virus may have been 50 to 80 times higher than we thought. This likely means that the disease was much more contagious than was thought, that it was much less deadly than was thought, and that we actually may be coming down the other side of the curve, rather than climbing up the threatening slope.”
These ideas are worth thinking about because we are all (hopefully) more interested in preserving human life than we are about being right or sticking it to people on the other side of the political spectrum.
We are offered a daily buffet of expert opinions, and in many cases these opinions are in conflict. So wisdom must be applied to our listening. As my friend Aaron Rock wisely said recently,
“If you blindly ‘trust the experts’, and the experts are deluded by the Enemy, filled with sin, or without a discernible moral compass, you run the risk of endorsing decisions that have morally catastrophic implications. Likewise, when you quickly dismiss the experts as corrupt and thoroughly untrustworthy, you may fail to see God guiding them for the common good.”