The below article was written by pastor and author Bill Hull, and is re-posted here with permission from The Bonhoeffer Project.
The above question [Should a Christian Leader Flee from a Deadly Plague?] was asked by the Reverend Doctor Johann Hess, pastor at Breslau, to Martin Luther in 1527. Luther answered several months later with, what is now, a ten-page letter in very small print. The same kind of issue came up for Charles Spurgeon during the cholera outbreak in London in 1854. Yet long before either of these famous preachers faced the question, it was answered by scores of Christians during the first three centuries. Plagues that killed thousands were regular events in many of the cities mentioned in scripture, such as Antioch. Christians became known as those who would stay behind and nurse their own, those outside their circle of friends, and outside the church. It was this courage and great love that melted the hearts around them.
The coronavirus is real and serious, but not nearly as lethal as what our ancient brothers and sisters faced. That is all they knew, and they responded in that context; we must respond in ours. Very few plagues then were pandemics. Because of travel and communications, the virus can spread rapidly, and so can panic. The general sense of things you get from Christian history is that Christians do the sensible and necessary thing without fear, in a spirit of peace, and with an extended hand to those in need.
Luther’s letter is nuanced and sounds quite sensible. He groups Christian leaders, pastors for example, and city officials and medical personnel into a special category; they must stay and minister to those in need. He speaks to the responsibility of fathers to their families, of one neighbor to another, and essentially says, you can’t flee until all those in your sphere of influence have the care they need. Much of our modern response is governed by modern realities. Hospitals, medical professionals, pharmacies, and communications are all tools our society can use to take care of many needs. There is no place to flee, it is a pandemic. There is your house, social distancing, washing your hands, etc. Something modern tools and communication is challenged by, however, is calming the inner spirit of a person.
I woke up a few days ago with a knot in my stomach. I had to run it down, “Why is it there?”, I had to ask myself. Basically, it boils down to the fact that I like to control my life. I prefer to have a good schedule that I can keep and reach goals that I have set. Now, all that is topsy-turvy. I think things through, and sometimes, I take them to their logical conclusion, which has me in an ICU on a respirator. After all, I’m officially a soft target. So, I go out to the pharmacy or grocery store with hand sanitizer that is homemade by my wife, who seems to be at perfect peace. As I pray for protection, I realize that virtually all my neighbors and fellow shoppers standing and gawking at the empty shelves in the paper goods aisle are also praying the same prayer. Something about needing TP and “please God, don’t let anyone sneeze on me”. My wife says, “Don’t watch cable news! Watch Hallmark instead. Every show is the same and there is always a happy ending.” I prefer old sporting events where I already know the winner.
I recall a few years ago, my former physician, a very acerbic New Yorker, who one day looked at me and said, “Reverend Hull, I’ve known you for several years and you always seem to be on top of your game. Today, you don’t seem right. What is wrong? You have lost fifteen pounds
, and you are very stressed.” I confessed to him what I told God earlier that morning, “Doctor, I’ve taken back control of my life. Jesus told me I shouldn’t do it, but gradually I’ve done it. He told me to give up my life, to hold it loosely, but I’ve been holding on tight. I’ve been trying to control my physical problems and I’ve been racked with anxiety.”
My agnostic doctor looked at me. He was seated on one of those short stools that roll that doctors seem to like. He shoved off, rolled over to where I was seated, grabbed me by the knees, and said, “Reverend Hull, it’s time to believe.” I was shocked. I went out to my car and I wept for several minutes – embarrassed, ashamed, rebuked – and I repented. That was a big moment for me and it is serving me well today. I took solace then, as now, in that God gives a peace that is unlike the worlds. It is supernatural, it is nonsensical, and it is beyond human comprehension.
“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid.” – John 14:27
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6,7
I want you to know that we at The Bonhoeffer Project pray for you. We pray for the church we love. We pray for the nation, our president, and the other leaders and health professionals that are working to help us. For us, it is a time for peace, prayer, and yes, proclamation through our extended hands and our supportive words to those around us.
Trusting in His care,