Michael J. Gorman, a respected New Testament scholar, recently responded to churches wanting to reopen after President Trump announced his classification of houses of worship as essential. Below is Gorman’s post followed by a short interview.
A Brief Biblical Theology for the COVID Church, an outline (a work in progress)
I offer this as a set of invitations (“Let us…”) and also invite feedback. As some might suspect, these invitations are heavily indebted to the apostle Paul. Fortunately, I believe many churches are already practicing these things. I see this as a sort of ecclesiology for the COVID Church in a way analogous to Walter Rauschenbusch’s *Theology for the Social Gospel,* which articulated something that already existed while also advancing the conversation. (The original set of invitations was posted to Facebook on 5/23/20. The list below has been slightly edited and expanded to include what is now #6 and #10.)
Governing Principles in Putting This Together
A. COVID is possibly here to stay for years, not months, coming and going in waves.
B. The church is, in Tom Wright’s words, in a time of exile—though not total and not the same everywhere (https://time.com/5837693/should-churches-reopen-thinking-about-exile/?fbclid=IwAR1_5R_CdstPlsJVDVfOrs3oOtqWkBCsRRG60W-BADKog04TW27bxnk8kY0).
C. This is not a time to “completely rethink” the church (as if that were actually a possibility) or to offer theologically flawed proposals (such as “maybe we don’t need to worship together after all”). Rather, the watchword (actually, watch-phrase) right now needs to be “creative fidelity.”
D. At the same time, this will be a time of creative tension, perhaps even among these biblical perspectives.
- *Let us love the Lord our God… and our neighbor as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:28–31).* The double commandment remains the same. Its expression will take on new forms.
- *Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25; cf. Matt 18:20).* Meeting together is not an option for Christians, but a necessity—a necessity that is also an amazing joy and privilege. We need to meet in creative ways until, once again, we can give full expression to the incarnational character of the faith. We need to keep finding creative ways for worship, study, pastoral care, and mission. We should remember that Jesus is present with us even when we are just gathered as two or three.
- *Let us not, by asserting our rights, real or alleged, do harm to those for whom Christ died (1 Corinthians 8).* This is not the season for Christians and churches to insist on their rights, constitutional or otherwise, to meet physically precisely as we used to do, or at any cost. Caution, prudence, and creativity are signs of neighbor-love.
- *Let us proclaim the gospel in word and deed, for it is God who is at work among us (Philippians 1:27–2:16).* It is a time to do so without complaining about our predicament, as good witnesses.
- *Let us seek the welfare of the city where we are in exile (Jeremiah 29:7).* This is a season to think creatively about the church’s outreach into whatever place we find ourselves in exile, not because the government or the culture deems us “essential” (or not), but because that is what God expects of the people of God in exile.
- *Let us grieve and lament (Psalms; Romans 12:15).* This is a season of sorrow and lamentation because there has been so much loss for so many. We acknowledge our own spiritual losses (of in-person worship, etc.) , but we especially wish to cry out with and for those among us who have lost jobs or loved ones, those who have sacrificed for others and been emotionally or physically devastated, and those whose present and future lives seem so uncertain.
- *Let us bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).* This is a time to become aware of the needs of others in our Christian communities and beyond in order to work together to address them. This includes financial, spiritual, emotional, and other kinds of needs.
- *Let us remember the poor (Galatians 2:10).* This is a time to pay special attention to the least, the poor—with a broad understanding of poverty—both nearby and around the world.
- *Let us embody the fruit of the Spirit, most especially patience (Galatians 5:22–23).* This is a time to allow the Spirit to work in and among us to bring to greater fruition all the dimensions of the Spirit’s fruit, but perhaps most importantly what has sometimes been called long-suffering.
- *Let us embody the virtues of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13).* It is always time to practice this triad of theological virtues and share them with others, but now they will take on special shape and meaning.
- *Let us clothe ourselves with humility (Colossians 3:12; 1 Peter 5:5).* This is a time when we need humility because we are constantly moving into unknown territory, and we will all make mistakes. We need to recognize our own inadequacies and extend ourselves and one another extra measures of grace while also humbly holding ourselves and one another accountable. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
[End of post: interview below]
What initially prompted your post?
Michael: My theological school (St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore) has been holding weekly virtual “town halls” (which include theological and medical/health reflections on our situation from various perspectives), since March or early April, and I did the very first presentation. So I’ve been thinking about the church and these matters for a while. I had also been thinking a lot about how my church, the church, Christians in general, and others have been thinking and talking about “re-opening” the church (going back to gathered worship). I noted lots of talk about our “right” to worship and about caution, but little about biblical and theological perspectives. The immediate prompt was President Trump’s call for church’s to “re-open” because they are, supposedly, “essential” services. This is theologically dangerous language, so rather than just being critical, I wanted to be constructive.
What initial thoughts, if any, do you have since it was ‘published?’
Michael: Overall, I’m glad I wrote it and glad I put it out in public. I have fine-tuned a couple of points and will probably fine-tune a few others. I’ve also added a point (#10 about humility).
What has been the reaction to it so far?
Michael: It has been amazingly positive, as it was shared more than 100 times within a day and more than 200 within two days. Most people have found it helpful as a framework for thinking biblically and theologically about the church in pandemic mode, and even for making decisions. Several people have been especially appreciative of the language of “creative fidelity,” the critique of an emphasis on rights over love, and the attention to the poor. Of course there has been some nuancing and some good minor critique, though not much. A couple of critical voices have sometimes missed the nuances of my points.
Rights have been appealed to over and over in this conversation. As someone deeply invested in the study of the New Testament, could you share a bit about what it has to say about Christians and their rights?
Michael: The language of “rights” in the American sense of insisting on “my” rights is largely foreign to Scripture. The Bible’s concerns are about responsibilities to others, especially the poor, widows, orphans, the stranger, and so on. Those concerns are closer to the notion of “civil rights,” but the biblical emphasis is not on rights per se but on the value of human beings because they are created and loved by God, so rights is a derivative notion, biblically speaking. Paul sees the incarnation and cross of Jesus as creating an ethic of giving up status and rights, in love, for the benefit of others. This pervades his letters. When Christians do insist on their rights (as in 1 Corinthians 8-10), Paul exhorts them to adopt the mindset of Jesus rather than that of their culture.
What advice would you give leaders and Christians who are in contexts which vehemently disagree about which course to take?
Michael: Three things: (1) try to acknowledge that it is easy to just follow the political winds of one’s preference—and then commit to refraining from making these conversations another expression of politics; (2) then commit to thinking and speaking about decisions in a biblical framework and with biblical language; (3) then follow the humility principle in #10 above.
[End of interview]
A respected and well-known New Testament scholar, Michael J. Gorman specializes in the letters, life, and spirituality of the apostle Paul, though he also has written on Revelation (I highly recommend his Reading Revelation Responsibly) and the Gospel of John. His most recent book is Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality (Baker Academic, 2019). The third edition of his text Elements of Biblical Exegesis (also Baker Academic) will be out in November.