I had the honor of asking Tremper Longman III (PhD) some questions about the delicacy and complexity of our given situation. Tremper Longman is Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Westmont College, as well as author of The Bible and the Ballot: Using Scripture in Political Decisions (Eerdmans, 2020).
My questions are in bold.
Christians across America were celebrating when Trump deemed churches as essential. What was your initial response, and has it changed at all?
Tremper: Churches are indeed essential. Christ calls on us to meet together to worship him, to enjoy fellowship, to take the sacraments, to hear the word preached, and on and on. But it is not essential that the church meet physically in the normal way during a pandemic of a disease that is easily transmissible, is sometimes undetectable during its contagious stage, and is lethal to many, particularly vulnerable, people. During this time period, out of love for our neighbors, we can be creative in how we worship together.
As local health authorities deem that it is safe to meet together again, then the churches should carefully begin to meet together.
My initial response to President Trump’s announcement was very negative. It was clear that he was making the announcement against the advice of his best health experts and without care for local situations (like in the DC area itself where I live and where we are still on the upswing). His challenge that he would override governors was in my opinion foolish and showed a lack of concern for people’s health and would only further aggravate non-Christian’s growing disdain of the white evangelical church. That view has not changed.
What advice do you have for pastors whose congregants want or demand different things (reopen, stay closed, etc.)? Alternatively, what advice do you have for congregants who may be divided?
Tremper: I really have great empathy for pastors as they navigate this issue. I would say in the first place that they must listen to local authorities and if their congregants are demanding something different (open though the governor or the mayor says not to do so), then the pastor needs to be a leader and to stand firm in the interest of the health of others. He also needs to remind people that non-Christians look at our speech and actions and they will either be attracted or repelled from the gospel). I think if the local authorities say it is OK to reopen, unless there is strong indication that the local authority is going counter to the best advice of our health experts, then they should carefully reopen. Perhaps they should open the church but still have a zoom alternative for people who are at more risk than others.
As in all relationships we need to submit to each other. On an issue like this if a congregation is divided then they need to look after the best interest of their fellow congregants. If my church decided to reopen against advice, I would express my disagreement to my rector respectfully, ask him to provide a zoom or YouTube option, but not leave the church or escalate the disagreement. I would hope that my fellow attenders would do the same if the church decided to stay remote in its worship.
Oh I should say, I don’t think we should use reopen or close. The church is open. We are still the church. We still meet though virtually.
I also should say that I know there are some churches and members that for various reasons, perhaps money, don’t have the option of virtual worship. That is a much more difficult situation. But perhaps small groups meeting is the answer there.
Some pastors feel certain that if they don’t reopen soon, congregants will get used to virtual church and this change will negatively impact the future of their church, funding, and discipleship (as discipleship involves face to face interaction). Is this a valid concern?
Tremper: It may be a valid concern in that this might happen with some, but if so then the church has not taught well on discipleship or the nature of the church. Also I am not sure discipleship requires face-to-face interaction. And to be honest this will change the church in some ways I imagine. Not all of it bad.
Do you sympathize with any of the arguments for reopening?
Tremper: I sympathize and agree and share the desire for reopening and again let me say that church’s ought to reopen safely as soon as possible. But I have no sympathy for the idea that churches should reopen in spite of the health risk. Again, there is risk in everything, but we are just coming out of a period where we might overwhelm the health system. That we went into this period and physically distanced saved us from the worst case scenario. We now have to be mindful that there will likely be a second wave in the fall and need to be ready for another period.
By the way there is no guarantee that we are going to get a vaccine in the near future or for that matter ever. If this situation goes on into the fall of 2021 and into 2022 and beyond then we may have to revisit all these issues. Let’s pray that we get the vaccine and that everyone, especially Christians, get the vaccine. I worry about that because for various reasons some Christians have taken an anti-science approach and listen too much to conspiracy theories.
In the conversation about government overreach as well as Christians gathering in person, there seems to be no shortage of talk about “rights.” As one who has studied the Bible extensively, what do you feel the Bible has to say about Christians and their rights?
Tremper: As people created in the image of God, we should treat each other with great respect and dignity—Christians and non-Christians alike. So yes I do think there are certain rights that are implicit in our being created in the image of God. We should have the right to follow our conscience as long as we don’t harm someone else. Much more can be said about this. But Christians should be willing to forego their “rights” as long as it does not violate their relationship with God (and suspending in-person church does not do that). If, as in parts of China at various time, the government said you cannot meet as a church (because they are trying to suppress Christianity not because of a health crisis), then we would, like they do, still meet and take the consequences.
Connected to this though is the fact that the Bible does not presume or even advocate for what we call religious liberty. It is desirable, but not necessary. Indeed anecdotally the church does much better in terms of growth and in terms of its spiritual vitality when it is persecuted rather than privileged.
[End of interview]
Recently Dr. Tremper Longman III (PhD and prolific author) posted a piece for Cataclesia titled Suffering with Joy and Hope, delving into what the Bible says and doesn’t say about fear and anxiety in the midst of great hardship. The post can also be found on his webpage tremperlongman.com.
The author of How to Read Daniel (IVP, 2020) as well as Confronting Old Testament Controversies: Pressing Questions about Evolution, Sexuality, History and Violence (Baker, 2019), Longman is a highly-respected Old Testament scholar, theologian and professor. One of the main translators of the New Living Translation, his books have been translated into seventeen different languages.