Sunday, 26 July 2020

Don't just learn from church history - look to the global church too

In all the discussion about how to navigate the consequences and implications of COVID-19 for churches and believers meeting together, historical events have often been alluded to. From the efforts of Christians to care for the sick in Roman times, Martin Luther's refusal to leave Wittenburg when bubonic plague came, to the Great Ejection of the Puritans in 1662, people have drawn analogies with what Christians have done in past centuries.

This is right and good. The Bible is of course our authority but we have a lot to learn from those who have gone before us in how they interpreted and applied Biblical principles to real life. We sometimes talk about being in uncharted waters now, but there are those who have navigated similar waters in the past and we do well to carefully consider their examples and decisions.

But wouldn't it be better if instead of reading their words and about their situations, we could talk to them? Wouldn't you like to hear the voices of those early Church believers who lived through such difficult times and yet still rejoice in Christ? Wouldn't it be good to have a conversation with the brothers and sisters in Christ who have had to weigh up the hard decisions about whether or not to meet in person and the dangers of hymn singing? Wouldn't it be great to be able to talk with the Puritans about when and how civil disobedience is required?

Those believers are in heaven now and we'll have to wait until we get there for the in-person conversations. But the global church is full of people who have either wrestled with analogous issues in the last fifty years or are still experiencing them today. Christians in the West would do well to remember that they can draw on the breadth and depth of experience within the global church - and then actually do so.

Limits on attendance? In many countries, for either legal or practical reasons, believers often need to meet in homes. That's an attendance cap.

Unable to sing? There are countries today where either it is within living memory that Christians were unable to sing aloud or they are currently still unable to do so.

Submission to civil government in a Biblically appropriate way? Take your pick of countries where believers have been working through these issues for many years. 

In our city in Turkey, we've been thinking through the implications of COVID-19 for public worship and the meeting of believers. Our Turkish pastor has been leading that - but he does so from the perspective of someone who may not have lived through a pandemic before but has certainly dealt with some similar issues. Our church may meet in a building now, but it started off as a house church. Our pastor has thought through when and how to submit to civil government for years. For example, the law here prohibits under-18s from attending church without parental permission and we fairly frequently have teenagers who want to come to our meetings. He hasn't personal experience of believers being afraid to come to church for fear of catching a virus - but, after three Christians were martyred in a city not too far away from us 13 years ago, he does have experience of believers being afraid to come to church for fear of being killed or persecuted. 

Practically, if a church already has links with cross-cultural workers in countries where there is likely to be experience to learn from, it may be as simple as asking them to help facilitate some links and information sharing from their local leaders and believers. Books, articles and videos also give insight into how churches across the world have adapted in the face of difficulties, but a bit more digging might be necessary to find helpful analogous situations.

Clearly a course of action should not be automatically approved solely because it originates from an African, Asian or Middle Eastern church. Suffering and difficulty does not always result in practices in line with an orthodox understanding of Scripture. There are issues of right Biblical interpretation and appropriate cultural application too. And these are not clear cut issues - two different people from the same cultural background, never mind different cultures, can take the same Biblical principles and after prayer and deliberation come to different conclusions. There is a good chance you might disagree with the approach that a pastor from a persecuted church (as well as the pastor from the church down the road) has taken.

But if you're going to look to history for examples of how Christians have dealt with similar issues, you might also remember that there is wisdom and value in looking to the current global church as well.