Churches have been called to accompany the most vulnerable people and communities, as well as to be in solidarity with each other. In this pandemic, we have experienced how partnerships between churches in different parts of the world have strengthened in the face of this crisis, and how churches are striving to support people suffering extreme hardship in these circumstances. Today, we shall conclude our discourse on the above issue. Please, read on.
Being subject to the governing authorities
The governing authority is a group of people who possess the authority to exercise governance over an organization or political entity. They could be the legislators, the governors, agencies of government, etc. One unique attribute about these bodies is that they derive their authority from the law. For the Church, the governing authority derives its authority from God.
The word “subject” is a noun, an adjective and a verb. In Romans 13:1, the word is used as a verb. As a verb, it means to bring a country or group under control. In Romans 13:1, Paul is simply admonishing everyone in the country or a group (the Church) to be under the control and direction of the governing authority: for there is no authority except from God and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.
On May 10, 2021, the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19, a governing authority, published implementation guidelines for Phased Restriction of Movement, following its review of the COVID-19 response in the light of the rising trend in several countries and the high risk of a surge in cases in Africa. For religious centres (churches inclusive), it recommended that:
“1. All gatherings linked to religious events should be limited to less than 50% capacity to ensure physical distancing;
2. Face masks are mandatory;
3. Gatherings of more than 50 persons must be held outdoors only; and,
4. Religious centres observe all mandatory non-pharmaceutical interventions.”
These non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in paragraph 4 above are actions, apart from getting vaccinated and taking medicine that people and communities can take to help slow the spread of diseases like COVID-19. NPIs are also known as community mitigation strategies. They include:
• Staying at home when you are sick.
• Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue.
• Washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer when soap and water is not available.
As clear as these guidelines are, many churches in Nigeria are not adhering to them or encouraging their members to adhere to them. We must understand that COVID-19 is a novel virus that is still being studied. While its origin is still shrouded in mystery, religious leaders must not flout the orders of the governing authority or come up with unfounded conspiracy theories about the virus.
On March 9, 2020, it was reported by the New York Times that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in South Korea neared 7,400 as at that day. Many of them were traced back to the mysterious Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an organization that has become a lightning rod for the public’s wrath and a ready outlet for longstanding prejudice.
In Nigeria, Bishop David Oyedepo called the shutdown of churches as an attempt to cripple Christianity. According to him:
“The church is God’s banquet hall where we are fed with spiritual food to keep us alive and strong. So, whatever stops the church from fellowshipping [sic] is out to destroy what God is building. …There must be a devil behind it. It is not virus, it is demon, there is a demon at work behind the scene, I told you in the morning I can smell a rat.”
The above mentality is wrong. Although the church has a duty to fellowship, it also has a duty to protect its members (and the general public at large) from the dangers of the world. Consequently, the church must be subject to the governing authorities in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and must verify the authenticity of any information on COVID-19 before disseminating it. Though it is scriptural that the just shall live by faith, however, the just must understand that faith in God must compel us to protect life by doing all that we can to avoid transmitting this virus. Whoever resists verified information given by the governing authority is resisting tacitly the ordinance of God.
This is the time for responsible leadership by the state, communities and faith leaders alike. Government at all levels must have access to verified and timely information, address the situations due to loss of livelihood and employment and care for the most vulnerable. This is also a time for profound reflection on the common good, good governance and ethical values rooted in our traditions. The church should, therefore, complement the efforts of the government by providing public awareness on the virus and help erase misinformation about the virus.
Coronavirus is changing the way we live, and everyone has the obligation to save people by ensuring that people comply with the COVID-19 guidelines set forth by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). This may involve modifying some of the practices or rituals in the church. For example, physical gathering should be suspended while virtual gathering should be promoted. In India, it was reported that coronavirus cases shot upward after millions of people converged on the Ganges River to bathe at a holy spot offering a chance at salvation. When the pilgrims returned to their homes, some brought the virus with them.
The Church has a role here in persuading people that preventing the loss of tens of thousands of lives realistically requires more efforts than just prayers. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it very clear that the resilience of a church does not depend on how many pastors, bishops or priests there are, but on whether the people understand themselves to be fully Church – even without an ordained priest or pastor present.
Even though we may not for the time be able to gather in large numbers for worship, we must remember Jesus’ words that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20), and recognize that also in the smaller gatherings required by public health authorities.
Doing what is right
Doing what is right in the fight against COVID-19 involves adhering to the directive of the government as stated above and complementing the efforts of the government through innovation and informed decisions. Religious centres attract large numbers of people. The Church can complement the effort of the governing authority by:
• Ensuring proper use of face covering.
• Making provision for safe hygiene facilities.
• Providing temperature checks prior to entry into the church.
• Enforcing provisions and use of face covering within the church premises.
• Where necessary, having virtual services.
• Ensuring proper social distancing in the church.
• Giving instructions on how to prevent transmission of the virus, etc.
Implementing these guidelines will not make the gates of Hades prevail against the Church. In addition to these complementary roles stated above, the Church can support impoverished, vulnerable and marginalized groups.Truly, COVID-19 is still impacting every part of Nigeria. It has highlighted and heightened the existing inequalities and injustice in Nigeria. For example, in October, 2020, COVID-19 palliatives were looted in several parts of the country as a result of hardship and the sheer refusal of the government to distribute the COVID-19 palliatives found in several warehouses. Also, the One Million Boys disturbing some parts of Lagos Mainland were mostly people who felt the society abandoned them to die of hunger. These nefarious activities ended immediately the lockdown was lifted.
Though a few churches distributed palliatives to their members, however, it is believed that, if more churches had responded effectively to the impoverished, vulnerable and marginalized groups in their communities, armed robbery and the looting of stores would have been minimized.
COVID-19 will definitely have a long-term impact on the society. Thus, the Church must rise and brace itself for the economic impact of the pandemic. The impact of the Church will be felt effectively when it responds to the needs of the society generally and not only the need of registered members of the Church. It is understood that as church members are impacted heavily by loss of livelihood, churches also face financial instability. That notwithstanding, the Church must find ways of meeting the needs of members of the society by being a voice for justice and raising awareness on COVID-19.
The Church is a group of people who understand their identity in Christ. In this modern COVID-19 era, it must adapt to the new ways of living by doing the following:
• Adhering to COVID-19 guidelines set forth by NCDC.
• Obeying constituted authorities and complementing their efforts.
• Investing in technology and placing emphasis on virtual service.
• Checking on people who live on their own, whether they are elderly or young, single members.
• Partnering with local ministries that may be overwhelmed.
• Investing in benevolence ministry.
• Praying for the end of COVID-19.
Sounds and bites
There are two sides to every coin. Life itself contains not only the good, but also the bad and the ugly. Let us now explore these.
“Getting old is mandatory but, feeling old is optional.”
Thought for the week
“Religion is the organization of spirituality into something that became the handmaiden of conquerors. Nearly all religions were brought to people and imposed on people by conquerors and used as the framework to control their minds.”
(Dr. John Henrik Clarke)