Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

How (Not) to Navigate Coronavirus Conflicts in the Church

May 19th, 2020 | 15 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked plenty of havoc on healthcare systems and economies around the globe, but what keeps me up at night is worries about what it might do to the church. Weeks of missed worship services, of course, are not good for the spiritual health of any congregation, but if the body of Christ can hold together as a people united by faith, hope, and love, we will have the resilience to quickly bounce back from this time of separation. But can we hold together? Or do we risk facing alienation within our ranks far worse than the physical distance of recent weeks?

The divisions are certainly real. Many of us have seen any number of shouting matches on Facebook and angry denunciations on Twitter during these weeks in which many of us had nothing better to do than to bellow into the ether. But as we come back together, it’s liable to get worse. Some will demand (indeed have demanded) that churches meet before they are formally allowed to, or that they defy new safety regulations that most states and localities have put in place.

Others will insist on an abundance of caution and stay home even after services have resumed. Some will expect all their congregants to show up wearing masks; others will expect none. Some will take the opportunity of being back together to rant about the hoax and tyranny we just had to live through, while others will want to rejoice together over the success of lockdown measures. This is not going to be easy.

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen a number of attempts to address and defuse this tension. The best yet was Brett McCracken’s piece at The Gospel Coalition—I highly commend it to you. But other takes have been less helpful—in fact, in our efforts to reduce conflict, I fear that many Christians risk walking right into the kinds of postmodern follies that we’ve been working so hard to oppose these past few decades. I want to highlight three such common missteps before offering three alternative strategies.

1) “It’s OK to be different.”

One of the most widely shared, but in my view one of the most unhelpful, takes was this from For the Church. The recurrent refrain of the piece was that “everyone is different” and “it’s OK to be different.” Sound familiar? I’m pretty sure this was the message of that multiculturalist morality play for children a few years back, Zootopia. Oh wait…and every other Disney movie for the past twenty years. And every diversity training workshop. I could rant, but I won’t. To be fair, it’s also what St. Paul says in a rather different context in 1 Cor. 12. And at its best, the article gestures toward something of Paul’s point about recognizing different gifts in the body—about learning to use our differences to mutually serve the body. But does this really work, applied to a question like Covid precautions or reopening procedures? It is easy to see how one might have the gift of evangelism and another of teaching and another of service, and these three complementing one another neatly.

It’s less clear how one might have the gift of confidence, another of caution, another of cauti-dence (yes, that term actually appears in the article) and these three complementing each other neatly. If one person thinks the virus is no big deal and one thinks it’s a very big deal and another thinks it’s somewhere in the middle, well one of them is right and two of them are wrong. They may each be able to learn from their exchange of ideas, but in the end they will have to converge on a single judgment if they are to act wisely; they can’t just agree that “it’s OK to be different.”

More fundamentally, though, I think this strategy confuses a problem of social morality for a problem of individual morality (or even individual preference). It’s true that some people are more confident and some more cautious and that’s OK. Some people like rock climbing. Others prefer to stay firmly rooted on the ground. Some ski down the black diamonds, while others keep to the greens. Some ride motorcycles without helmets, others won’t ride a motorcycle at all.

Now, in some cases these choices may still call for some moral judgment, and we might sometimes worry that someone is indeed being reckless, but for the most part, we let adults make their own decisions because they are only (or at least primarily) endangering themselves. Wearing a mask is not like that, though. Authorities have strongly recommended, and in some jurisdictions required, mask-wearing precisely because it is not merely a matter of personal morality.

It is primarily about protecting others from an infection you may not know you are carrying. Going to a social gathering without a mask is thus not like riding a motorcycle without a helmet. It is a lot more like saying, after a night at the bar with your buddies in which the booze flows freely, “I don’t want them to think I’m a sissy; I can still drive everyone home.”

This being the case, churches cannot avoid hard conversations about what loving our neighbor demands. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” but the eye sure as heck can complain if the hand starts trying to gouge it out. Sometimes it’s not OK to be different.

2) “There are lots of different opinions, and what’s important is that we learn to respect one another’s.”

This line is similar to the previous, but whereas the FTC article was more about dispositions and actions, this is about ideas and judgments. There’ve been a lot of heated arguments on social media in recent weeks about the pandemic (I should know; I’ve found myself in the middle of several of them) and as always in such cases, there have been plenty of folks wringing their hands on the sidelines saying, “Well maybe we can just agree to disagree?” or “There are lots of different viewpoints; who’s to say?” or “Let’s just all respect one another’s opinions on this, even if we see things differently.”

And of course, they have a point. We must all cultivate humility. Very few of us engaged in these discussions are ourselves experts, and all of us have a lot still to learn. And even where we are confident in our convictions, we can still exercise charity towards those who disagree. So what’s my beef with this sensible advice?

Well, for one thing, I think that in many ways this is just a dodge. Modern society loves to pat itself on the back for being so tolerant, but it’s easy to tolerate different truth-claims when you don’t really think there is such a thing as truth, or don’t think it matters much what it is. Earlier eras were not necessarily any less tolerant than we are—they just happened to think that the things they argued about were in fact objective truths and really mattered. When we find ourselves bumping up against truth-claims we really do care about, we often find we aren’t nearly as tolerant as we thought.

So it is in the church as well. Although Christians still argue and bicker plenty, the church now is actually far more tolerant of different positions than at almost any point in the past: paedo-baptists and credo-baptists write books together and party together, and so do Presbyterians and Anglicans, and even Protestants and Catholics. Is that because we’re so much more charitable now? Or is because we don’t really care that much about these convictions anymore, or see why the differences matter?[1]

With Covid, we’re suddenly up against a set of differences that quite obviously matter; there’s little way around that. According to one group of Christians, many of their brothers and sisters are cowering in fear of a trumped-up threat and meekly collaborating with a tyranny of historic proportions that will needlessly devastate our economy. If they’re right, that’s kind of a big deal.

But, flip it around, and what if they’re wrong, and we let them have their way, opening the door to an out-of-control pandemic that will take over a million lives and devastate the economy anyway? Well, that would be kind of a big deal too. No sugar-coating it. These are some important differences, and we can’t exactly just agree to disagree. You might say that we could, inasmuch as it’s not our call anyway, and we’ve gotta do what the governing authorities say, whatever we think of it. But that is precisely one of the points at issue. When some people in the church are calling for civil disobedience and others aren’t, well, it’s hard to just agree to disagree.

More fundamentally, though, this strategy falls prey to a deep-seated postmodernist idea that at bottom, there’s no real distinction between facts and opinions. All data is interpreted, they say, so all fact-claims are really just opinion-claims. I might say the virus is extremely deadly, whereas you might say it’s just the flu—why can’t we both just be entitled to our opinions? Well because one of us has got to be flat wrong. Each of us is (in some measure) entitled to our own opinions, but not to our own facts.

When two students do the same multiplication problem, and one comes up with the answer “10,000” and the other of “10,” you don’t tell them to respect one another’s opinions. You go back over it with them and figure out where one of them (or possibly both of them) went off-course. And yet I’ve seen many well-meaning Christians, when they see two of their brothers or sisters wielding wildly different data about the virus, patting both on the shoulders and calling for mutual understanding.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not always easy to discern the line between fact and opinion; few facts are quite as cut-and-dried as the solution to a basic multiplication problem. Sometimes it will take a fair bit of digging to get to the bottom of where the facts actually lie on a question, and there may be room for disagreement and ambiguity at the end of that process.

On something as complex as coronavirus, this is surely the case—e.g., is the infection fatality rate 0.5% or 1.5%? Which forms of social distancing are most effective? But when there is in fact a “fact of the matter,” we should not obfuscate it, and act like wildly different statements of it are equally valid. If we do, we in fact make it impossible to sort through our differences of opinion. Because it may well turn out that we share exactly the same opinion about what we ought to do if the answer were “10,000” and what we ought to do if the answer were “10.” What looks like a difference of opinion turns out in fact to be a different evaluation of fact, and this must be addressed, not just waved off in the name of charity. Or we may find that we do have real differences of opinion, but these are still much easier to cope with once we’ve agreed on a base of shared facts.

3) “We need to hold our peace and listen to those who are suffering.”

One of the most common strategies for shutting down conversation in the midst of Covid debates is to ask: “have you lost your job? Is your income on the line? If not, maybe you should be quiet and listen to those who are actually suffering the effects of these lockdowns.”

Matt Walsh of all people wrote an article-length version of this putdown. But this is straight out of the identity politics playbook: “Oh, you’re straight? Well then don’t lecture gay people about whether they can or can’t get married.” “You’re a male? You have no business discussing women’s rights.” “You’re white? You’re not entitled to a perspective on racial justice.” If you need a book-length evisceration of this kind of nonsense, check out Douglas Murray’s world-class skewering, The Madness of Crowds.

There is, of course, an important nugget of truth to it: we all need to have an awful lot of humility, and cultivate an awful lot of empathy, when speaking about complex problems that disproportionately hurt others, while we are relatively shielded. Indeed, it may often be prudent to keep a judicious silence in the face of such suffering, so as not to appear to be lecturing the victims, and to take time to listen and learn from their firsthand perspective.

But the idea that victimhood is somehow epistemically privileged as such, or that only those directly harmed by a situation have the right to speak on it, makes no sense at all. Imagine that I were a regulator responsible for evaluating and setting chainsaw safety standards.

Should I study broad statistics on chainsaw injuries, or consult with engineers about their manufacturing techniques and safety features? Or should I confine myself to interviewing only widows whose husbands were recently killed in chainsaw accidents? Should I assume that the latter would give me the best possible perspective on the tradeoffs when it comes to chainsaw safety? Clearly not.

Everyone in the church needs to be willing to listen to and learn from one another, and from the best authorities and sources of information that we can find. Those of us, like myself, who have been particularly blessed to remain largely unaffected by the lockdowns should be extra slow to speak and quick to listen to those who have been affected. But ultimately, the purpose of listening is to seek truth together, and we will not find truth by demanding that everyone who still has a job sits down and shuts up.

So then, if all three of these are bad strategies, what can we do about the yawning gap opening up between so many of us, not merely on how to respond to what has happened, but even on how to describe what has happened to us? How on earth can we keep loving each other and talking to each other and seeking truth together in the face of such crippling disagreements about things that can’t be minimized, and which require us to actually make hard decisions about common action?

I have three recommendations here, and will be much briefer with these than with the previous list of three. Perhaps in later posts I will elaborate on some of these, but I think they are really pretty straightforward.

1) Cultivate empathy.

As I said, the third strategy above has a big nugget of truth to it. If we’re going to find a way through all of this, it will require cultivating empathy. What is empathy? As I reflected on this question recently, I was drawn back to an essay that I wrote more than seven years ago here at Mere O, which I think is strikingly apropos to the current context

Empathy is putting oneself in place of another, not necessarily to camp out there by adopting her viewpoints, but to see the world, for a moment or two, through her eyes. It is an act of imagination, a temporary suspension of disbelief so as to understand how the opponent’s argument fits together (or, as the case may be, fails to fit together).

As Matt Anderson put it in his excellent post, it is a matter of ‘seeing how. As in, “Oh, I see how you could think that. It’s wrong, but I can see how it might make sense.”

It is an act that is aimed, first and foremost, toward the good of understanding, a good that persuasion may flow from but can never precede.’ Or, we might say also it is a matter of seeing why, of understanding the other’s motives. Faithful irenics is thus not accountable only to the criterion of a true grasp of propositions, but of a true grasp of persons. If you do not truly understand what your opponent is up to, your arguments may succeed in deconstructing an error, but not his error, and thus you will never win him.”

The wonderful thing about such empathy is that it’s equally useful no matter what your ultimate conclusion about someone else’s position. Committing to such empathy does not require papering over error or pretending a disagreement isn’t a big deal, it just means actually taking the time to grasp why someone might think that thing that you are convinced is foolish or dangerous.

Sometimes this exercise will lead you to change your own mind somewhat; other times, it will simply help you find better tactics for changing the mind of the other. And even if no one budges and you remain convinced that the other person is a bit off their rocker, you can remember that you too have been off your rocker at times, and if you see things more clearly now, that is a gift from God.

2) Look for areas of ultimate agreement, instead of assuming the worst.

This comes back to something I said above about facts and opinions. So many of the debates that have divided Americans in recent weeks have been framed as “those who worry more about public health” and “those who worry more about the economy.”

But as I’ve elsewhere written, and many others have as well, it’s not really that simple. For one thing, those who oppose lockdowns recognize that economic damage hurts not merely pocketbooks, but ultimately life and health as well. And those who support decisive lockdowns, like me, do so in large part because they are convinced that they are the best way to minimize the long-term economic and societal damage.

In fact, I dare say that everyone wants to minimize the damage to the economy. But you can’t make consumers behave normally just by waving a wand or an executive order. They were already staying home before orders were imposed, and many will continue staying home after restrictions have been eased have been lifted.

If you want shoppers to flood back into stores, the only way to do so is for people to have confidence that the risks are low. And the only way you convince people of that, it seems to me, is by hammering down the curve so that infections are low in a community, and by ramping up testing and contact tracing so the scale of an outbreak is clear and it is containable.

Some might disagree with this reasoning, or think that there are other considerations that must be weighed (e.g., constitutional issues, or other concerns about government power). But the fact is that most people want very much the same result: they want to minimize loss of life over the long haul as much as reasonably possible, without completely wrecking the economy and causing greater suffering and harm over the long haul.

Maybe there are some people out there who care more about their pocketbooks than about Grandma. And maybe there are some people who are so obsessed with preserving life that they’ll go to any lengths to stamp out the epidemic altogether, but I’m not sure if I’ve met any of them.

So why do we so radically disagree? Well because we disagree about the facts on the ground, leading to different evaluations of the various risks, and we disagree about the best means toward our desired ends—but those desired ends are in many cases quite similar.

To be sure, I don’t want to oversimplify this; there are also some deep-seated differences in how Americans think about freedom and authority that have colored many perceptions. But we could get a lot further by recognizing that most of us are after the same thing, and then focusing on getting on the same page about how to get there.

3) Recognize the tragedy and learn to lament.

Part of the reason that the coronavirus has so divided our society, and the church along with it, is that we have forgotten what it means to live with tragedy, and we have forgotten how to lament. Every bad thing that happens is re-narrated as a human error, demanding finger-pointing.

This is in part because today we have so much arrogant confidence in human ability to manage the world around us and bend nature to our will, that we cannot accept the existence of a force of nature that refuses to be managed, that refuses to bend to our will. And thus we cannot grapple with the tragic dimension of human life, with our own frailty.

Our civilizational hubris is heightened by the extraordinary self-absorption of the man in the Oval Office, who cannot help seeing everything that happens as a referendum on him. And as soon as he does so, the rest of us follow suit.

This pathology was evident a couple years ago when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and took thousands of lives, the worst American hurricane in a century. This was truly “an act of God,” and there was almost nothing anyone could have done about it—you can’t evacuate a whole island that size. It should’ve been an American tragedy, calling for lamentation and service to those in need, but instead it was almost immediately politicized, and remains so to this day.

The same pathology is evident in the vast majority of the reactions to the virus, on Right and Left, among the doubters and the believers, the lockdowners and the re-openers. I have been guilty of it myself at different points.

Since we believe deep down that this ought to be a problem that can be managed or even solved, we cast about for a scapegoat to blame for the fact that the problem keeps spiraling out of control. Some will blame Trump, others the Federal bureaucrats, some the governors who have done too much, others the governors who have done too little, some the nationalists, others the globalists. Everyone has an “if we could only do X” or “if we could only be like Sweden” then everything would be alright, or at least much better.

And to be sure, there are people to blame—loads of them, no doubt, though I’m glad I’m not in any of their shoes. And there are better and worse courses of action before us. But there are no good courses of action before us. There are no easy solutions. There is no way through this without untold suffering and sacrifice and failure, whether we ease up restrictions sooner or hang onto them longer.

All of the finger-pointing is ultimately a manifestation of hubris, of the belief that since we are supposed to be in control of things, any crisis must be someone’s fault. In the end, though, this pandemic is a call to humility, lamentation, and repentance, to remember how very small we are before the hand of God’s judgment.

If we can adopt these strategies, then, I hope, we can have a better shot of living out Paul’s admonition: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3).

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.