Meanwhile, in Louisiana, another pastor faces charges: Police charged Tony Spell with a misdemeanor after he held church services that officials say violated the governor’s orders prohibiting large gatherings. Hours later, Spell returned to Life Tabernacle Church in Central, La., and held another service. A Baton Rouge news outlet reported the parking lot was packed.
Spell—who told CNN the COVID-19 scare is politically motivated—vowed he would continue holding services, despite a state order that now bans gatherings of 10 or more people through at least April 30. Roy Moore—the former chief justice of Alabama—said he would advise Spell’s legal team.
According to an NBC News report, Spell declared: “The virus is attracted to fear, and we are fearless people.”
By early April, it was clear the virus wasn’t sparing churches. Health officials in Hopkins County, Ky., linked dozens of coronavirus cases—and at least two deaths—to a local church that held revival services March 15-16 in a rural town east of Paducah.
The federal government hasn’t issued orders related to church gatherings, but Vice President Mike Pence urged churches to comply with federal recommendations : “We really believe this is a time when people should avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. And so we continue to urge churches around America to heed that.”
It’s unclear how courts will rule in legal battles pitting churches against government orders. The array of county and state orders issued in the last few weeks is dizzying, and attorneys in different states will have to argue cases based on the specifics of each order.
After Howard-Browne’s arrest in Tampa, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a state-wide stay-at-home order in Florida but exempted religious services. The order didn’t appear to set a limit on attendance or require social distancing. (The governor of Texas issued a similar order for his state.)
That led commissioners in Hillsborough County to grapple with bringing their local order in compliance with the state directive: The commissioners said they would issue guidelines to churches about safety, but no longer place requirements on their gatherings.
After the meeting, attorneys from Liberty Counsel said they would halt plans for a lawsuit against the county, and they called on local officials to drop charges against Howard-Browne.
Earlier in the week, Howard-Browne—who had said he would never cancel services—announced the church was canceling on-site gatherings to protect congregants from the “tyrannical government.” The church shifted to online services.
The steady stream of orders, revisions, and new orders have created legal whiplash in some communities. But while it’s unclear how legal battles will play out, it is clear that civil authorities have power to take steps to protect public safety. It’s also clear that orders aren’t singling out Christian gatherings—they apply to a broad range of religious and secular gatherings.
Beyond the question of what Christians may do during a dangerous pandemic, an even bigger question looms: What should we do?
Andrew Walker, an ethics and apologetics professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says he doesn’t view the question of canceling church gatherings as fundamentally a religious liberty issue: “Is the church forfeiting its liberty to act with discretion and prudence and care for the society around it? I would say, no.”
Walker says Christians should be alert about religious liberty, and if government officials try to use any of the current emergency orders to later “create bad case law and bad precedent for hampering the church, then absolutely we’ll fight. I’m simply saying this is not the fight to have a fight over.”
In the 1600s, the English Puritan Richard Baxter wrote that Christians should obey civil authorities if they forbid church assemblies during pestilence: “It is lawful to do that secretly for the present necessity, which we cannot do publicly … and yea, to omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have the opportunity for more.”
As churchgoers in the United States and around the world rightly longed for the opportunity to gather again in person, Christian author and pastor Zack Eswine wrote about the Christian virtue of protecting our own health—so that we might be fit to sacrificially meet the needs of others as the pandemic rolls on.
“We don’t prove our faith by defying orders in order to shake the hand of another Christian,” Eswine wrote. “We prove our faith by denying ourselves so that we can clear the throat of a neighbor who can’t breathe.”
Church in hotspots
Church leaders are doing the best they can while cut off from church members
For missionary Michael Brown, the most difficult moment of quarantine at his home in Milan came when a 50-year-old member of his church entered the hospital with COVID-19. Doctors placed the man, Sabino, on a ventilator.
“This is the hardest part for me,” says Brown. “I couldn’t go see him.” As in most hospitals battling coronavirus around the world, visitors aren’t allowed. Sabino couldn’t speak while on a ventilator, but Brown could still send texts to his phone. The pastor sent Bible verses and short notes of encouragement: “We love you.” “We’re praying for you.”
“I figured his body was being pumped full of vitamins and antibiotics,” says Brown. “I was just going to pump his soul full of the promises of God.”
As Sabino struggled, so did the rest of the country: At least 13,000 people had died of the coronavirus in Italy by the beginning of April. The country’s medical system groaned under an overwhelming load—particularly in the northern region of Lombardy.
That’s where Brown serves as the pastor of Chiesa Riformata Filadelfia in northwest Milan. (The Protestant congregation is part of a mission work called Reformation Italy.) Brown and his family left a home and church in California 18 months ago to serve as missionaries in the city.
He thinks back to normal church life just a couple of months ago: Sunday worship, fellowship, catechism classes, a new members class, and an English class outreach that was drawing 25 students. The pastor used the book of Mark to teach students: “The first sentence they learned in English was ‘The gospel of Jesus Christ, according to Mark.’”
These days—like pastors around the world—Brown and the elders in his church keep in touch with congregants by phone. They stream their worship service. Each evening at 8:00, they also stream a few minutes of Scripture and prayer, so the members can try to be together for at least a little while, even if it’s only virtually.
Brown says most people in the congregation know people who have died from the coronavirus: a brother, a cousin, an uncle, neighbors, close friends. Like other pastors, Brown bears the weight of not being able to comfort the grieving in person.
But he works the phone, and by the end of March, Sabino was texting back. At first it was two or three words. Then he could have short conversations. Doctors released him to recover at home. “We were elated,” says Brown.
Even in the burdens of the moment, and the stresses of a strict quarantine, Brown finds sources of encouragement. He says the number of people watching online services in the city has grown: First a few dozen, then 200, 300, and at one point, 1,000. He hopes to meet some of those people when the quarantine lifts.
“This is such a grave time, you just feel a burden to preach the gospel,” he says. “Right now, the gospel is the most applicable thing in the world.”
Back in the United States, New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, as other cities struggled too: New Orleans quickly emerged as a hotspot for COVID-19. Some speculated the large gatherings during Mardi Gras could have fueled the outbreak before government officials sounded serious alarms.
The city is alarmed now, but that’s not new for New Or-leans: This summer marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—the powerful storm that emptied the city for weeks and devastated parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.
Ben McLeish remembers those days well. He’s lived in the city with his family for 20 years and led church teams gutting and mucking out houses in poor neighborhoods after water filled them and rotted most everything inside.
The deacon at St. Roch Community Church says the city is accustomed to trauma, but it can’t respond in its usual way. “When Katrina hit, you’d have a team come and gut your house in the morning and that night you’d have a crawfish boil for them,” says McLeish. “Eating and gathering in large groups is so how our culture has dealt with the intensity that exists here.”
That intensity spans decades, but it has a different feel now. “We mourn deeply and we celebrate big,” says McLeish. “Those are the pieces that have made us resilient over the years. It’s what makes New Orleans so beautiful. But we can’t do those things now.”
He says memories of Katrina’s trauma run deep in the city: “The difference now is that there’s no one to come to our aid. We’re all in the same boat.”
For a city dependent on tourism, the COVID-19 crisis hits particularly hard. It’s difficult to foresee when jazz clubs will hum again or when crowds will flock to the Café du Monde for its famous beignets.
Other parts of the city have known years of hardship and poverty, and job losses will only deepen previously existing problems. But McLeish says church members are keeping in touch, streaming worship online, and trying to serve the most vulnerable in the congregation.
He’s learning from his neighbors: “I’ve lived alongside and in community with people who are poor for the last 20 years of my life, and they know how to navigate this better than people who haven’t.”
“Their resourcefulness and ability to be patient and trust that God’s working—they have stronger muscles than I do,” he says. “I feel like I’m in an advantageous place to learn from them.”