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Lesson of pastor’s COVID-19 death: Faulty Scriptural interpretation can kill you

Bishop Gerald Glenn, pastor of the New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Richmond, Va., loudly and proudly disobeyed the warnings of the authorities against gatherings of more than 10 people because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to news reports.

In his church service on March 22, he defiantly asked his congregation to stand to demonstrate how many were in attendance.

Dan Williams | Views

Dan Williams | Views

“I firmly believe that God is larger than this dreaded virus. You can quote me on that,” said Glenn, vowing to keep his church open “unless I’m in jail or the hospital.”

“I am essential,” he said of remaining open, adding, “I’m a preacher — I talk to God!”

If so, evidently Glenn misunderstood his conversation with the Almighty, because on April 12 his church announced “with an exceedingly sorrowful and heavy heart” that the pastor had died a week after being diagnosed with COVID-19. In addition, his wife and three of their children have also contracted the disease.

The news has been filled recently with reports of pastors appearing on camera to belligerently defy the requests of the authorities to temporarily suspend their worship assemblies. A more cynical commentator might ask whether these religious leaders are at least partly motivated by publicity seeking pride, but let us judge not that we be not judged.

Instead, let us use this as a case study in Scriptural interpretation. The passage most often cited by these pastors is Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than men.”

That passage would indeed be relevant if a sinister secular government was seeking to silence the message of the church. In this instance, however, that is not the case. Instead, the social distancing guidelines are being issued to prevent a contagion that is especially lethal to the most vulnerable members of our society.

Given that context, two other Scriptural principles would take precedent:

I heartily agree with the late lamented pastor that “God is larger than this dreaded virus,” but that does not mean I should force the Lord’s hand and require him to miraculously rescue me by needlessly exposing myself to risk.

First, when the devil tried to entice Jesus to throw himself down from the highest point of the temple, the tempter quoted Psalm 91, which speaks of God’s miraculous protection (Matthew 4:5-7).

Jesus resisted this temptation by countering with Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

I heartily agree with the late lamented pastor that “God is larger than this dreaded virus,” but that does not mean I should force the Lord’s hand and require him to miraculously rescue me by needlessly exposing myself to risk.

Second, and more importantly, Jesus identified the two highest Scriptural principles as loving God and loving our neighbor as our self (Matthew 22:37-39).

If I insist on attending any social gathering, even a worship service, even though in so doing I might subject my sick and/or elderly brothers and sisters to suffering and even death, I am acting in an unloving way toward them.

Related: Amid coronavirus pandemic, a theology for not ‘assembling’

This is especially true given the nature of the current pandemic, since I myself might not exhibit any symptoms or suffer any ill effects yet still carry and spread a disease that can devastate my weaker fellow Christians.

I miss the assemblies of my church family, and eagerly look forward to the time when I can once again gather with my brothers and sisters. Until the medical profession advances to the point that I can do so with the confidence that I will not be imperiling those I care about, however, I will respect the requests of the authorities and continue to spend my Sundays at home, worshiping with my brethren online.

In the meantime, the sad story of the Virginia pastor serves as a sobering reminder that a faulty Scriptural interpretation can not only harm you spiritually – in some cases, it can kill you.

DAN WILLIAMS is vice president for church relations at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.

Filed under: Coronavirus covid Covid and church COVID-19 death global pandemic Harding University Opinion Top Stories Views

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