Lamenting COVID-19’s impact on the Christian community

July 20, 2020

As is often the case in July, my thoughts turn to Christmas. On this occasion, however, I am not thinking about celebrating our newborn King or gathering with family and friends. Instead over the last few weeks, I have been pondering a few dark lines from one of my favorite Christmas songs, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The verses state:

In despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

Why do these verses capture my attention right now? Because it is where I have been for the last bit as I see the news around us about the coronavirus: Frustrated. Isolated. Numb. More and more people I know are getting sick as cases balloon in America. Churches can’t meet together. Businesses have closed their doors. Schools are shutting down. It seems all of us are in a dark and lonely moment.

The impact on churches

As a Christian, it is hard to survey the news and developments about the virus and not come away with the impression that COVID-19 is hitting Christians in a particular way because of our call to live in community (Heb. 10:25). 

Based on what we currently understand about this virus and how it spreads through personal contact, most churches have chosen to forego gathering together with local officials issuing requests that they go back to online gathering, upending our crucial weekly biblical rhythm of gathering together as God’s people that we cherish (Heb. 10:25). The act of singing together as the church is precluded in many contexts, inhibiting a vital way many of us express worship toward God (Col 3:16). And we certainly can’t embrace one another physically right now as we welcome friends to church, a sign of support we have for fellow believers (1 Thess. 5:26). Funerals, small groups, and even our church business meetings in many areas have been postponed, delayed, or cancelled. And there is no timeframe for when they will be able to resume again safely.

I am so frustrated beyond description that I cannot wisely do many of these things in this seemingly interminable season. And there is no worldly replacement for them. Online gatherings are helpful, but they never can replace the physical gathering of the body of Christ that I hold dear.

Recently, as my city began reopening, it seemed like in-person worship was about to return to my local church. Plans were painstakingly made. Procedures communicated well in advance based on local health guidance. A soft opening even took place so our church staff and a select few members of the congregation could account for every possible procedure and precaution to keep our people safe. 

My pastor and the ministers on our staff, all dear friends, were brimming with enthusiasm to carefully welcome back our congregation. I was so happy they were going to be able to personally see the flock God has given them the privilege of leading, even if it was behind masks and socially distanced. 

Then, it all came to a grinding halt. 

Like many places around the country, cases of the virus have spiked to record levels in Nashville. Church buildings have closed again. Consequently, all that energy, momentum, and planning was wiped away in an instant. Like David in his darkest moment, I, too, “cry aloud to the Lord, I plead aloud to the Lord for mercy” (Psalm 142:1). 

The virus hits home

And no one, it seems, is immune from this pervasive virus. It affects young and old, Christian and unbeliever alike. Just this week, my father told me we now have several members of our extended family who have contracted the virus because they gathered for a funeral in order to celebrate the homegoing of a beloved grandmother. Now we have a 50-year-old relative, cousins in their 20s, and an eight-month-old child all positive with COVID-19. Again, I cry out with David, “my heart is overcome with dismay” (Psalm 143:4). 

Pastors who are being responsible are even testing positive. I’ve exchanged messages with two in the last week who have coronavirus. These aren’t pastors purposefully leading their people in defiance of local health warnings. These are faithful Southern Baptist shepherds trying to love their church, serve their communities responsibly, and work within the guidance local officials are providing. 

Similarly, I see churches all across our nation who have worked tirelessly for months in places like California now forced to change plans as the virus returns for a second wave there. And all of this is occurring with historic levels of economic distress and cultural strife at the same time. Is any more evidence needed of the “thorns and thistles” (Gen. 3:18) from the fall to show we are in a world that has been shattered by sin?

The sheer exhaustion from all this is almost too much for some to bear, myself included. It would be so easy, even as Christians, to give in to the despair; to add our voices to the outrage; to declare open rebellion against those in authority; to denigrate the experts; and to turn away from the Lord and lash out against our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The hope beyond this virus

But then I return to that Christmas hymn which reminds us: “Then rang the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor does he sleep.” God is still on his throne. That is a freeing thought in a season of social imprisonment and postponed gatherings.

In my mind, the testing of this season and of churches unable to gather is a matter of obedience before the Lord, who seems to be calling us to “love our neighbor” as we sacrifice our desire for the greater good. In so doing, we are called to give up much in this moment. But, we are called to be a people of sacrifice (Luke 9:23-24; Gal. 2:20). And that may mean sacrificing more than just our earthly preferences. For now, it includes many of our weekly rhythms as we seek to grow in Christ and coming together for corporate worship. 

I am convinced the Lord is teaching us something in this season of immense challenge. So, let this be a time when Christians will be known for the goodwill we are spreading and the display of our humble obedience. May it be a time when we are gathering in spirit and solidarity for those made vulnerable by this sickness, and when we are crucifying our inwardly-focused preferences so that others may live and be safe. Above all, may it be a time of transformation, when we mature from being mere hearers to doers of the Word (James 1:22). What sweet joy it will be if this is our testimony as a community coming out of this troubling season—a testimony that will undoubtedly peal louder than a bell in the silence of a cold, clear Christmas morning.

F. Brent Leatherwood

Brent Leatherwood was elected as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in 2022, after a year of leading the organization as acting president. Previously, he served as chief of staff at the ERLC, as well as the entity’s director of strategic partnerships. He brings an expertise in public … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24