The church must be a refuge in the midst of fear

How a congregation in Hong Kong is caring for their neighbors and pointing to the gospel during a pandemic

March 12, 2020

Luther’s Small Catechism, in its explanation of the 5th commandment, reads, “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” My church’s (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) elaboration on this makes clear that we are required to offer help wherever it is needed and avoid actions which might, even inadvertently, harm others through our negligence. Not only must we, like the Good Samaritan, help the man in the ditch; we should pay our taxes to finance highway police to make banditry less common. The duty of care is deep, but also broad.

This sensibility has deep roots in times of disaster. Christians were famous in antiquity for caring for plague victims, with both the Antonine and Cyprian plagues leading to prominent Christian roles. Religious historian Rodney Stark claims that the Christian response to the Cyprian plague reduced mortality in Christian communities by perhaps as much as 2/3, even as it won numerous converts, hastening the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

Pointing to the gospel in the midst of panic

In 1527, Martin Luther was asked how Christians should respond to plague. The question was not hypothetical: Bubonic Plague had struck the area. Christians were afraid, and given Luther’s importance to that movement, Protestant princes urged Luther to flee, to save himself.

He refused, instead writing the short tract now known as “Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague.” Luther argued that Christians have a dual duty to care for those whom God has placed in our path through our vocations, alongside a duty to care for the bodies which God has placed in our stewardship. Thus, we can indeed flee a plague for safety: unless we have duties to people who cannot flee. 

Luther makes clear that government officials cannot flee a stricken city, pastors cannot abandon their sheep (especially behind the scenes if it’s necessary to not meet for a season), parents cannot eschew their duties to sickened children, and neighbors cannot abrogate the implied duties of neighborly care. Love your neighbor, sick or well. But if your neighbor flees and you have no other duties, you can go too. And, of course, if governments command quarantines, or a cordon sanitaire, or removals, Christians can comply. 

But Luther makes very clear that he intends to enjoin care even unto death, saying that Christians should not fear “some small boils,” and that “death is death, however it may come.” Christians do not abandon their crosses because they get heavy. We die on them.

I am aware of the burden of this approach because I am living it. My wife and I, and our newborn daughter, live in Hong Kong, where we serve as missionaries in the Lutheran Church-Hong Kong Synod. We have been on COVID-19’s doorstep for weeks, with a government that failed to take basic precautions until after local transmission had begun. Flights have been cut off, basic supplies have run short, school has been cancelled, and the streets have emptied. People hoard masks, rice, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, getting theirs while the getting is good. The devil of mortal fear, an enemy so rarely encountered in modern society, stalks our streets.

When each day brings new uncertainties and worries about how bad things will get, we must trust that God will give us enough grace for the day.

We have been blessed to serve in a church body in Hong Kong which has not cowered before that devil. God’s ministry does not stop for plague. When each day brings new uncertainties and worries about how bad things will get, we must trust that God will give us enough grace (and enough hand sanitizer) for the day. In a time of fear, what our neighbors need is a God who is their rock, not pastors who shrink before physical danger. When death seems near, the promise of eternal life must draw nearer. When sickness can lurk in every handshake, the healing hands of the King of kings are the most needed. Our community needs the promise of the gospel more now than ever.

How our church in Hong Kong has responded

But of course, modern scientific understanding does complicate this reality. We are not helping our neighbor if we expose him to lethal germs through our negligence. And indeed, religious institutions have been at the epicenter of COVID-19: in Washington, D.C., the first confirmed case was the Rector of an Episcopal church. Thus, Christians face a two-sided duty: to comfort those who are afflicted, but not to infect the vulnerable. Fortunately, I believe this duty can be faithfully performed.

Our church in Hong Kong has, thankfully, had zero confirmed COVID-19 cases, and we have sought to reduce the odds of transmission by taking steps appropriate for our particular context to love our neighbors in a time of plague. Every attendee has their temperature checked and recorded at the door: a practice which has been adopted in every country which has beaten COVID, like Taiwan, Macau, and Singapore. Our church has also spaced out seating, adopted sanitary communion practices and refrained from passing an offering plate. We have done away with a time of congregational greeting that includes shaking hands (introverts, rejoice!), and all surfaces are regularly disinfected. And these are just a few of the measures we’ve taken. These measures can’t completely guarantee safety in a church. Especially in very large churches with more than a few hundred members, there are virtually no sanitary procedures which can protect congregants. All of these practices are along the lines of CDC has recommended as well, and such measures can greatly reduce the risk of infection.

The point is, we should do whatever we can to take suitable, recommended precautions in order to protect our neighbors.

A refuge in the midst of fear

But COVID-19 is a great opportunity for witness. Our communities are full of scared people. Depression, anxiety, and suicide are all likely to spike in the next few weeks. I can guarantee you of this: COVID-19 comes paired with a mental health epidemic. Bereft of community, the outdoors, work, and school, individuals and families will face an unprecedented assault on their minds. The Church must respond. We must make our services physically safe places, adopting a higher standard of hygiene than wider society, so that we can provide a refuge of mind and spirit to scared people. 

Since COVID-19 is especially dangerous to elders, churches can seize the opportunity to deliver food and basic supplies to older people in their communities so that they don’t have to go out. This will save lives, minister to the spirits of these dear brothers and sisters, and be a witness to all of their watching neighbors.

Since COVID-19 will lead to school cancellations, Christian families can organize parent-shares for small groups of kids, and use these as opportunities for discipleship in the home, which has proven to have an immensely fruitful effect. 

Since COVID-19 will cause many people to be afraid, Christians can, when appropriate, meet friends for dinner or coffee and talk about fear, and the God who casts out all fear. We can explain that we’re just as afraid as everyone else, that we aren’t really very brave people: but Christ died for us. Whom then shall we fear? COVID-19? Hardly.

Since shortages of basic commodities are a guarantee, Christians can set an example of community support. Our churches can pool masks, soap, and other supplies from members, distributing as needed. Our church supplies a week of masks to everyone who shows up on Sunday morning, while many of our church families, including my own family, have more-or-less resolved to share our supplies until there is nothing left. When they have two dollops of hand soap left, Christians give the first one away. 

This is the witness of our ancestors in the faith since time immemorial; this is the path they have walked; this is how we love our neighbors. We love our neighbor as ourselves, even laying down our lives for them. And crucially, this is also how we reduce the spread of COVID-19 without enabling an epidemic of mental health: with strict sanitation, but generous witness. 

Lyman Stone

Lyman Stone is the Chief Information Office of Demographic Intelligence, a population consulting firm. He is also a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior contributor to The Federalist. He and his family serve as missionaries in the … 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