Thinking about religious liberty and love of neighbor during a crisis

Important ethical considerations in light of COVID-19

March 19, 2020

America is facing a pandemic. Experts have called the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a once-in-a-generation pathogen. Others have likened the disease to the H2N2 virus that killed more than a million people between 1957-58, and not far from memory is the even more devastating Spanish Flu of 1918 that was responsible for an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide. It is still too early to determine the possible death toll or the extent of the devastation that will stem from COVID-19. What we do know, however, is that right now medical professionals, scientists, researchers, and governments across the world are marshalling every available resource to confront this crisis and slow the spread of the virus.

These are truly harrowing and perilous times. Though it took longer for the coronavirus to find its way to the United States than to other countries, over the last few weeks life in many parts of our nation has been fundamentally upended as the number of infections has multiplied exponentially. Here in Tennessee, it has barely been 10 days since the first case was discovered near Nashville. And since that time, things have changed dramatically. Life in the Nashville-Metro has ground to a halt. Restaurants and coffee shops are mostly empty and have been restricted to serving only carry-out or pickup in many states. Grocery store shelves are bare, with promises to be restocked by public officials and grocery chain executives. Our team at the ERLC has transitioned from our daily in-office routines to remote work.

Only a few weeks ago, few if any of us imagined that the spread of this pathogen would have any measurable impact upon our daily lives, other than perhaps delayed packages from Amazon or certain items being back-ordered or unavailable for a time if they were manufactured in other countries. But today there is no ambiguity. These are unprecedented times. And there are many questions before us, about the present, past, and future—some are practical, others theoretical. But what of the ethical? Below is my attempt to address two relevant ethical questions emerging from this crisis.

Religious liberty

Ever since it first became apparent that efforts at “social distancing” were likely to affect the ability of churches to gather, one of the first questions on the minds of many pastors and ministry leaders were concerns about religious liberty. These questions became even more pronounced last week after the governor of Kentucky specifically urged churches to suspend their services, and to do so almost immediately. At the time, his request appeared premature to many observers. I know this because the day of his press conference our organization received a great deal of inquiries from pastors in Kentucky and elsewhere about these concerns. Less than a week later, guidance from the White House Coronavirus Task Force urged citizens to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.

Under these circumstances churches are unable to assemble. But should they comply or protest these directives as a breach of religious freedom? LifeWay Voices published an excellent article on this topic. There is no need to rehearse the entirety of the arguments here. But it is worth noting a few of the essential ideas wrapped up in the question of whether or not churches should respect the state’s authority to request or compel religious organizations not to gather. After all, Baptists have recognized since the beginning of our movement the importance of religious freedom. The right of all people to worship according to the dictates of their conscience apart from government interference is fundamental to the Baptist faith and its conception of the proper relationship between the individual and the state.

Even so, the New Testament clearly teaches that government is ultimately an instrument established by God for the purpose of upholding justice and punishing evil (Rom. 13:1-7). And because government is indeed responsible for upholding the cause of justice, bound up in this responsibility is the authority to protect and maintain civil order (1 Pet. 2:13-14). While government in no way possesses the competence to direct the spiritual affairs or worship of the church, it does possess the authority to regulate life in the civic realm. Jesus himself acknowledges this in the famous illustration on Caesar’s coin—civil government has jurisdiction in the civil realm. (Matt. 22:15-22).

Due to the threat of COVID-19, the gathering of large assemblies has been deemed a public health risk. For this reason, it is not out of bounds for government to ask churches, in extreme cases such as this, to forego their assemblies for a time. Obviously, this is not without danger. (As a conservative I am wary of the precedent.) It is critical to note that the government is not targeting churches or singling out religious gatherings. In this case the government, at various levels, has set forth guidelines or restrictions affecting multiple sectors of society both religious and secular with the specific goal of reducing transmissions. Churches would be right to refuse such instructions intended to curtail the rights and practices of churches or religious bodies exclusively. While we should always remain vigilant, it seems clear the current guidance–and in some cases mandates–does not represent a true incursion upon religious liberty. Christians, therefore, should comply by submitting to the government as it wields its God-given authority for the sake of public health and safety.

Love of neighbor

The second ethical consideration lies even closer to the heart of Christianity. In Luke 10, as Jesus is setting forth the parable of the Good Samaritan, he does so in response to a conversation he shares with a lawyer. The lawyer, seeking to test Jesus, asks what one must do to inherit eternal life. But as he often did, Jesus answers the question with a question, asking “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And to this the man gave the now-familiar response, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Rather than focusing in on this perfect summation of the Law, the lawyer, “seeking to justify himself,” asks Jesus who qualifies as a neighbor.

We should do all we can to stop the spread of this disease by doing as the apostle Paul instructed us, and putting the needs of others ahead of our own (Phil. 2:3).

Jesus offers the parable of the Good Samaritan as an answer to a question about love of neighbor (Luke 10:29). And this has everything to do with where we find ourselves today. Arguably, as COVID-19 was infecting people across the world, many of us were as oblivious as the priest and Levite in Jesus’ parable before they met the man on the road. But as with the priest and the Levite, we have seen with our eyes and are ignorant no longer.

Living in a country that spans the length of a continent has its downfalls. This crisis is national, but it isn’t close to affecting every community to the same degree. Drastic measures that are obviously critical in certain places across the country appear to be an immense overreaction in other communities, which is itself a powerful argument in favor of federalism. But if the experts are correct, and I think we must assume this is the case, then to ignore their pleas is to invite harm, not only upon ourselves but among our neighbors, including friends, children, parents, and grandparents.

In other parts of the world, where the virus has already inflicted tremendous harm, doctors and medical professionals are being faced with the very worst kinds of heart-rending decisions—who to save and who to pass by. Reports from places in Italy and elsewhere have confirmed that doctors and nurses, due to limited resources and overwhelming need, are forced to practice battlefield medicine, making agonizing decisions they should never have to make about caring for those who are infected. (This opens up its own set of moral questions.) And not to put too fine a point on it, but those are the stakes right now. This is the reality our nation is fighting desperately to avoid.

Your actions, and those of your church, your business, and your community could be the difference between life and death, not for one person, but possibly for thousands. The transmission rate of COVID-19 is such that a single infected person can spread the virus exponentially if the proper precautions are not taken. Should the disease continue its rapid spread, it could easily cause our hospitals and healthcare facilities to be overwhelmed so that resources are unavailable to treat everyone in need of care. And so, for the sake of our neighbors, it is critical that we take every possible precaution in order to stem the tide of the virus.

This virus has upended our lives. Combatting this disease has already required immense sacrifice, and there is surely more to come. But as an expert speaking to the The New York Times recently pointed out, “Every single reduction in the number of contacts you have per day with relatives, with friends, co-workers, in school will have a significant impact on the ability of the virus to spread in the population.” So even for those who are young and healthy, these sacrifices are necessary for the sake of the elderly, infirm, and most vulnerable.

Complying with the guidance to combat COVID-19 is a love of neighbor issue. These are unprecedented times, and there is no doubt that the church will be needed in critical ways in the days ahead. Right now, most Christians can do the most good by staying home and adhering closely to the guidance issues from the White House and the CDC. But in the days ahead, new opportunities will emerge for the church to love and serve their neighbors, to meet needs, care for the vulnerable, and show the love of Christ to the world—possibly in ways we’ve not thought of before. In the meantime, we should do all we can to stop the spread of this disease by doing as the apostle Paul instructed us, and putting the needs of others ahead of our own (Phil. 2:3).

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

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