Paul S. Morton, founding bishop of The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, has been fielding withering criticism online for insisting churches should remain open, like hospitals and police stations across the country, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Tuesday morning, more than 5,000 cases of the new coronavirus have been diagnosed in the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering tracker. At least 85 people have died and 17 have recovered from the virus.
According to the CDC, the complete clinical picture with regard to the new coronavirus is not fully known.
“While information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild, a report out of China suggests serious illness occurs in 16% of cases. Older people and people of all ages with severe chronic medical conditions — like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example — seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness,” the health agency said, while reporting illnesses have ranged from very mild (including some with no reported symptoms) to severe.
While many churches shuttered and opted for online gatherings as local governments and the CDC warned against public gatherings and encouraged social distancing to help stem the spread of the virus, Morton praised his own congregants who showed up to his church, calling them “true kingdom soldiers.”
“Thank you CAG for not forsaking the assembling together. True Kingdom Soldiers,” he wrote in a tweet that included photos of him laying hands on congregants.
He then followed up that tweet with several others, including several on Monday that quickly sparked a fiery debate with other Christian leaders and health professionals.
“No matter how bad things get in shutting down a City in a Crisis. At least 2 entities hv 2 remain open. Hospitals & Police Departments. But God’s Church must be on that list. The Spiritual Hospital The Spiritual Police Department. Don’t cancel God out. We can’t do it without Him,” Morton tweeted Monday morning.
“Would U tell All Doctors Nurses Police Officers First Responders to close Hospitals and Police Stations that deal with Crisis. If not don’t tell God’s first spiritual responders what to do about this Spiritual and Natural Crisis. The Church can’t hide like unbelievers in a Crisis,” Morton added.
Morton said that while he was prepared to abide by legal requirements to close if necessary, healthy Christians shouldn’t be advised against attending church when they can still find time to go to the grocery store or gas station.
“Make sure U don’t go 2 work or to grocery store or gas station Just stay home. If UR telling me U hv 2 go 2 those important places but not God’s House. Government Authorities say how many can go to Church by law I will listen to them not Panic,” he said.
The Rev. Chris Thurman, an associate minister at Joshua Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, pointed out in a response to Morton that the limiting of church gatherings is a “precautionary step” aimed at slowing down infections.
“I’d like to respectfully disagree, Bishop. Cancelling service is a precautionary step that shows that you as the shepherd of your flock care about the safety and health of your congregants. God didn’t give us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a SOUND MIND. #PrayAndAct,” Thurman wrote on Twitter.
“Right a (Sound Mind) that’s why the Church can’t panic when the government says it’s ok for this many people to go to Church. Every Pastor must lead their own congregation. But for me and My House I just believe the Church should not be the first ones to get scared an close down,” Morton replied.
Morton noted that government officials in Atlanta have been quickly changing the number of people allowed in public gatherings but noted that even if that number goes down to just one, he will be in church.
“Who do you think I’m listening to? They said 250 people now they say 50 people. So we will have people and if they go down to one. I will be the one at The Church building where God says forsake not the assembling of yourselves together,” he added.
Anesthesiologist Karen Priester asserted in a response to the bishop that his reasoning lacked wisdom.
“I pray your congregation has more common sense than you do. It's not about you & your ego. If you were doing your job, they know how to go directly to the source,” Priester said.
When questioned on whether infection with the virus was still possible using universal precautions — an approach to infection control to treat all human blood and certain human body fluids as if they were known to be infectious for HIV, HBV and other blood borne pathogens — Priester said “yes,” noting that some healthcare workers in Italy were still getting infected while wearing personal protective equipment.
Italy, which has nearly 28,000 coronavirus infections as of Tuesday morning, and more than 2,100 deaths, has seen the second highest number of cases outside China since the pandemic began.
“Yes. Stay home if you don't have to go out. In some hospitals in Italy, up to 40% of new cases were hospital workers. They not only use universal precautions, they had PPE as well. Why risk your life or that of someone you love?” Priester said.
When it was noted by Christian commenter Ron Brown that some people believe they can still attend church if they are able to go shopping at Walmart or go out in general, Priester replied: “Is your God only in that building? Stay out of Walmart. Stay out of restaurants. Please stay home. Spend some time in communion with God without the middleman.”
Brown replied by saying: “The God I believe in is not limited. I also believe in a sound mind as well a proper preparation. Now if your faith flows through a middleman then I see your problem. If the area is sanitary & I’m not Ill my faith won’t be handcuffed. If U don’t believe fine. As 4 me & my house.”
Priester argued in a final note that it’s that kind of attitude that could lead to dire outcomes for the U.S.
“That's the point. There is no such thing as a ‘sanitary’ place. This is about to get real bad real fast. Thankfully, I can pray to, meditate on, and worship my God anywhere. I don't need a special building. Peace and blessings,” Priester replied.
Morton noted that he has been abiding by the advice of government officials on how many people he can safely worship with as well as leaning into livestreaming his services. He insists, however, that online services should only be for people who are sick or out of town.
“Let’s Pray Temporary NOT new norm. We hv a huge livestream audience. I thx God 4 different ways 4Church But it should b4 people who R sick shut in out of town etc. Not 4us 2sit selfishly in our homes out of convenience No longer concerned abt fellowship n Bringing Lost 2 Christ,” Morton wrote Monday in a tweet endorsed by fellow megachurch leader E. Dewey Smith of House of Hope Atlanta.
“AMEN BISHOP!!! This will only be temporary!!! We must remain strong!!” Smith said.
Morton further responded to some critics who argued that money is a motivation behind his position on attending church amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Just 4 the Record those who thought we were keeping the Church open simply 4 money Not true @CHANGINGAGENATL has been an online streaming Church 4 several yrs 4 those who could not come. Much of our income already comes from online. For some of us it is really about God Not Money,” he added.