Theologians weigh in on Easter lockdown amid COVID-19: What is God doing?

Silhouette of a cross against the sky during sunset.
Silhouette of a cross against the sky during sunset. | Getty images

As many Christians in the West mark the first time they've been unable to celebrate Easter publicly at church due to the COVID-19 outbreak, theologians are weighing in on how God might be moving in the world.

Because of the ongoing pandemic, federal, state and local governments have issued "social distancing" and stay-at-home orders along with the temporary shutdown of businesses deemed as "non-essential." And churches have been largely prohibited from holding services, even on the holiest of Christian holidays.

"I'm reminded that for the persecuted church, this is every week for them," said Glenn Packiam, pastor of New Life Church-Downtown in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in an interview with The Christian Post.

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"The inability to gather, the restrictions on church and worship, we are in many ways standing in solidarity with the persecuted church because we are experiencing what has been their norm on a weekly basis," he said. 

The pandemic presents another opportunity to reconsider the first Easter and the period soon thereafter where Jesus appeared to the disciples while they were in locked rooms, afraid and unsure of what had just happened.

"The last they knew, He was crucified and buried in a tomb. So there is, in a very real sense, not just a connection with the global church —a portion of which is the persecuted church — but there is also a connection with the earliest of churches, the first followers of Jesus who found themselves in locked rooms. And Jesus appeared to them," Packiam said.

"The resurrection of Christ is able to appear to us, to come to us wherever we are. And as we think about Easter we can remember that the risen Christ walks through locked rooms, He appears through locked rooms, He comes through closed doors and finds us afraid and alone."

American Christians sometimes tend to interpret events based on what is happening to them, that if they are experiencing difficulty then it must be the end times, he added.

"I think we have to be careful of that because we get spoiled by comfort, we get spoiled by life sort of being relatively good. And because of that we lose our sense of the power of what Christian hope actually is. Christian hope has always been the future," he said, referencing the Apostle Paul's words in Romans 8 where he speaks of a hope which remains yet unseen.

"For many of us living in a comfortable sort of existence, our definition of hope gets skewed to be a sense of peace and everything is OK."

Packiam did his doctoral research on the kinds of songs American worship leaders said were songs of hope and found that many were focused on the present.

"And I think that's a luxury of the privilege. That when we have a pretty comfortable present tense we can find hope by singing about the present moment. But compare that to the slave spirituals, which is another deeply American tradition which comes from the South. They were always singing about the future," he added.

"When Christians go through hardship it gives Easter an eschatological kind of edge. It makes us look forward to the future and say that even if the worst happens, even if we all die of this evil wicked virus, even if the very worst thing happens, there is still a resurrection beyond death."

Christians are not accustomed to having to summon a hope that is yet to be, "the not yet part of our faith," Packiam said.

In a video posted Friday on YouTube, Bishop Dorsey McConnell of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh offered that God might be digging deep wells within the hearts of His people.

"There is no doubt this is a time of wilderness for us, and the thing about a wilderness is that you don't know where it's going to lead, how long you're time there is going to be. It seems that one day proceeds to another and there's no end in sight and no real goal at the end," McConnell said.

In times such as these God gives the hard gift of longing, he explained, the yearning for anything else except for where we are. But God gives this gift so that He can fill it, just as He did with the Israelites in the desert and Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.

"Could it be that even now He wants to fill it with His Word, with the assurance of His steadfastness, of His being with us in ways we can't see or imagine, all of which is promised and testified to in the Scriptures themselves?" he asked.

"Under such circumstances as these and others, we don't even know how to pray. And yet, God has set the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba, Father"' McConnell said, referencing the Apostle Paul's words in Romans. And "if we cry those words, 'Abba, Father' it is the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God's children. And if children then heirs, heirs to God and joint-heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him in order that we may be glorified with Him."

Yet others are issuing warnings about the powers that afforded to the secular government as the virus outbreak continues.

Responding to the lockdown of churches during Easter, theologian Fay Voshell wrote in a piece for the American Thinker that the policies in place forbidding Christians from gathering is cause for concern.

"Christians believe that throughout both Old and New Testament, the mouth of God proclaimed believers must worship Him — not just alone, but corporately. They believe the Son of God also has decreed the corporate taking of Holy Communion, which both Catholics and Protestants believe is absolutely essential to spiritual life," she wrote.

"The secular state, in locking down churches, has effectively proclaimed and is enforcing its version of interdict. Largely unprotested, even by most Christians, a fearful precedent has been set. This time, the reason for shutting down congregations is public health. The next time, will the state, upon reflection, decide that the gospel message and Christian ethics are a public nuisance and a danger to the welfare and progress of the State? Certainly, Christians have seen many signs that progressive secularists regard Christianity itself as a block to progress."

Christians should think hard about the governments' shutdown of the churches during and after the Easter season, she continued, and consider whether they ought to protest non-violently by opening their services to corporate worship this weekend.

"It is possible to open the door to whosoever wills to come while the less intrepid or the genuinely frail stay home and watch services from afar. It is possible to take sensible precautions for the health of the congregation without killing the body of Christ," Voshell concluded.

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