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April 2020 Pulse

During the earlier period of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in South Korea, many of the infected were traced to a mysterious organisation which has hitherto been off the radar of the authorities, despite its huge following of 245,000.

The full name of this pseudo-Christian cult is the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony. This secretive organisation was founded by Lee Man-hee in 1984, who claims that he alone has the authority to interpret the Bible.

The 88-year-old Lee is called the ‘Promised Pastor’ whom some of his followers regarded as the returning Christ who will take 144,000 of them with him to heaven on the Day of Judgement.

The organisation became the ‘super spreader’ of Covid-19 partly because of its beliefs. According to a CNN report, a member of the cult group said that ‘The culture was, even though you’re sick you come in on Sunday. If you’re so sick you can’t come Sunday, you have to come on Monday or Tuesday – you have to make up for the time.’

On the wearing of masks, the same member told CNN that ‘They were forced not to wear masks even though the whole corona (virus) outbreak was going on. They said, no, it’s disrespectful to God to have masks on.’

Unfortunately, such misguided beliefs are not confined to cults like Shincheonji. Versions of misbegotten faith are not only found in some evangelical churches, but are also vigorously promoted by the most prominent leaders of Charismatic/ Pentecostal Christianity in America.

For example, The Guardian (4 April) reports that Pentecostal megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne (of the ‘Toronto Blessings’ fame) told his congregation – when the spread of the coronavirus was gaining pace in America and across the globe, and churches are conducting their services online – that they are ‘revivalists, not pansies’.

‘We are not stopping anything’, he said. ‘I’ve got news for you, this church will never close. The only time the church will close is when the Rapture is taking place.’

‘Listen’, he told his congregation, ‘this has to be the safest place. If you cannot be saved in Church, you are in serious trouble.’

On 15 March, Howard-Browne described Covid-19 as a ‘phantom plague’. In the same sermon, he concocted the theory that the public health directives on the virus was a plot involving the Rockfeller Foundation and World Health Organisation, who wanted to introduce forced vaccinations.

Howard-Browne was arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and violation of public health emergency order.

Fox News reported that at the press conference on the arrest, Sheriff Chronister said, ‘They have access to technology allowing them to livestream their services over the internet and broadcast to their 400 members from the safety of their own homes, but instead chose to gather at church.’

Another prominent leader who minimised the threat of the virus is Kenneth Copeland, who for many decades is the icon of the Prosperity Gospel. The UK newspaper, Independent (5 April), reported that Copeland told his followers that it was the president’s opponents who have ‘opened the door’ for the virus with their ‘displays of hate’ against him.

He also said that the coronavirus is just a ‘weak’ strain of flu and cautions his hearers that it is a sin to fear the pandemic. In a recent sermon, Copeland said that this pandemic will be ‘over much sooner than you think’ and that ‘Christian people all over this country praying have overwhelmed it.’

Christians, he said, will summon the ‘wind of God’ that will destroy Covid-19. Blowing at the camera, Copeland said: ‘I blow the wind of God on you. You are destroyed forever, and you’ll never come back. Thank you, God. Let it happen. Cause it to happen.’ ‘Wind, almighty, strong, south wind, Heat’, he cried, ‘Burn this thing, in the name of Jesus. I say, you bow your knees You fall on your face.’

To his 432,000 followers on Twitter, Copeland said: ‘No weapon meant to hurt you will succeed … No disease. NO VIRUS. … Believe it. Receive it. Speak it in Jesus’ Name!’ To the viewers of his TV programme, he said that they can be healed of the coronavirus by simply touching the screens of their television sets.

Howard-Browne and Copeland were not the only prominent evangelical-charismatic leaders who hold such views.

Former Alabama supreme court judge and Alabama Senate, Roy Moore, said in a Facebook post that he would write a letter to pastors to tell them that it is their ‘duty to continue church assemblies, even in the midst of these trying times.’

He even hinted at the possibility of Christians acting in civil disobedience – should the need arises – against the State when he said: ‘Our faith requires it, our duty demands it, and no law or government can prohibit it.’

Guillermo Maldonado, pastor of a megachurch in Miami and who has more than 100,000 Twitter followers exhorted his congregation on March 15 not to give in to the ‘demonic spirit of fear’ of Covid-19, and not to ‘heed warnings from official to avoid crowded spaces.’

He later came to his senses and wrote in his blog that ‘safety is our No. 1 priority’, and that his ministry will follow the guidelines set out by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some of these evangelical-charismatic leaders present the pandemic as ‘spiritual warfare’ orchestrated by Satan to prevent the Gospel from being proclaimed and souls saved.

For example, Mike Bickle, a Kansas City pastor, who is associated with the International House of Prayer (IHOP) and the elusive New Apostolic Reformation, said in a YouTube sermon on March 22 that this outbreak is part of Satan’s strategy to stop what he calls ‘stadium Christianity’.

By that he means mega-Christian events held at stadiums throughout the U.S. and the world. Bickle says: ‘there are 20 stadium events planned in 2020 across our nation … and the enemy says, “Enough! I’m going to stop this!”’

Others, however, see the coronavirus outbreak as Satan’s attempt to destroy President Trump.

The self-styled prophet, Jeremiah Johnson, claimed that he has a prophetic dream where he saw President Trump in a baseball stadium, at bat, and triumphing over the demonic pitcher.

Then, Johnson claimed that God told him that ‘The enemy has intended to strike out Donald Trump at the very critical hour in history. But behold, supernatural help is on the way, for I will slow down the advancement of the enemy and allow him to knock this out of the park.’

The approaches and actions of these leaders of evangelical-charismatic Christianity should not be seen as expressions of faith. Rather, they must be regarded as sheer folly.

The Christian faith requires believers to exhibit the uncommon love called agape such that they would be willing to lay down their lives for their friends (John 15:13). But it does not require believers to show their faith by unnecessarily exposing themselves and others to danger and harm.

Such acts cannot be said to be motivated by genuine faith. Rather they are infantile displays of reckless bravado and senseless triumphalism that has no Scriptural warrant whatsoever.

This is especially so when technology has made available to the Christian community many alternative ways in which it can ‘gather’ for worship and fellowship without endangering each other’s lives by meeting physically.

(This of course must not be taken to suggest that these should be permanent alternatives to a physical assembly. But in such extraordinary times, Christians should give thanks to God for providing, through his common grace, the technologies that enable his people to worship him meaningfully, even if remotely.)

Christians should not see restrictions imposed by the government in the situation of a pandemic – including a ban on religious gatherings – as the State’s attempt to exercise undue control over faith communities, and civil disobedience as an appropriate response. Such a view is simply ludicrous, and has altogether misunderstood the purpose of civil disobedience in the Christian tradition.

The government restrictions, when based on solid science and in consultation with what other jurisdictions, are meant to curb the spread of the virus and save lives, including the lives of Christians. To resort to attention-grabbing acts of defiance that we see in some of the Christian leaders in America we have been discussing is not only to simply fail to appreciate this fact, but to behave in an irresponsible manner.

During the early period of the appearance of Covid-19 infections in Singapore, the National Council of Churches issued a letter to the pastors and leaders of its member churches (31 January 2020). While urging Christians to pray for the situation, the Council clearly advised them to act in a socially responsible way by following the advisories of the government.

The National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) urges all churches and Christian organisations to adhere strictly to the advisories and guidelines issued by the Singapore government and the heads of your particular denominations, so as to minimise the risk that this disease might be transmitted as a result of our gatherings and activities.

When the situation worsened and the government changed the alert level to DORSCON Orange, the Council once again issued a letter urging its member churches to comply to the guidelines issued by the government. At that point, although regular church services were still allowed, many churches were already preparing to shift their services to online platforms.

And when ‘circuit-breaker’ measures were introduced by the government and religious gatherings were banned, the churches here conscientiously conducted all their Sunday services online, and groups (such as Bible study groups) met via zoom or Facebook.

Throughout the process, the government has been in consultation with the leaders of the Church.

Leaders of the Christian community here understand that compliance to stringent government measures in the midst of a raging pandemic is the right thing to do. Not only is it not in conflict with the Christian faith, it is in fact required by it.

For in behaving in a socially responsible manner by strictly following the stay-at-home and safe distancing measures, Christians are obeying the command of the Lord to love their neighbour (Mark 12:31).

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.