Christian Duty in Times of Plague

Christian Duty in Times of Plague

Church history can be of great help to us as we try to understand our calling to faithful Christian living in the times in which we live. In particular, it is helpful to remind ourselves in the year 2020 that we are not the first generation of believers to experience an outbreak of infectious disease. What can we learn from Christians in the past about our duties to one another in the present?

Scott Manetsch has written a very useful reference on pastoral ministry in 16th century Geneva called Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609. The book examines the pastoral work of Calvin and other ministers during the early period of the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. Manetsch has done the church a great service by combing through the records of the Genevan churches in order to understand better what church life and pastoral ministry actually looked like in those days.

One thing we can glean is the commitment of the ministers and elders in Geneva to maintaining the ministry of the Word and the bonds of Christian fellowship and unity during times of deadly plague. The elders of the church took seriously their task, not only of ministering the compassion of Christ to the sick (at great danger to themselves!), but also of reminding Christians of their duties to one another in the Gospel. Christians were not to abandon one another or their family members in the face of disease:

The Consistory’s campaign to protect the weak and vulnerable was especially important during visitations of the plague, when death, fear, and suspicions threatened to unravel family loyalties and undermine social harmony. During the plague years of 1568-1572, the ministers and elders intervened in nearly a dozen cases in which plague victims were assaulted or abandoned by terrified family members and neighbors. The account of the Bourgeois family in the village of Malval serves as one shocking example. In September 1571, a daughter of the family contracted the plague while in the final days of pregnancy. Fearing infection, the young woman’s mother, brother, and sister abandoned her. Even when the pains of labor overcame the sick woman, neither family members nor neighbors responded to her desperate cries for help. In the end, she delivered her baby alone, all the while screaming for water and assistance. Both mother and infant died within hours. The woman’s family, listening to the entire ordeal outside the family’s house, had already dug a grave for the woman. The Consistory’s response to this horrifying account was more than perfunctory: in addition to suspending family members [from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper] for their inhumanity, the ministers sent a delegation to the city magistrates, demanding that ‘sick villagers should be cared for, either by people from the city or from their own villages’ so that ‘no one would suffer a similar thing ever again'” (p. 216).

In Calvin’s Geneva, Christian ministers were expected to minister to the sick, whether their illness was regarded as contagious or not. Just as a sick person was not to be deprived of medicine for his or her body, it was even more important that the sick and dying receive medicine for the soul. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (equivalent to our OPC Book of Church Order) required any church member to call for pastoral care when they or a loved one had been confined to bed for three days or more. This was because it was the minister’s duty to visit the sick and to apply the comfort of the Gospel to those who might be tempted to discouragement or despair.

The city of Geneva had a hospital outside the city, located near the cemetery. During the plague of 1542, specific ministers were assigned to visit the hospital and to comfort the sick and dying. It was unthinkable that anyone might be confined to a hospital without having the privilege of hearing the Gospel and praying with a minister of Christ. As Manetsch writes,

During seasons when the scourge of disease threatened the city, members of the Company of Pastors were appointed to visit the hospital to offer spiritual consolation to the seriously ill and dying. Some of the ministers undertook this dangerous assignment with compassion and courage; for others, the fear of contracting the contagion reduced them to cowards. The responsibility of providing pastoral care to people infected by the plague invariably placed in sharp relief the gravity of the minister’s calling and the personal costs that came with it” (p. 285).

It is quite clear that worship and church life continued during these times of plague. The sick were quarantined, but those who showed no signs of being sick were encouraged and expected to continue in worship and fellowship with one another. While reasonable precautions were taken, and pastors were not to put the whole church at risk in the way they ministered to the sick, it was a minister’s duty to put the spiritual wellbeing of the sick and dying above even his own physical life and health. In the words of Calvin, “So long as we are in this ministry, I do not see that any pretext will avail us, if, through fear of infection, we are found wanting in the discharge of our duty when there is most need of our assistance” (Manetsch, p. 285).

At one point in May of 1543, when a minister named Pierre Blanchet succumbed to the plague as a result of his faithful ministry to the sick, it fell to the Company of Pastors to appoint another minister to take up his work in the hospital. The city of Geneva believed that Calvin, because he was so prominent and of such eminent service to the Genevan church, must not be appointed to replace his fallen fellow minister. Instead of allowing such an important decision of the church to be dictated to them by the civil magistrate, the men chose instead to appoint a replacement by drawing lots. But as each name was drawn, minister after minister refused to accept the dreaded responsibility. Finally, a young minister stepped forward to volunteer. He soon contracted the plague and died.

This raised important questions for the church. Was it appropriate for pastors to allow the civil magistrate to dictate to them who was eligible to perform the functions of their office? Calvin himself had taught the spiritual equality of ministers. Should a man’s prominence and importance to the church be reason to justify exempting him from the rigor and danger of performing all the functions of his ministerial office?

These questions became even more pressing after Calvin’s death. Another wave of disease hit Geneva between the years 1568 to 1571. The civil government was resorting to the most extreme and irrational measures in responding to the health crisis. Those suspected of being “witches and plague-spreaders” were detained, interrogated, and tortured. Over 100 people who confessed to these charges were executed by burning. In the midst of all this social and political confusion, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, insisted on having his name included among those who were assigned to visit the hospital and the homes of those under quarantine. This courageous act led to further reformation in the church. The lottery system was abandoned, and three fundamental principles of God’s Word were upheld. First, every minister has equal authority and equal responsibility in exercising the functions of the ministerial office. Second, every minister has a duty to minster to the sick and dying under his pastoral care. And third, the civil magistrate must not hinder the work of the Christian ministry–particularly when it involves offering the hope of the Gospel to those in danger of dying without it.

Beza would go on to write an entire treatise on the responsibilities of Christian ministers during outbreaks of contagious disease, Questions Regarding the Plague (1579). He argued that it is not wrong to make use of medicine or medical knowledge and technology in the face of infectious disease. Presumably, he would say there are times and circumstances when mask-wearing and “social-distancing” are reasonable precautions against infection, or as a help in preventing the infection of others. He also refused to make an absolute rule that Christians should never flee the danger of contagious infection. But this was never to be the proper response if there were other fundamental duties at stake:

Both reason and experience demonstrated that flight was one of the most effective strategies for avoiding infectious disease. Nevertheless, men and women who contemplated flight were warned that they must never place their own safety above that of their spouses, families, neighbors, and fellow citizens. When the choice was not clear, Beza suggested that those Christians were less culpable who remained behind when they might have fled, than those who fled when they should have remained behind” (Manetsch, p. 289).

But while Beza believed an ordinary Christian might be excused for fleeing during a time of plague, the responsibilities of a Christian minister, under most circumstances, left no room for such a course. The minister, like a magistrate, holds a public office, and therefore, a public trust. To abandon that trust is to abandon duty, and to abandon duty is to abandon Christ.

What lessons can we derive from the experience of other Christians during times of plague? First, our duties to God are the greatest duties of all. The first and great commandment is “Love the Lord Your God.” We only know how to love our neighbor as we love our neighbor in light of our love for, and fear of, the living God. The duty to worship God as He has commanded in His Word does not depend on circumstances or any consideration of human opinion or expertise. Second, we must not abandon our duties to one another as Christians, or our duties to our family members (including the duty of visiting them in their homes!), simply because we are told that performing those duties is “unsafe.” Even an angel from heaven may not discourage us from doing the will of God. Let us take courage in the face of danger, and let us act according to Scripture and conscience. We may disagree about precisely what that means. But even when we disagree, let us do so in brotherly love, without resorting to shaming and condemning one another for seeking to live our lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.



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