A Biblical Reflection on Social Distancing

If you are like me, you are eager to return to in-person worship services. And if your church is like my church, you are weighing when, and how, your community can resume face-to-face meetings. Yet we do not want to rush the process and put our congregants, and wider society, at risk. That could overturn the rule of our Lord when He pronounced the Sabbath a day for doing good, a day of healing (Matt 12:12).

So how should we approach the weeks or months that remain until we meet again as gathered worshipers? Second Corinthians can serve as a guide for us. The circumstances, it must be said, are quite different: then Paul alone was absent, but the church was still meeting, and the reason for his absence was a conflict the apostle thought best to deal with by a letter and an intermediary. Still, at the heart of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s desire to reunite with a beloved Christian community despite his physical distance from them—not unlike our struggle today.

Second Corinthians is, then, a letter well worth considering in our time of social distancing. Three lessons present themselves.

1. Spiritual formation can still occur when believers are not together physically. The occasion for 2 Corinthians has everything to do with spiritual formation occurring remotely. A crisis had erupted that put Paul’s ministry in jeopardy, and the apostle decided that meeting with the church directly was likely to make matters worse (1:23–2:4). Instead, he sent them an apparently lost tearful letter (2:4; 7:8), which ultimately brought repentance and a process of general restoration (7:2–16). At the same time, it seems that the reconciliation was not complete, and Paul ends the letter with stern warnings so that his next visit might come on happier terms (13:1–10). Most churches now are not dealing with a crisis of authority such as Paul faced, but it certainly feels like a time of crisis in other ways. Second Corinthians reminds us that God can form us through long-distance means like a letter—or, perhaps, online teaching and a virtual small group.

2. Our identity and character should be consistent, whether separated or together. Paul’s opponents charged that he was powerful by epistle but weak in person (10:1–10), but Paul disagreed: “Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present” (10:11). This is a lightly veiled threat of punishment if the church does not change its behavior, but we can learn from the principle. Our church’s ministries ought to stay constant, despite new means of communication. Even in a pandemic, we are called to disciple and to evangelize, to feed the needy and to comfort those who mourn.

3. We need to keep theological focus even if the practical details change. A shift in travel plans seems innocuous enough, but apparently Paul’s alterations caused a stir at Corinth (1:12–2:4). Some saw this as proof that the apostle was “fickle” (1:17). Right now, our best laid plans for reopening likewise remain tentative, given the rapidly changing health situation and governmental guidelines. Even the steadiest-handed church administration is likely to amend several times its strategy for resuming services. This is not ideal, but we can follow the apostle’s lead and recall our members to the settled theological principles that guide us. In Paul’s case, he disputed that his change of itinerary constituted saying “yes” and “no” in the same breath (1:17). Rather, the practical revisions were based on the faithful work of God in the church (1:18–22). So today, whenever and however we restore our gatherings, our fellowship will be based on God’s saving work within us.

None of this is to minimize our disappointment, our anxiety, after two or so months of sheltering in place. We are right to long for physical presence, as Paul himself did. We are embodied persons, and social distancing takes a toll. Although we often speak of the church not as a building but a people, the Greek word that is translated “church” (ἐκκλησία) is, etymologically, an event: the “assembly.” We are living through extraordinary times when the assemblies of God cannot assemble. Nonetheless, in this strange interlude, the Spirit is active and the ministry of God’s Church continues.

Timothy Gabrielson is assistant professor of biblical studies at Sterling College in Kansas and an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute.