Transforming the Healing Mission of the Church: Historical Reflections and Missional Discernment for the Quarantined Body of Christ

The following is the full text and accompanying resources from EI historian Dr. Stephen Lloyd’s #TheologyTownHall on May 20. [Join us at noon on Wednesdays for Theology Town Halls led by different members of the EI community.]

Healing has a central place in our Christian faith. The pages of the Bible are filled with healing. God heals, prophets heal, Jesus heals, and Jesus’ followers heal. Healing is a form of divine service, as Jesus tells his followers that when they care for the sick, they are indeed caring for him. Christians look forward to God’s coming kingdom in which all will be healed. God’s mission in the world is inconceivable without healing and caring concern.

We are now faced with a major pandemic, in which healing and care is absolutely vital. Yet as a Church, we find ourselves in uncharted territory. Most of us have never face “stay-at-home” orders or “safer-at-home” recommendations before. We struggle to think about mission in the context of social and physical distancing. Jesus said, “Go,” but now we are being told to “stay.”

Looking back at the history of healing and Christian mission might give us some insight into how we can move forward. Certainly, the way Christians care for people has changed, but two things have been constant:

  1. Christians, when at their best, have met sickness with prayerful concern; and
  2. Christians have used the best contemporary medical knowledge available to promote physical healing.

Prayerful healing has marked Christian history from the very beginning. Before Christianity enjoyed legal status in the Roman Empire (i.e., before 313 CE), Christian mission was largely successful because of Christian healing efforts. When there were epidemics, pagan doctors, like Galenus, often fled to avoid illness. Christians, however, cared for the sick, and their pagan neighbors took note of this tendency.

Lucian was evidently impressed; he said, “It is marvelous how these men rush to one another in misfortune.” But not all pagan observers were so positive. Julian the Apostate was perturbed that Christian communities provided care not just for their own, but people who were not members. He rightly worried that by caring for non-members, Christian numbers would increase.

Statistician-turned-historian Rodney Stark argued that even without modern medicine, simply caring for somebody (feeding, hydrating, keeping cool/warm/comfortable) increased his or her chance of survival. Those cared for by the Christians, argued Stark, would have survived at a higher rate.[i] This certainly gave a miraculous mystique to the early Christians, yet it would have also made them a very attractive community. The healed person would find a natural fellowship with a healing community, and, perhaps, even want to pay that forward.

Medical historian Gary Ferngren has argued that these early Christians were not simply relying on miracles for healing. Instead, they engaged in a variety of techniques, which included contemporary expert medical advice, folk medicine (remember Paul’s advice to Timothy that he “take a little wine for the stomach”), prayers, and the use of sacred objects. When it came to the healing mission of the church, Christians would try what might work from a variety of sources, both Christian and non-Christian.[ii]

Care for the poor, sick, and otherwise vulnerable became part of the institutional landscape of the Christianized Roman Empire beginning in the fourth and fifth centuries. While arguing that trust in medicine should not supplant trust in God, early Church fathers actively promoted the formation of hospitals (for the sick and poor) and monastic infirmaries. Gregory of Nazianzus famously sought to reduce the stigma against diseases such as leprosy. The ill were not outcasts being singled out by God, but victims of misfortune who required both spiritual and physical healing.[iii]

Institutionalized Christian care continued into the early Middle Ages. Christianity spread throughout much of northern Europe through the establishment of monastic communities. These communities frequently established hospitals and infirmaries that tended to the sick and the poor and served as places of refuge for travelers.

Monastic hospitals were run by highly educated monks who relied on a variety of techniques and medicines that were thought to be effective at the time. We now know that promoting cleanliness was probably good, herbal remedies may have had some efficacy, and bloodletting was probably a mistake.[iv] Nevertheless, much like their earlier counterparts, these monastic medics understood illness to have both physical and spiritual components. They used medicine within a religious context.

But when we think medieval, we don’t think medicine. We think dirt, grime, cloudy skies, and plague. During the massive Bubonic Plague outbreak, commonly called the Black Death, 75 to 200 million people died worldwide. Between 1331 and 1353, Europe lost a third of its population. Some major towns lost half of their population in just six years. It was an unsettling pandemic that turned Europe on its head.

Both religious and medical authorities were completely unable to respond to the situation. Half of Europe’s priests died, probably becoming contaminated while administering last rites. People desperately grasped at anything: they asked for the intercession of saints, they engaged in group self-flagellation (later banned by the church), used pagan spells, and some even tried to summon fairies. Charlatans pushed fake cures. Some people went into hiding, others engaged in a myriad of licentious behavior with whatever time they had left.

Christian mobs scapegoated Jewish communities throughout Europe, leading to lethal anti-Jewish pogroms.[v] In many ways, the Black Death demonstrated just how unmooring pandemics can be. I also think its important to recognize that the history of Christianity and healing is not unambiguously positive: poorly considered Christian responses made the situation worse.

To be sure, there were some milder and more pragmatic responses to plagues. In 1527, the reformer Martin Luther wrote a letter to Johann Hess on “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” While Luther did not condemn people who stayed as a testament to their faith, he ultimately endorsed a more pragmatic response to illness. If you were needed either to attend to the spiritual or physical needs of the community, then you should stay. If people’s needs were cared for, then fleeing a plague (or using any other available means to stay healthy) would not be un-Christian.

Luther lampooned the idea that we ought not to save ourselves from sickness because sickness is a punishment from God. It’s like saying if there’s a fire, don’t put it out, or if you fall into water, don’t try to swim, but rather let divine judgment overtake you. Luther thought this silly line of reasoning might as well deny the desire for salvation, because, after all, the fires of hell are a just punishment. Luther took a pragmatic stand. He wrote,

Use medicine; take potions which can help you; fumigate house, yard, and street; shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city. What else is the epidemic but a fire which instead of consuming wood and straw devours life and body? You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.’[vi]

While we would disagree with many of his formulations and assumptions, it seems that Luther might have understood the need for physical distancing.

During the 16th and 17th century Enlightenment, medicine and theology became increasingly distinct and specialized. Medicine was interested in those things natural and physical, while theology studied the supernatural and the spiritual. Doctors complained about “the lawless intrusion of PARSONS and VICARS upon the profession of the Phisicke.”[vii] Those same parsons and vicars would accuse doctors of atheism because they healed without considering the spiritual dimension of health.[viii]

It would, however, be a mistake to see Christianity and medicine parting ways in the modern era. On the contrary, many Christians embraced modern, scientific medicine in missionary work. It would be fair to say that missionaries took both Jesus Christ and Western medicine around the world. Hospitals, clinics, and/or dispensaries were a vital part of many mission stations (along with the church and the school, of course). Throughout much of the world, missionaries helped to lay the foundation for modern health care services.

Medical missionaries were able to work in places where there were severe legal and social barriers against Christian preaching. Likewise, caring for people’s physical needs is a practical demonstration of Christian love. Caring for people, again, creates a bond between the church and the world. Medicine and mission went hand-in-hand in the modern era.[ix] The massive growth of Christianity in the two-thirds world is, in part, due to the efforts of doctors and nurses who were invested improving people’s quality of life.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in many ways, but for historians, it doesn’t seem completely new. Just over 100 years ago, there was a devastating pandemic caused by the H1N1 flu virus, commonly (though misleadingly) called the Spanish influenza. It infected one-third of the world’s population, and killed as many as 50 million people.

Young adults who seemed healthy in the morning could be dead by the evening. The global medical system was completely overwhelmed. Churches, schools, and theaters shut their doors or became hospitals. People stayed inside, and they tried different folk medicines. Priests and ministers who were used to preaching to congregations now published their sermons in newspapers, along with suggestions for alternative worship at home until such a time as they could gather again.[x]

The history of Christian healing is not the story of untold triumph. At their worst, Christians have added to the problems of sickness, or compounded them. At their very best, however, Christians have prayed for a broken world, and used whatever means were at their disposal to help bind its wounds. Given this history, I now want to ask: What is the healing mission of the church now? I thought of five words that will help organize our thoughts: wait, pray, watch, cooperate, and proclaim.

Wait

Mission is not a rush to normalcy. Nothing would be better than being in Church, praising God, enjoying fellowship, singing together, and participating in the sacraments. If it’s not safe, however, we are not returning to normal, we are getting people sick. A poorly considered return to church will only compound the problem. Like Christians throughout the ages, we need to keep in touch with the best medical advice there is, which can, and should, change. We should not re-open to prove our faith or any other ideological/political point. Reopening requires patience, conversation with leaders, experts, and laypeople. Where it is not safe, it is always better to wait.

Pray

We need to keep praying for the world and providing spaces for people to pray. Just because we’ve had to shut our doors, does not mean we’ve withdrawn from the world. We can’t stop preaching God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ, and we can’t stop extending the compassion of God to a hurting world. First and foremost, we must pray for the sick. The Church also needs to vociferously pray for those on the frontlines: sanitations workers, those delivering food, mail, and packages, people working at grocery stores, people working in nursing homes, nurses, doctors, civil servants, and all essential workers. Prayers for these folks need to recognize the dangers they face. Our first responders need to know how grateful we are for their work and that we care about their interests.

The modern world affords us many opportunities for physically distant prayer. As a layperson, I’ve been inspired by online Sunday Services with time for fellowship. Evening prayer on Facebook live has developed a devoted following. Some church musicians are offering organ recitals and on-line “sing-alongs.” There are now agape meals and Bible studies on Zoom. I offer an Adult Ed series on YouTube. Churches have created prayer message boards for their communities. People who have never been to church are now attending online services, and atheists are making prayer requests. Where people do not have internet, the telephone continues to be a powerful tool. Visiting is also possible, provided that people follow the guidelines for physical distancing. Outdoor worship may prove to be a helpful option. Clergy need to know that these alternatives do not have to be perfect. Lay people should realize they are not going to be the same as “normal church.” These creative forms of worship are not immune from abuse (zoom bombs) or technical difficulties (power outages, hardware failures, etc.). They do not replace the real deal, but they provide a space for continued prayer and bearing one another’s burdens.

Watch

We cannot lose sight of the vulnerable. The virus has laid bare the brokenness of the world, and vulnerability is growing. There are evident disparities in healthcare around the world, which fall along lines of race, class, and gender.[xi] The world’s poorest communities have no ability to work from home and lack many safety nets available to citizens of wealthy nations. The world’s most desperate now face even less access to food, medicines, and other basic needs.[xii] There is the possibility of famine in parts of Africa and the Middle East, which will be compounded by the virus.[xiii] Unemployment is out of control; people are unsure how to pay rent and buy food.[xiv] Indigenous peoples without healthcare are particularly vulnerable to the virus, both within the United States and around the world.[xv] Various governments are using the virus as an excuse for oppression.[xvi] Mental illness is increasing.[xvii] Severe domestic abuse is increasing.[xviii] Poor students in struggling school systems are increasingly alienated from educational opportunities.[xix] Within the church, clergy people are overwhelmed.[xx] Clergy live for community, and now they are alienated from their churches, and they’re being asked to become multi-media technical experts, sanitation experts, and do all kinds of things they do not teach in seminary. The pain they feel is very real. Obviously, no single individual or congregation can address all of these problems, so we have to cooperate.

Cooperate

We need to work together, empowering every Christian to participate in God’s healing mission in the world. Leaders cannot do the work alone. All Christians need to get on board. Churches should coordinate their efforts. We will be able to have a greater and more effective response to this crisis if we work at the ecumenical level. Individuals can make many different contributions. Some have medical vocations: nurses, doctors, and chaplains. Some are essential workers.  Those staying at home can make masks, give to research, lead bible studies, or conduct family prayer services. No contribution is too small. During this emergency situation, it all matters.

Proclaim

We cannot stop telling the world who gets the final say over human history.  The God who created the world has not abandoned the world to Covid-19; its rage we can endure for, lo, its doom is sure! The God who delivered Israel through the Red Sea, and the God who overcame death on the cross will deliver us again. That is a powerful message of hope for a sick world. If we meet the world with prayerful concern and actions governed by the best medical advice, we will have an active healing mission. If we wait for the sake of safety, pray for the needs of the world, watch out for the vulnerable, cooperate in our work, and proclaim a message of hope, then we will create new relationships, and open new possibilities, even as our doors are closed.

Relevant Historical Materials

Backman, Clifford R. The Worlds of Medieval Europe, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Cohn, Jr., Samuel K. Epidemics. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Ferngren, Gary B. Medicine and Health Care in Early Christianity. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Hammond, E. A. “Physicians in Medieval Religious Houses.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1958).

Healing Bodies and Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa. Ed. David Hardiman. Rodopi, 2006

Luther, Martin “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II. Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. Fortress Press, 1999. Available online at: https://blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf.

The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. Ed. Roger French. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Robert, Dana. Christian Mission. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Silverman, Benjamin C. “Monastic Medicine: A Unique Dualism Between Natural Science and Ritual Healing.” The Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal 1 (Spring, 2002).

Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. Harper San Francisco, 1997.

Contemporary Voices

“Coronavirus Lockdown May Spur Surge in Mental Illness, U.N. Warns.” The New York Times May 21, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/world/live-coronavirus-tracker.html

“COVID-19 and Indigenous People.” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/covid-19.html.

DeParle, Jason. “The Coronavirus Class Divide: Space and Privacy.” New York Times. May 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/us/politics/coronavirus-poverty-privacy.html

Garrison, Greg. “What clergy said when influenza closed churches in 1918.” AL.com, April 17, 2020. https://www.al.com/coronavirus/2020/04/what-clergy-said-when-influenza-closed-churches-in-1918.html.

Gerson, Michael. “The coronavirus pandemic is developing in the shadow of famine. The combination would be deadly.” The Washington Post. May 18, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-developing-in-the-shadow-of-famine-the-combination-would-be-deadly/2020/05/18/9f250d5a-9935-11ea-89fd-28fb313d1886_story.html.

Haynie, Devon. “Global Leaders Are Using Coronavirus to Trample on Human Rights, Group Warns.” US News and World Report April 30, 2020. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-04-30/amnesty-international-warns-of-human-rights-abuses-tied-to-covid-19.

Lashitew, Addisu. “Social distancing unlikely to hold up in Africa without a safety net for microentrepreneurs.” The Brookings Institute. April 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/04/09/social-distancing-unlikely-to-hold-up-in-africa-without-a-safety-net-for-microentrepreneurs/

Ray, Rashawn. “Why are Blacks dying at higher rates from COVID-19?” The Brookings Institute. April 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/04/09/why-are-blacks-dying-at-higher-rates-from-covid-19/.

Romm, Tony. “Nearly every state had historic levels of unemployment last month, new data shows.” The Washington Post. May 22, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/22/state-unemployment-rate-april/.

Thomas, Christopher J. “Coronavirus and challenging times for education in developing countries.” The Brookings Institute April 13, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/04/13/coronavirus-and-challenging-times-for-education-in-developing-countries/.

Village, Andrew Leslie Francis, and Paul Handley. “Survey: Coronavirus, church – and YOU.” Church Times May 7, 2020. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/8-may/news/uk/survey-coronavirus-church-and-you.

Woodall, Candy. “As hospitals see more severe child abuse injuries during coronavirus, ‘the worst is yet to come.’” USA Today May 13, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/05/13/hospitals-seeing-more-severe-child-abuse-injuries-during-coronavirus/3116395001/.

ENDNOTES

[i] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Harper San Francisco, 1997), 73-94.

[ii] Gary B. Ferngren, Medicine and Health Care in Early Christainity (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

[iii] Ibid., 143.

[iv] E. A. Hammond, “Physicians in Medieval Religious Houses,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine (1958). Benjamin C. Silverman, “Monastic Medicine: A Unique Dualism Between Natural Science and Ritual Healing,” The Hopkins Undergraduate Research Journal 1 (Spring, 2002).

[v] Clifford R. Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe, 2nd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2009), 466-478.

[vi] Martin Luther, “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 43: Devotional Writings II, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Fortress Press, 1999). Available online at: https://blogs.lcms.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Plague-blogLW.pdf.

[vii] Peter Elmer, “Medicine, Religion, and the Puritan Revolution” The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Roger French (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 15.

[viii] John Henry, “The matter of souls: medical theory and theology,” The Medical Revolution of the Seventeenth Century, ed. Roger French (Cambridge University Press, 1989).

[ix] Dana Robert, Christian Mission (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 50 and 132-135. Healing Bodies and Saving Souls: Medical Missions in Asia and Africa, ed. David Hardiman (Rodopi, 2006).

[x] Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., Epidemics (Oxford University Press, 2018), 512. Greg Garrison, “What clergy said when influenza closed churches in 1918,” AL.com, April 17, 2020. https://www.al.com/coronavirus/2020/04/what-clergy-said-when-influenza-closed-churches-in-1918.html.

[xi] Rashawn Ray, “Why are Blacks dying at higher rates from COVID-19?” The Brookings Institute, April 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/04/09/why-are-blacks-dying-at-higher-rates-from-covid-19/.

Jason DeParle, “The Coronavirus Class Divide: Space and Privacy,” New York Times May 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/12/us/politics/coronavirus-poverty-privacy.html

[xii] Addisu Lashitew, “Social distancing unlikely to hold up in Africa without a safety net for microentrepreneurs,” The Brookings Institute, April 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2020/04/09/social-distancing-unlikely-to-hold-up-in-africa-without-a-safety-net-for-microentrepreneurs/

[xiii] Michael Gerson, “The coronavirus pandemic is developing in the shadow of famine. The combination would be deadly,” The Washington Post, May 18, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-developing-in-the-shadow-of-famine-the-combination-would-be-deadly/2020/05/18/9f250d5a-9935-11ea-89fd-28fb313d1886_story.html.

[xiv] Tony Romm, “Nearly every state had historic levels of unemployment last month, new data shows,” The Washington Post, May 22, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/05/22/state-unemployment-rate-april/.

[xv] “COVID-19 and Indigenous People,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/covid-19.html.

[xvi] Devon Haynie, “Global Leaders Are Using Coronavirus to Trample on Human Rights, Group Warns,” US News and World Report April 30, 2020. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-countries/articles/2020-04-30/amnesty-international-warns-of-human-rights-abuses-tied-to-covid-19.

[xvii] “Coronavirus Lockdown May Spur Surge in Mental Illness, U.N. Warns,” The New York Times May 21, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/14/world/live-coronavirus-tracker.html

[xviii] Candy Woodall, “As hospitals see more severe child abuse injuries during coronavirus, ‘the worst is yet to come.’” USA Today May 13, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/05/13/hospitals-seeing-more-severe-child-abuse-injuries-during-coronavirus/3116395001/.

[xix] Christopher J. Thomas, “Coronavirus and challenging times for education in developing countries,” The Brookings Institute April 13, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/education-plus-development/2020/04/13/coronavirus-and-challenging-times-for-education-in-developing-countries/.

[xx] Andrew Village, Leslie Francis, and Paul Handley, “Survey: Coronavirus, church – and YOU,” Church Times May 7, 2020. https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/8-may/news/uk/survey-coronavirus-church-and-you.