Anti-Church virus syndrome
Bishop David Oyedepo, founder of Living Faith Church Worldwide has every reason to be annoyed with the government. For over three months now the church God used him to establish, along with several others have been under the locks, courtesy of Covid-19.
In response to the continuous closure, he has taken to his online platform to air his views. He has wondered aloud in his homilies, asking why the Church, which should be the custodian of healing and deliverance be locked; while the market place, where all manner of people rub shoulders and share banters in the scorching sun is allowed to operate.
He is disturbed because there is no social distancing as purported in the larger society. The political gatherings have continued to hold unabated. Several other meetings are supposedly being allowed to flourish.
The world at large has also experienced a surge in human activity. Or how do you explain the recent protest against racism across the US and Europe? And yet those who were involved in those protests did not follow any social distancing rule neither did they follow the hygiene regime prescribed by the World Health Organisation.
So when Bishop Oyedepo says the coronavirus has turned to an anti-Church virus, there is every reason to put down one’s ears to listen to him and reason with him. But then we can also infer that the COVID-19 is an anti-school virus because schools in the places where the churches are locked are still not allowed to operate.
But then what complicates the matter for Bishop Oyedepo is that he seems to be the only virulent voice in the wilderness. Many of his pastor and bishop colleagues who have large gatherings have different views.
Some believe the Church has to obey the authority. Some have resigned to fate and would rather make do with available alternatives. Some on the other hand feel it will be wrong to tempt God in a clear matter of a killer virus.
The arguments for and against opening the Church has indeed polarised Christians. Those who are against the opening of the churches in the affected areas cast aspersions on those who are rooting for the Church to be opened. They believe such insistence is selfish and induced by their craving for the ever-flowing tithes and offerings.
Those who want the church opened, on the other hand, see those against the move as being of little faith. It is believed that the church is where healing takes place. Its continuous closure is therefore seen as frustrating the faith of the people and debarring corporate anointing.
Indeed, the pro and anti-Church opening folks have their strong points and nobody should be crucified for holding a contrary view. We all see from different perspectives and this should be respected.
But the issues that arise from the lockdown of church auditoria are more of existential and moral rather than spiritual. The issues bother more on the justification for allowing the market place to thrive and burgeon while an organised church setting is being stifled.
One other issue that comes from the continuous closure of the church is the demystification of these buildings called the church. For the over three months that the buildings have been locked people have been going on with their lives. While some have experienced spiritual growth, those who are still obsessed with a physical Church building are regressing and finding it difficult to cope.
Investment in buildings.
Many years ago when the 50,000-seater auditorium of the Winners Chapel was being commissioned, a question was put to Bishop Oyedepo. He was asked if the number of people coming to Canaanland rose beyond 50,000 and perhaps hit the 100,000 mark what would happen. He said the church would keep expanding. But then to what extent can the church building be expanded to accommodate people. What if the population hit 1 million will the church also build a 1 million-seater auditorium?
Indeed Winner’s Chapel is not the only church fanatical about large auditorium. Deeper Life Bible Church, Dunamis Christian Centre, Salvation Ministries and a host of others have large church buildings, not to talk of the famed 3 by a 3-kilometre auditorium of the Redeemed Christian Church of God.
Several years ago the Deeper Life Bible Church was holding five services at its Gbagada, Lagos auditorium until it could no longer contain the crowd. The church had to break into several units across Lagos. Though it has reconstructed the auditorium, the church seems to have put a lid to the single gathering euphoria.
The question that however keeps sticking out like a sore thumb is: Is there any justification for keeping the Church locked? Should the churches be allowed to worship since they have an organised system and would always abide by the hygiene regime of the WHO?
One, it’s important to appreciate that the Church is like a city set on a hill. We must also understand that the devil is the accuser of the brethren. The devil seeks for every means to discredit the Church.
While it is important to reason along with Bishop Oyedepo given the perspective of his argument, there are ample evidence to show that the larger society is eager to nail the Church at every turn.
Since the outbreak of the virus, those who want to spite the Church are often excited to share the news of how some church pastors who defied the COVID-19 protocol died. Whenever any church opens and there is a subsequent outbreak, people are quick to refer to the opening of the church as the cause of the outbreak.
So, the way to keep safe and to save the name of the Church from undue controversy is to keep the buildings closed for as long as the government wants.
The church should rather seize the opportunity of the lockdown to go to the grassroots and encourage cell meetings. Apart from taking advantage of the internet, the neighbourhood church should also be encouraged. Some pastors have opened cell churches even in this lockdown. Government is not against a gathering of 12.
It’s also important to note that many evil people are lurking around to stigmatise the Church. While we trust that no evil will come near our dwelling, we should not forget that even Satan appeared before God when the angels of God were gathered. That was when God was able to make that historic boast about Job.
So it’s not unlikely that some mischievous folks may take advantage of the opening of the church to cause disaster. While we trust that God can keep his people, we must not give place to the devil. The natural question following this is: Why is there no outbreak in places where churches are operating?
There may not be a ready answer to that. And that is why Bishop Oyedepo is smelling a rat. Could it be that there is a plot to frustrate the thriving churches? Well, that still hangs in the realm of speculation. But as it is, the government is all-seeing and all-knowing in the prism of limited human knowledge. The Bible tells us that the government is representing God. So if the Bible says so, as Bible-believers we are bound to just believe.
Historical examples of church lockdown
History is a good recourse in times like this. In the first 300 years of the Church, the physical building of church never existed. In fact issues of the cathedral began to appear from the 11th through the 14th century. The apostle only made use of existing Jewish temples to preach the gospel. But when persecution came upon the Church they were all scattered.
Then it became illegal to even call Jesus and worship him. Christianity was dubbed religio illicita ie illegal religion. So the apostles were worshipping in houses and unlikely places.
Many of the early disciples were killed for their faith. Amid the killings and persecution, Paul and Peter still wrote to the churches to pray for the government of the day. Paul’s letter to Timothy made it a priority.
It was when the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great made Christianity a state religion that the idea of the church building began and it was the genesis of the present-day pollution that we have in the Church.
We must also realise that Christians in the old Soviet Union suffered a similar fate. Many churches had to go underground. Yet, such repression produced people like Watchman Nee and Witness Nee. The Church seems to thrive more in times of crisis. In China today, the church is growing in a befuddling way. Iran has one of the largest underground Church movements in the world.
So we need not despair over a physical place of worship. It has not even got to the point of saying don’t pray or don’t study the Word. If it gets to that, then believers must be ready to lay down their lives.
It’s important to also note that healing does not have to take place in the physical building called the church. If that is the case then we will be limiting the power of God. Most of the healings that Jesus carried out were done on the go. He went to meet the sick and sometimes they came to meet him where he was preaching on the streets.
But even at that, the Church should realise that God is the ultimate healer. He has given us the power to tread over scorpions and serpent, to heal the sick and raise the dead. But ultimately the deliverance of people rests with God.
Is it not amazing that Jesus did not do many miracles in his home town because of the unbelief of the people? And where the people had faith there is no record that he healed every sick person he met.
The man by the pool of Bethesda was the only one healed according to Bible record. Yet, there were several other sick folks in that place. Jesus even had to deliberately refuse to heal the Syrophoenician Woman because he said to her, why give the food of the children to dogs. But when the woman persisted he succumbed and healed her.
This should tell us something; that the primary goal of the church is to reach the lost with the gospel. Healing is an addendum and at the mercy of God, the ultimate healer. The gathering of the believer is to equip the saints so that they can be useful in the larger society. Healing can take place anywhere and anytime. And even Church can happen anywhere anytime.
The lesson for the church
If there is any lesson that the Church must learn in this COVID-19 season, it is that heavy investment in the physical building is a misnomer. This is a digital age. Beyond that, the reality of the now, especially in a lockdown economy like Nigeria; does not allow for free and easy movement.
The worshippers at these large auditoria are not complaining though. But does it make sense to invest say N5000 to come to church every Sunday in fuel, the wear and tear of the vehicle; when you can enjoy the same fellowship at a neighbourhood church. That money can even be invested in some other meaningful projects.
Sadly, rather than the Church learning and picking up the grain of its pride, it is daily waxing in arrogance. Presently, there are about five big church buildings by different denominations that are still under construction which have been designed to beat the existing ones. Where that will lead us, only time will tell.
Church Times Nigeria editorial