From Kate Murphy, Pastor of The Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, to Penny Maxwell, Senior Pastor of Freedom House Church in Charlotte:
Dear Pastor Penny,
It doesn’t give me any pleasure to be writing you this letter. You and I have much in common. We are both women leading congregations. We are both white pastors serving multi-ethnic congregations. Most importantly, we both claim Jesus as Lord and Savior. I want to be one of your loudest supporters.
But in spite of all we have in common, I must speak out against your ministry. Because your recent public declaration that your congregation will defy the mask mandate reveals that you have a dangerous misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
You believe that your faith in Jesus will supernaturally shield you and those you care about from the COVID-19 illness. Perhaps your congregation is only for the young, strong and beautiful and so this is mostly true. But even if COVID-19 is unlikely to greatly harm any member of your community (though I question what kind of shepherd encourages the flock to put God to the test in this way), you know as well as I do that this disease is killing and destroying the lives of many of our neighbors. How can the body of Christ be indifferent to the suffering of the vulnerable? Pastor Penny, our worship services should be a source of salvation in our communities--not a source of sickness and death.
But perhaps you don’t understand the science, Pastor Penny. Perhaps you simply do not believe that large unmasked gatherings increase the power and potency of this pandemic. Perhaps you think the actions you take in your sanctuary don’t have any effect outside of the building. That’s a strange thing for a minister of the gospel to believe, but maybe you do. I urge you to talk to the health care workers who zip up the body bags each day. Meet with the medical ICU nurses who must remove the tubes from the bodies of those who die every day. Pray with the ICU doctors who have to intubate patients whose last words are ‘Doctor--don’t let me die.’ Talk to the hospital administrators who are meeting right now to make a plan to ration care in our city. Our hospitals are so overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that they now have to decide who gets care and who doesn’t--who gets a chance to live and who gets sent home to die. Ask them if it matters if your church gathers each week to worship without masks. Ask them to explain to you how your behavior inside the sanctuary impacts the inside of their hospitals.
But it’s not your misunderstanding of the science that grieves me. After all, you are not a scientist. It is your basic misunderstanding of the gospel that forces me to speak. You pastor a church called Freedom House and you preach that your faith in Jesus gives you the freedom to break this law. Pastor Penny, this shows me that you do not understand the revelation of Jesus. We have freedom in Christ — but it is not the freedom to please ourselves. It is not freedom to do whatever makes us most comfortable. It is not, as St. Paul says, freedom to sin. And, in my judgement, wilfully engaging in behavior that increases the spread of a disease that is killing our neighbors — that is sin.
Our freedom in Christ is the freedom to live for God. It doesn’t give us special privileges in this world — it requires us to live like Jesus, the one who laid aside his power and suffered for the salvation of the world. Our freedom takes risks and makes sacrifices to bless our neighbors. Ours is the freedom to cry out for justice and work tirelessly for peace, even when that labor appears futile and foolish. We are free to risk our own lives to love, serve and bless our enemies. Gospel freedom is the freedom to suffer for love’s sake, not the freedom to cause suffering.
Pastor Penny, there may come a day when the government passes an ordinance that threatens our Christian freedom. Maybe there will be a law that forbids us to preach the gospel, feed the hungry, or work for justice. If that day comes, we’ll stand together defying that law. But today is not that day.
I’m not threatened or offended that our county commissioners modified the ordinance so that faith communities are required to wear masks at indoor gatherings. I’m ashamed that they had to. I’m ashamed that so many of us had to be forced by the government to do what we should be eager to do — make a sacrifice to protect our neighbors.
Kate Murphy is a regular contributor.