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History has forever labelled it the “forgotten pandemic.” It appeared first in America in the spring of 1918, at the time when history was about to draw the curtain on WW I. It was a time when the American government, as well as all governments of the Allied Forces, had hushed all negative news broadcasts that might discourage the people from supporting the Allied fighting forces in Europe in their defeat of Germany. Therefore, all news media, except for Spain who remained neutral during the war, could not report to the world a plague that was sweeping across the face of the earth.
Unfortunately, the Spanish media alone went public to report the pandemic scourge that was killing millions of people around the world. This was the influenza pandemic. And because only the nation of Spain was broadcasting the devastation of the pandemic through their news media, the plague was eventually labelled the “Spanish flu.”
Today, no one really understands the origin of the influenza virus and why it would eventually claim from 50 to 100 million lives worldwide. Some virologists have suggested that it originated in the deplorable conditions of the trenches in Europe when the Allied Forces were deadlocked in fact off against the Germans in WW I between 1914 and 1918. Others have suggested that the first outbreak was in the Shanxi Province of China in 1917. And then some have suggested that it originated at the American military base of Camp Funston, Kansas in early 1918. A Kansas health official reported that 40 soldiers in the camp had died from some mysterious strand of a vicious flu virus. In the spring of 1918, hundreds soldiers from this military camp were eventually shipped to other camps, and then onto crowded ships that transported them overseas to fight in the war.
It was from both Europe and America that the virus spread like wildfire around the world in only a few months. In one religious newspaper in South Africa, one of the religious leaders of the country reported, “People died by the thousands. It has not yet been fully determined how many died as a result of the sickness [of influenza]” (Pentecostal Holiness Advocate, Apr. 3, 1919). In fact, during the two-year long pandemic more people died in America, about 675,000, than all the American soldiers who died during WW I. Because the reports of the pandemic were kept under wraps in America during the final days of the war, some thought that all the deaths were only the result of the common flu virus. However, it was everything but common.
Though this flu virus by September 28, 1918 had been reported to be spreading at pandemic light speed around the world, on that day the leaders of the city of Philadelphia went forward and conducted the Liberty Loan Parade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They had decided to carry on with the parade because it was an event where tens of thousands of people could come together in a mass crowd of celebration, especially in celebrating of the coming signing of the armistice to end the war that would take place in France two months latter on November 11, 1918. However, within ten days after the event, 1000 Philadelphians were dead. 200,000 were sick and confined to beds. By March of 1919 over 15,000 had died from the virus.
In contrast to the behavior of the leaders in Philadelphia, the civic leaders of St. Louis, Missouri shut down all their theaters, schools, and banned all public gatherings, including churches. As a result, at the peak of the pandemic the city suffered only one-eighth of the number of deaths that occurred in Philadelphia.
By the summer of 1918, the pandemic was raging across America. In the month of October alone in 1918, it was reported that 195,000 people died across America because of the virus. Civic leaders vigorously reacted to the mounting death rate by asking the public to refrain from hand shaking, wear masks and also discontinue all public assemblies, including church assemblies. In fact, in San Francisco, California, the civic leaders were so serious about the pandemic that citizens were fined $5.00 if they were found in public without a face mask. At that time that amount would be equivalent today to a few hundred dollars. Those who did not wear a face mask were mockingly called “mask slackers.”
In response to the pandemic, churches of America were called on to terminate their assemblies for the safety of the members. Thousands of churches throughout America subsequently complied with this request because the church was the true beacon of love in society. And in order for the members to love one another, they had to distance themselves from one another. By discontinuing their assemblies they revealed that they truly did love one another. However, though gathering together is certainly a signal of Christian love, during pandemic, assemblies actually revealed a lack of love for one another.
This call to restrict assemblies also came to the people of central Kansas where my forefathers almost fifty years before had homesteaded the area. One of the churches that had been established by the pioneering Christian homesteaders was the Peace Creek church of Christ that was only a few miles from where I grew up on a farm in central Kansas. The Peace Creek church building itself was about ten miles (about 15) kilometers) from the nearest town of Sylvia, Kansas. (Please read of the history and work of the Peace Creek church in the book, A Prairie Beacon by Grant M. Clothier and Jeanie Clothier Montford. Find it on Amazon.)
After several people of central Kansas had succumbed to the influenza virus, the members of Peace Creek decided to close the doors on their assembly. And such they did for about three months. They conformed to the best understanding that the health authorities had at that time concerning the spread of the virus through the air when people spoke to one another in close proximity, or coughed or sneezed. I have always thought it interesting that these farmers out on the plains of Kansas were willing to educate themselves as much as possible about a pandemic, and then take action to do their part in stopping the spread of the virus.
In order to impede the virus through human to human contact, the Peace Creek members, as well as thousands of other churches across America, decided that as churches they would protect themselves from one another by terminating their assemblies. The members, therefore, went into isolation to their own homes and stayed there in lockdown with their children. Unfortunately, the virus had already struck down one of the leading members of the Peace Creek church, leaving a widow and eight children without a breadwinner for the grieving family. This was a common scenario that was repeated thousands of times throughout America in those days. But the members of this church, as well as thousands of other churches across America, closed their doors in order to save their lives.
By the summer of 1919, the influenza pandemic was subsiding. Virologists assume that so many people had died from the virus, that only those who remained alive by survive the virus by developing an immunity to the virus. The immunity thus prevented the continued spread of the virus. The virus had no place to go. It had run its course.
Nevertheless, the “Spanish flu” virus still lingers with us today through mutated variants of the original virus. Because flu viruses quickly mutate, they have a tendency to bypass immunity and carry on throughout history. An effective vaccine against the influenza virus was not discovered and made available until 1938, and then it was initially given only to military servicemen who were going into WW II in Europe.
We are fortunate today because several vaccines have now come on the market to stop the present pandemic, and its variants. It would certainly be unwise, if not irresponsible, to advise people not to be vaccinated. If you are one of those who have voiced your apprehensions about being vaccinated, please keep in mind that your unwise advice may be gossiped to hundreds of other people, who respond by not being vaccinated because of your apprehensions. If a thousand people refuse to be vaccinated South Africa because of your apprehensions that you have voiced to others, two to three of the one thousand who took seriously your advice will be infected and die. This is true because two to three people out of every one thousand people die in South Africa from the present pandemic virus.
The problem with any virus is that some people can have the virus, but be asymptomatic for days before any indications arise that one is infected. While one is asymptomatic, he or she can be infecting others. With the influenza virus, one might not show any symptoms, but eventually come down with the usual chills, fever, fatigue, and then recover. The Spanish flu virus was so vicious that one could be dead from the virus within a few hours, and at the most, a few days.
So now you are asking me why all this discussion about the 1917-1919 influenza pandemic that took so many lives throughout the world? The problem is that many in the religious world today are becoming victims of a new virus because they are victims of some of their religious behavior and some unfortunate interpretations that are associated with their particular religion, specifically in reference to the practice that they continue unrestricted assemblies. It might be good here to point out some of these scenarios where some might find themselves testing God. James said, “Let no man say when he is tempted [tested], ‘I am tempted [tested] by God.’ For God cannot be tempted with evil, neither does He tempt [or test] any man” (Js 1:13).
We need to pay close attention to James in reference to the present pandemic that is upon us. God does not test us by leading us into evil, nor does He test us by inflicting suffering. At the same time, neither can we test God by thinking that we can lead Him into doing evil (suffering) to us. We are testing God if we unwisely put ourselves into a situation where we suppose He is going to work some miracle to deliver us directly from our own foolish behavior. When dealing with evil and suffering, all such happenings in the fallen world must be accredited to Satan, who goes about as a roaring lion. He continually seeks permission from God, as in reference to Job, to do some evil in this world or cause some suffering. We would advise that this is a time for all of us to read the book of Job. If we willingly endanger our health while thinking that God will heal us, then we are testing God. It is like a smoker asking God to heal his or her lung cancer.
Nevertheless, when we do suffer from the plagues of this material world, we pray fervently that God would heal us (Js 5:13,14). But if God does not bring recovery, we will not blame Him for directly inflicting us with suffering. It is simply a simple faith to blame God for that which is in this world through the work of Satan.
We must continually be positive about these matters, as was inferred by Isaiah: “For when Your [God’s] judgments are on the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness” (Is 26:9). God will take responsibility for all the “judgments” that inflict the world, though the pandemics, with God’s permission, originate directly from Satan. The blessing of the pandemics, however, is that people of true faith move closer to God. It was the same James in the same book who introduced his theme with the words, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the trying of your faith produces patience” (Js 1:2,3).
If we foolishly do not take all the precautions that we know to guard ourselves from evil and suffering in this time of a pandemic, then we will possibly be infected with a virus that will cause us much suffering, if not death. If we behave foolishly, then we cannot blame God by saying that He directly infected us with a virus, and thus He must be held directly responsible for our suffering, and possible death. Also, if we are infected with the virus, but continue to blame God for not healing us, then we are blaming the wrong entity. Evil and suffering are the business work of Satan.
We cannot test God by putting ourselves in a situation where we can be infected, and then presume that God did not protect us from infection when we are tested positive for the infecting virus. We cannot test God with such foolishness. Satan is roaming about as a roaring lion, and if we step into to his realm of roaming, then we open ourselves up to be “bitten” by a pandemic virus. Sometimes we are “bitten” even though we make all precautions to stay safe.
However, we are not so foolish as to step off a high building and think that God will protect us from the law of gravity. We cannot be so foolish as to place ourselves in harms way of a virus and think that God controls all those viruses so that they will not infect us. If we do such things, we are foolishly testing God.
We will not be involved in such mockery of God. We enshrine one particular statement of the Holy Spirit that came through the pen of Paul’s hand: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap correction” (Gl 6:7).
In reference to this, and all pandemics, many preachers are sitting between a rock and a hard place on this matter. In fact, some have even involved themselves in testing God—those of you who live in Western countries will probably not understand what I am going to advise here for some of our preachers who live in the developing world. My advice is that many preachers need to take another look at what they are doing in reference to the assembly of God’s innocent flock.
Here is the dilemma. There are hundreds local preachers who have faithfully worked hard to establish churches in their communities. In the past, and on every Sunday, the members of these churches have faithfully assembled and taken up a contribution to support their faithful preachers and their families—this story could also be told of those who lived over one hundred years ago during the influenza pandemic.
As in any pandemic, people die in the thousands worldwide. Friends, relatives and members of the body of Christ are almost daily laid to rest in graves, some who could have possibly not have faced this fate if someone had behaved sensibly as those members of the Peace Creek church and hundreds of other churches in America during the influenza pandemic.
Health officials around the world today have faithfully sought to function for the safety of the people. So when the health officials of a particular nation mandated that all public assemblies be shut down in order to abate the pandemic and protect church memberships, many preachers around the world lost their weekly income. If they had no garden to til for food, then their families often went into destitution. If they were urban preachers, they could have no gardens to feed their families.
So what some of these preachers have done is to behave unwisely. They have continued to call their members together in the close assemblies of small church buildings with little ventilation so they could take up a contribution for food for their families. The result has been that members have infected one another with the virus and people have died. I am personally acquainted with several cases as this. Some of our preachers are thrown into the lion’s den by infected members calling them to funerals, praying for members beside deathbeds, counseling in times of grief, etc. It is unfair and unwise. In Africa we do not have Zoom. We do not have internet communications. There is no live-streaming in the village. We are often in a village where people just die like they have always done throughout the centuries.
But in the preceding scenario some preachers have become Grim Reapers, that is, for the sake of the contribution they have presented the opportunity for the virus, and subsequent death, to spread among the members because they needed the weekly
contributions from the assembled members in order to feed their families. They thus loved their families more than the health of the members.
Those of you in the West need to keep in mind that we live in Africa, and India; in the developing world where living is often from day to day. Therefore, before you are too harsh with these preachers who continue to call the members of the church together into small church buildings with little ventilation, for which they struggled to piece together with a few bricks and sticks, we need to understand that this is their world.
Some in the West helped them to build these confined premises, and thus do not want them to stand empty during this dreadful pandemic. Some are intimidating the local folks to continue to meet in something that has become a hall of death. Pictures are thus posted on social media to reaffirm the supporters that meetings are still taking place, and often with little social distancing. Therefore, before we criticize the preacher for reporting back that he had no one in attendance on Sunday morning, we must think again about requiring him and the members of the church in his area to do a most unwise thing in reference to the present pandemic.
Even in houses in the cities, the same scenario has developed. I recently had one church leader come by and boast that he had thirty-five people present in the assembly of his house last Sunday—and yes he was given this same lesson of exhortation I am now writing to you.
Thousands of preachers throughout the world are living in these dire circumstances and calling the members of the body to continue to assemble in small “coffins” with little ventilation wherein the virus has every opportunity to migrate from one victim to another. These cases are primarily in rural situations as in those days back in 1918 when the Peace Creek church shut down their assembly. Those farmers had enough sense to follow the instructions of their health departments, and thus, not offer the opportunity for the influenza virus to spread in the public gatherings of the churches. They also had enough knowledge of the Bible to understand that God gave no law concerning assemblies that would endanger the health of His people.
Nevertheless, there may be some differences between then and now. The Peace Creek members, and many other churches in those days, had no full-time preacher who depended exclusively on the contributions every Sunday to survive. Unfortunately, some preachers of rural Africa and India have made the mistake of making themselves “full-time,” and thus subjugated themselves to depending on the weekly contributions of the saints. Therefore, when an assembly is closed down, so also is closed down the income of a family.
The result of all this is that there are thousands of “full-time” preachers in the developing world who continue to unwisely call their members together into an environment wherein the members are infected with the pandemic virus of today. Some of these preachers seem to be more concerned about the weekly contribution than they are about the safety of the members. And the fact that they have harped for years to the members that unless they “give to God, God will not give to them,” they must come together and make their contributions in order that God continue to bless them.
And then there are those preachers who have for years been teaching an erroneous legalized system of assembly and worship. They have convinced themselves, and those who attend their assemblies, that there is no true worship if the members to do assemble together in order to perform five legal ceremonial acts of worship, with focus on the act of contribution. They have failed to understand that Paul and Silas were truly worshiping alone as two Christian prisoners in a Philippian prison.
Some preachers have taught for years that unless members come together and legally perform their acts of worship, then no true worship has transpired. To them, the church ceases to exist if there is no assembly of the members—I am not making this up. There are thousands of preachers out there who have for years preached this message, and thus they have made the members feel guilty if they did not regularly show up on Sunday morning for their ceremonial worship, and thus make the contribution. And now, many of these members are sitting at home alone in lockdown on Sunday morning at 10:00, feeling that they are out of touch with God. Again, I am not making this up.
Fancy terms have been added to theological discussions on this matter. One can worship in his or her house, but then there is the official “corporate” worship of all the members on Sunday morning. If one does not attend the official “corporate” worship, then he or she has not truly worshiped God in spirit and truth. And if one seeks to worship with his family and friends in a house when there is a “corporate” worship going on in town at the same time, then one has supposed “left the church.” Of course this is all theological nonsense.
This terminology and theology developed many years after the existence of the rural Peace Creek church, which church of members—according to the thinking of these modern-day theologians who master in the subject of assembliology—supposedly gave up their “corporate” worship in order to worship as families in their homes. They subsequently and supposedly terminated the existence of the church in the Peace Creek community.
However, did the Peace Creek really cease to exist as the church in the area of Peace Creek because the members ceased to assemble for some “corporate worship”? According to some, their worship was also supposedly not “true” until they were all able to come back together again into one assembly three months later after the pandemic.
You might think that I am setting up a straw man against some who differ with my point. But I assure you that almost no week goes by when I do not read on social media the outcry of some assembliologist who seeks to keep the people together in some assembly in order to continue “the church.”
On the positive side of these matters, one of the blessings of the pandemic is that it has forced people to take another look at the assembly instructions concerning the church. Isaiah was right. Hard times make us think.
Nevertheless, we are in an era where the present pandemic will be spread among millions who unwisely persist in maintaining their unfortunate understanding of the assembly of the saints. I asked a north Malawian church leader about what the members of the church were doing in northern Malawi. He replied, “The members are carrying on as usual in their assemblies.” And then recently on the news one of the doctors of the association, Doctors Without Borders, said of Malawi, “The pandemic will soon hit hard in the country of Malawi,” as it will in all those countries where people walk in ignorance of the infectious nature of the present virus.
What the Western world does not understand about Africa is the ingrained fatalism that permeates the thinking of the typical African. Africans have been dying from diseases for centuries. Influenza, Ebola, AIDS, and now Covid; “we just die” as one brother told me. The most recent cause of death is just another pandemic that will take thousands of lives, even as the Spanish flu did a little over one hundred years ago. The lack of education on these matters, combined with a fatalistic view of life, will lead to a great number of our brothers and sisters going on to glory before their time.
It is the responsibility of church leaders in these times of a worldwide pandemic to act wisely in order to protect God’s people. This virus is not going away anytime soon. Therefore, it is a time to hunker down and pray for the Lord to come and deliver us from this Satan infected world. I am ready to go up directly to the arms of Jesus when He is visibly revealed with His mighty angels. Until that time, however, I would just as soon not have to met Him via some Covid grave, though regardless, the final destination will be the same.
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