A few years ago, I wrote an article* on a group of people in the early church, between 250 and 600 years after Christ, known as Parabolani, or “Riskers.” Yes, that was the official name given to them by church leaders when they were ordained into this role in a solemn worship service. Their title came from their primary calling: reaching out to help poor people who were sick during a plague. At the risk of their own lives, they nursed and fed struggling street people whom no one else would touch because of their contagious disease. They even saw to their burial if they died from the plague. After the sixth century AD, Parabolani aren’t mentioned again in historical records, probably because they literally died out because of the risks they took.
Now, in the twenty-first century, Christianity has evolved a sub-specious which I’m labeling the “Risk Reversers.” These are the numerous celebrity pastors who have forcefully opposed restrictions to their large public meetings brought by the expanding danger that the people who gather will become infected by the COVID-19 virus, our modern-day equivalent of the plague. They have challenged any attempt to place limits on their usual worship practices, which focus on building enthusiasm through large gatherings of closely-packed crowds. State, County or local government attempts to forbid or put any kinds of constraints on their right to such meetings are met with loud pulpit condemnations and lawsuits all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Constitution’s First Amendment right to the “free expression of religion” is usually affirmed as the basis of their objections.
At ABC, we’ve taken the opposite approach. We take seriously the message of Jesus, that we should not only love each other within the church Body, but also love other people around us as our neighbors; therefore, we try to do all we can to protect one other from the spreading COVID-virus. That’s why we don’t hold in-person services and why we follow Health Department guidelines on limiting personal contacts. We believe that’s the right Christian response.
That’s why I’m so offended by these preachers’ anti-government tirades. The emphasis is on their rights as Christians over the rights of people around them to be protected from the COVID virus. “It’s our rights over your rights” — To me, that seems to be the opposite of the spirit in which Jesus offered himself for our salvation. He was the Ultimate Risker. He put our interests ahead of his, and we are called to follow his example in our relationships within our society.
Not surprisingly, the public leaders of the religious challenge to COVID restrictions are mostly advocates of some form of the “Prosperity Gospel.” They don’t just preach that prosperity will come to those who follow their teaching; they advocate for their own right to prosperity, as churches and as leaders. COVID is a threat to their income flow, and I believe that’s one of their major concerns. They are the farthest thing from those Parabolani Riskers. They put others at risk in order to protect themselves from financial risk.
Ironically, in their repeated attempts to minimize the threat from the virus, they may actually be putting themselves and their congregations at unnecessary risk of infection. Statistics are hard to find right now, but there are indications that, like other social gatherings, in person church services may often be “super spreader events.”** That would be a Reverse Risk Reversal.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* If any reader can locate that Messenger article, please let me know.