When churches closed due to COVID-19 back in March, few guessed that we’d still be in pandemic protocols by now. But here we are. The last few months have been incredibly challenging to God’s church as we’ve grappled with what church looks like in the COVID era. Over the past few weeks, the Oregon Conference team has received various questions and concerns from members across our field. Here are the latest answers from our COVID-19 task force.
Why is the Oregon Conference making so many COVID-19 rules?
First, it’s important to clarify our role in all of this. In our region, Oregon Health Authority and Washington Department of Health are the authorities that we look toward to develop public health policy. Their job is to develop the policies that guide us in the midst of pandemic. Our role is to serve our churches by helping to put the guidance in context. We also consistently interact with public health agencies to gain clarity on policies and advocate for safety protocols that also facilitate our worship and community practices. There’s a line in most of the public guidance for religious organizations that says, “If you have questions, contact your regional religious authority.” The public guidance on our website (found here) is designed to answer the most common questions and challenges we find in our faith tradition. That’s also why we’ve been connecting regularly with the state to continue developing guidance. We want to serve our churches by providing the best advice we can.
COVID-19 Infection Numbers in Oregon and Washington are relatively low. Why are we still doing this?
We are a religious organization, not a public health organization. Obviously, there are many opinions on what’s happening with the pandemic, how to prevent and treat COVID-19, and what is even true regarding the virus. While there are various opinions, we still look to the public health agencies to guide policy. As churches, our responsibility to our communities is to follow the guidance of those entrusted with developing the public health policy. Why are we still doing it? Every public health agency that has jurisdiction here says we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. It’s that simple.
How can you require the use of face-coverings in church? You're bowing to political pressure.
First, it’s tragic that an issue as basic as public health and well-being would be leveraged by local and national leaders for political gain. But here we are. This moment is but the latest reminder that our nation is deeply divided along political lines. But just because some seek to make this a political issue does not mean that the church must bow to those political influences. At all times, the church must act with conviction based upon principles grounded in God’s word. From the start, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has promoted a health message as the right arm of the gospel. We’ve clearly believed that we are to be salt and light in our communities, bringing godly light to our neighborhoods, our towns, our cities. The Bible is filled with God-given examples of infection-reducing practices such as quarantines and contact precautions to preserve the health of communities. Based on these principles, we should be the first to stand up for the health and well-being of our communities, especially those who are marginalized or at higher risk. Public health authorities universally recommend face-coverings to reduce the COVID-19 infection. The least we can do is wear a face-covering.
How long will this last?
We wish we knew. As members of the church, our role is to keep finding ways to connect, to serve, to minister, and to worship while we deal with effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In most places in the Oregon Conference, we are not expecting major changes to COVID protocols for a number of months. In the meantime, may this be a call to prayer and action. May we prayerfully seek new ways to maintain community and encourage worship for as long as the pandemic lasts.
Restricting gathering sizes and requiring face-coverings infringes on our religious liberty. Why aren’t you suing the state on the basis of religious freedom?
As Adventists, religious liberty is an issue that is close to our hearts. Prophetically, we understand that a time is coming when people of faith will be singled out by authorities and persecuted for the faith that they hold. In this case, the state government policies in our territory have treated churches and church gatherings in the same way that they have treated other large gatherings. This is not persecution. We continue to monitor state policies. If policies develop that clearly discriminate against churches and people of faith, we would work with church attorneys to consider next steps.