Members of an evangelical doctors' group are urging congregations to exercise caution and gather virtually, if possible, if they wish to assemble Thursday for Gov. Kevin Stitt's day of prayer and fasting for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I'm very supportive of the day of prayer and fasting, but that doesn't mean that the only way we can do that is by packing a bunch of people into an auditorium," said Dr. Cheyn Onarecker, director of the family practice residency at SSM St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City and a member of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, an organization whose mission is to "educate, encourage, and equip Christian healthcare professionals to glorify God."
In his declaration, Stitt said "I believe we must continue to ask God to heal those who are sick, comfort those who are hurting and provide renewed strength and wisdom to all who are managing the effects of COVID-19,” and calls on Oklahomans to "continue to find safe ways to gather as we all do our part to protect our families, neighbors and communities from this virus."
"I know that he is a Christian and he professes his faith in God," Onarecker said of Stitt. "He believes that religious activities like prayer and fasting will have a positive effect on the overall health of people in Oklahoma, and I can't knock him for that.
"I guess I can only say that, from my perspective, it makes sense to continue to try to follow the best recommendations we have from the most reliable organization when it comes to public health and medical advice that we know of in the world, and that would be the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)."
"Is gathering together -- Is that only authentic when you pack as many people as you can into a building? It seems like that's not true," Onarecker said.
Last month, CMDA published an essay titled "A Plea To Our Churches," in which the group called for congregations to voluntarily pause large, in-person worship services due to the current surge in COVID-19 and its impact on health care systems.
"As members of the body of Christ, we are called to be His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). That means that Christ has chosen us to reveal His love and grace to all those around us. Choosing to put off gathering together as a church is a statement of love," the essay reads.
"We, as the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, kind of have a foot in both sides. We are on one hand health care professionals, and on the other we're all very committed Christians," said Dr. Jeffrey Barrows, a coauthor of the essay and the group's vice president for bioethics and public policy.
Barrows said the governor's day of prayer and fasting could potentially be safely observed in-person at churches with strictly limited capacities, universal face covering, proper social distancing and adherence to other guidelines.
"On the other hand, I certainly wouldn't recommend that a large church try and pack in as many people as they can for this. I think that would be counterproductive," Barrows said.
Both Barrows and Onarecker said that while they believe God has the power to heal, they also believe in following best public health practices regarding the coronavirus.
"I would agree that our God does heal. On the other hand, I think we need to be careful about putting Him in the position where we are demanding that He heal us, that we are putting ourselves in a position where we don't necessarily have to be doing that," Barrows said.
"Is God able to heal? Well, yeah, I guess that anybody who believes in God, in the sense that He has tremendous power, would say, 'Yeah, of course I believe that God can heal,'" said Onarecker. "But my experience has been that He also has given us intellect, and He's also gifted men and women with research and wisdom and knowledge regarding medical practices and how to keep yourself safe.
"So I think we should rely on those things as well. Otherwise, we would be tempted to do things that are not very smart in the belief that, 'Well, I can just expose myself to dangers and diseases with no regard for safety because, after all, God is able to heal.' Well, it may be that God is able to heal, but I suspect that if you go out and put yourself in front of an oncoming train, your healing will be to see Him in heaven."
Onarecker and Barrows each expressed concern that Christians could potentially end up being cast in a negative light by the actions of the minority of congregations that are disregarding COVID-19 protocol.
"You don't want the message of Christ, which is to love God and to love people, you don't want that message somehow clouded by Christians standing up and demanding that they have the right not to wear a mask or that they have the right to get together in large crowds whenever they want to, and those kinds of things," Onarecker said.
"It seems to me that you do run the risk of people looking at Christians based on what they see in a few outspoken individuals and saying, 'Eh, you know, it seems like the message of the Christian faith is I have rights and I'm going to assert those rights even when it might infringe on the rights of others and bring more infections to others,'" Onarecker said. "I think there is that risk, and, boy, that would be a shame."
"The response of Christians to anything should be love," Barrows said.
"They can follow the rules so they don't themselves become sick and take an ICU bed away from somebody else that might need it," he said. "It's a way for us to make sure that we're constantly aware of what is best for our neighbor, not just ourselves."
Faith communities have been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Oklahoma's first confirmed death from the virus was Merle Dry, a Pentecostal pastor from Tulsa. Experts warn in-person worship services are some of the highest-risk activities for transmission of COVID-19.