On Southern Baptists and AIDS/HIV ministry…

Today, I reviewed the remarkable epistle of Martin Luther entitled “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” In this open letter to the Johann Hess, pastor of Breslau, Germany, and his congregation, Luther captures the heart of ministry to those afflicted with incurable, terminable diseases. I encourage you to procure a copy of Luther’s Basic Theological Writings and to read it carefully.  The following exerpts may be found on pages 736-755.

This we would humbly submit to your judgment and to that of all devout Christians for them, as is proper, to come to their own decision and conclusion.  Since the rumor of death is to be heard in these and many other parts also, we have permitted these instructions of ours to be printed because others might also want to make use of them.

To begin with, some people are of the firm opinion that one need not and should not run away from a deadly plague.  Rather, since death is God’s punishment, which he sends upon us for our sins, we must submit to God and with a true and firm faith patiently await our punishment.  They look upon running away as an outright wrong and as lack of belief in God.  Others take the position that one may properly flee, particularly if one holds no public office.

I cannot censure the former for their excellent decision.  They uphold a good cause, namely, a strong faith in God, and deserve commendation because they desire every Christian to hold to a strong, firm faith.  It takes more than a milk faith to await a death before which most of the saints themselves have been and still are in dread.  Who would not acclaim these earnest people to whom death is a little thing.?  They willingly accept God’s chastisment, doing so without tempting God, as we shall hear later on….

Those who are engaged in a spiritual ministry such as preachers and pastors must likewise remain steadfast before the peril of death.  We have a plain command from Christ, “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but the hireling sees the wolf coming and flees.”  For when people are dying, they most need a spiritual ministry which strengthens and comforts their consciences by word and sacrament and in faith overcomes death.  However, where enough preachers are available in one locality and they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not to expose themselves needlessly to danger, I do not consider such to be sinful because spiritual services are provided for and because they would have been ready and willing to stay if it had been necessary….

Examples in Holy Scripture abudantly prove that to flee from death is not wrong in itself.  Abraham was a great saint but he feared death and escaped it by pretending that his wife, Sarah, was his sister.  Because he did so without neglecting or adversely affecting his neighbor, it was not counted as sin against him.  His son, Isaac, did likewise.  Jacob also fled from his brother Esau to avoid death at his hands.  Likewise, David fled from Saul, and from Absalom.  The prophet Uriah escaped from King Jehoiakim and fled into Egypt.  The valiant prophet, Elijah, had destroyed all the prophets of Baal by his great faith, but afterward, when Queen Jezebel threatened him, he became afraid and fled into the desert.  Before that, Moses fled into the land of Midian when the king searched for him in Egypt….

Yes, you may reply, but these examples do not refer to dying by pestilence but to death under persecution.  Answer:  Death is death, no matter how it occurs.  According to Holy Scripture God sent his four scourges: pestilence, famine, sword, and wild beasts.  If it is permissible to flee from one or the other in clear conscience, why not from all four?

By such reasoning, when a house is on fire, no one should run outside or rush to help because such a fire is also punishment from God.  Anyone who falls into deep water dare not save himself by swimming but must surrender to the water as to divine punishment from God….Ultimately, such talk will lead to the point where we abbreviate the Lord’s Prayer and no longer pray, “deliver us from evil, Amen,” since we would have to stop praying to be saved from hell and stop seeking to escape it.  It, too, is God’s punishment as is every kind of evil.  Where would all this end?

Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another.  First, we can be sure that God’s punishment has come upon us, not only to chastise us for our sins but also to test our faith and love — our faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor.  I am of the opinion that all the epidemics, like any plague, are spread among the people by evil spirits who poison the air or exhale a pestilential breath which puts a deadly poison into the flesh.  Nevertheless, this is God’s decree and punishment to which we must patiently submit and serve our neighbor, risking our own lives in this manner as St. John teacher, “If Christ laid down his life for us, we ought also to lay down our lives for the brethren.”

When anyone is overcome by horror and repugnance in the presence of a sick person he should take courage and strength in the firm assurance that it is the devil who stirs up such abhorrence, fear, and loathing in his heart.  He is such a bitter, knavish devil that he not only unceasingly tries to slay and kill, but also takes delight in making us deathly afraid, worried, and apprehensive so that we should regard dying as horrible and have no rest or peace all through our life…Because we know that it is the devil’s game to induce such fear and dread, we should in turn minimize it, take such courage as to spite and annoy him, and send those terrors right back to him.  And we should arm ourselves with this answer to the devil:

‘Get away, you devil, with your terrors!  Just because you hate it, I’ll spite you by going the more quickly to help my sick neighbor.  I’ll pay not attention to you:  I’ve got two heavy blows to use against you: the first one is that I know that helping my neighbor is a deed well-pleasing to God and all the angels; by this deed I do God’s will and render true service and obedience to him.  All the more so because if you hate it so an dare so strongly opposed to it, it must be particularly acceptable to God.  I’d do this readily and gladly if I could please only one angel who might look with delight on it.  But now it pleases my Lord Jesus Christ and the whole heavenly host because it is the will and command of God, my Father, then how could any fear of you cause me to spoil such joy in heaven or delight for my Lord?  Or how could I, by flattering you, give you and your devils in hell reason to mock and laugh at me?  No, you’ll not have the last word!  If Christ shed his blood for me and died for me, why should I not expose myself to some small dangers for his sake and disregard this feeble plague?  If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me.  If you can kill, Christ can give life.  If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.  Should not my dear Christ, with his precepts, his kindness, and all his encouragement, be more important in my spirit than you, roguish devil.  Here is Christ and here am I, his servant in this work.  Let Christ prevail.  Amen!'”

…This I know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper.  Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running.  And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me….’  If you wish to seve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand.  Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word.  If you do not wish or care to serve your neighbor you can be sure that if Christ lay there instead you would not do so either and would let him lie there.  Those are nothing but illusions on your part which puff you up with vain pride, namely, that you would really serve Christ if he were there in person.  Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well….

This is what we think and conclude on this subject of fleeing from death by the plague.  If you are of a different opinion, may God enlighten you. Amen.

First, one must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die….

Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight.  He should become reconciled with his neighbor and make his will so that if the Lord knocks and he departs before a pastor or chaplain can arrive, he has provided for his soul, has left nothing undone, and has committed himself to God….

Third,  if someone wants the chaplain or pastor to come, let the sick person send word in time to call him and let him do so early enough while he is still in his right mind before the illness overwhelms the patient….”

8 thoughts on “On Southern Baptists and AIDS/HIV ministry…

  1. Sir,
    I will admit that I have been a silent critic of this site due to its often caustic content. And admittedly viewed your “Blogolutions” post with little optimism. That said, I just wanted to change my silent criticism to open praise & encouragement for this very good word. This post is one to remember and reflect upon.

  2. My first face-to-face meeting with the Savior came via a man dying of AIDS, and my reaction to the knowledge of his illness. God dealt with me strongly over that, and I came away from the experience able to say that I loved the Lord, for the first time in my Christian life. And I’d been a believer for over 25 years at the time.

    I met the Master through the loving kindness of Eric Solar, who died a year or so later, and it changed my life.

  3. Ben –

    I echo John’s sentiments. I would suggest that the path for reform must include both careful criticism of the wrongs of others and, more importantly, positive presentations of where we should go. This is a valuable and challenging post as it paints a fuller picture of what faithfulness to Christ looks like for us.


  4. Hi Ben!

    I’ve not posted on your blog before, but I thought I would today since I thought it was very strange that you and I posted on something quite similar today! I appreciate your post. God has been dealing with me for quite some time about issues like these. I just can’t understand why popular evangelical ministers and ministries continue to focus almost exclusively (although I’m aware that there ARE exceptions) on social ills such as abortion and homosexuality while hardly ever mentioning the African genocide, human rights atrocities in China, the issues you raised today, etc. If you get the chance, check out the article from cnn.com today (the link is on my blog today at jasonepps.com) on an issue going on in India. I’m sure it will have a similar impact on you as it did me. Anyway, thanks again for the post – hope things are going well for you these days.

    Jason Epps

  5. Every day I watch the Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals who run the bulk of the health system in the state’s near-total absence here. They don’t have the right drugs, their patients can’t pay their fees, and as many people die as are saved, day after day, night after night. But the church here has not fled the plague of war, disease, poverty, and natural disaster. They serve with all they have. They put us to shame.

  6. People should ask themselves, “What would I do if AIDS came to my church? What would I do if I found out some church member I love deeply was HIV positive? and the big one: What if I found out that the SBC employed an HIV positive seminary professor?” or “What if the pastoral candidate coming to my church is HIV positive?”

    For too long, I’ve seen Baptists and other conservative Chrsitians shunt people with HIV off into the margin because of the way HIV is transmitted. I’ve seen them refuse to roll up their sleeves and deliver meals to HIV positive people, because- gasp – gay people volunteer or run the agency, or the agency sponsors a needle exchange program. They know there’s a need, but then when they learn of that, they run and hide away and complain about these issues or “the liberal churches” in the area funding these ministries, yet they then refuse to do something on their own.

    I’ve been to churches where there were people with HIV living among them, afraid for their disease to be known for fear of the stigma from the people. I’ve seen family members unable to speak up for the same reason. I’ve been to talks about “Our Christian Responsibility and AIDS” where the focus is solely on Africa or questions about HIV transmission almost all regard casual contact. Folks, AIDS is still a problem in the US, Canada, and Western Europe. There are still people here in the US who can’t get their medicines, and I can only say that 30 years of marginalizing people with HIV and the whole issue in our churches has produced mass ignorance of basics like how HIV is transmitted.

    Our people want to help the “AIDS babies,” but what about rolling up your sleeves to help the drug addicts at the local substance abuse clinic, or the prostitute, or the wife whose husband cheated on her, or the young man who gave into lust and had sex and got HIV, etc? It’s easy to give to the IMB or a charity helping overseas with AIDS in Africa, but it’s quite another to work in your own backyard.

    We complain about homosexual marriage, and we’ll pass a petition in the pews against it, but all the while we hand the gay community to apostate churches and nullifidianism by telling them that AIDS is God’s punishment – but, hey, “love the sinner; hate the sin.” What we give with our lips with “Love the sinner and hate the sin,” we take away by our refusal to help the sick in our own communities when we do moral triage to determine who is worthy of our help. How is this any different than the Pharisees?

    And let’s not forget the person in the pew who has HIV. If they don’t get marginalized, they either get extolled as some sort of Christian superhero when it comes time to play “Top the Testimony” or they get treated with pity, as if they are different than anybody else in our pews with a chronic or fatal illness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard those stories. They usually end with something like this: “I’ve done my mourning; I’m not a victim. Don’t treat me like one.”

    HIV infection rates are symptomatic of many things, and it’s not just others’ sins. They are, among other things, symptomatic of a church that increasingly seems to rely on the state to do its work. The Church must be the Church in EVERY way, and then we’ll see real changes, both at home and abroad.

  7. I am a pediatric nurse, have been for years. In the course of that time I’ve been impacted by many children and their families with devastating diagnoses-from leukemia & brain tumors to heart defects to AIDS. One family in particular touched me about 10 years ago.

    One member of the family made a few really bad choices:put plainly he sinned, contracted HIV and then unknowingly passed it on to all family members (but one) including those not yet born. While watching the first child die from complications related to AIDS, I was struck that God wasn’t so much doling out punishment for the sins of this child’s parent as He was allowing the Fall to take it’s natural, though disastrous course. Adam sinned. Eve sinned. We all bear the weight of that sin, even “innocent” children (regardless of whether you follow the BF&M or Abstract for direction in relation to original sin).

    We try so hard to make this an US vs THEM debate. But in truth we are all THEM. We are no less sinners deserving of death than those who are drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexual or any other “target” group of sinners. While God offers eternal life, our physical bodies will die, if not from AIDS then from cancer or heart disease or an accident or Alzheimer’s.

    This brings me to a question. God never intended for mankind to taste death. But in His providence He made physical death into a doorway to a blessed eternity for those who accept His gift of salvation & Lordship. So if we are truly trusting in God for that eternity, why do we run so hard from death? I’m not suggesting we wish for or seek an early departure from this life. The days of my life were written by God, not by myself. I believe in the sanctity of human life at all stages. But did not Paul say “to live is Christ, to die is gain”? We cling so strongly to this life as if it were all there is while we proclaim the wonders of heaven. It seems our actions betray our words.

    I realize this may be a gross generalization. It’s just something that has weighed heavily on me for some time.


  8. For the past month I served a man who was dying with Hepatitis and AIDS. He passed last week. When I prayed with him I would lay my hand on his shoulder. Such a small gesture, but such a large message. May we, as ambassadors of Christ Jesus, lay our hands on many such shoulders.

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