I can’t fathom the thinking of Pastor Todd Bell, the spiritual leader of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford, who believes that emergency COVID-19 public health rules limiting religious gatherings are part of a plot to thwart the spread of the Gospel. If anything, these guidelines, by helping to stem the spread of a deadly disease, advance the message of the Gospel.

Bell, who moved to Maine from North Carolina in 1994, has defied the state’s emergency guidelines which set a 50-person crowd size limit for religious gatherings, require cloth masks for all attendees where 6-foot physical distancing is difficult to maintain and strongly discourage the use of choirs and communal singing.

Bell officiated at a large Aug. 7 wedding in East Millinocket. According to the Maine CDC, the wedding and reception that followed have been linked to 176 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths. The wedding helped seed the virus in York County, including an outbreak at the York County Jail.

At his own church, Bell continues to hold in-person, indoor Sunday services without masks or distancing, featuring a 15-person choir which assembles onstage to sing hymns. Ten church members have contracted the virus.

In response to hundreds of social media posts criticizing his conduct, Bell delivered a fiery response in a sermon in which he characterized public health rules as part of a culture war against religion. “I’ll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do,” he said. “They want us to shut down, go home and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.”

Based on my reading of the Gospel, I must respectfully disagree.

Admittedly I’m a latecomer to the Gospel. I didn’t get around to it until I was in my early 20s. That’s because – well—I’m Jewish, and the New Testament was not a part of my Hebrew School education. By the time I finally perused the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I was working as a kibbutz volunteer in Israel, my interest sparked by the fact that I was literally walking in the footsteps of Jesus and the Apostles when I visited the Galilee, Jordan River, Jericho and Jerusalem.

The version of the New Testament I read was entitled “Good News for Modern Man,” written in everyday, easy-to-understand English and distributed free by the American Bible Society.

While I don’t pretend to possess the Scriptural knowledge of Pastor Bell, who can probably recite long Biblical passages from memory, I can comprehend the plain meaning of its words.

What they tell me unequivocally is that Jesus was profoundly committed to the welfare of common people, both Jew and Gentile, especially the poor, the social outcasts and the infirm.

Among the most frequently recounted Gospel stories of Jesus’ ministry are those relating to his miraculous acts of healing. He was the First Century equivalent of a mobile charity health clinic. In just the first 77 pages of Good News, in the Book of Matthew, one can find numerous accounts of Jesus laying hands on and curing men and women suffering from epilepsy, paralysis, crippled limbs, blindness, deafness, mental illness and fever.

Later church doctrine would emphasize Jesus’ divinity, but Jesus of the Gospel (or Yehoshua as his Jewish contemporaries would have called him) was all about alleviating the earthly misery of those he encountered during his journeys.  He repeatedly emphasized the importance of this mission over the ritual Temple sacrifice of animals or the study of Old Testament law.  It was a belief he summed up simply with the words, “You must love your neighbor as yourself.”

Although the ancients had far more knowledge about medical cures than we moderns generally realize, the inhabitants of the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day (which included Israel) would not have been aware of the role microorganisms play in causing communicable diseases.

But if they had hypothetically known about the aerosol transmission of a virus like the coronavirus, I find it hard to believe that Jesus would have continued holding mass gatherings of his followers in a way that would have exposed them to illness or death.  His mission was about spreading the word of God, not spreading disease. His God was a deity of love, tolerance and healing, not one that inflicted needless suffering on those who worshipped him.

Jesus railed against the hypocrisy of those who interpreted, taught and preached the word of God but “do not practice what they preach.”

In Matthew 23, he said, “They fix up heavy loads and tie them on men’s backs, yet they aren’t willing to even lift a finger to help them carry those loads.”

To me Pastor Bell’s reckless insistence on exposing his flock to the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, just so they can hear him preach the Gospel up close and personal, represents the very hypocrisy against which Jesus himself warned.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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