From its epicenter in Wuhan, China, the current coronavirus outbreak is stoking fear and disrupting travel and business across the globe. More than 150 people have died from the virus in China alone, and more than 8,000 are infected across 20 countries—exceeding the SARS epidemic in 2003. [Update: As of March 15, more than 3,200 people have died in China, and more than 168,000 have been infected across 120 countries.]

Citizens in Wuhan, a major central city comparable to Chicago, are under lockdown by the government and public activities have come to a standstill, including annual celebrations for Chinese New Year (which began on January 25). Chinese Christians, in Wuhan and China at large, have faced difficult decisions about whether to join the millions of Chinese who return home to visit family (as is customary during the lunar holiday season), to flee from the mainland, or even to gather for regular Sunday services.

But are followers of Jesus right to flee an epidemic when people are suffering and dying?

In the 16th century, German Christians asked theologian Martin Luther for a response to this very question.

In 1527, less than 200 years after the Black Death killed about half the population of Europe, the plague re-emerged in Luther’s own town of Wittenberg and neighboring cities. In his letter “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague,” the famous reformer weighs the responsibilities of ordinary citizens during contagion. His advice serves as a practical guide for Christians confronting infectious disease outbreaks today.

First, Luther argued that anyone who stands in a relationship of service to another has a vocational commitment not to flee. Those in ministry, he wrote, ...

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