The Church should have never survived the 1st century and yet here we are. Fully 1/3 of the world’s population calls themselves Christian. The Church is the most powerful force the world has ever known. Why? What is it about the Church? What is it about us? I have three words that answer these questions.
- “With” People who have been “with” Jesus change the world. (Acts 4:7-16)
- “Together” The early Christians loved each other deeply, to the degree that outsiders wanted in (Acts 4:32-35). It is magnetic and catalytic.
- “Outward” The early Christian broke down barriers in the way they served and loved (Acts 1:8)
APPLICATION / CHALLENGE
- We are the same Church. The same potential is in us. Be the church.
- Who are we living life together with?
- Who are we inviting into our loving community?
- Who are we sharing our life with?
- Review the article below for more on church history.
ARTICLE – The Church: Maligned, Yet Magnanimous From: Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity and Marshall Shelley’s Seeing the Invisible Caring Hands Excerpted and Adapted by Dan Clement
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (circa 165 AD), a devastating epidemic —probably the first appearance of smallpox in the West—killed one fourth to one third of the entire population over a fifteen year period. Eventually the Emperor himself became one of its victims. Before Marcus Aurelius died, however, he described the chaos. He spoke of whole cities being abandoned and falling into ruin. Distress and disorder were so severe that he had to postpone the military campaign he was on. Later, when he resumed it, he marched into enemy territory and found dead soldiers in the fields without wounds—dying simply of the plague. A century later under the Emperor Valens the plague hit again, this time probably the first occurrence of measles in the West. At its height, 5,000 people per day were dying in the city of Rome alone.
The typical response of non-believers during these plagues—if you had the financial wherewithal—was to flee to the countryside. Civil authorities as well as pagan priests fled, leaving a civil and religious vacuum. Poor pagan Romans, as well as Christians—who themselves often were from the poorer classes—remained behind. Dionysius, a Christian who lived during these plagues, wrote:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ… The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease…
Jesus had commanded his followers (Luke 6:31-36):
Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them… But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, God Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
This is precisely what they did. Christians took care of their own sick as well as the sick pagans around them—the same people who had previously been persecuting them. And, of course, as they tended to their physical needs, they told them about the Savior who wanted to forgive their sins and give them eternal life. The results were profound—a rapid increase in the number of Christians. This happened because:
- Even though they had no cure for these plagues as we do today, simple nursing— just the provision of food and water, for instance—greatly reduces mortality.
- Christians took care of their own, and therefore more of them survived.
- Christians took care of non-believers who’d been abandoned by their families, and therefore more of them survived and converted to Christianity!
- Finally, pagans in general began doubting the truthfulness and power of their gods.
Thucydides, an ancient Roman historian, a pagan who himself survived a plague, wrote:
The doctors were quite incapable of treating the disease…Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of the oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.
So great was the “problem” caused by compassionate Christians that in the year 362 the Emperor Julian launched a campaign to institute pagan charities in an effort to match the Christians. He wrote that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, because there had been too many conversions to Christianity. Julian—certainly no fan of Christianity—wrote:
I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by [our pagan] priests, the impious Galileans1 observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence…The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people lack aid from us…
Loving social concern coupled with the zealous evangelism of the early church we see in the Book of Acts resulted in an obscure, marginal movement of believers in Jesus becoming the dominant religious force in the western world in just a few centuries. They were controlled by the Holy Spirit, they were confident in Christ’s commands, and they capitalized on the opportunities God gave them. And although Christianity’s detractors then and now wish to make us sound like a bunch of irrelevant underdogs, the societal impact of Christ’s followers continues today.
Today the mainstream media lately has increased its shrill cry against the evils of Christianity. We are intolerant exclusivists, they say. The government, many say, is “supporting religion” by granting tax exempt status, which is a burden on already-strained local, state, and federal budgets. But is that actually the case? Even if they don’t appreciate the “eternal value” we offer, what is the “social value” of the church in America today? The Supreme Court has declared congregations to be “a beneficial and stabilizing influence in community life”. Recent research by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania proves this to be the case. Dr. Ram Cnaan, an Israeli-born secular Jew, states that the monetary value of a church’s contribution to the community is far greater than the benefit churches receive through their tax-exempt status. Dr. Cnaan found that:
- Congregations are a key part of our nation’s social safety net (food cupboards; financial assistance; etc), allotting a significant portion of their budgets to helping others.
- Congregations are the major source for volunteer recruitment in America.
- Congregations provide meeting space for most scouting troops and addiction recovery programs.
- Marriage and family counselors routinely charge $100 per hour, but biblical counselors provide this service for free.
1 “impious Galileans” means that those who follow Jesus the Galilean refuse to worship the Roman gods.