How early Christians handled their ‘COVID-19’
by Brian Stiller, Global Amassador, the World Evangelical Alliance
Today, most of us sit confined in our homes, unsure of how widespread the COVID-19 virus is in our community, our country, or the world. I frequently open the app counting the global statistics and try to understand what life is like in places where the virus is creating unimaginable havoc.
Some have sarcastically dismissed the virus as being a political foil. Now such silliness is sobered by reality. Others try to spiritualize this pandemic, as if it is God’s punishment for our erring ways.
Today’s “New Normal”
We aren’t the first Christians to face a global pandemic. In fact, now is a good time to learn how we might deal with this world-being-shut-down crisis. Those in the early church faced two life-threatening epidemics within its first 200 years. The first was in 165 A.D., in which up to one-third of Roman citizens died, and the second was in 251 A.D.
Learning from the early Christians
In these catastrophes, Christians, who were then just a very small minority, exerted extraordinary impact on their societies. Facing headwinds of human devastation, they wasted no time, nor spared personal effort, to care for those struck down by those deadly pathogens.
Sociologist Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity notes that in the midst of human calamity, the Christian community survived and thrived. He suggests three reasons for this:
First, Christians laid themselves down, even to death, and comforted those who were dying, bringing solace to those afflicted by the deadly contagions. In so doing, Christians won approval from those who had seen them as a cult, or a heresy. With their extraordinary acts of kindness, Christians were then viewed as a caring community and their faith taken more seriously.
The extraordinary response from Christians contributed to an unprecedented growth of the church. While pagan religions and various forms of Greek philosophy provided a means of soliciting and appealing to various gods, Christians “offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon their societies. And they projected a hopeful and even enthusiastic portrait of the future.”
Second, Christians bolstered by their faith, seemed to endure hardships better than others. When disaster struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in “substantially higher rates of survival” (Stark). This meant that in the aftermath of each epidemic, Christians made up a larger percentage of the population, even without new converts.
Third, Stark reasons that in such a widespread epidemic, “large numbers of people, especially pagans, would have lost the bonds that once might have restrained them from becoming Christians.”
The amazing survival rate of Christians offered evidence that this disreputable group called Christians should be looked at again. In any case, the number of conversions was substantial. Even in those early days, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (North Africa), in writing about the 251AD epidemic noted, “…this mortality…has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death.”
How then are we to respond?
While the world is constrained by fear, we take on a different posture. We observe facts and listen to scientists. We then take their analysis and see it through the eyes of our eternal and caring God, always framed by hope. He is our platform from which we observe and respond.
How might we think differently, contrary to the swirling anxiety that fills our media, swamps our family conversations, and paralyzes us when we think of our finances? The following is a suggested way to frame our response. (These ideas are from an excellent article by Gary Hoag.)
First, pray and avoid people. Listen to our medical experts and keep a distance while praying. Prayer isn’t simple, nor is it always easy, but now we have time.
Second, pause and write to people.Write your thoughts and insights. Craft for others to read what you are learning from this experience. Write the life-giving words of Christ to inspire others of His power over all creation.
Third, celebrate and unite people. Here, Hoag presses us to celebrate in the middle of catastrophe. While “festival” may seem too strong a word today, the bishop of Alexandria, Dionysius, exhorts us not to be caught in modes of despair. Can we find times of praise in the middle of suffering and dying? Yes. That’s what Dionysius, leader of the church, advised 1,800 years ago.
Tuck this verse into your memory bank: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:17).
Let us choose hope over confusion, humility over arrogance, empathy over self-interest, faith over fear. So that in recognizing our frail humanity, we will welcome the pervading presence and life of the Spirit to assert God’s will over our own distractions, providing us with a different way in which we view and make sense of what, for too many, is an existential reality.
Instead, let us see today and tomorrow through the prism of God’s grace and love.
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