We’ve seen our share of difficulties in recent days. From the hurricanes of 2017 to the terror of Las Vegas, from the wild fires of California to earthquakes in Mexico, not to mention a myriad of social and political issues, it was a year of calamity for many. It’s helpful in these times to remember others also faced horrific circumstances in the past, from the Bubonic Plague to the evil of the German prison camps. A look into the history of the early church can help us to minister the gospel in these times, whether global or personal.
When we think of the rise of Christianity and the amazing spread of the gospel we often think of the church moving forward in spite of persecution. This is of course correct, but not the whole story. One of the underestimated facets of early church history concerns the massive plagues that hit the Empire.
During the reign of Marcus Aurelius beginning about AD 165, a plague devastated the Empire, taking the emperor as well. Another came around AD 251 with similar effects. About 260, in his Easter letter, Dionysius wrote a tribute to the believers whose heroic efforts cost many of them their lives. Pagans tended to flee the cities during plagues, but Christians were more likely to stay and minister to the suffering: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbonded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another,” Dionysius observed, adding, “Needless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy.”[i]
Reading this from a comfortable home in the West, I wonder if we can share in the difficulty of the persecuted church today by our willingness in the West to forsake comfort to minister to those in dire need, whether it be AIDS patients or giving ourselves more to those who suffer in our culture, whether by illness or poverty. Dionysius would agree: “The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”[ii]
I fear that sometimes we in the West can feel a bit of self pity that we face no suffering like believers do in places like Saudi Arabia and China. Of course, some relish our ease of life and pursue various forms of a prosperity gospel long on narcissism and consumerism and short on sacrifice and service. But if Dionysius is right, there is yet a way to be valiant for Christ in any culture: seek the marginalized, the disenfranchised, those no one cares about, and love them, touch them, and be Christ to them.
Consider the example of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Each Christmas, there was a tradition in London: the churches would send out representatives to the streets to invite the poor to the celebration; and thousands thronged there. Anglicans would begin by announcing: “All of you who are Anglicans come with us.” Catholics would join in: “All who are Catholics come with us.” The Methodist, the Lutherans, and others would follow suit. When all the invitations were made, many more people milled about. At that point, William Booth would shout to the people: “All of you who belong to no one come with me.”[iii]
At the same time seasons of persecution, as mentioned above in the lives of Polycarp and others, galvanized the church, causing her to focus on essentials. I have spoken to those from the persecuted church in our day from other lands. They never seem to quibble over the color of carpet in a building or argue much about musical styles. Sadly, as the church came to power in the Roman empire it also seemed to lose its passion for sacrifice, and the impact of the gospel suffered as well. May the issues of our time cause us to care for the marginalized, and may the gospel of Jesus Christ, the greatest need of humanity, always drive our efforts.
[i] Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 82.
[iii] W. Kallestad, Entertainment Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 53.
[Adapted from the Evangelism Handbook]