It is almost mind-boggling how Christianity and the church survived the first two hundred years after Christ’s departure. The powerful Roman Empire ruled the ancient world and over time they saw Christianity as Rome’s great enemy. They set out to eradicate Christianity from the face of the earth. Not only did they fail to do this, but Christianity eventually thrived and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman gods were forgotten.
How do you explain this?
Clearly the gospel message penetrated the lives of many. But there was another factor that had a major impact on the Roman world. Sociologist, Rodney Stark, who received his Ph.D. from Berkley has spent much of his life researching and documenting the fact that the church’s engagement with the poor and suffering was crucial to its explosive growth. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert expound upon this in their book, When Helping Hurts:
It is strange indeed to place the poor at the center of a strategy for expanding a kingdom, but history indicates that this unconventional strategy has actually been quite successful …Cities in the Roman Empire were characterized by poor sanitation, contaminated water, high population densities, open sewers, filthy streets, unbelievable stench, rampant crime, collapsing buildings, and frequent illnesses and plagues. “Life expectancy at birth was less than thirty years – and probably substantially less.” The only way for cities to avoid complete depopulation from mortality was for there to be a constant influx of immigrants, a very fluid situation that contributed to urban chaos, deviant behavior, and social instability.
Rather than fleeing these urban cesspools, the early church found its niche there. Stark explains that the Christian concept of self-sacrificial love of others, emanating from God’s love for them, was a revolutionary concept to the pagan mind, which viewed the extension of mercy as an emotional act to be avoided by rational people. Hence, paganism provided no ethical foundation to justify caring for the sick and the destitute who were being trampled by the teeming urban masses.
In contrast Stark notes:
Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems. To cities filled with the homeless and impoverished, Christianity offered charity as well as hope. To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, Christianity offered an immediate basis for attachments. To cities filled with orphans and widows, Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family. To cities torn by violence and ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing services.
God’s kingdom strategy of ministering to the suffering was so powerful that other kings took note. In the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Julian tried to launch pagan charities to compete with the highly successful Christian charities that were attracting so many converts. Writing to a pagan priest, Julian complained, “The impious Galileans [i.e., the Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
A good question to ask is “Why should we feed and care for the poor? How rational is it?” Science does not tell us to meet the needs of the poor. In fact, it defeats the purpose of natural selection. Shouldn’t we let the weak die out and let the strong survive?
I don’t think anyone really believes this. We recognize that all human beings have great value. The only way that human life can be extolled and held sacred is if God in his divine wisdom created humanity as a reflection of Himself. We are made in the image of God. This is why the early Christians cared for the poor. This is why we today should hold the poor in high regard, they have great value in the eyes of God.
Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.