In 313 A.D. the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan; a pronouncement that declared Christianity was to be tolerated and protected as a religion under the Roman government. For the first 300 years of the church, Christians were either outcasts (at best) or a heavily persecuted group. It was far from being a convenient time to be a Christian; converting to the faith often meant giving up your family, your job, your way of life, and even your community – all to follow this crucified carpenter from Nazareth.
During these first few centuries of the Church people often converted to Christianity not only because of the gospel message they heard but also because of the gospel mercy and compassion they experienced. Christians were known to have cared for orphans when no one else would, to have taken in widows when Roman society said they no longer had value, and to have rescued discarded babies from the trash heaps to raise them as their own.
Christians pushed back against the immorality of their day not through boycotts and public protest but by displaying a positive Christian ethic in their homes and communities. For example, sexual slavery and prostitution was at the center of ancient Greco-Roman culture. One of the most reliable ways to tell when a local region had become Christianized is when they decided that sexual slavery was unjust – not because of a moral majority who took over the government, but because people were forsaking their idols to follow Christ. Christianity is at its best when it shows people a better way to find their satisfaction: in Jesus.
During this time period at least two major epidemics claimed up to a third of the population in the Roman empire. In the face of these terrible conditions, the pagan elites and priests from the cult temples fled the cities. They abandoned their people. The only functioning social network left behind was the local churches which provided physical care to Christian and non-Christians alike. They risked their lives to care for those who were facing death. In the midst of their illnesses, these early Christians communicated by both word and deed a hope that looked beyond death and toward eternal life in Christ.
Christianity is at its best when it showed people a better way to find their satisfaction in Jesus. Click To Tweet
The bishop Dionysius (late 1st/early 2ndcentury) wrote, “Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead. The best of our brothers and sisters lost their lives in this manner.” The result was that after these epidemics had swept through the city, most of the people remaining would have been nursed through their sickness by Christians. The Church grew not only because of faithful gospel proclamation but also compassion demonstrated to the sick and dying.
The times that we are living in are becoming more and more like the culture that Christianity was born into in its infancy. The morals and values of our culture nearly parallel those of the Greco-Roman world. It is increasingly becoming less popular or convenient to confess an apostolic, orthodox Christianity.
This raises several important questions for us that we must wrestle through as the cultural tides are turning. Will we retreat from the culture, building little bubbles to protect ourselves from the outside world? Will we become apathetic and lazy about our faith by giving in to the culture? Or will we be strengthened with courage and the faith needed to shape the Church to compassionately and intentionally engage the culture around us?
Scripture has much to say about how we can engage the culture during difficult times. Here are three important lessons we can learn.
- Watch Your Conduct
Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
We are travelers living in a place that is not our home. If we are followers of Jesus, then we are citizens of a different Kingdom now (Phil. 3:20). We ought to live like it.
After reminding us of our new identity, Peter says that we must abstain from passions of the flesh. We must wage war against all manners of sin, especially the sin present within ourselves.
Just think about how radical this would have been for a first century Greco-Roman audience. Men (in particular) could do whatever they wanted with their wives or sex slaves. But what is the message of the New Testament? You can’t live that way anymore. Sex belongs in marriage and men must give themselves solely to their wives. Christianity put the sexual genie back in the bottle of marriage.
Can you imagine how attractive Christianity was to women in the first century? For so long they had gotten used to being ignored by their husbands and treated as objects. The message of Christianity revolutionized how women were to be treated by men.
There is a purpose to our obedience to God beyond our relationship with God. Our obedience and good deeds will be observed by others. Our obedience and faithfulness back up our gospel message which, as Peter says, will lead to many people glorifying God.
Why should people trust us about the gospel if our lives don’t have any marked change in the way we live? If we show no evidence that we belong to Christ – why should anyone listen to us?
- Live as Family
Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:28-30)
The ways people of a local church live together is of immense importance. We treat each other like family not only because we are family (Galatians 4:4-7), not only because we need each other’s love and care (1 Corinthians 12:1-26), but also because Jesus has promised a new and better family to all those who will follow him.
Therefore, we must strive to live as the family that Jesus promises to give.
Rosaria Butterfield is an author and speaker who previously lived in a strong and committed lesbian relationship. When she started to follow Christ, she left the LGBT life behind her. One of the things she often says in her speaking and writing is that in the LGBT community it is often the friendship and presence of others in that community who make all the difference in the world. Depression and suicide are so prevalent in the LGBT community. The care and love people in this community receive from others is often the only thing preventing some from taking their own life.
So, Rosaria says, if we want to attract people from outside the Church and see them come to Jesus, we better be prepared with a better family and even greater love than what they already have. If we ask people to leave their family and way of life behind, we need to be ready to receive them and bring them into our own.
- Stay Salty
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:13-16)
The point of this famous parable is that Christians are only of use to this world so long as they remain distinct from the world. Salt is only useful in preserving meat so long as it is salt. It is no longer useful if it becomes diluted or impure.
What draws people to Jesus is not how similar we are to the culture, but how distinct we are. Just as Peter said we must keep watch on our good deeds, Jesus said we must be salt and light so that others will see us and give glory to God.
Staying salty means obeying the very ordinary commands of Jesus in our everyday lives: by offering true forgiveness to someone when they don’t deserve it, by being quick to reconcile with others, by being gracious in our speech, by listening to and representing others well, and by simply seeking the good of people in your local area. It means we remember who we are in Christ and what he has done to make us new.
What draws people to Jesus is not how similar we are to the culture, but how distinct we are. Click To Tweet
The only way we can stay salty is if we keep Jesus at the center of everything. The early church applied this by being willing to sacrifice themselves – even to the point of death – for the very people who were ridiculing and persecuting them.
And that sounds a lot like Someone else we know, doesn’t it?