Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Compassion of the Early Church

by Ben Hein

The earliest Christians were known for their deep, sacrificial compassion toward all people. Is this what Christians in the US are known for today?

We must be careful when drawing application from the early church (first few centuries after the death of Christ) not to romanticize them. They were not perfect, nor are we. But if you study early church history, one thing seems clear: they were known for their overwhelming compassion for all people. Despite every trial and persecution that came their way, they were known for showing deep compassion to everyone in their city.

You must understand the context into which the Christ came and the Church was born. Christianity did not prosper because it simply made sense to everyone. Christianity prospered because it radically challenged the status quo. Whatever you might think about the Christian faith, you must be willing to acknowledge that it has turned the history of the world upside down. This is the case that is argued if you read Tom Holland’s Dominion, or Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity. Here’s what they’ll show you.

In the pagan world, especially among the philosophers, mercy and compassion were regarded as character defects. They believed that mercy was opposed to justice because it involved providing unearned relief. Classical philosophers taught that mercy is not governed by reason, and therefore the impulse must be curbed.

It was into this world that the gospel of Jesus Christ went forward. Christianity, in opposition to the majority culture and philosophies of its day, taught that mercy was a primary virtue. Christianity taught that a merciful God requires his people to be merciful. Because God has loved us, we must love one another.

But what was most revolutionary was that this principle for mercy and compassion extended beyond other Christians and must also be shown to all those who are in need. Cyprian, the third-century bishop of Carthage wrote, “there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with due attentions of love…. Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” The tender compassion of these early Christians was so radical that one historian has described their work as a “miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services.”

Here is how Tertullian, a second century African theologian, described the compassion of these early Christians:

“There is no buying or selling of any sort of things of God. Though we have our treasure chest, it is not made up of purchase money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he is able; for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking bouts, and eating houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls of destitute means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.”

The earliest Christians understood that even in a context where they were the persecuted minority, it was their mission and their charge to display Christlike compassion to all. This was what they were known for, so much so that in the 4th century the Roman emperor Julian launched a campaign to try and create pagan charities which could rival the charity of the Church. He complained in one letter that the explosive growth of the Church was caused by their “moral character, even if pretended” and by “their benevolence toward strangers.” He complained in another letter, “The [Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

Is this what the church in the US is known for today? I fear that it is not. I fear that we are known more for our pride, critical spirit, and defensiveness. I believe that much of the shrinking collapse and decay we see in our churches, the lack of conversions, the closure of churches, all has very little to do with our culture “out there” and has much to do with having lost our way “in here”. The renowned Anglican pastor John Stott once said,

We should not ask, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather we should ask, “What has happened to salt and light?

What has happened? Have we lost our way?

Let us repent and pray, asking the Lord for an increased depth of his own compassion to be made evident in our lives and in our churches.

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