loren Eric Swanson: Katrina Disaster

Friday, September 02, 2005

Katrina Disaster

We are in the midst of the largest natural disaster to hit the United States in recent memory. Our hearts break and we are all deeply saddened as we watch the story unfold on TV. It is a tragedy of epic proportions that calls for the best of responses of God's people. It is a time for the light of the church to shine the brightest and for the values of the kingdom to be lived out.

I'm attaching an article I wrote earlier about how the church grew during the first three centuries by acting different than those around them.

How the Gospel Grew
By Eric Swanson

If we can learn anything from the history of the early church, we can learn that a church without seminaries, church growth seminars, elaborate youth programs or large campuses can still grow at a phenomenal rate. There are many sociological, political and spiritual factors that contributed to the spread of the gospel. The first century indeed was a “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) moment for Jesus to enter the world. One cannot deny the benefits of a common language, the Pax Romana, safety of travel, etc. But beyond these external factors, the early Christians lived in such a way that caused the world to stand up and take notice, for they had a distinctive lifestyle that could not be ignored. They were followers of Christ and as followers of Christ they would seek to follow in his steps—living as he lived, loving as he loved, caring as he cared and if the ultimate price was to be paid, they would pay it and be welcomed into the company of Jesus himself and those who have gone before. So, what can we learn about the growth of the early church?

The Church grows when people allow the gospel to change them
The world is changed by people who are changed and people are changed when they understand how radical the gospel really is. “It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16). There is never an occasion where the gospel is second place to something else. Nothing even comes close. It is a category by itself. It is not just “best in class” it is the only thing in its class. The gospel liberates and elevates both individuals and societies of people. It is the gospel that gives us the confidence to die and the cause for which we live. The gospel is a gospel of peace—bringing inner peace to those who believe and corporate peace to those who collectively trust and follow. The gospel protects the weak, comforts the hurting, makes “wealthy” the poor, and makes wise the simple. The gospel turns those covered in ashes into oaks of righteousness. The gospel answers questions but allows us to live with unanswered questions. The gospel changes us yet it is what brings us stability. The gospel is timeless but always timed just right for those who believe. No man could have thought of such good news. No epic tale or fairy tale in all of history could build a story around the God of the universe, stepping into time and space to become a man…and as a man to live as a man and end up dying for all men, only to rise from the dead triumphant. The gospel gives us the blessed hope that one day, in a split second of time, we will stand before our Lord, grateful yet confident. We’ll be united with those who have gone before us. And there we shall always be with the Lord.
Early Christians were captivated by the gospel and profoundly influenced by the teachings and values of Jesus Christ. We can assume from their actions that they were changed by Jesus and consumed with the values of the Kingdom of God. They were more than salt and light in their communities. They were the “soul” of their communities. In the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus dated around 150 AD, Mathetes writes about the distinctive lifestyles of the believers:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred. In a word, what the soul is in a body, the Christians are in the world…[They] are kept in the world as a prison-house, and yet they themselves hold the world together…. Christians likewise love those that hate them….[T]he Christians, though subjected day to day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake.[i]

The Church grows when it is engaged in the daily life of the community
Most churches today have withdrawn from their communities and lost the skill of being a part of life and conversation of the community. Whether churches feel like they were run out of town or they willingly withdrew, most churches are on the fringes of the community they seek to impact. Occasionally they make a foray into the city for some search and rescue work but by and large they are isolated from their community. When charged that Christians were “infuructuosi in negotiis (“of no use in practical affairs”), Tertullian answered,
How so? How can that be when such people dwell beside you, sharing your way of life, your dress, your habits and the same needs of life? We are no Brahmins or Indian gymnosophists, dwelling in woods and exiled from life…we stay beside you in this world, making use of the forum, the provision-market, the bath, the booth, the workshop, the inn, the weekly market, and all other places of commerce. We sail with you, fight at your side, till the soil with you, and traffic with you; we likewise join our technical skill to that of others, and make our works public property for your use.” (p. 216)

The Church grows when the followers engage in good works. To be absolutely captivated by the gospel allowed these early Christians to freely act differently to go against the flow of the culture. In a society that devalued children, the early Christians fashioned themselves after Jesus who welcomed little children. Describing the place that children had in early Roman and Greek societies, University of Washington professor, Rodney Stark, writes,

Far more babies were born than were allowed to live. Seneca regarded the drowning of children at birth as both reasonable and commonplace…. It was common to expose an unwanted infant out-of-doors where it could, in principle, be taken up by someone who whished to rear it, but where it typically fell victim to the elements for to animal and birds. Not only was the exposure of infants a very common practice, it was justified by law and advocated by philosophers. Both Plato and Aristotle recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy.[ii]
In a city where children were abandoned and left to die, the followers of Christ would comb the city for abandoned babies and raise them and love them as their own. They deplored both abortion and infanticide and swam against the cultural tide by raising their own children and rescuing those children abandoned by others.

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the church historian Tertullian wrote of how they looked out for believers.

“Each of us puts in a small amount one day a month, or whenever he pleases; but only if he pleases and if he is able; for there is no compulsion in the matter, everyone contributing of his own free will. These monies are, as it were, the deposits of piety. They are expended upon no banquets of drinking-bouts or useless eating-houses, but on feeding and burying poor people, on behalf of boys and girls who have neither parents nor money, in support of old folk unable now to go about, as well as for people who are shipwrecked, or who may be in the mines or exiled in islands or in prison--so long as their distress is for the sake of God’s fellowship, and they themselves entitled to maintenance by their confession.…” Tertullian (p. 189)

They lived a sacrificial lifestyle
“We know that many of our own number have given themselves up to be captives, in order to ransom other; many have sold themselves to slavery, and with the price of their own bodies they have fed others.” (p. 205 Harnack) Clement of Rome

The teachings of the early leaders emphasized the importance of love and service to others. The ecclesiastical writer, Tertullian wrote in around 215 “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’”[iii] Writing of how Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage instructed his flock around the year 250, his biographer Ponianus wrote:

The people being assembled together, he first of all urges on them the benefits of mercy…. Then he proceeds to add that there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith. [iv]

Now imagine being a third century believer. Your mind is saturated with the teachings of Jesus regarding his love and compassion for others. Evangelism is incarnation as much as it is proclamation. You are captivated by the story of the Good Samaritan and of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Your life is guided by Jesus’ precepts of the blessedness of giving over receiving, doing unto others, as you would have them do unto you, loving your neighbor as yourself, being merciful just as God is merciful. You imagine yourself standing in front of Jesus one day in judgment, where the test will be, “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers, you did unto me.” Your faith is not just a belief system to give you comfort in times of distress but it is also your marching orders. Your faith apart from deeds would be dead. So how do you act when adversity strikes?
Stark notes that there were at least two great plagues in the first three centuries (160 and 250 AD) that actually were instrumental in the nascent church’s incredible growth rate, which he estimates at 40% per decade. When the plagues came, those who were able fled the city but not the Christians. They stayed and ministered to the sick and dying--Christians and non-Christians alike. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, writing of how believers responded to the plague of 250 observes:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless 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; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning height commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.[v]

Writing of the response of those who were not followers of Christ, Dionysius continues. “The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt…”[vi] Stark observes that just giving basic care of food and water to those too weak to care for themselves would greatly reduce the mortality rate of the victims. He estimates that 80% of Christians survived the plagues compared to only 25-50% of the general population. So when the plagues subsided, the believers were a substantially higher portion of the population. Beyond this differential in mortality, when non-Christians were nursed to health by believers, many of them, through being recipients of such love, became Christians themselves. When those who fled the city returned to find their loved ones still alive and kicking, it only increased their admiration of the believers and many of them became ardent followers of Christ. People remember how they were treated in the worst of times.
This type of love cannot be manufactured. It can’t be faked. In the year 362, the Emperor Julian wrote to the high (pagan) priest of Galatia “that the recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended,’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.’”[vii] In a letter to another priest he wrote, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, every one can see that our people lack aid from us.”[viii] These observations caused Julian to launch a campaign to institute pagan charities “but for all that he urged pagan priest to match…Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.”[ix] Stark concludes that it was the gospel’s overwhelming growth and influence that caused Emperor Constantine to acknowledge the triumph of Christianity rather than cause it.
“Then did they show themselves to the heathen in the clearest light. For the Christians were the only people who amid such terrible ills showed their feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day some would busy themselves with attending to the dead and burying them (for there were numbers to whom no one else paid any heed); others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city and gave bread to them all. When this became known, people glorified the Christians’ God and, convinced by the very facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.” Eusebius on how Christians displayed self-denying love in the great plague which occurred in the reign of Maximinus Daza (p. 214)

Implications for today
The early church was a church with its sleeves rolled up. If we can learn from the early Christians we may discover that the gospel is most fertile where human needs and the calling of Jesus intersect. Today, in each of our communities, we may not be ravaged by fatal plagues, but we face many situations of human need that loving, compassionate followers of Christ could address. Good deeds can be the bridge over which the good news flows. In Augustine’s words, Christians are to “preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” People will long remember how they were loved and cared for during times of tragedy. “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” is not a dispensational truth to be ignored but may be the best strategy for church growth and church health.

[i] From the Website: http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-08.htm#P668_121134 which contains the Epistle from Mathetes to Diognetus
[ii] Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity. P. 118. Stark notes that in 1991 “a gruesome discovery in the sewer that ran under the bathhouse. The sewer had been clogged with refuse sometime in the sixth century AD. When we excavated and dry sieved the desiccated sewage, we found the bones…of nearly 100 little babies apparently murdered and thrown into the sewer.”
[iii] Ibid, P 87
[iv] Ibid, P. 87
[v] (At the height of the second great epidemic, around 260, in the Easter letter from Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria. In some cities 2/3 of the population died. At the height of the plague of 251 AD, 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome.
[vi] Ibid, P. 83
[vii] Ibid, P.84
[viii] Ibid, P. 84
[ix] Ibid, P. 88

Author: Eric Swanson works with Leadership Network (http://www.leadnet.org/)


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