The early church avoided active engagement with Roman politics, where the contestation for power was brutal and political fortune was fickle, brutish and short. The bedraggled religious community was already leading a precarious existence since it lacked political patronage. As such, it would be wise for it to avoid getting entangled with mighty Caesar who would not hesitate to snuff out any potential challenge to his throne. However, political realism did not mean that the church retreated into a cocooned existence in the ghetto. Instead, it sought to serve wider society by building effective social-economic networks for social renewal.
A Social Message of the Power of Love in Action
Lucian (a non-Christian) was impressed by the solidarity among the Christians. He testified that “their original lawgiver has taught them that they were all brethren, one of another . . . They become incredibly alert of anything . . . that affects their common interests.”
The love of Christians was exceptional in times of plagues and calamities. Eyewitnesses reported that when an epidemic struck, the populace rejected the sick and abandoned unburied corpses in their desperate attempts to avoid infections from a contagious and fatal disease. In contrast, Bishop Dionysius described how Christians “held fast to each other, visited the sick without fear, ministered to them assiduously, and served them for the sake of Christ . . . many did die, after caring for the sick and giving health to others, transplanting the death of others, as it were, into themselves.”
The impact of such selfless service was highlighted by the early Church historian Eusebius. He wrote, “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 fellow-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 it became known, people glorified the Christians’ God, and, convinced by the facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.”
It must be emphasised that for the early church Christian social welfare was not merely an emergency service but an ongoing mission expressing itself in several ways:
First, the church was at the forefront of private charity. In AD 250, the Roman Church distributed alms and supported about 1,500 widows and poor and disabled persons. There was no other equivalent charity in the Roman world.
Second, the church cared for slaves and poor people needing burial. Converted slaves were granted equal dignity and fullest rights in church. Indeed, slaves could become clergymen or even bishops. Christians extended burial services to strangers because they share a common humanity. Undoubtedly, such care comforted grieving relatives and cultivated sympathies for Christianity.
Third, the church provided employment and insisted that every able-bodied person must work. The church formed guilds to provide work for any brother in need. We can only admire its balanced social policy: “For those able to work, provide work; and to those incapable of work, be charitable.”
A Refuge and Haven of Peace in Times of Social Chaos
Roman cities had an average population density equivalent to that found in modern industrial slums. Given the absence of social welfare in Roman society it was no wonder that crime was rampant.
As one contemporary witness testified, “Night fell over the city like a shadow of a great danger, diffused, sinister, and menacing. Everyone fled to his home, shut himself in, and barricaded the entrance . . . if the rich had to sally forth, they were accompanied by slaves who carried torches to light and to protect them on their way . . . Juvenal sighs that to go out to supper without having made your will was to expose yourself to reproach of carelessness.”
In contrast, the church was a haven of peace and support amidst urban lawlessness and insecurity. The church provided the essentials of social security and, more importantly, a sense of belonging in a city of strangers.
Neighbourhoods were transformed when neighbours were bound together not only by common rites but by a common way of life. Admittedly, social compassion was not a virtue found exclusively among Christians, but in those days Christians appeared to have practised it more effectively than any other group.
Rodney Stark aptly captures the social impact of early Christianity, “Christianity revitalised 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 violent ethnic strife, Christianity offered a new basis for social solidarity. And to cities faced with epidemics, fires, and earthquakes, Christianity offered effective nursing service.”
In summary, the church became an institution for social renewal—the new civilising and cohesive power that could unite and care for the diverse races of the Empire.
Dr Ng Kam Weng is Research Director of Kairos Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur. Previously, he had been a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies and a member of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. From 1989 to 1992 he taught at the Malaysia Bible Seminary Graduate School. He has a PhD from Cambridge University.