August 2009 - Vol. 32

Salt of the Empire: The Role of the Christian Family in Evangelization,
by Mike Aquilina, continued
early Byzantine cross

The Fire of Charity
Yet even in these circumstances, the Church grew. In fact, amid simultaneous persecutions and epidemics, the Church grew still more dramatically, especially in proportion to the total population of the empire. Everywhere people were dropping like flies, but the Church was growing.

How did that happen? Look at what ordinarily happened when an epidemic hit your hometown. The first people to leave were usually the doctors. They knew what was coming, and they knew they could do little to prevent it. The second-century pagan physician Galen admits that he fled, in his description of the worldwide epidemic during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The next ones to leave were the pagan priests, because they had the means and the freedom to do so.

Ordinary pagan families were encouraged to abandon their homes when family members contracted the plague. Again, they knew no other way to isolate the disease than to leave the afflicted family member behind to die, perhaps slowly.

Yet Christians were duty-bound not to abandon the sick. Jesus himself had said that, in caring for the sick, Christians were caring for him. So, even though Christians knew no more about medicine than the pagans did, they stayed with their family members, friends, and neighbors who were suffering. Consider this account of the great epidemic of the year 260, left to us by Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria:

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 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. . . . Death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”
We also possess pagan accounts of that epidemic, and all of them are characterized by despair. Yet the Christians were “serenely happy.” Nor was this an extraordinary event. Stark says that Syrian Antioch, considered the second city of the empire, experienced 41 natural and social catastrophes of this order during the years when Christianity was on the rise. That is an average of one cataclysmic disaster every fifteen years.

Christianity had the same effect in other ways, as Stark noted. It offered cities filled with strangers, orphans, widows, the homeless, and the poor a new family and community and a new way of life that freed them from many of the fears that tortured their pagan neighbors.

Amid all that havoc, Christian charity, which usually began in the home, brought church growth. Christians were much more likely to survive epidemics because they cared for one another. Mere comfort care cut the Christians’ mortality rate by two-thirds when compared with the pagans’. What is more, the Christian families cared for their pagan neighbors as well. Thus, the pagans who received Christian care were more likely to survive and, in turn, to become Christians themselves. Thus, in times of epidemic, when populations as a whole plummeted, church growth soared.

The Spreading Flame
The pagans tended only to take care of those in their group. While pagans would only help their brothers, Christians treated all men as their brothers. And the pagans took notice. The wicked emperor Julian, who despised all Christians and led the charge to re-paganize the empire, still had to grudgingly admire their charity: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our poor lack aid from us.”

I cannot emphasize enough that this charitable activity was not so much the work of institutions as of families. The family was then, as it is now, the fundamental unit of the Church. Until the third century, most Christians did not have a building they could call their “church.” Their Christian life was centered in their homes. Institutionalized charitable organizations were still years away in the future, to be established during more peaceful times.

In the beginning, charity was, rather, the way of Christian family life. This routine of charity did not so much constitute a new culture, replacing the old, at least externally. Outwardly, little had changed in the neighborhoods inhabited by Christians. The law, the government, the routines of daily life remained as they were – and as they would largely remain, intact, even after Constantine. But inwardly, everything had changed.

We see the means of this transformation, even very early in Christian history. A document of the early second century, the anonymous Letter to Diognetus, describes the process in profound yet simple terms. The writer points out that Christians are not distinguished from other people by anything external: not their country or language, not their food or clothing, but by what he calls the Christians’ “wonderful and striking way of life.”

They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not commit infanticide. They have a common table, but not a common bed. . . . 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. . . . To sum it up: As the soul is in the body, so Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. . . . The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible.
Gradually. Invisibly. But inexorably. This is the way that Christian doctrine, hope, and charity transformed the Roman Empire – one person at a time. Christianity transformed the way neighbors treated the sick, the way parents treated their children, and the way husbands and wives made love.

That is what really happened to the Roman Empire. The gospel of Jesus Christ gradually spread, from person to person, from family to family, from home to home, from neighborhood to neighborhood, then to entire provinces. Conversion took place in the smallest increments, one by one, because of homes.

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[This article was originally published in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, May 2004. 
Copyright © 2004 the Fellowship of St. James. Used with permission.].
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