CHARITY AND THE GOSPEL
Christianity has a rich history that should inform us today about the scope of our Mission when it comes to striking a balance between saving souls and meeting the needs of our society. We have nearly 2,000 years of thought about how the teaching of Christ affects individuals and nations. This history includes disputes, disciplines, and reformations. It also reveals that Christianity has had golden patches where it has enjoyed tremendous public acceptance. But it also reveals that for most of its history (in most places it has entered) it has been despised and scorned. Interestingly, history reveals a connection between what Christianity taught and practiced and how it was received by its societies. If you know your Church History, you'll know we've been here before...
THE GOSPEL AND CHARITY
The earliest Christians were dogged in their efforts to reach their communities with the Gospel. They didn't see themselves as better, or superior to their neighbours. Rather, they accepted the teaching of Christ about the universal condition of all people being defiled by sin. Jesus taught that it was human sinfulness which would result in eternal damnation. And yet, Christ does not leave people without hope. He became sin in our place and bore the penalty of our sin (2Cor. 5:21). The earliest Christians passionately shared with their neighbourhoods that this pardon from sin is available to all who receive Christ and His grace.
"For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ."
The earliest Christians were not universalists (Universalists teach that everyone is saved whether they receive Christ or not). The early Christians regarded the preaching of the Gospel as absolutely necessary to a person receiving Christ and His salvation.
by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them at last!
First Thessalonians 2:16
While the earliest Christians pleaded with their neighbours to be saved through Christ, they also showed their communities tremendous acts of sacrificial love. They went into leper colonies and tended to those made outcasts by society. They gave food and provisions to the poor. They looked after widows and orphans. They ministered to the sick. Thus, hospitals, orphanages, clinics and charities all either find their heritage in the sacrificial service of Christians or in the teaching of Christ about being a neighbour to our fellow man. Eventually, and more recently, Christians would found schools, universities, colleges and offer scholarships to underprivileged students to enable them to gain an education. All the while those serving in these charitable organisations did so because of a profound love for Christ and a deep reverence for His commands to "teach them everything I have commanded" (Matthew 28:20).
When Christianity began, the world was ruled by a very young emperor named Nero. He was openly homosexual and took a particular liking to young boys. He oversaw a culture of mass cruelty. Rome was not able to sanitise its horrific abuse of children with medical instruments and tricky language - it simply called the disposal of unwanted children: "exposure". And the name indicates how it aborted its (birthed and living) babies by leaving them exposed in the town squares on a freezing cold night for the dogs or weather to finish them off. [Wikipedia]
The practice was prevalent in ancient Rome, as well. Philo was the first philosopher to speak out against it. A letter from a Roman citizen to his sister, dating from 1 BCE, demonstrates the casual nature with which infanticide was often viewed:
"I am still in Alexandria. ... I beg and plead with you to take care of our little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to you. In the meantime, if (good fortune to you!) you give birth, if it is a boy, let it live; if it is a girl, expose it."
Philo (1950). The Special Laws. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. III, XX.117, Volume VII, pp. 118, 551, 549.
Exposure of a female child. Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, 1 B.C. (Oxyrhynchus papyrus 744. G)"
Naphtali, Lewis, ed. (1985). "Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 744". Life in Egypt Under Roman Rule. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 54.
After Christianity became accepted by the State of Rome around 312 it still took another 60 years or so for Christians to change the culture of the Roman Empire to regard "exposure" as morally evil. Rome made it a capital offense in 374 AD. But for Christians to obtain this level of beneficial influence in society it had to preach faith, repentance and obedience to Christ - often at the risk of losing their lives, while it cared for the poor, the needy and the outcast.
When Christianity gained acceptance (and wealth and power) it nearly always forgot to preach and care. God always raises up prophets in the darkest hours of supposed light. He raised up Francis of Assissi as such a voice. He called the Church back to preaching and caring. He raised up Savonarola, Wycliffe, Hus, Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, Wilberforce, Spurgeon, Boreham, and Piper to call the Church back to purity of doctrine, preaching and care.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Second Timothy 4:3-5
Each of these men, these prophets, spoke to the Church, to the world, to political leaders. They didn't regard Christianity as being confined to the four walls of a stained-glass building. They didn't regard Christianity as only for the benefit of Christians. They were convinced that the teaching of Christ was the teaching of the Creator designed for the maximum well-being of person. They saw the Church as the pillar and buttress of the truth.
if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
First Timothy 3:15
When the Church strayed from the truth of God's Word by diminishing it, adding to it, relegating it below Church tradition, these prophets thundered. At one point, their thunderings were so dramatic it gave rise to an era known as "the Reformation" and those who joined their thunderous protests became known as "Protestants". They wanted the Church to believe the truth about Christ and saving grace, the depravity of man making us incapable of doing right before God, and the unique authority of Scripture. They wanted the Church to preach these truths in evangelism and pastoring. And they called the Church to care for the poor, the marginalised, and the oppressed.
Today, we seem to facing an increasingly hostile political environment and an unaccepting culture. We can draw lessons from the earliest Christians who served Christ at a time far worse than anything we are facing. When they preached and cared they grew. When they stopped, God sent persecution and opposition. In the midst of their persecution and opposition they preached Christ and cared in Jesus' name. And then they grew again. There seems to be an obvious lesson for us today. We each need to rededicate ourselves to Christ for Him to use us to proclaim through our life and words that Christ has died to pardon people from their sin because He loves them. Maybe God may use you to be a prophetic leader who can speak to the Church, to the world and to political leaders so that more people might hear the Gospel and experience the charitable care of Christ.
May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ.
Second Thessalonians 3:5