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LESSONS FROM HISTORY
We can offer an anxious world the hope and comfort of being in Christ.
Christians in a Time of Plague
With the coronavirus pandemic upon us, it feels like we’re in unprecedented times. Yet, while we personally may not have experienced a pandemic like this in living memory, the truth is that large-scale outbreaks of disease have been a common occurrence in human history. This should give us a measure of comfort: human society has survived plagues in the past and, Lord willing, will again. Meanwhile, we can take comfort and inspiration in seeing how God’s people have responded to similar crises. We can find lessons which we might learn as we face today’s situation.
The Roman world was devastated by a severe plague from AD 249–262 – often called the “Plague of Cyprian”, after the Christian bishop of Carthage who witnessed and wrote about the pandemic. At its height, 5,000 people were dying each day in the city of Rome. Cities like Alexandria saw their population fall by over 60%. During this plague, Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, describes pagan residents who, in a desperate attempt to save themselves, cast out even sick members of their own family to die in the streets. In contrast, he reports that the Christians were committed to loving one another. Despite the risk to themselves (many were subsequently ‘martyred’ by the plague) they patiently ministered to the sick, and they helped to take care of their basic needs, carefully preparing the bodies of those who perished. 1
Even though such simple care may seem pointless against a deadly virus, it’s now known that supporting those weakened by illness in this way can greatly help them to recover on their own, reducing mortality by up to two thirds. This didn’t go unnoticed by the pagans who survived. It’s thought that the attitude shown by Christians during the Plague of Cyprian contributed to the growth of Christianity in the years that followed. 2
Not only were Christians able to offer physical support to those suffering from the plague, they could also offer hope to people who were afraid and looking for answers. During the same plague, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, preached a sermon to strengthen his flock whose faith had been shaken by the death they saw all around them. He spoke powerfully of the different mindset believers should have during times of suffering. They didn’t need to fear death since they have received the promise of eternal life. They have put their hope and trust in heaven, not in this world. Cyprian urged them not to see death as something to be feared or mourned:
Our brothers should not be mourned, when they have been liberated from the world at the Lord's summons, since we know that they have not been sent away but sent ahead, that as they depart they are leading the way; they should not be lamented but missed as people who are setting out on a journey or voyage are generally missed, nor should we put on black garb here when they have already taken up white clothing there, and the opportunity should not be given to the heathen to rebuke us justly and deservedly, because we say that they are living with God, yet mourn them as if they were dead and lost for ever, and fail to prove by the testimony of our heart and mind the faith which we express in words. 3
As Cyprian pointed out, non-believers will notice how Christians behave in a crisis, and we have an opportunity to show the world what we believe by how we act.
In 1527, a plague struck Martin Luther’s home in Wittenberg. His university was closed and residents were fleeing, but he refused to leave. Instead, he helped care for the sick. When challenged, he wrote an open letter, Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague. In that letter Luther offers practical, biblical advice to help Christians think through their actions in response to the plague. He shows compassion for the fearful but also gives a challenge to remain faithful and dedicate ourselves to serving our neighbours:
This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody would be so solicitous and would gladly become a servant or helper. Everyone would want to be bold and fearless; nobody would flee but everyone would come running. 4
Some believers have bucked against government measures which seek to contain this virus by restricting church gatherings. They see compliance with such government measures as a sign of the triumph of our new pagan society over old-fashioned faith and piety. Yet, history tells us that even these measures are not unprecedented. As recently as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–20, schools and churches were closed in many cities. God’s faithful people nevertheless found other ways to minister: they encouraged each other through windows and doorways, worshipped in their homes, and church buildings became hospitals. 5
As much as we can learn from these examples, there are some obvious differences in our current situation. Today, we have medical professionals who provide expert care for the sick, so ordinary Christians aren’t required to bear the same load as in ancient times. But we can help in other ways. We can look for ways to support overworked medical staff or vulnerable friends and neighbours. We can offer friendship to those who are lonely and isolated by quarantine. Even small actions can be powerful. We can also be a model to the community by cheerfully following public health orders, acting selflessly, while remaining calm in the present and optimistic about the future. We can offer an anxious world the hope and comfort of being in Christ.
Throughout the ages, God’s people have risen to the challenges that have faced them. Challenging times strip back our facades to show what truly lies beneath. What will this pandemic crisis reveal about us?
1 Dionysius, “Easter Letter to the Brethren in Alexandria” in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, vol VII 22.
2 Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (Princeton University Press, 1996) 88.
3 Cyprian, Treatise VII: On the Mortality, paragraph 20.
Nathan Holyoak is a member of The Point Church in Brisbane and an associate editor of InterSections. firstname.lastname@example.org