Some say we’re living in “unprecedented” times.
But the fact is that plagues are not a new experience for humanity.
And they’re certainly not a new experience for the Church.
We can learn important lessons from the early Church’s response to times just like these!
Early Christians didn’t just suffer intense persecution from the Roman Empire. They faced deadly plagues as well.
Two great waves of plague raged through the Roman Empire: the Antonine Plague (165-180 AD) and the Cyprian Plague (249-262 AD). These plagues killed between a quarter and a third of the Roman population.
Even emperors perished in these plagues. Marcus Aurelius, Hostilian, and Claudius II Gothicus all fell to disease.
Throughout this era, panic reigned over the populace, just as it does in our time. Citizens of the Empire were mystified — and terrified — by the quick and deadly spread of unfamiliar diseases.
Rather than dying out in these waves of disease, however, Christianity spread like wildfire as the Church followed Christ’s example in responding to the plagues.
“During the first plague… for those who could not flee, the typical response was to try to avoid any contact with the afflicted, since it was understood that the disease was contagious,” wrote Rodney Stark, a sociologist and historian.
“Hence, when their first symptom appeared, victims often were thrown into the streets, where the dead and dying lay in piles.”
The Empire’s pagan citizens did their best to distance themselves from the infected, even those in their own families.
Bishop Dionysius, a Christian leader during this era, wrote in great depth about the second (Cyprian) plague, recounting the same response from the pagans.
“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. [They] treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”
As families were torn apart and friends denied each other, Christians quickly stood out for their love and service. The Church took in those who had been infected and abandoned, caring for their weakened bodies and wounded souls.
“Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ,” Dionysius continued.
Though the Christians were untrained in medicine, they did everything they could to serve their sick neighbors. Even the basic care offered by Christians during these plagues probably reduced mortality rates across the Roman Empire by as much as two-thirds, according to Stark.
“[Even] elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality,” Stark wrote. “Simple provision of food and water, for instance, will allow persons who are temporarily too weak to cope for themselves to recover instead of perishing miserably.”
This service did come at a high cost for many Christians, however.
Bishop Dionysius wrote, “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,” he added, noting that this kind of selfless death “seems in every way the equal to martyrdom.”
This counter-culturally selfless attitude was essential to the spread of the Gospel throughout the Empire. As Christians risked their lives to take care of the infected around them, pagans took notice of their love — and the love of the God they proclaimed.
Caring for the sick and those shunned by society allowed Christians to actively live out the teachings of Jesus, Who commanded that His followers visit the sick and reach out to the weak (Matthew 25:35-40).
These incredible examples of charity transformed Roman citizens’ view of Christianity. After seeing the impact of Christ’s teachings, many pagans accepted Christ themselves.
It was largely because of Christian outreach during these two plagues that the Church multiplied at such an unprecedented rate in the first few centuries after Christ’s ascension!
With this fact in mind, it’s time to ask ourselves: does the modern Church have an opportunity to do the same?
As modern Christians living during the spread of COVID-19, we should adopt the same spirit of selflessness and care as our predecessors in the Roman Empire.
Many Christian ministries in the U.S. have already started sending medical teams and supplies to countries affected by COVID-19, and persecuted believers across China are using every opportunity to reach out to their neighbors!
Christians in the U.S. may not be called upon to provide medical care, but we should still be conscious of our role in the current pandemic.
Already we’re seeing stories like the Italian doctors who were once atheists but are now coming to Christ!
Who knows? In God’s hands, COVID-19 could become a global explosion of Christianity!