The Living Gospel: The Church’s Historic Witness

Dr. Frank A. James III

In recent years, Christianity has been the object of considerable ridicule. The New Atheists—Dawkins, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens—have made a nice living by declaring that religion in general and Christianity in particular “poisons everything.” Of course, this is nothing new. Karl Marx demeaned Christianity as the “opiate of the masses.” The British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, defiantly asserted: “The Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of the moral progress in the world.”

So it was surprising to read an article from another atheist who took a rather different slant on Christianity. Matthew Parris, columnist for The Sunday Times of London, wrote a provocative online article titled: “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.” Returning to the Africa of his youth, Parris makes the startling observation:

“It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These along will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa, Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

This is a refreshingly honest sentiment from one who demurs from personal allegiance to Christianity. If we are honest, Christian history has its fair share of skeletons in its collective closet. This is hard to swallow, and I wish it were not so. Despite the fact that Christians have not always behaved in ways that would please Christ, the many examples of Christian compassion down through the ages are nothing short of dazzling.

From the beginning, Christians have been known for their compassion for the disadvantaged. Perhaps one of the most astonishing examples is the opposition to infanticide in the early church. In the Greco-Roman world, female infants and males born with deformities were of no value and often deposited on the village dung heap to die of exposure—or perhaps even more tragic, raised as temple prostitutes. In a chilling letter written one year before the birth of Christ, a Roman citizen named Hilarion directs his pregnant wife: “When you are delivered of a child—if it is a boy, keep it; if it is a girl, discard it.” The Stoic philosopher, Seneca, is even more callous: “Monstrous [deformed] offspring we destroy; children too, if born feeble and ill-formed, we drown.” This is the cruel world to which Christianity came with their counter-cultural message. Over time, this gospel changed the Roman Empire.

Christian compassion has manifested in many ways down through the ages. In a world entirely lacking in social services, Christians became their brothers’ keepers. At the end of the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote that while pagan religions spent their donations “on feasts and drinking bouts,” Christians spent theirs “to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents and of old persons confined to the house.” By the 4th century, Christians had become especially well known for their compassion for the poor—both Christian and pagan. The Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate (361–363), even complained about “those impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well.”

As Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, its compassion became institutionalized. Following the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), hospitals emerged in many cathedral towns, especially in the East. One of the earliest hospitals was established in Constantinople by the Christian physician known as “Sampson the Hospitable.” When the Byzantine emperor Justinian was healed of his illness, the emperor offered to reward him. Sampson requested that a new hospital be built for the poor. This hospital became the largest free clinic in the empire, and served the people of Constantinople for 600 years.

Eventually Constantinople had two hospitals staffed by doctors who developed systematic medical treatments. Specialized Greek terms described the various charitable functions. The Nosocomium was for the sick; the Orphanotrophium for orphans; the Ptochium for the poor; the Gerontochium for the aged; the Xenodochium for poor pilgrims.

In the West, the earliest hospital was established by Fabiola at Rome around the year 400. Fabiola came from a wealthy Roman patrician family. After her conversion, she renounced the world and devoted her immense wealth to the needs of the poor and the sick. St. Jerome informs us that she “established a nosocomium to gather in the sick from the streets and to nurse the wretched sufferers wasted with poverty and disease.”

If the Christian gospel has been identified with compassion for the sick, poor and disenfranchised, it has also been noted for its opposition to injustice. The institution of slavery has long been and remains an ugly part of human civilization. Christian opposition to slavery found one of its most significant advocates for the abolition of slavery in William Wilberforce.

Slavery became a burning national issue in 1783 when the case of the slave ship Zong riveted the public imagination. The Zong had tragically veered off course, putting it and its occupants at serious risk. With drinking water running short, the captain made a fateful decision. He reasoned that if the slaves died from thirst, the financial loss would belong to the ship owner. But if the human cargo was thrown overboard for the “safety of the crew,” the loss would fall on the investors. Desiring to please the ship owner, he ordered 133 slaves thrown into the sea.

At about this time (1785), a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, converted to Christ. By 1787, he had taken up the cause to abolish the slave trade. He stubbornly led the parliamentary campaign against the British slave trade for 26 years, until slavery was finally abolished by the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Wilberforce also had an impact beyond his homeland. The example of Great Britain shamed other European countries to abolish slavery within their dominions.

Wilberforce had no greater advocate than John Wesley. As he lay on his deathbed in 1791, Wesley wrote one of his final letters to Wilberforce:

“O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it. Reading this morning a tract written by a poor African, I was particularly struck by the circumstance, that a man who has black skin, being wronged by a white man, can have no recourse, since it is a law in all our colonies that the testimony of a black man against a white man counts for nothing. What villainy is this?”

Slavery has many forms. One of the most dehumanizing is sex slavery. All over the world, young girls are kidnapped, seduced or even sold by their own poverty-stricken parents to the sex trade. Today’s movement for the abolition of sexual trafficking is a rekindling of an earlier struggle. In the late 19thcentury, reformers such as Josephine Butler, Florence Soper Booth, Katharine Bushnell and Amy Carmichael fought to protect “the down-trodden mass of degraded womanhood.” They were the Wilberforces of their day.

Josephine Butler took a bold and unusual stance. Instead of spewing out moral outrage against prostitutes, she reserved her wrath for those who tolerated (and sometimes enjoyed) prostitution. She insisted on the humanity of those caught up in the sex trade: “When you say that fallen women in the mass are irreclaimable, have lost all truthfulness, all nobleness, all delicacy of feeling, all clearness of intellect, and all tenderness of heart because they are unchaste, you are guilty of a blasphemy against human nature and against God.”

The Irish missionary Amy Carmichael was commissioned by the Church of England and sent to India to win souls. However, she soon discovered that in Hindu temples young girls were dedicated to the gods and forced into prostitution to earn money for the priests. When she turned her attention to rescuing these girls, she encountered resistance from her missionary agency. Yet she persisted, and founded the Dohnavur Fellowship. It continues today, and has become a sanctuary for thousands of young girls who would otherwise have faced a grim future.

Christianity continues its long heritage of being salt and light in a fallen world. Christians have founded some of the most important humanitarian organizations in today’s world: Red Cross, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Prison Fellowship, World Vision and International Justice Ministry (IJM). It is a powerful testimony to the watching world when Christians live out the gospel amid tragedies such as in hurricane Katrina, the tsunami disaster in Japan, the Haitian earthquake or 9/11. Whatever the tragedy, when Christians show up, the good news of Jesus Christ is there for all to see. Perhaps this is what Matthew Parris saw in Malawi.

Dr. Frank A. James III is Professor of Historical Theology and former Provost. He previously served as President of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL. He has taught at Villanova University and Westmont College, and was Visiting Professor at the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Oxford University. Currently, he serves as General Editor of the Peter Martyr Library and is on the Editorial Board for Reformation Commentary on Scriptures. On July 1, 2013, he will become President of Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield, PA.