But if anyone has the world’s possessions and sees his brother or sister in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17)
If history is any indication, moral atrocities like abortion and infanticide could become unthinkable long before they’re illegal. Since ancient times, abortion, infanticide, and child sacrifice were central tenets of Paganism, and despite God’s forbidding and the warnings of His prophets, the Israelites participated (Psalm 106:35-38, 2 Kings 17:17-18, Jeremiah 7:31-32). But fast forward to the time of the Roman Empire, when the practice of exposure was common (laying a sick, disabled, or unwanted infant at the walls of the city to die), and we find that the early Christians risked everything to save those children from death, even though it was illegal to do so.
They didn’t wait for the Roman consuls to denounce the very culture they were a part of. They didn’t delegate the saving of lives to senators who would only act when it was politically expedient or financially beneficial. No! They worked to dramatically shift the Pagan culture, despite the unjust laws, by being the hands and feet of Jesus and refusing to let those children be destroyed (Matthew 18:12-14). It was this radical sacrifice that helped Christianity change the world.
Mercy set us apart
The rapid spread of Christianity, even amidst heavy persecution, is also attributed to how Christians responded to the deadly plagues that swept across Europe and Africa in the early centuries AD. It was common in ancient societies to abandon the sick and dying. Mercy was discouraged, as it only helped the weak, disabled, and unwanted. Pagan culture had no religious or philosophical basis for the concept of human dignity and thus, the right to life was bestowed and removed at the will of the government. But the early Christians were revolutionaries! They recognized the intrinsic value in humans, made in the image of God, and dared to care individually for them.
This stark contrast between pagan and Christian virtue laid the groundwork for the swift conversion of families throughout the ancient world. The last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, even remarked of Christians, “They support not only their poor, but ours as well. All men see that our people lack aid from us.” They carried on active ministries in the midst of widespread persecution, which established the standard of care now seen in medical missions throughout the world.
The great reversal
Today, pro-life Christians continue to faithfully minister to the sick and dying and the men and women deceived by the culture of death, but in a broader sense, the Church has long-relinquished the power of its witness to a new Paganism—Progressive government. By the late 19th century, Christians had established hospitals, schools for immigrants, and homes for unwed mothers and had shared the Gospel message through these ministries. But a new theology began to emerge from the corruption of seminaries and frustration with rising poverty: The Social Gospel movement. The Social Gospel taught that the second coming of Christ could only be realized if poverty and other social ills were eliminated first, before addressing spiritual needs. Historians call this shift the Great Reversal, as it put a much higher emphasis on social and physical aid than evangelism.
During the Social Gospel‘s infiltration into the Protestant Church, responsibility for care of the poor, sick, and dying was transferred to a rapidly expanding secular government, which—like the paganism of the early centuries AD—had no real regard for human dignity or respect for the inalienable right to life. In response to this liberalized Protestantism, evangelicals began to distance themselves from the movement. This combination of all-in and all-out reactions from the Church allowed the Social Gospel to root itself in America. As a result, government programs like the New Deal, the Great Society, the New Frontier, the War on Poverty, and the Affordable Care Act further separated Gospel-sharing from social welfare (and in some cases, overtly forbid it).
Reversing the reversal
In the 21st century, in many ways, our society no longer recognizes the contrast between paganism and Christianity and yet, mercy ministries play just as critical a role in shifting the culture as they did in the 4th century. Now, instead of courageous Christians rescuing the children abandoned at the infanticide walls, we see sidewalk advocates reaching out to those who are caught up in modern-day child sacrifice. We see faith-based pregnancy resource centers build relationships with the men, women, and families spared from harm, in the very neighborhoods they live—neighborhoods that have been ravaged by poverty and abortion for generations. We see Christians working in homeless shelters, fostering and adopting children, caring for infants in crisis nurseries, rescuing the trafficked, and caring for victims of abuse.
These people are not grantors of transactional charity. They are builders of God-honoring communities that restore dignity to men, women, and children and inspire fundamental spiritual transformation. It is only this transformation—in other words, Jesus—that can bring real change to devastated neighborhoods, communities, and ultimately, the culture.
Just as the early Christians took matters of the heart into their own hands and radically shifted Roman society, we must return to a Christ-centered approach to charity to radically shift American society. Though we have allowed apathy, distraction, government overreach, and political dependence to hinder us from doing what Jesus commissioned us to do (Matthew 28:16-20), one thing remains clear—Jesus’ care for the poor, the sick, the disabled, and the dying was central to His mission and the spreading of the Gospel throughout history.
Let us ask ourselves
What would it look like today if we became the fearless, cultural revolutionaries our forefathers and mothers were? Would we need the unjust laws to change first? Could we actually make the destruction of human life and the human family unthinkable, even in the midst of widespread paganism?
The answer is we have, and we can once again.
The next post in The Way Forward series will take Micah 6:8 to its conclusion. We’ll examine our call to do justice and love mercy in the context of the larger spiritual battle and consider how this bigger picture helps us walk humbly with our God.
Get caught up
Post 1: The Awakening reveals how the battle for life is quickly changing and how some in the Church are beginning to rise up.
Post 2: Our Call to Act Justly examines the biblical mandate to defend human life in both politics and ministry outreach and challenges us to consider some misalignments.