July 21, 2024

Plagues to Pandemics: What We Can Learn From Early Christianity

Liesl Hoeldtke '22

If there is one word that many of us would use to define the last year and a half, it would be “unprecedented.” It seems as if this word has been used to describe everything that happened between 2020 and now, especially the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone has had to respond to this crisis quickly and make decisions they never expected to make. This includes the church, on both a local and global scale.

Last spring, as the world withdrew into lockdowns and online gatherings, I watched the Christian communities that I love so dearly completely shift our way of existing. It was hard not to feel alone; not just alone in lockdown, but alone in history. It was, for lack of a better word, unprecedented. What I have learned recently, however, is that this situation is nothing new to the church. Christians have been dealing with plagues and widespread sickness since the beginning, a fact that many historical theologians have pointed out over the past year. There is something to be learned from the way our ancestors of the faith responded to similar situations in their own context. At the very least, it might help us feel less alone.

Thanks to the meticulous writing of the early church mothers and fathers, we have many records that describe the early church and its functions. The most common way to deal with the sick and vulnerable was to ignore them or cast them out of a community; however, Christians demonstrated radical hospitality to those who were sick or left without care. Dionysius, the second-century Bishop of Alexandria, wrote about Christians during an epidemic in his city:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ. . . . Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their deaths to themselves and died in their stead.”1

The earliest Christians defined themselves by laying down their lives for the other, whether they were other Christians, pagans, or even those who persecuted them. Emperor Julian even praised the Christians for their philanthropy and wanted the Romans to take note.2 Their care for the sick and willingness to lay down their lives for those in need set them apart in a culture that often prioritized self-interest.

One of the church fathers, Basil of Caesarea, is credited with creating one of the first hospitals in the fourth century. On an episode of Christianity Today’s podcast, Gordon’s Dr. Amy Brown Hughes talked about Basil and his family: “He [Basil] was especially attuned to what it looked like to care for the whole person in context.…He believed that medicine was a gift from God.” Basil saw that spiritually and physically caring for the other, particularly those on the margins, was a lifelong work that was honoring to God. These are just a few examples of how Christians in the early church responded to sickness and to the sick. Time has given us a lot of plagues, and to go through all of them would require a far more detailed book. Humanity has suffered and survived, leaving with us a rich abundance of history to learn from.

Of course, our responses to disease and sickness have evolved dramatically throughout the centuries. One thing that has remained consistent, however, is our scriptural command to care for others. The early Christians took the passage from Matthew 25 very seriously:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

 The church fathers saw in Christ a model for how to love the least of these, and they encouraged Christians to follow closely in his footsteps. What does it look like for Christians today to follow this example? In an article about this very issue, Bryan Just from the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity at Trinity International says, “In treating those stricken with the plague, early Christians were attempting to live out Jesus’s commands to love their neighbor, to care for the sick and vulnerable, and to follow the ‘golden rule’ of doing to others as you would have done to you. This means that we must determine what ‘loving our neighbor’ looks like today.”3 Our present context does not encourage us to copy the actions of our church ancestors exactly, but we can look to their example of acting not out of fear of social disgrace or sickness, but out of love for others.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, loving our neighbor can look like getting vaccinated and wearing masks in public to protect those who can’t get vaccinated, providing resources to those who are dealing with job or food insecurity, or supporting our healthcare providers that have spent the last year risking their own health to tend to those who are sick. Just like the early church, we aren’t doing these things out of a spirit of fear, “but a spirit of love, power and of sound mind.” When we feel alone or unsure in these unprecedented times, we can remember we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that sympathizes with us. Anytime we sacrifice our own self-interest to care for others, we are a part of a tradition that has echoed through centuries, an echo that started with Christ and His sacrificial love for us. 

1 Eusebius, and Jeremy M. Schott. 2019. The History of the Church. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

2 Becker, Sarah. 2020. “Awaking to Mutual, Reciprocal Need in Plague and Epidemic Disease: The Origins of Early Christian Health Care.” The Linacre Quarterly, (October). https://doi.org/10.1177/0024363920962958.

3 Just, Bryan. 2020. “Historic plagues and Christian responses: lessons for the church today?” Christian Journal for Global Health, (April). https://doi.org/10.15566/cjgh.v7i1.373.

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