The Witness of the Church

God Revealed Through His People

On this rock I will build my church." (Matthew 16:18-20)

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, He entrusted His disciples with the “keys of the kingdom.” He commissioned them to make disciples, with authority to “bind” and “loose.” In a very real sense, they were to be living witnesses to their Lord and His world-changing message. Collectively, they were the Church—the incarnation of Christ between the Cross and Second Coming. Earlier, I called this incarnation the “Corporate Word.”

As the visible extension of God in the here and now, the Corporate Word gives light to the lost, aid to the least, and comfort to the last. Jesus told His followers that by loving others as He had loved them, men would take notice—and notice they did.

In the second century Tertullian wrote, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look’ they say, ’look how they love one another!’” But as one of the sharpest critics of the Church attested, Christian love extended beyond the “one anothers.”

In 362 the emperor Julian, frustrated over the decline of realm’s pagan religions, grumbled that “[Christianity] has been especially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers . . . It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is beggar, and that the [Christians] care not only for their poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”

Centuries earlier, St. Peter had explained the cause and effect. To a scattered community of beleaguered believers, Peter urged: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:11-13). Peter could have scarcely known just how much God would be glorified through the witness of the Corporate Word.

From its inception, the Church was distinguished for the care of widows, orphans, and the needy. But it was their charity in times of plagues and epidemics that stunned the watching world.

In AD 165, a smallpox epidemic raged throughout the empire causing the deaths of up to one-third of populace, according to the estimates of sociologist Rodney Stark. In 251, a second epidemic swept through the empire, claiming as many as 5,000 lives a day in the capital city alone.

During the outbreaks, pagan citizens, priests, and even medical practioners left the cities in panic, abandoning the sick to die. Dead bodies were thrown to the roadsides or left to decay in the homes of victims. Christians, on the other hand, remained in the population centers, at huge risk to themselves, to care for the sick and bury the dead. Their different response was born out of their different worldview.

Christians believed in a personal God, a divine command for brotherly love, and an afterlife. The pagan culture knew nothing of these. Their gods were impersonal deities who made no moral demands on human behaviors and offered no salvation from mortality. Since charity was not a divine requirement, it was something that, in the throes of an epidemic, only an extremely brave or foolish person would exercise.

The different worldview of Christians also led to a different outcome. By attending to the sick with the basic necessities of food and drink, Christians helped many victims survive who would have otherwise perished. Although the ministry of love and compassion resulted in the deaths of many attending Christians, the rates of survival in their communities were substantially higher than in the pagan communities.

And that led to another consequence.

On the night before His death, Jesus revealed many things to His inner circle of friends—perhaps, none more important than the true nature of their calling. Up until then, they had been following and learning at the Master’s feet. But the time for class instruction was coming to an end.

In word pictures, He gave them an enhanced vision of their relationship and mission. As the “Vine,” He was the source of “nutrients”; as “branches,” they were the bearers of “fruit.” It was a clue that their arms-length season of tutelage was over.

The Vine and the Branches unpacked the mystery of “you are in me, and I am in you,” revealing something wholly new. Disciples were not stand-alone producers; they were grafted-in “bearers.” What’s more, their ultimate goal was not learning and personal spiritual growth, but multiplication: “I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.”

The parable also revealed a cause-and effect of their relationship: remaining (abiding) in the Vine results in fruit (multiplication). The expansion of the kingdom happens not by coercion or slick salesmanship; it happens organically. When a person abides in the Vine, allowing the life of Christ to flow through them and out to the far reaches of the branch, the fruit of the kingdom is multiplied.

While the early Christians may not have fully understood this organic relationship, they stove to follow its underlying principle: the Great Commandment. As Dionysius wrote during the second plague,

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love . . . Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending t every need . . . Many in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead . . .

And that, Rodney Stark explains, had a significant impact on the Great Commission.

In his book The Rise of Christianity, Stark notes that Christian care of the sick led to an unexpected consequence: the growth of the early Church.

Nursing the sick not only improved the survival of plague victims, it bolstered the immunity of care-givers against future outbreaks. Higher survival and greater immunity against disease caused Christians to become a larger proportion of the wider populace. That put pagans in closer and more frequent contact with Christians whose lifestyles reflected beliefs about this world and the next that were more compelling than those their religions had to offer.

For the fledgling Church, that created the perfect storm; for between AD 150 (15 years before the first plague) and AD 300 (50 years after the second), Stark estimates that the number of Christians grew over 150-fold—from around 40,000 to over six million!

Over the next 1,700 years, Christian ranks continued to swell, making Christianity the world’s largest religion with around two billion adherents. That, alone, is an impressive validation of Jesus’ cause-and-effect teaching. But when the culture-shaping influence of the Church is also considered, the validation is nothing short of phenomenal.

Civilization, and Western society, in particular, owes much to its Christian heritage.

Christians established the first hospitals, orphanages, and universities. They were the vanguard of the Scientific Revolution. Men like Bacon, Ockham, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Kelvin and Pasteur—all believers—forged the way from medieval alchemy to modern science and medicine.

The Western rule of law, including the separation of church and state and the separation of powers, owes its existence to Christian thought. The same goes for the great social movements of history: abolition, child labor laws, suffrage, and civil rights. And Christians remain on the frontlines today, fighting against the human rights injustices of sex trafficking, prison rape, and religious persecution.

When warlords ravage communities and natural disasters strike, it is not societies of "Brights", free thinkers and secular humanists that rush to far reaches on the globe to help victims; it's churches and faith-based organizations who are among the first to arrive and the last to leave. And that hasn’t gone unnoticed.

In the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, U.K. Guardian columnist Roy Hattersley echoed the sentiments of Emperor Julian. After noting that all of the relief groups had a religious affiliation, Hattersley remarked “Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations.” He closed his article betraying, what was perhaps, a prick of conscience: “The only possible conclusion is that faith comes with a packet of moral imperatives that, while they do not condition the attitude of all believers, influence enough of them to make them morally superior to atheists like me.”

Today, as in the first century and throughout history, the lips and lives of abiding Christians are making the world take notice and ponder afresh the haunting question of Jesus: “Who do you say that I am?” Such is mission of the Corporate Word.

“His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 3:9-10)

Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a Centurion of the Wilberforce Forum. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at:


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