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Learning from Christians in Previous Times of Health Crisis

As the country seeks to contain the coronavirus, we are living in a time like we have never encountered before. However, this is not the first time Christians have faced a significant health crisis. In fact, one of the hallmarks of “our family history” of Christians has been the way our mothers and fathers in the faith have ministered to people in the midst of health crises. It is good to consider these examples as we think through how we are to live in this time, modeling the way Christians have always sought to be like Christ and care for those in need. I want to share some thoughts gleaned from looking at these examples (drawing on some helpful articles listed at the end of this post).

A Pandemic in the 200’s

The early church repeatedly ministered during times in which diseases were running rampant. There was a pandemic in the Roman empire from 249-262, with as many as 5,000 people dying in one day. The cause of this health crisis remains a bit mysterious, but the conduct of Christians and how they behaved differently than non-Christians is not in dispute. Records show that non-Christians pushed aside those who were suffering and cared very little for the bodies of those who died, while the Christians showed love and cared for those suffering -- Christians and non-Christians. Christians risked their own health to reach out to those who were sick (though interestingly enough, Christians had a lower mortality rate from this illness than non-Christians). The memory of Christian conduct in this period, as well as earlier periods, was not forgotten as the Emperor Julian looked to the example of the Christians in that crisis as the example that pagans should model in establishing charities, noting how Christians cared for their own as well as others. The example of Christians in these times of crisis seems to have played a role in the growth and expansion of the early church.

The Plague in the 1500’s

Some of the Reformers who we often think about as great writers and teachers also offer examples of ministering during times of disease. When the Black Death was ravishing Europe (wiping out over half of the population), Martin Luther refused to flee from the city (where the rates of infection were higher) and remained in Wittenberg to take care of the sick -- even though the prince ordered Luther to flee to protect his own life. He did so even when his wife was pregnant. He noted that there might be situations in which it was legitimate to flee and that each had to make their own decision, but this important leader in the church did not run away but ran to the suffering in this time because he wanted to minister to those who were in need. Similarly, John Calvin led visitations in Geneva when it was affected by the plague even though others tried to stop him. While Calvin survived, many pastors ended up dying. In the midst of this plague, however, many people also came to believe in Christ and receive eternal life. 

Christians Living in the Pandemic in 2020

This is now our moment to minister and model our faith to others. Our context is a little different, so we need to think through what this could look like. For example, one thing that is different today is the availability of medical care. In previous periods there was not much in terms of the medical profession (causing Christians to have to go to the frontlines of support), but today there are medical professionals who are on the frontlines and helping. We can aid these workers as requested and also think through ways to help, such as not seeking medical attention for more minor maladies at this time and ensuring they have the resources and supplies they need. Furthermore, we have an understanding of germs and how diseases transfer and are wise to pay attention to those, recognizing that good hygiene is also a way to offer love.

In previous times, not everyone stayed to help others; in some situations, people fled and may have been criticized for doing so. The medical experts today advise us to minimize contact, so there is a sense in which “fleeing” is the loving action in this situation and may even be considered an act of sacrifice in that we limit our freedoms and alter our lives for the sake of others. At the same time we think through the physical health of our neighbors, we also need to think through their spiritual and emotional health. Let’s stay in contact (thanking God for technology) and find ways to encourage one another -- not only those in the household of faith, but all those in our circles. We can be thankful for ways that technology can help us avoid isolation and also think through small ways to care for people while following directives designed to protect the health of the most vulnerable. Check if someone needs for you to pick things up at the store. Keep space around people and encourage others to do so. Let’s speak in words of love and calm in this season, pointing people to the hope that we have in Christ in all times and seasons.

We do this because we believe that all people are created in God’s image and are worthy of love and support. We must love our neighbors as ourselves and prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is our moment and time to do so and may be remember by those believers who come after us.

For more on Christians in these moments and what it might look like now, see:
What the Early Church Can Teach Us About Coronavirus
Responding to Pandemics: 4 Lessons from Church History
What Martin Luther Teaches Us About Coronavirus
When the Deadly Outbreak Comes: Counsel from Martin Luther
Serving Christ in a Time of Plague (on John Calvin)
Neighbor Love in the Era of COVID-19

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