So why did Christianity grow in the Roman Empire? In a world full of religious options and a plurality of gods, what was the attraction to Christianity?
As was written earlier, one attraction to Christianity was it’s treatment of women. Many have said that Jesus’ “attitude toward women was revolutionary as for him the sexes were equal.” So the early church, as it modeled Jesus, viewed men and women as equal as well.
But there is one more consideration as to why Christianity grew in the early centuries. It is because Christians provided help and compassion for those in need. This is evidenced by the help Christians provided during the plagues (see chapter 4 in The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark).
In the early years, plagues tragically hit the Roman Empire. In 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a plague swept through the Roman Empire in which the mortality rate was so massive that Aurelius wrote of “caravans and wagons hauling out the dead.”
Christians sought ways to help during the plagues as seen by a letter from Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria to those who had nursed the sick and to those who were giving their lives in doing so:
Most of our brothers 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, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that in death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal to martyrdom.
Evidence of Christian’s helping others is not only found among Christian writings however. In 362, the emperor Julian launched a campaign in order to help start pagan charities in order to match the Christians. In a letter to the high priest of Galatia, Julian urged the pagans that they needed to “equal the virtues of the Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended,’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the grave of the dead.”
In another letter Julian wrote, “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans [Christians] observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.”
Julian also wrote, “The impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
So what can we learn from this? How important is it for us to be compassionate? Should not the church be in the midst of the suffering of the world?
Jesus said, You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world…so let you light shine before others so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).