The early church had to navigate many trials, including epidemics. But does their response to deadly illness still relate to us today?

Providence University sociology professor Dr. Dennis Hiebert thinks it does.

Hiebert says theology through a sociological lens presents an interesting opportunity to examine faith from beyond its margins in a way that speaks to both Christianity and the Church.

"It observes the way biblical texts are interpreted, how they are lived out, (and) what the effects are," he explains. 

Hiebert says this can be applied to understand how the response of the early church is still meaningful today.

Two deadly epidemics

Early believers encountered not one, but two epidemics, that were significantly more deadly than COVID-19 is today.

In 165 CE, the suspected first appearance of smallpox killed about 30 per cent of the population of the Roman Empire.

90 years later, measles took the lives of 5,000 people in the city of Rome each day.

Hiebert notes these were considered epidemics because they impacted the Roman Empire at the time, but were not spread worldwide.

"They had epidemics much worse than our current (pandemic)," he says.

About 0.0003 per cent of the world population has died from COVID-19 over the past nine months, compared to 30 per cent of the Roman Empire who died of smallpox, Hiebert says.

They stayed and cared

What's more remarkable, however, is how people reacted to these lethal outbreaks.

"The pagan religion at the time had no way of understanding, had no way of explaining what had happened or what was happening," Hiebert says. "The pagans just pushed the ill away and they fled the cities."

Believers had a very different response.

"Christians stayed and cared for the sick and dying," Hiebert says.

Further, Christians cared for believers and non-believers alike, and many died while doing so.

"They had a highly socially responsible, ethical code or Christian mandate to care for each other, even at the cost of their own lives."

Even more remarkable was how this response led to an increasing number of people committing their lives to Christ.

"There was a spike in pagan conversions to Christianity due to the gratitude that pagans had, the attachments they had to Christians because Christians had stayed and actually risked their own lives to save the lives of pagans," Hiebert explains.

And it seems the Lord protected and rewarded Christians for their sacrifices, too.

"Lots of Christians lost their lives but some of them developed a certain amount of immunity, so the survival rates of Christians was much higher than the survival rates of pagans during these epidemics," Hiebert says.

A century later, the emperor Julian launched a campaign to have pagans emulate what Christians did during the epidemics because the emperor was so grateful for the love shown by Christians.

A modern pandemic response

COVID-19 is a different pandemic, largely due to growth in science, technology, and communication. There is worldwide reach by which the virus was spread, but also worldwide communication to stay in contact and distribute restrictions.

"We have more concerted efforts by government to direct our behaviour to contain the virus," Hiebert says. "The question for Christians now is the degree to which we comply (with) these directives to help each other."

The vast majority of Christians are complying with these orders but some are not, Hiebert notes.

"I like to think of the primary difference between (the early church) and now as being modern western culture."

Hiebert describes this culture as individualized, focused on personal rights, and less committed to social responsibilities.

"The question is, have Christians become equally just as committed to personal rights instead of social responsibility as their culture has taught them to be?" Hiebert asks.

The professor says the intersection between faith and culture has always been inevitable.

"I think we need to be able to separate out what is merely cultural from what is purely Christian so that we're not just claiming Christian motive or understanding for what is actually only cultural."

Hiebert references Phillippians 2:4, "Not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of others" (NIV).

"Christians are mandated by our faith," Hiebert says.

"The question is, in these pandemic circumstances, are we insisting on personal rights of worship and assembly and community ... or are we focused on our social responsibilities to care for other people?"

Hiebert says he has been disappointed to see the responses of many Christians resembling the former.

"That's a profound disappointment to Christianity. It was not so in the early church," Hiebert says.

"If we respond that way to ours, it's to our shame."

According to Hiebert, the pandemic has been a time that has stripped away the facade of faith for many, revealing just how much North American culture has shaped people's thoughts and reactions.

"This pandemic is exposing so much of our society that Christians have bought into and have become complicit in.

"We need an entire cultural reset ... where we turn away from our cultural norm of short-term self-interest and return back to long-term collective interest.

"That is the deepest way of being Christian," Hiebert says.

The professor hopes to see a return to the mindset of the early church, where Christians recognize the needs of others matter more than their individual wants.

While we may not know exactly how members of the early church would have reacted to the pandemic on social media, Hiebert believes it would not have been in a spirit of entitlement.

"There was just this strong ethic of humility, of self-sacrifice, of agape love, of being other-oriented (displayed by the early church)," Hiebert says.

"I really think Christians need to rethink all of that."