The Church Has Always Led the Way on Public Health

Jesus has 37 miracles recorded in the New Testament. Of those, 27 involving healing the sick. Sometimes, the writers of the Gospels describe the healing in great detail, such as the charming story in Matthew 9, when a paralytic man’s four friends lower him into Jesus’ presence from a rooftop. Other times, we are only told that Jesus “healed many who were sick with diseases” (Mark 1:34) or that anyone who touched his cloak was healed (Mark 6:56).

John 20:30 tells us that Jesus performed many more miracles than were written down, but of the ones we are told about, the majority involve healing sick people. Sure, he walked on water, turned water into wine and helped his friends with a huge haul of fish on a number of occasions, but his reputation for miracles was chiefly built on making the sick well again.

He didn’t have to. It would have been easy for Jesus to be known for, say, cursing enemies with afflictions. Lots of people wanted him to. But, no. Jesus wanted to be known for healing the sick.

So it’s strange, today, that many of his followers in the U.S. are developing the opposite reputation.

White evangelicals are among the most vaccine-resistant group in the U.S. In June, around 24 percent of White Evangelicals said they won’t be getting vaccinated. That number has thankfully declined from February, when 45 percent said they wouldn’t be getting vaccinated, but it still makes them among the least likely religious group to get vaccinated. And that resistance is costing lives. As Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, told the New York Times: “If we can’t get a significant number of white evangelicals to come around on this, the pandemic is going to last much longer than it needs to.”

That’s probably true. In fact, several Christian meetings have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks.

White evangelicals have voiced many different reasons for opposing the vaccine. My colleague Emily Brown has handily dealt with those oppositions here. What’s interesting is how counter this is to the historic example of the Church. While many of America’s Christians are willfully taking credit for prolonging the pandemic, Christianity’s legacy — from Jesus’ earthly ministry onwards — is one of stopping them in their tracks.

A History of Healthcare

After Jesus, other members of the early Church like Paul and Peter also performed miracles, such as healing a crippled beggar. But miracles weren’t the only source of healthcare in the early Church. Luke, traditionally considered to be the writer of both the Gospel that carries his name and the Book of Acts, was a physician.

Over time, the Early Church developed a rep for treating and talking to the sick the society ignored or avoided. Jesus and the disciples were known to talk to leper communities, who weren’t allowed in cities. Bishop Dionysius tells us that 200 years later, Christians were doing the same thing. “Many of our brethren, while in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness, did not spare themselves, but… visited the sick without thought of their own peril,” he wrote.

This was particularly true during the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which may have killed a full quarter of the Roman Empire. There are historians who believe the plague was instrumental to the early rise of Christianity, since Christians were among the only citizens to treat the sick with kindness and compassion. Later, the Plague of Cyprian had a similar impact on Christianity, and Cyprian became known for teaching Christians to spend less time mourning those they lost and more time caring for the afflicted. Christians were noted for taking care of everyone, “not merely to the household of faith,” as Pontianus put it.

Ancient Rome did not have anything we would call hospitals today. The occupation of being a “doctor” was viewed with suspicion, since most of them were self-taught. And the best healthcare was often reserved for those could afford it (funny how that happens). But during the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, bishops were charged with starting their own hospices for the sick and the poor as a way of obeying 1st Peter 4:9’s command to be charitable to strangers. The Church wanted a hospice attached to every cathedral.

Saint Sampson’s hospital in Constantinople and Basil’s in modern-day Turkey were the earliest examples of such hospitals. A wealthy Christian widow named worked with St. Jerome to establish the first hospital in Western Europe in about 390. By the 12th century, Constantinople had two, well-organized hospitals, staffed by both men and women, that included special wards for different diseases.

See Also

(It should be noted that while the Christian Church was notable in its development of hospitals, it was not alone. Similar advances were being made in the Islamic world, including the earliest examples of what we would today think of as nursing homes. Hospitals in places like Baghdad and Damascus were the first to require diplomas for their doctors, and it was illegal to turn away patients who were too poor to afford treatment.)

Then the Black Plague swept Europe, killing 75 million people. In 1525, the plague reached Wittenberg, and Martin Luther wrote a letter advising Christians of their duties during an epidemic, urging both spiritual diligence (prayer) and practical vigilance (social distancing and taking medicine). “Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us,” he wrote. “Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”

“See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God,” he concluded.

In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale revolutionized nursing, tirelessly working to update the conditions of medical barracks in the Crimean War. Under her leadership, medical institutions were set up for the poor and even members of the criminal underworld. She would speak often of feeling that God had called her to a life of service when she was a teenager, forsaking the high society life afforded by her family and ignoring the wealthy suitors afforded by her beauty for a life of 20-hour days, research and activism.

There are many other stories of Christian charity in the healthcare field, from missionaries who included life-saving medical practices in their evangelism to the remarkable legacy of Catholic missions (the “nurse’s uniform” evolved from the nun’s habit).

So it’s not just disappointing and dangerous that so many Christians in America are resisting the call to take part in modern medicine; it’s a reversal of a lovely legacy of aid. While many parts of today’s Church seem more interested in being known for defending their rights, there is something more historic and altogether more biblical is being known for giving them away. We’re not Jesus. We can’t heal everyone who touches our cloaks. But by obeying His call, we can take part in His work of being known for having compassion on the sick.

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