|Valuing Human Life
Series on "How The West Was Won"
Over the past two Sundays, I’ve been addressing the question of how the first Christians managed to bring about such a change in their culture. How was it that within 350 years, half of the Western world had become followers of Jesus? How did the Christian church grow from about 120 believers after the ascension of Jesus, to 33 million 350 years later? So far I’ve covered three major reasons;
These Christians had networks of warm, loving relationships between themselves that were a huge contrast to the pagan world around them. The pagans of the time used to comment “See how they love one another!” But their warm, loving relationships didn’t stop in the Christian community. They loved their pagan relatives, friends and neighbours too. In a day when so many Christians have so few genuine relationships with unbelievers, this speaks loudly to us. If we are going to change our communities for Jesus sake, we are going to have to make friends with those who don’t follow Jesus. Overwhelmingly, people follow Jesus because someone they know and trust followed him first.
Willingness To Suffer
Another reason these Christians had such an impact on their world was that they understood that to follow Jesus meant hardship and suffering. Persecution of Christians was normal in those days. For Christians, suffering was part of the deal. In our society pleasure and comfort is at the top of most people’s agenda. It was then too. But the thing that caused unbelievers to sit up and take notice were Christians who were prepared to suffer for what they believed in. How was it these Christians could cheerfully die for their faith? What was it that sustained them through suffering and pain? In those days the Christians attitude to suffering made a deep impression on unbelievers. It still does today.
The Impact Of Epidemics
At a time when thousands of people a day were dying in cities like Rome, people were running for their lives, looking after number one. But not the Christians. They were right in there, caring for the sick, nursing the dying, burying the dead, caring for the orphaned children and the widows, often at the risk of their lives. That practical care, where Christians literally risked their lives to save their pagan friends, made a huge impression. They lived as if dying didn’t really matter. They prayed for the sick and saw people recover. Many of them seemed to have complete immunity to the deadly diseases, which convinced people that their God was real and powerful. No wonder people wanted to become followers of Jesus.
Now before I talk about a fourth reason, just stop and think about this. In the last 50 years or so, which Christian woman has had the greatest impact on the world? Most of us would say Mother Theresa of Calcutta. What was it that made her so effective? Three things;
She formed a Christian community where they loved one another and loved people outside that community.
She lived a life that showed a willingness to endure suffering and hardship.
She cared for the dying and the destitute, often at the risk of her own life.
What would be the impact of our church on our community, if you and I lived like Mother Theresa? Or better still, what if we lived like Jesus? I’ve quoted this scripture before, but let’s read it again from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:24 – 27)
Here’s a fourth major reason why millions of people became Christians in those first few centuries.
The Value Christians Placed On Human Life – Especially Women
Let me give you some idea of the way the Roman and Greek worlds operated around the time of Jesus.
Pagan women were frequently forced into marriages that happened before they reached puberty. It wasn’t unusual for Roman women to be married at 11 or 12 years of age and to be bearing children by the time they were 13. Roman law set 12 as the minimum age at which girls could marry, but there were no penalties for a girl marrying younger. Usually the man was far older than the girl, and the marriages were typically consummated at once. So there was a strong chance the girl would be pregnant at 12 or 13.
There were many girls of 13 and 14 years of age having children. Now when a Roman girl got pregnant, and remember, that was fairly frequent as there was no effective birth control in those days, it was always the man who had the final say as to what happened. It was common for the man to insist that his wife have an abortion.
Abortion was widespread, and was a major cause of death for women in those days. Here’s why. One of the ways they practiced abortion was to make the woman drink enough poison that she would lose the baby, but hopefully, she would survive. But administering poison to a healthy person was a pretty imprecise science. Often the woman didn’t survive and so both the woman and the baby would die. If different abortion methods were practised, many women died because of the barbaric methods used. If she lived, it wasn’t uncommon for her to be so physically scarred that she could never have children again.
If the baby was born, it was the father who decided what would happen to it. If the baby was deformed, it would almost certainly be dropped into the sewer straight away. If it was a girl, he might keep it, but girls were not as valuable as boys, so tens of thousands of girl babies would be put out on the streets to die. It was quite legal for the father to do all this, and it was common practice in both Greek and Roman society to either kill a newborn baby, or put it outside the front door to die.
Do you understand the impact of all this? In the city of Delphi, historians have discovered that out of 600 families, only six of those families raised more than one daughter. In Italy it’s estimated there were 140 males to 100 females. So all over the Western World, females were in short supply. As early as 200AD Roman historians were writing complaining about the extreme shortage of females. From Julius Caesar onwards, Roman Emperors passed laws to encourage people to have more children, as so many girl babies had been killed, the population was declining. They offered child subsidies, land, and even political preference if people would have more children. But nothing worked, because human life was cheap. Babies were killed because it was inconvenient for the father.
The Christian Contrast
The Christians had a completely different view of the value of human life. They understood the scriptures which talk about how precious we are to God, even when we are in our mothers womb. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.” (Psalm 139:13 -16)
Because those Christians believed God made and loved little babies, even when they were in their mothers womb, they never practiced abortion. Christian teaching absolutely prohibited all forms of killing and abortion. Because Christian women refused to have abortions, their chances of living longer than pagan women were much higher. As well as that, they had lots more babies. If a baby girl was born to a Christian family, it would almost certainly live. So in the Christian community there were far more women than there were in the pagan population. But there was another factor too.
Christians didn’t just look after their own. They used to pick up those little baby girls that had been abandoned on the streets, and take them home, and care for them. Those little girls grew up to be fine Christian women. So in the pagan community there were too many men and not enough women. In the Christian community there were too many women and not enough men. Can you see where this is going?
Christian men and women were urged to remain virgins until they married, and extramarital sex was condemned as adultery. So if you were a pagan man, who lived in a society where homosexual practice was commonplace, where marital infidelity and sexual promiscuity were widespread, then where are you going to get a decent wife? After all, women were in short supply anyway, and many of the women on offer have already been with several men, have had a child, or may be infertile because they have had an abortion. Where were all the decent women? They were in the Christian community! Ah, but there is a problem. Many of these Christian women won’t marry a man unless he is a follower of Jesus. Why was that? Because Paul’s writing in 2 Corinthians 6:14 – 16 is pretty strong stuff about the differences between believers and unbelievers. This is what he writes;
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’”
(2 Corinthians 6:14 – 16)
Because Christian women took the scriptures seriously, they were pretty gun shy about marrying a man who wasn’t a Christian. So what do you do if you are a pagan man? If you want to marry a decent woman, you are going to have to consider becoming a follower of Jesus. And that’s what happened. Thousands of pagan men were forced by circumstances into finding out more about Jesus, just because they wanted to marry a decent woman, and the Christian community had lots of virgins, but they would only marry believers. To put it simply, Christian women were in hot demand.
Status Of Christian Women
If a Christian woman became a widow, she would be cared for financially by the church. In Christian circles, widows were highly respected. They were allowed to keep their husbands estate and they were under no pressure to marry again. Pagan widows faced great social pressure to remarry. One Roman Emperor even fined widows if they hadn’t remarried within two years. When a pagan widow did remarry, she lost all of her inheritance. It became the property of her new husband. That made Christianity an attractive option for women who had lost their husbands.
In the pagan world girls received little or no education. In Athens a woman was still classified as a child, regardless of her age, and therefore was the legal property of a man for the whole of her life. If she owned property, the control of the property was always vested in the male to whom she belonged. If she wanted a divorce, she had to have her father or some other man bring her case before a judge, whereas her husband could divorce her by simply ordering her out of the household. If she was seduced or raped, her husband was legally compelled to divorce her. On the other hand, women married to Christian men had the security of knowing that divorce was a no-no in the Christian community. In fact, women in the Christian community were treated as being of equal value as men, for the Christians believed that in Christ Jesus, we are all one. They were given positions of responsibility. They were encouraged to exercise spiritual gifts. Their husbands were taught to love them as Christ loved the church. The Apostle Paul even taught that their sexual needs were as important as the sexual needs of their husbands, which was something unheard of in those days. Christian women were given huge freedom and respect. Can you see now why the Christian gospel was such good news, especially to women? No wonder the numbers of Christians grew so rapidly.
The Gospel Is Still Good News In 2013
We are living in a society that needs to hear the same good news about Jesus. In my home country, with a population of four million, over 15,000 children are aborted every year, mainly for the sake of convenience. Every pregnant mother needs to know that God loves her child, and longs for that child to be born into a loving family. Every child that is born needs to know that it is loved and valued, regardless of it’s sex or physical imperfections. Every time we value children, we are declaring the values of the Kingdom of God.
When we care for widows and the vulnerable in our community, we are modelling a different set of values. When we live lives of loving commitment in marriage, we are demonstrating that the principles for living that Jesus taught really do work. We are living in a sex mad society where sexual promiscuity is rife. When we live lives of sexual purity, we are demonstrating that there is a Godly way to live that is a better way.
One of the good memories of my ministry was a time when a reporter from the local paper rang up to ask me about the whole Christian teaching of waiting till marriage before beginning a sexual relationship. She said to me “Do any of the young people in your church believe that stuff?” I said, “Yes heaps of them do. They are meeting at the church tonight. Why don’t you come down and interview them?” She did. As a result she wrote an article and printed this photo in the local paper.
PHOTO OF YOUTH ON POWER POINT.
These are young people who weren’t afraid to say that they were going to wait until marriage before they had a sexual relationship. They weren’t saying they were perfect. They weren’t saying they didn’t struggle with sexual issues just like every other Young Adult. They weren’t condemning those around them. They were simply saying “There is a better way. It’s the way Jesus taught us to live, and we are doing our best to live his way”.
How will the West be won? It will be won for Christ when we live the way Jesus called us to live.
Westlake Church in Nyon, Switzerland