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A Love Without Condition

a love without condition - Early Church HistoryAt no other time in the history of Christianity did love so characterize the entire church as it did in the first three centuries. And Roman society took note. Tertullian reported that the Romans would exclaim, “See how they love one another!”

Justin Martyr sketched Christian love this way: “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”

Clement, describing the person who has come to know God, wrote, “He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.”

When a devastating plague swept across the ancient world in the third century, Christians were the only ones who cared for the sick, which they did at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their own families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease.

Another example illustrates both the brotherly love of Christians and their uncompromising commitment to Jesus as Lord. A pagan actor became a Christian, but he realized he had to change his employment because most plays encouraged immorality and were steeped in pagan idolatry. Furthermore, the theater sometimes purposefully turned boys into homosexuals so they could better play the roles of women on stage. Since this newly-converted actor had no other job skills, he considered establishing an acting school to teach drama to non-Christian students. However, he first submitted his idea to the leaders of his church for their counsel.

The leaders told him that if acting was an immoral profession then it would be wrong to train others in it. Nevertheless, since this was a rather novel question, they wrote to Cyprian in nearby Carthage for his thoughts. Cyprian agreed that a profession unfit for a Christian to practice was also unfit for him to teach, even if this was his sole means of support.

How many of us would be so concerned about righteousness that we would submit our employment decisions to our body of elders or board of deacons? How many church leaders today would be so concerned about offending God that they would take such an uncompromising position?

But that isn't the end of the story. Cyprian also told this neighboring church that they should be willing to support the actor if he had no other means of earning a living—just as they supported orphans, widows, and other needy persons. Going further, he wrote, “If your church is financially unable to support him, he may move over to us and here receive whatever he needs for food and clothing.” Cyprian and his church didn't even know this actor, yet they were willing to support him because he was a fellow believer. As one Christian told the Romans, “We love one another with a mutual love because we do not know how to hate.” If Christians today made such a statement to the world, would the world believe it?

The love of the early Christians wasn't limited simply to their fellow believers. Christians also lovingly helped non-believers: the poor, the orphans, the elderly, the sick, the shipwrecked—even their persecutors. Jesus had said, “Love your enemies ... and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). The early Christians accepted this statement as a command from their Lord, rather than as an ideal that couldn't be actually practiced in real life.

Lactantius wrote, “If we all derive our origin from one man, whom God created, we are plainly all of one family. Therefore it must be considered an abomination to hate another human, no matter how guilty he may be. For this reason, God has decreed that we should hate no one, but that we should eliminate hatred. So we can comfort our enemies by reminding them of our mutual relationship. For if we have all been given life from the same God, what else are we but brothers? ... Because we are all brothers, God teaches us to never do evil to one another, but only good—giving aid to those who are oppressed and experiencing hardship, and giving food to the hungry.”

The Scriptures teach that a Christian shouldn't take his brother to court. Rather, he should suffer fraud at the hands of his brother, if need be. (1 Cor. 6:7) However, as an attorney, I've seen that Christians today don't hesitate to sue their brothers and sisters in Christ. A particularly disturbing case happened recently in the town where I live. A student at a local Christian school worked on campus in his spare time to help pay his tuition. One day he was overcome from the fumes of some insecticide he was spraying in the school building, and he was briefly hospitalized. The school's method of applying the insecticide was apparently improper. The result? The parents sued the Christian school for more than half a million dollars. In contrast, early Christians not only refused to take their fellow Christians to court, most of them refused to take anyone to court, since they viewed every human as their brother or sister.

It's no wonder that Christianity spread rapidly throughout the ancient world, even though there were few organized missionary or evangelism programs. The love they practiced drew the attention of the world, just as Jesus said it would.

To browse through books about early Christianity, please visit Early Christian Books.