Home Bible Studies and Reflections Bible Study: Learning from the early church’s response to pandemics

Bible Study: Learning from the early church’s response to pandemics

June, 2020

For the early Christians, crises, including pandemics in the first few centuries, were opportunities to show the love of God to those around them.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 7:12 (NRSV)

During COVID-19, we have recognised the heroic acts of health care workers, who have often risked their own health to care for the sick.

The Church has a wonderful legacy of care for the sick. The sociologist, Rodney Stark, says that one of the main reasons for the incredible growth of the Christian church in the first three centuries was their care for the vulnerable.

This was particularly seen during two pandemics. The first was the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which is said to have killed up to a quarter of the Roman Empire. During this plague, Christians took care of those affected, often at the expense of their own lives.

The other plague was the Plague of Cyprian in the 3rd century. A bishop of the time, Dionysius, described how Christians, “took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”

Love and care for the sick, poor and vulnerable was part of the identity of the early church.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was the guiding moral framework for the church in the first three centuries. Part of that sermon includes what has come to be known as the ‘Golden Rule’: “Do to others as you would want them to do to you”.

This, Jesus said, is the essence of everything in the Law and the Prophets. Paul later echoed this in his letter to the Galatians when he said that the entire Law is summed in the command to love your neighbour as yourself.

It is easy to lose sight of the needs of others when we are overwhelmed by anxiety and uncertainty. And as social restrictions are slowly lifted, there is an understandable and necessary caution in the community. While it is important to acknowledge our situation, let us not allow ourselves to be controlled by fear. Let us be controlled instead by the love that Paul talks about in Galatians.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus was known for his love of the vulnerable, and he told us to be a community of people who do the same. He even said that we would be known by our love for each other.

We treat others with love because that is how God has treated us. We also love others because we know that death and viruses will not have the final say. Life and love do, and it is all because God first loved us.


  • How have you seen Christians respond to the needs of others during the time of COVID-19?
  • As social restrictions begin to ease, what are some ways you can continue to care for more vulnerable people in your community?
  • What was it about the life of Jesus that motivated the early Christians to make such enormous sacrifices in caring for the sick?

Think about some people in your community who you have not had contact with for a long time, or ever. Make a phone call or go and visit one of those people in the next week.

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