How God’s people changed the world by applying biblical truths to every area of society
by Peter Bunton
Let me begin by questioning my own title. “How God’s people changed the world by applying biblical truths to every area of society” would be more accurate—but that doesn’t make for a short, catchy title! The point is, it is not an idea which brings change, but it is God transforming His people who then reflect who God is to the world.
Some would say that the church throughout the ages has been a hindrance to the advancement of society and the extension of justice. That view has some validity. At times, sections of the church have not allowed freedom of conscience, have forbidden women from exercising their gifts, or have supported oppressive wars and colonization. We are not denying those realities, but I wish to juxtapose them with the many wonderful things that God’s followers have done throughout the Earth. Yes, the world is a better place because people have applied their Christian faith to real-life situations.
Value of Human Life
Genesis 1:26-27 says that humans are made in God’s image. This has profound implications. If we reflect God Himself, then all human life is valuable. It was common in the ancient Roman Empire to have children killed. Through the work of Bishop Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey), the Roman emperor Valentinian outlawed infanticide and child abandonment in AD 374. Christians also applied the understanding that humans bear God’s image to issues such as abortion. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote that the government should enforce abortion if the population was becoming too large (Republic 5.461). This was also echoed by the philosopher Aristotle (Politics 7:14:10). Because the Lord Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Matthew 19:14), the church spoke out against abortion. Furthermore, it was early Christians such as Benignus of Dijon (second century) and Afra of Augsburg (third century) who took in and cared for abandoned children. Embracing the value of human life, Christians treated criminals differently and took care of widows according to James 1:27. When the well-known missionary William Carey served in India during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he denounced the common practice of burning a widow along with her deceased husband, known as sati. Carey pressed his case, and the law was changed in 1829. Women in India were saved from death because Christian missionaries believed deeply in the value of human life.
In the ancient world and beyond, women had few legal rights. They could not own property nor were they allowed to be educated or speak in public. Plutarch, a second-century Greek writer, wrote how women should be kept under “lock and key.” Aristotle wrote about how women should remain silent. Christ broke societal norms by ministering to women such as the woman at the well, Mary, and Martha. In fact, in Luke chapter 10, Mary breached society’s rules by sitting at the feet of Jesus to learn from His teachings. This was normally a practice reserved for men. In the early church, we see Phoebe being a leader (Romans 16:1-2). Many of the early Christians gave women roles and privileges normally reserved for men. Although many branches of the church began to marginalize women later, it was often Christian groups, especially missionary societies, which released them for leadership and service around the world.
The book of Galatians explains that in Christ, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28). Certain Christians, therefore, opposed the practice of slavery. Gregory of Nyssa (fourth century AD) wrote how God only gave humans the right to rule over animals, not other people! For him, slavery was going beyond the limits of authority that God had given humans. John Chrysostom (fourth century) encouraged Christians to purchase slaves, educate them, and then set them free. In the modern era, William Wilberforce (1759-1833) led the campaign to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire.
Health and Education
In the ancient world, sick people were usually discarded. As the Christians cared for the sick, the first hospital was developed by Saint Basil in Caesarea around 369 AD. In the Middle Ages, thousands of monasteries took in and cared for the sick. Even the international Red Cross was founded upon Christian faith. It was begun in 1864 by Henri Dunant in Switzerland, particularly to take care of those wounded in battle. Dunant said, “I am a disciple of Christ as in the first century.”
The field of education has also been heavily influenced by Christians. The great reformer Martin Luther advocated for a system of public education for both boys and girls, while his assistant, Melancthon, helped start the first public schools in Germany. It was the Christian leader Robert Rakes who started Sunday schools in Great Britain as a way to educate the poor. Great institutions including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Universities were started by Christians to educate ministers and people for God’s service.
Christians believed that God had created the world with a plan and design. It was this worldview which enabled and fostered scientific discovery. If the world were merely random, there would not be any laws of physics to discover! Grosseteste, a bishop in Oxford in the 12th and 13th centuries, proposed the inductive, experimental method. Versalius (1514-64) dissected cadavers because “we are driven to wonder at the handiwork of the Almighty.” He became influential in the development of understandings of human anatomy. Newton (1642-1727) laid the foundations of much science with his understandings of gravity and laws of motion. He believed that God governed the world invisibly and that we should worship Him. Much of modern science has come from this theocentric worldview.
Of course, much could be said about wonderful Christian art and great works of music such as Handel’s Messiah. It was Christians who even cultivated a healthy work ethic, particularly as the Benedictine monasteries developed a rhythm of physical labor and prayer, seeing them both as acts of spiritual worship.
While many mistakes have been made by the church throughout history, we see that Christians, transformed in their minds to a biblical worldview, have nonetheless had profound influence on much of modern society. I humbly suggest that there is much scope for Christians to apply such faith to the issues we face today, whether it be justice, the environment, right to life, or economics. In so doing, we stand in a strong tradition of Christian societal transformation.1
1. I have found the following two works helpful in preparing this article:
Alvin Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World
Nonna Verna Harrison, God’s Many-Splendored Image: Theological Anthropology for Christian Formation