We’ve all experienced weeks of upheaval and challenge as we have been going through the global COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve always believed that church history is helpful for the church today, and I think that’s true in this moment. As Christians, we need to look to the pages of Scripture as our authority and as the place on which we stand, but we can also look to the pages of church history to learn from those who have gone before us. As we look through church history, we see that the church has been through many times of crisis. In fact, some of those crises came right at the beginnings of the church. One big crisis came before we even get out of the pages of the New Testament.
In AD 64, there was the Great Fire in Rome. Nero, the Caesar at the time, affixed the blame to the Christians, probably to cast the suspicions off himself for starting it. Nero then launched a serious and horrific moment of persecution of the church. He would use Christians as living torches to light up his gardens at night as he would have chariot races. But all of this persecution created a backlash for Nero. It began to win over the populace as they began to have a great deal of sympathy for Christians. Christians coming out of this persecution by Nero were seen as those who stood strong in their faith in Jesus Christ.
We also see a moment of crisis in the 400s, in the sack of Rome. By this time, the Roman Empire was the Christian empire. This was a time when many saw that Christianity was inextricably linked to the Roman Empire. And so with the collapse of Rome, the question came about, “What would happen to the church?”
One church father from that time was Jerome, a brilliant scholar who translated the Vulgate. We’ve talked about him before in 5 Minutes in Church History. When he heard of the sack of Rome, he went into a cave. He gave up. He said, “Oh, the world is in ruins.” He literally went into a cave to die. Contrast that with the response by Augustine. As Augustine heard of the sack of Rome, and then as the Vandals made their way to Hippo in North Africa where Augustine was, he didn’t go into a cave. He wrote a book, The City of God. There he reminded not only himself but also the church—and us, now centuries and millennia later—that there are two cities. There is the city of this world or the city of man, and there is the city of God. Certainly as Christians, we have responsibilities as citizens in the city of man. We’re commanded to follow certain rules and commandments and guidelines and to be good citizens.
But we also need to remember that our true home is the city of God. Augustine tried to help the church understand what a life of faith meant in a time of crisis. For Augustine, this meant trying to help the city of Hippo. As the de facto leader of the city, Augustine led the protection of the city through the siege of the Vandals. This was actually the time of Augustine’s death. While on his deathbed, he was orchestrating the city’s response to the Vandals as the barbarians were literally at the gate, knocking down the doors.
And so we see these two responses. One from Jerome who, when things were beginning to get out of control, lost control and went into his cave. And Augustine, who recognized that God is in control of all things, that He is orchestrating all things and leading all things to the consummation of His perfect will. What has He called us to do? He’s called us to follow him in faith.