In the ancient world into which Christianity was born, status mattered and was easily measured. If you had a lot of money and a lot of power, you also had a lot of wives, a lot of big palaces, lots of slaves and servants, and lots of people to treat you as the next best thing to a god; indeed, Roman Emperors wanted to be worshipped as gods, and one of the first reasons that early Christians got into trouble with the authorities was their refusal to do this. If you belonged to a famous family, if you had money and contacts, people could see it in the way you lived – appearance mattered a great deal – it said who you were and why people should pay you respect. Imagine then how Christ’s words about the leader being the servant must have sounded to ears attuned to another song? He who would be first must be last? Christ came not to command but to serve, and he called his followers to the same message – he died a terrible death to serve suffering humanity.
If we look at what the early church demanded of its elders, it was an ethos of service. Christian elders were not to lord it over their followers, and they were not to turn away the poor from their places of worship, neither were they to give the best places to the wealthy and the influential. Why not? Because of the truly revolutionary insight Christianity brought into the world – that we are all equal in the eyes of God because we are all children of the same living God. There was neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free, all were one; human life mattered because we are all made in God’s image. So, for Christians, life was sacred. The early Christians were notable for their refusal to abort the unborn or to expose unwanted children to the elements; they were notable, too, for the care with which they tended the elderly or the poor. Those whom Romano-Greek culture found valueless were valued by Christians; those who served no economic or social function were loved for who they were, not what they had or their wealth and power; the lowliest slave was as valuable in the eyes of God as the greatest king; indeed the Lord said it was more difficult for the rich to get to heaven.
This was truly a revolution, and its effect have gone on to form the culture of the modern West. The idea of human rights originated in Western culture because that culture was informed by that Christian belief that all life matters. It was in the culture influenced by Christianity that the belief first grew that slavery was wrong, and it was from that culture that the impulse came to abolish it. It was from that culture that the idea of the hospital grew, that the notion that the elderly should be cared for came, and that the infant should be valued from the moment of conception.
To what extent though will these things survive the decline of Christianity in our society? In an age of celebrity, where money and fame determine worth, what then of the idea of public service? In an age of instant gratification, what then of the needs of the unborn and the elderly, and what of the priority for the poor? As the influence of Christianity on our society lessens, so, too, might we come to regret it, as it seems as though we retreat back into a culture of pagan priorities. A servant king? Forget it.