Kindness Is Not Naiveté

Kindness was such a distinctive and attractive characteristic of early Christians that outsiders aspired to follow our example. Could it be again?

In some precincts of modern Christianity, there exists the belief that kindness is weakness.

To be kind is to be naïve. When non-Christians punch, we should punch back. If they start a culture war, it’s our job to finish it. Turning the other cheek is considered lame, spineless, or gullible. I’m not sure how this contempt for kindness first sprang to life, but I suspect that politics was its fertilizer.

There was a time when Christians had the general reputation of being kind. Really kind. Incomprehensibly kind. Kindness is supposed to be one of Christianity’s most distinctive and attractive characteristics—and it seems to have been for a very long time.

Early Christian Kindness

In the early centuries of Christianity, the church faced ongoing cultural antagonism and occasional state-sponsored persecution.

There were many obstacles to the church’s growth. In spite of that, it grew like wildfire. Why? How could Christianity spread so virally in such a challenging social and political climate? 

We believe that the Holy Spirit was driving the growth of the Church (Acts 1:8; 9:31; 1 Cor. 3:6), but what specifically drew people to Christianity in such astounding numbers? We have some ancient evidence outside of the Bible that tells us part of the answer.

A few centuries after Christ, an anti-Christian Roman Emperor named Julian wrote about why so many people were flocking to Christianity. Julian was raised in the Christian faith but turned away from it as an adult. When he became emperor, he worked to resuscitate the historic Greco-Roman religion that his ancestors had practiced. Julian did not like the growing influence of Christianity,
especially within governmental circles.

In one of Julian’s letters, we find a remarkable statement on Christian influence. Though Julian was hostile to Christianity, he acknowledged how powerful its influence was on the populace. He could see that the public viewed Christian leaders with admiration. Julian wanted pagan priests to embrace the Christian outlook so that people would be won back over to paganism.

In a letter to the pagan high-priest of Galatia, Julian writes about Christians (whom he snidely calls “atheists” and “Galileans”):

Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. . . it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men should see how our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute public service of this sort . . .  (Julian, Letter to Arsacius, High Priest of Galatia, ca. 362 AD).

Ramsay Macmullen and Eugene N. Lane, Eds. Paganism and Christianity, 100-425 CE. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 270-271.

Bring Kindness Back

It’s extraordinary that a powerful opponent of Christianity would so willingly concede the positive reputation of Christian leaders and the value of their benevolent influence in society. It’s hard to imagine something like that happening today.

What would it look like for Christians to live in such a way that even our most enthusiastic detractors would aspire to follow our example? How would the world change if Christians had a widely acknowledged reputation for compassion and generosity, as they seem to have had in Julian’s time?

What would it look like for the Church to truly live out Paul’s words in Colossians 3:12?

As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.​

Or 2 Corinthians 5:17-18 & 20?

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation ... We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

Pursuing Reconciliation

What if we truly and steadily embraced our call to be ambassadors of reconciliation? How might the world change? Pursuing reconciliation is a reenactment of how Jesus treated us, which is a way of preaching the gospel to the world and to ourselves.

Being kind is not passive or naïve; it’s Christlike. We are called to follow Jesus in doing the self-sacrificing work of peacemaking and reconciliation. We are meant to be living examples of kindness and countercultural grace. That’s our voice. That’s how Christians should sound in a world that is wired for discord.

(Portions of this article are adapted from Ryan Lokkesmoe’s book, Paul and His Team: What the Early Church Can Teach Us About Leadership And Influence.)

(Photo by Farhad Sadykov | Flickr)


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