05/14/2013 10:57 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Changing the World for Good

One of the joys of being a Christian is knowing Christ changes the world for good. Some may argue Christianity produced wars and advanced slavery, but not everything done in the name of Christianity was done by true Christians. The genuine followers of Jesus -- those who bear His name and espouse His values -- have flooded the world with good deeds, and their altruism is an apologetic for their truth.

Dr. Paul Maier, professor emeritus in the Department of History of Western Michigan University, wrote:

Not only countless individual lives but civilization itself was transformed by Jesus Christ. In the ancient world, His teachings elevated brutish standards of morality, halted infanticide, enhanced human life, emancipated women, abolished slavery, inspired charities and relief organizations, created hospitals, established orphanages, and founded schools.

Take orphan care, for example. In antiquity orphaned children were societal castaways, receiving little compassion. But from the beginning, Christians loved orphans. The New Testament book of James says that true religion before God is to look after orphans and widows and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. According to Justin Martyr, an early Christian leader, offerings were taken up during ancient church services for orphans. Tertullian reported the same among churches of North Africa. As soon as Christianity became legal in the 300s, Basil of Caesarea and Chrysostom of Constantinople helped establish homes for orphans. Enriched by its Jewish heritage, orphan care as we know it was virtually "invented" by Christ-followers, and the history of Christian compassion is enriching. Recently, my grandchildren were enthralled by reading about George Müller, who established heartfelt ministries for the parentless children of Victorian England. His story should be required reading in schools everywhere.

The history of Christian childcare goes beyond orphan care. At the time of the Industrial Revolution in Western Europe, children were expendable sources of labor in factories and mines. Boys and girls as young as 6 crawled through dark, wet passages to fill carts with lumps of coal. Small boys were lowered into chimneys to clean for the sweeps who employed them. But Anthony Ashley Cooper, better known as Lord Shaftesbury, who found Christ through the witness of a maid, became deeply motivated to improve child labor laws. He was a tireless crusader on issues of child labor, and thousands of youngsters were saved from a life of virtual slavery by his political involvement, which was based on his commitment to Christ.

With equal spiritual fervor, William Wilberforce championed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Encouraged by John Newton, author of the hymn "Amazing Grace," Wilberforce devoted his personal and political life to fighting and outlawing slavery, and his example is a prototype for every Christian political leader today.

Consider, too, the sick. Jesus had compassion for the ill. He touched the lepers and broke the barriers of quarantine, loving those ostracized by illness and infectious disease. From those beginnings, early Christians cared for the sick and dying, and this was revolutionary. The Greeks and Romans glorified the naked healthy body, but disdained the sick. Christ's followers changed that. About A.D. 250, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria said that during the Alexandrian plague, the pagans "thrust aside anyone who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died." But, he said, "very many of our brethren, while in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness did not spare themselves, but ... visited the sick without thought of their own peril, ministered to them assiduously and treated them."

A hundred years later, Bishop Basil of Caesarea, using his own money, founded a hospital for the care of the sick and for lepers. It's not hyperbole to call this, for all practical purposes, the first hospital in history.

Just as Jesus healed the sick, He taught the multitudes; so it's no wonder His followers have been concerned about education from the beginning. Schools were established in monasteries, nunneries and cathedrals, launching the universities of Europe. Reformer Martin Luther developed the concept of public education in the Western world, and correspondingly of universal education. It was a Christian named Johann Sturm who introduced graded education. It was a Christian named Friedrich Froebel who advanced the idea of kindergarten. It was Christians in France who originated education of the deaf and the blind. It was Robert Raikes, a newspaper publisher in England, who advanced the cause of Sunday Schools, originally to teach illiterate children how to read the Bible. Christians were among the first to establish schools for both sexes. And it was a clergyman named John Harvard who founded the first college in America in 1636, for the training of Puritan ministers.

Alvin Schmidt, in his book on the influence of Christianity, wrote that every collegiate institution founded in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War except the University of Pennsylvania was established by some branch of the Christian church.

Finally, consider the reverence with which Christianity holds life itself. In the days of Christ, society had little regard for the value of human life. Among the Greeks and Romans, infanticide was common and widespread. Babies were killed for many reasons. Unwanted children were abandoned to die of exposure. Some were tossed in the river. Baby girls were especially expendable. The Roman philosopher Seneca said: "We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal."

But Jesus, who lived at roughly the same time as Seneca, had a different attitude. He said, "Let the little children come unto Me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven." Christians have always valued human life as a gift from the God who made us in His image. This has often been controversial, but incontrovertible; every beating heart is precious in His sight.

The reason Christ and His followers have changed the world for good, of course, is because Christ can change every beating heart, including yours and mine. If anyone is in Christ, said Saint Paul, that person is a new creation. It may seem an odd way to change the world -- one heart at a time -- but multiply that by millions of people over thousands of years, and you have history's richest blessing.