When I first started reading the Bible, I came across Paul's statements in the beginning of Galatians chapter six:
"Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2)" and "For every man shall bear his own burden (Galatians 6:5)." I remember thinking, "Wait, what? Do we bear one another's burdens or do we bear our own burdens? Paul contradicts himself within one paragraph."
Passages like this one made me want to study the New Testament. Later versions modernize the wording, but it's still a bit unclear.
Eventually, I would study the Greek. The "burden" we are to bear for one another is the Greek word baros. It describes a heavy or crushing weight. Paul uses it elsewhere when he describes the troubles he faced in ministry: "We were under great pressure (baros), far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life (2 Corinthians 1:8)."
Alternately, the burden every person must bear himself is the word phortion. This was a military term describing the normal amount of weight each soldier was expected to carry in his pack — or in the social realm it described personal responsibility.
Paul was explaining an important spiritual truth to the newly founded church in Galatia. It is like two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, when one of your brothers or sisters is burdened by the crushing weight of the cares of this world and difficulty in life, get up under that weight and help them lift it. When you do so, you fulfill the law of Christ — loving God and neighbor (Matthew. 22:37-39).
At the same time, don't forget that every man and woman is accountable to God for a certain level of personal responsibility in life. They shouldn't look to anyone else to free them from these obligations for which they are responsible.
For 2,000 years, the church has preached this dual message to those who would listen. We have put our shoulder under the weight of others and given our strength to great issues of the day. We founded orphanages, invented hospitals, started universities, created social programs. And we've also consistently lent our prophetic voice to society: "We are each accountable to God ... we each have responsibilities — God, family, community, country."
In more recent years, at least since I've been paying attention since the 1980s, the latter has garnered the most media attention. With the rise of the "moral majority" and the involvement of Evangelicals in politics, the emphasis in media has been on the church's finger-pointing: "Every man shall bear his own burden!"
But what has slipped under the media's radar is the church's bearing of other's burdens. Take a few minutes and read the British blog "Good Things Christians have done in Society" (http://christiangoodinsociety.blogspot.com/). It argues persuasively that no single group in human history has contributed more to the betterment of society than Christians in education, health care, welfare, the protection of children, human freedoms and charity.
What have we done?
Healthcare and poverty. The church is the largest single provider of health care and education in the world, working especially in some of the poorest countries where there is no other care available. Millions of babies have been saved since the creation of Christian pro-life centers (like Denton's Woman to Woman Pregnancy Resource Center).
Christians have created organizations such as Tearfund, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, YMCA, World Vision, Samaritan's Purse, the Humane Society, Alcoholics Anonymous (and her offspring), and Amnesty International. (In Denton, see Serve Denton, First Refuge, Hearts for Homes, the Salvation Army, Our Daily Bread, the Monsignor King Center.)
Human rights and civil liberties. Abolitionist Christians risked their lives to end slavery in Britain and then America. The 1948 United Nations declaration of human rights is based on Christian principles — so much so that some Muslim and Marxist states objected and refused to sign. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life in the civil rights movement. Camillus de Lellis founded the Red Cross and Clara Barton the American Red Cross.The Quakers pioneered prison reform, calling for basic human rights and teaching prisoners a trade.
In the Middle Ages, unwanted children were left at the door of a church and the clergy took care of their upbringing. Churches have been staffing and funding orphanages ever since.
As early as the 10th century, Christians created Almshouse institutions. These served local communities by caring for the elderly and outcasts of society. They were the forerunner of nursing homes and hospitals. Today the church leads the fight against sex trafficking (in Denton, see Refuge for Women).
Democracy. The Magna Carta, one of the most important documents in human history, is a Christian document. In it, our Declaration of Independence and Constitution find their roots. Many of the same abolitionist Christians found themselves in the women's suffrage movement.
Culture, Language, and Literature. The Bible is the most influential book in the world. Missionaries, for centuries, have taken literacy to the world's poorest language communities. Christians have been responsible for developing libraries throughout Western society. Out of the initial 110 universities started in the U.S., 100 had Christian foundations. Louis Braille, who created the system of reading used by the visually impaired, said on his deathbed, "God was pleased to hold before my eyes the dazzling splendors of eternal hope ... ."
This is a short list. I've missed thousands of names and achievements. Many will only be known in heaven. But it is a legacy of which to be proud and a legacy worth repeating.
JAMES A. MANN, Ph.D, is a Denton native and lead pastor at New Life Church of Denton. He is an assistant professor of New Testament at Liberty University School of Divinity at Lynchburg, Virginia.