Mobs often depend on general slogans, unspecified grievances, vague (if any) purposes for uniting, and little to no solutions for change other than destruction. They think with their rage, and many get caught in the tide. Something important seems to be happening — many seem to know why they gathered, so why not join? It is just a Tuesday after all, nothing better to do. The uproar of the group quiets the small voice of the conscience.
Possessing the power to make the timid brave, the good better, or the bad devastating: crowds. When passions are shared, they swell, exciting actions to the status of legend or infamy. The power of assembly can build a better society or destroy it.
We have already witnessed (and perhaps taken for granted) the good and sanity of groups. We have seen peaceful protests in our own day, as well as read stories about those who have stood (and suffered) together for transcendent causes in the past — some of us fortunate enough to hear them firsthand from parents and grandparents. Above these, the church itself is a gathered people, an unassuming congregation that is taking over the world. But for what feels like the first time, my generation has begun to see the destructive power of the assembly — or, to use a phrase from a recent book title, the madness of crowds.
Old proverbs have become visible: “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company ruins good morals’” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Bad company, when a company, can make the good corrupt and the bad worse. It takes brazen wickedness to attempt to burn down a business, loot a Target, or break into a town hall, but even a decent man, drunk on the adrenaline of the herd, may do just this when others are doing it too.
Anatomy of a Riot
In a time of uncertainty, fear, anger, and corruption, we can take some solace in the realization that there is nothing new under the sun. Today’s issues, as real as they are (and can grow to be), were first yesterday’s issues. That makes it an unspeakable blessing to own a Bible. Its solutions never expire.
The stirring up of the people to madness is everywhere in Scripture (something I notice more now than ever). Perhaps one of the most unconsidered characters in the Bible is the crowd — none more infamous than the one who used its voice to sound with Satan, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
So also we see the madness of crowds in Acts 19. A mob was stirred up against Paul, an experience he likely later summarized to the Corinthians: “I fought with beasts at Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32). If beasts are let loose in our land, I pray that as with Paul in Ephesus, the madness of crowds would be met with the insanity of Christian love. But first, the anatomy of the riot in Ephesus.
About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius . . . (Acts 19:23–24)
What many citizens recognized as a religious riot in Ephesus started, as I venture many do today, with smaller, less-visible motives. Men with hidden agendas conspired together and utilized the masses to their hushed purposes. This “no little disturbance” began with the greed of a silversmith named Demetrius.
Demetrius made his fortune crafting idols in service of Artemis, the Ephesian fertility goddess, rumored to have been born in Ephesus. Several times a year, the Ephesians hosted month-long celebrations in her honor, with music, theater, banquets, athletic contests, and even death matches. These festivals attracted many visitors, and even more money. Such celebrations “brought no little business to the craftsmen” (verse 24), craftsmen such as Demetrius.