There is a beautiful prayer by Clement of Rome, written around AD100. He prayed, ‘We beg you Lord to help and defend us. Deliver the oppressed, pity the insignificant, raise the fallen, show yourself to the needy, heal the sick, bring back those who have gone astray, feed the hungry, lift up the weak, take off the prisoners’ chains. May every nation come to know that you alone are God, that Jesus Christ is your child, that we are your people, the sheep that you pasture’.
These inspiring words highlight a feature of the early Church that was one of their most notable: enmeshed in their desire for people to know God was an amazing amount of social care that they undertook as they cared for the needs of the poor, both within and without their communities. This feature was even commented on by the pagan emperor, Julian, in the middle of the fourth century, who commented that, ‘the impious Galileans (ie Christians) support not merely their own poor, but ours as well’.
The early church was birthed into a period of massive social unrest and instability. Although the might of Rome was at its zenith as the Church was starting, by the end of the second century it was beginning to crumble and Roman power was becoming increasingly erratic. The majority of the population of the Roman Empire bore the brunt of heavy taxation to pay for the increasing demands of an army needed to maintain boundary control, and divisions in society were growing alarmingly. Demand for food was getting bigger, but available land was diminishing as the Empire took land away from the peasants and gave it to retiring army officials with no farming knowledge. Poverty and hardship was thus the lot for a great many people; a condition that was exacerbated by numerous natural disasters in those first centuries.
Christians, of course, were not immune to any of this and they also had to face the consequences of their being a minority group who refused to acknowledge anyone as Lord except Jesus Christ, suffering intense persecution as a result. To be a Christian, therefore, often meant accepting great social and economic instability and insecurity.
The response of the Christian community to this situation was nothing short of astounding as they set up systems to look after as many people as they could. Tertullian (one of the key leaders of the second century) gave this description: ‘though we have our treasure-chest, it is not made up of purchase-money, as of a religion that has its price. On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and if he is able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and is there happens to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurselings of their confession.’
Inevitably, there was not unanimity in how Christians responded to the needs of others. Writing a little earlier than Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage lamented how different things were to the very first descriptions of the early Church. As he said, ‘then they used to give up for sale houses and estates; and that they might lay up for themselves treasures in heaven, presented to the apostles the price of them, to be distributed for the use of the poor. But now we do not even give the tenths from our patrimony; and while our Lord bids us sell, we rather buy and increase our store. Thus the vigour of our faith dwindled away from us; thus has the strength of believers grown weak’. It is perhaps encouraging to know that comparisons with the Church of Acts have been taking place for such a long time!
Nonetheless, the way that the Church in those first centuries was right at the front of social care should inspire us as we look at the needs in our own society and today’s world. Aristides, in AD 125, said about the Christians that, ‘if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food’. May such generosity of life be found in us too.
(Much of the background for this was taken from D. Batson, The Treasure Chest of the Early Christians: Faith, Care and Community from the Apostolic Age to Constantine the Great. Eerdmans, 2001)