Innovating care in early Christian community

January 24th, 2023

Charities abound in our time. Indeed, they have become so much a part of the fabric of our culture that their existence is taken for granted. No one is surprised after a major hurricane, say, that Samaritan’s Purse shows up on-site passing out water and food and helping to rebuild. No one is shocked when in the checkout line the clerk at the grocery store asks if you want to “round up” to help children with cancer. Charities have made it possible to help people near and far, even those whom we don’t know and never will, with a click of the mouse or a “sure, I’ll round up.”

When we get really sick, most of us assume that we can go to the hospital and get care. Even if we know that insurance battles and bills are coming, we also know that if we’re sick enough the hospital will not turn us away. In this country at least, we also assume that if there were a serious outbreak of contagious disease, the CDC and other major medical centers would at least attempt to mount a vigorous and systematic response. We also assume that there will be arenas of compassion: doctors, nurses, chaplains, pastors, and others who will tend to the sick.

In short, we assume structures of care, a vision of care, a reason for care. We have forgotten how such things came into the world in the first place, how they are not simply a given in human history, and how it was that the Christians generated the forerunners of the kind of care we now hope for—and why they did so.

In order to keep the Christian vision of the human alive and reveal it to the world, the early church created institutions that carried the view of the human in their practices and made it socially and politically visible. Understanding the Christian provision for the poor, the nursing during the plagues, the development of the hospital, and the invention of the orphanage is the same thing, that is, as seeing the concrete social and political explanation of the human revealed by God in Jesus Christ.

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To state the obvious: there have always been poor people. What there has not always been is a distinct group called “the poor”—a group to whom we have obligations and who requires a more thoughtful systematic response and provision. The early Christians invented this category, enabling indigent people to be seen for the first time as those with whom we are bound up in the world.

What enabled the early Christians to see the poor was not a native altruism, as if early churches were miraculously filled with groups of kind or altruistic people (any reading of Paul’s letters would immediately make this clear). Nor was it because the church consisted of early modern liberals who believed they had discovered human rights. It was instead, first, because Jesus had preached on this matter with clarity and force. As Luke portrays the sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus activates God’s declarations in the book of Isaiah and says, here they are at this moment, coming to life now in me. That which is the heart of God as revealed in Isaiah stands before you now: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he announces, “because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18/Isa 61:1). And then later, as he preaches in front of a great crowd, Jesus declares quite bluntly to his disciples: “Blessed are the poor,” he says, “because yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20—yours not theirs; he is talking directly to them). Second, it was because the early Christians had learned from the story of everything that the human being was the place to see Christ himself and to serve him. To serve their Lord was not only to obey his teaching but was also to be in the world with him as he showed up in the face of concrete human beings; the crucifixion taught them that the suffering, naked, and vulnerable human was indeed Christ.

The earliest Christians understood very quickly, that is, that the indigent were also Christ and that to serve him among them was to provide for them. The story of Acts begins with the church sharing all things in common and narrates the spread of the gospel as inseparable from the tending of the poor. And Paul, when commenting on what the leaders of the Jerusalem church asked of him, mentions only one major thing: that he remember the poor (Gal 2). Which he did; his letters and Acts show his constant work to tend to the churches most struggling with lack and to bring offerings to Jerusalem (Rom 15:26; Gal 2:10; 1 Cor 16:1; 2 Cor 8:4, 14-15; 9:1-12). So, too, the book of James is, among other things, a blistering attack on any and all Christians who divide matters of the spirit/ soul from those of the body: “If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, and if one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; be warm and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them the necessary things for the body, what good is that?” (2:15-16).

The Jews, of course, had long attempted to bring relief to other Jews who needed it. The Torah was explicit about doing something to provide for other Jews who were lacking, and even spoke of the practice of “jubilee,” where debts were canceled and new economic beginnings made possible (Lev 25f.). The Christians inherited this sense from scripture and then radicalized it.

They first provided for their own, as many of the early texts after Acts amply demonstrate. Despite the tendency of modern scholars to see Acts’s economic pattern for community as “idealized,” it was apparently taken seriously by the early Christians (Tertullian, Apol. 39; Apostolic Constitutions, 2.26 et passim). The earliest apologist, Aristides of Athens, even claims that if there are poor Christians within a community whose own resources are limited, the community members “will fast two or three days that they might supply the needy with their necessary food” (Apol. 15). Churches kept lists of widows who needed goods, wrote to other churches about the support they provided, and even gave specific instructions on what to give to whom (“a coat to Sophia,” for example, as one papyrus tells us). Indeed, Christian provision was extensive and public enough that it became known early in the second century to culturally observant pagans such as Lucian, who mocks the Christians for their gullibility: The huckster Peregrinus had pretended to be a Christian and was then imprisoned. While in prison and in need, so Lucian tells it, Peregrinus was ministered to by the naive Christians, who gave freely from what they shared in common.

Over time, the radical commitment to see Christ’s face and blessing in the poor meant that the Christians also began to provide for those outside the fold. This move, as Peter Brown puts it, was a genuinely “new departure” in the ancient world and “threw open the horizons of society.”[1]

Prior to the Christian intervention, there were no Roman programs of poverty relief. There were, of course, various attempts to halt famines with influxes of free or low-cost food, but all such provisions were tied to citizenship. Assuming they could produce evidence of their citizenship, for example, rich and poor received the same amount of grain. In the eyes of the Romans, it was the cities that needed the help, not the poor within them. The emperors and the mighty were benefactors of the cities and their citizens. City and citizen, citizen and city—that was the bond that really counted and the way society was seen.

The Christians, however, looked on those in society with profound need and for the first time in the Roman world saw not cities and citizens but the poor. This move created a new social imagination and linked people together in one complex whole. The Christians, that is, conceptualized the social fabric in a way that tied all humans together with respect to their economic vulnerability or lack thereof—whether in cities or countryside, it did not matter. The destitute were the poor. No longer was citizen ele- vated above economic reality; poor now received priority. Indeed, so much so that the Christian bishops became known as the “lovers of the poor.”

As the communities of Christians grew, and then exploded, around the Mediterranean, it became clear that they needed to use ecclesial struc- ture to ensure that the distribution of goods continued. Both before and after Constantine the bishops were responsible for keeping alive the Chris- tian practice of loving the poor. Having created the category of persons to whom the church was to minister, over many years of practice the bishops “soaked significant areas of late antique society in the novel and distinctive dye of a notion of ‘love of the poor.’”[2] By the fourth century, one of the most important ways the love of the poor was instilled in the working understanding of Roman society was through the Christian invention of the shelter for the poor (the xenodocheion). Such places were (frequently) distinct buildings that functioned in a variety of ways to protect and serve the poor—including the wander- ing poor and refugees, who were on the move in search of better things. Indeed, by ministering to the poor on the move, the Christians made visible a hitherto “invisible class of migrants, to whose movements no one had paid much attention before.”[3] They even served lepers, sometimes to the chagrin of the local populace, as when the bishop John Chrysostom erected the shelter for lepers in close proximity to a respected area in Constantinople. The xenodocheia were in all likelihood what captured the emperor Julian the Apostate’s attention and imagination, and what he had in mind when he wrote to the pagan priest Arsacius in Galatia: the Christians, said Julian in his letter, provide not only for their poor but also for ours.[4]

Along with the bishops’ role in distributing goods to the poor, such institutions became the backbone of the church’s eventual tax-exempt privilege. So long as the church provided for the poor, it was sheltered from imperial taxes. This combination of caring for the indigent and receiving tax benefits elevated the church’s ministry to the poor into a work of civic goodness. For the first time in the history of the West, the poor were a focus of a charitable program as a feature of the way wider society was conceived and lived. The Christians had created a public virtue.[5] In short, the Christian vision of the human was put to work through ecclesial structure and the creation of institutions. The earliest Christians had learned to see the poor and then practiced this knowledge, which in turn made them visible as “the poor” for the first time in Roman history.


Excerpted from Christianity's Surprise: A Sure and Certain Hope by C. Kavin Rowe. Copyright © 2020 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Peter Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (Boston: Brandeis University Press, 2001), 6.

[2] Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, 9. 

[3] Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, 32. 

[4] Julian, Ep. 22.

[5] There were many changes throughout the Middle Ages to xenodocheia and so forth but, still, this was the basic dynamic that eventually led to charities as we know them and expect them to behave; the trouble is that by putting things in terms of civic goodness the church can forget its responsibility and turn it over to the government (the government is supposed to provide for the poor), which if history is any indication, is an ineffective and even harmful way to go.

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