This article is about the early church and how they attended to social problems in society.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1991. 2 pages.

How the First Christians Looked at Social Problems

It is difficult for those who live in our modern secular society to envisage the world in which the early Christians' lot was cast. Theirs was a world saturated with paganism and where pagan allusions met them at every turn. This was true from state affairs down to the trivia of everyday life. The Roman Senate always met in a place consecrated to some pagan deity and began its deliberations only after each senator had duly offered wine on the altar. Solemn sacrifices to the gods marked the advent of peace or war. Public games and spectacles were celebrated in honour of some god or other. In the home, the hearth was guarded by the penates, the family's ancestral gods. There were pagan designs on ornaments, utensils, furniture and clothing. Births, marriages and deaths each had their presiding deity. Travel by land and sea came under the aegis of the relevant divinity. On festive days, garlands of flowers on the head and laurel branches on doors all carried superstitious overtones of some kind. Everyday idiom bristled with pagan allusions. Even a sneeze brought the response 'Jupiter bless you!'

It was against this background that the early church sought to discover what our Lord meant when he said that though Christians were 'in the world', they were not 'of the world'. In her attempt to maintain this delicate balance, the church has often swung violently from one extreme to the other — from the Scylla of monasticism and exclusivism on the one hand to the Charybdis of 'religionless Christianity' on the other.

How did the early Church face the dilemma? She did so by asserting that while she must of necessity avoid sinful practices (like abortion and the gladiatorial show), she nevertheless played her part in public life. Tertullian indicated the extent of Christian involvement:

We live in the world with you. We do not forsake forum ... or bath ... or workshop, or inn, or market, or any other place of commerce. We sail with you, fight with you, farm with you ... We do not go to your feasts but we patronise your industries. We do not buy laurel crowns but we buy flowers. We do not buy incense for temples but we do for burial. We do not contribute to the temples but we give more for alms than you do. We improve business in that we do not defraud.

As Tertullian hinted, there were certain limits to a Christian's participation in public life, however antisocial such scruples might appear to his pagan contemporaries. While a Christian might be a sculptor, he would fight shy of making idols. He would not gild idols, though he would conscientiously gild other objets d'art. He would polish most articles, but not sacrificial knives. He might work in bone, but he certainly would not cut bone tickets for the arena. Teaching was a problem, because of the need to teach classical myths. Work in hospitals raised the spectre of the patronage of Aesculapius. Politics seemed to raise insuperable barriers. A Christian might be a civil servant — if he could avoid the taint of idolatry and the need to take life. He certainly could not be an actor, or a gladiator, or a charioteer, or a magician, or an astrologer, or a juggler.

It was this scrupulosity which brought down on the head of the early church the charge of social irresponsibility. Tacitus accused Christians of 'hatred of the human race'. Celsus, in a scathing satire, averred that if everyone behaved like the Christians, the empire would be overrun by barbarians.

A mere glance at the history of the early church is sufficient answer to these cheap jibes. Her social conscience was already evident in the Book of Acts, where assets were sold to help those in need, deacons appointed to tackle material problems, and contributions made for the poor.

Later history confirmed this trend. Justin wrote:

We who once took pleasure in means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need.

Aristides added:

He who has given to him who has not, without grudging, and when they see a stranger they bring him to their dwellings and rejoice over him as a true brother.

The redoubtable Tertullian went further and carried his apologetic into the enemy camp. 'Our charity dispenses more in the streets than your religion in all the temples.' He roundly charged pagans with giving only the junk they had finished with.

The early church established funds to meet a variety of needs. Widows were maintained by the churches — as many as 3,000 by the Church of Antioch alone in the time of Chrysostom. Captives were ransomed. The Church in Carthage once gave £1,000 for this purpose. Ambrose redeemed prisoners from the Goths with money realised from the sale of Church vessels. 'Better clothe the living temples of Christ than adorn the temples of stone' was Jerome's pertinent comment. Acacius, Bishop of Amida, followed suit. 'God has no need of plates and dishes,' he remarked, as he sold Church treasures to ransom captives. In addition, orphans were rescued from destitution and the clutches of unscrupulous men; martyrs' families were provided for; and hostels were run for the benefit of travellers.

Some pagan writers frankly granted the fact of Christian philanthropy. They were astonished by the contrast with their own theory and practice. Plato had taught them the moral excellence of allowing the poor to die, since it shortened their misery. Lucien, in a patently satirical work, was genuinely surprised by Christian concern for others. 'It is incredible', he wrote, 'to see the ardour with which the people of that religion help each other in their wants. They spare nothing.' He noted their 'untiring solicitude and devotion' as they visited a prisoner and brought him meals.

Medical work was another area of Christian social concern. The classic account of this concerns Christians' selfless devotion to the victims of the third-century epidemic in Alexandria. Regardless of the danger, they tended the sick in the name of Christ. In fearlessly handling the dead and dying, they themselves contracted the dread plague. Labouring with 'great piety and strong faith', they finally succumbed and so 'departed this life serenely happy'. It all stood in stark contrast to the selfishness and panic of the unbelievers, who heartlessly abandoned their nearest and dearest in a vain attempt to avoid infection themselves.

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