By David Martin | Communications Specialist “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:17).
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
We know these verses well, and often invoke them when discussing the church’s role in caring for the fatherless. From the brief records we have, it certainly seems that the early church truly took these commands to heart, gaining for themselves a reputation as those who cared for the least of these.
Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another; and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother (Apology of Aristides the Philosopher 15, c. A.D. 125).
And those who are well off and are willing to do so give as much as each desires, and the money thus collected is deposited with the bishop, who takes care of the orphans and widows, and those who are in straits through sickness or any other cause, and those in prison, and our visitors from other parts—in short, he looks after all who are in need (Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67, A.D. 100-165).
The Writings and Practices of Early Church Fathers
Early church fathers had much to say about caring for orphans and widows as a regular part of the church’s praxis. David Nowell describes well the culture we find in the earliest centuries of the church.
In the growing Christian movement, the Church fathers consistently and conspicuously called upon followers of Christ to be faithful to Scripture’s demand that we care for the orphan. Virtually every early writing on Christian conduct stressed the importance of caring for children without parents. Eusebius, the Apostolic Constitutions, Lactantius, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr…the list goes on and on, but every one of them called on the early church to care for orphans. One writer goes so far as to say that the orphan had only three possibilities in life: death, slavery, or Christian adoption (David Z. Nowell, Dirty Faith: Bringing the Love of Christ to the Least of These).
Below are a few passages that illustrate the sentiment carried by these founders of the church:
Now note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God. They have no concern for love, none for the widow, none for the orphan, none for the oppressed, none for the prisoner or the one released, none for the hungry or thirsty (Ignatius, Smyrnaeans 6.2, A.D. 110).
The presbyters, for their part, must be compassionate, merciful to all, turning back those who have gone astray, visiting all the sick, not neglecting a widow, orphan, or poor person, but always aiming at what is honorable in the sight of God and of people (Polycarp, Philippians 6.1, c. A.D. 110).
It is the way of persecutors of the good, of those who hate truth, love a lie, do not know the reward of righteousness, do not adhere to what is good or to righteous judgment, who ignore the widow and the orphan…have no mercy for the poor, do not work on behalf of the oppressed, are reckless with slander, do not know the one who made them, are murderers of children…who turn away from someone in need…utterly sinful (Epistle of Barnabas 20.2, c. A.D. 100–130).
Other descriptive passages from early texts describe some of what this looked like in practice:
Perhaps the earliest textual evidence we have of an organized system specifically dedicated to the care of orphans comes form a passage of Hermas, in which their religious education is explicitly stressed… Many Biblical scholars believe that [James 1:27] assigns the task of caring for orphans to the deacons of the early Church. However, in light of other passages in Hermas it is obvious that caring for orphans was seen by the author as work generally pleasing to God and an ethical duty for all Christians (Hübner and Ratzan, Growing Up Fatherless in Antiquity).
A third century document known as the Didascalia Apostolorum lays out the criteria for selecting a presbyter. One of the requirements in this list is that the candidate has been known as ‘a father to the orphans’ (3.2). This document then goes on to describe a suitable candidate for the bishopric as one who has been ‘a lover of toil, a lover of widows, a lover of orphans’ (3.2) (Aloisi, Orphan Care, Adoption, and the Church).
When we first meet the mention of the adoption and bringing up of foundlings, this work appears not as a novelty, but as one long practiced. It is true that the heathen also used to take care of exposed children, but for the purposes of bringing them up as gladiators or prostitutes, or to use them in their own service…. Christians brought up the children whom they took charge of for the Lord, and for a respectable and industrious life (G. Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church, p. 186).
All of this illustrates the reality of care for the orphan and the marginalized has been a central part of the church’s fundamental makeup from the very beginning, as it continues to be. Once again, David Nowell summarizes beautifully: “Orphan care is our (the church’s) identity — and has been for two thousand years.”
And we at World Orphans say a hearty “amen.”
- David Z Nowell, Dirty Faith: Bringing the Love of Christ to the Least of These
- Hübner and Ratzan, Growing Up Fatherless in Antiquity
- John Aloisi, Orphan Care, Adoption, and the Church: Historical Reflections and Contemporary Challenges
- Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Ancient Church