Orphan Care and the Early Church

A few weeks ago I was watching “Paul: Apostle of Christ”, and I was struck by the early Church’s treatment of abandoned or vulnerable children. These days, we often hear stories of Christians and others working together for the well-being of vulnerable children. However, this hasn’t always been the case.

Orphans in the Ancient World

In the Greco-Roman world, the most vulnerable in society often had no protections, no rights, and no safety net. Infanticide was a common practice, widely accepted and free of stigma. Any unwanted newborn could be left to die of exposure, with the majority dying from hypothermia or hypoglycemia. Others were buried alive in manure heaps, eaten by wild animals, or sacrificed in religious rituals. Maybe if a child was “lucky,” he or she would be picked up to be a slave, a prostitute, or a mutilated beggar.

“Unwanted” is as open-ended a term as the countless reasons parents might have for deciding to abandon their child. Being too small, ugly, deformed, the “wrong” gender, sick, or having any other type of physical ailment was commonly a death sentence for a child. Newborns born out of wedlock or through an affair were commonly abandoned, as were children born into families who couldn’t afford another child or simply didn’t want them.

Things weren’t much better in other parts of the ancient world, with these kinds of practices being common in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Not only that, but amount of children who found themselves orphaned or “fatherless” was particularly high. In ancient Rome, warfare, lack of public health resources, and the prevalence of complications during childbirth meant that early death of parents was common. ⅓ of children born in ancient Rome were dead by age 10, and the average life expectancy for men and women was around 20-30 years. This, coupled with the societal acceptance of abandonment, shaped a society full of children who were single orphans (one living parent) or double orphans (no living parents).

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Orphan Care In The Early Church

From the earliest days, Christians held what was considered a radical and counter-cultural view in Rome, and were widely known for their care for orphaned children. In their eyes, every child was made in the image of God, and worthy of love, affection, and support. Just as the synagogue communities had done before the coming of Christ, early Christians gave special care and attention to those who were most vulnerable, knowing them to be “fearfully and wonderfully made” creations of the God of the Universe.

Some Christians, like a man named Callistus, lived this “radical” life through social activism. Callistus, who had grown up a slave, organized “Life Watches” in the areas where babies were left to die so that they could be rescued and adopted by Christian families. Others, like Bishop Basil of Caeserea, were active in politics. He was one of the main voices pushing to ban infanticide, eventually convincing the Christian Emperor Valentinian to outlaw it. While Emperor Constantine’s efforts to support vulnerable children and families through financial support (after his conversion to Christianity) certainly made things better, Valentinian’s decree was a huge leap forward for Rome, and a far cry from the days when children had no protections and no safety net outside of the Church.

In less than a century, infanticide went from common and accepted social practice to punishable by law in ancient Rome. Much of this is owed to the efforts of early Christians, whose “radical” practices saved countless lives.

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Are We Still Caring for Orphans as the Early Church Did?

Every child on earth today is just as fearfully and wonderfully made as those children God created in ancient Rome. And the need for countercultural voices persists. With millions of children in orphanages, millions of children living in abject poverty, and millions of children being “terminated” before they take their first breath, Christians need to be speaking and acting and fighting harder than ever before. What would it look like today if more of the Church was socially and politically active in fighting for the rights of vulnerable children and families? What would it look like if you were?

Radical action can create radical transformations, and the life we’re called to is nothing less than radical.

This post was written by Levi Bareither, our Advocacy and Development Coordinator

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Melanie Chandler