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Historical and theological experience

Christian charity in the early Church

(Abridged extracts from Economic and Ethical Views of Fathers of the Church by I. Zeipel, Moscow, 1913, pp. 249-266)

6. Fathers as well as Teachers of the early Church were always ardent apologists of charity in all its forms. For Christian love of the neighbor there opened a wide field of work wherever there was need. Hermas repeatedly pointed to the Christian duty to take care of widows and orphans. Clement of Rome praised hospitality and commended it in his letter to the Christians in Corinth as their main merit. He relates that many Christians went to prison voluntarily in order to set free others, and many of them became slaves so that the money paid for them could be used to ransom others. In his letter to Polycarpus, St. Ignatius says that communities used their resources to ransom slaves, but at the same time he instructs Christian slaves not to demand ransom because otherwise they run the risk to become "slaves of their desires". Apostolic Canons, among other good deeds, advise Christians to use their profits for paying ransom for slaves. The laws introduced by Christian emperors also testify to the desire of the Church to help liberate slaves. In 316, Constantine the Great issued a special confirmation of the long-standing right of Christians to set their slaves free not before the praetor but before the bishop and a community gathering… St. John Chrysostom also spoke on slavery. He pointed out that the Acts of the Apostles's narrative about the communism of the early Christians refers to the selling of property, rather then the selling of slaves as the early Christians either had no slaves at all or set them free. The associates of St. Augustine gave the Church their lands, not slaves; they set the latter free. From this example we can conclude that if not all but at least some Christians who opted for perfect poverty often set their slaves free.

7. Most of the charity was done by the Church itself, while the faithful who brought her material resources to do it participated in charity indirectly. Generally the Church considered all its property to belong to the poor. The faithful, however, used to bring to their bishop special donations for charity. St. Justin gives us the following picture of this side of church charity. Each affluent parishioner made his own contribution of the size he desired and the bishop was obliged to use this money to help widows and orphans, people impoverished through sickness or for any other reason, as well as prisoners, strangers and all the poor in general. Similarly, Tertullian describes the rules observed by Christians during their liturgical gatherings. Communities are headed by elders; they manage the common fund to which everyone makes a contribution at a certain day of the month or whenever they wish. These contributions are voluntary; nobody is forced to make them. Therefore, this is charity. The money thus collected are used to feed and bury the poor, to support wretched orphans, both boys and girls, as well as helpless old people who are unable to leave their homes. It is also used to help the shipwrecked, those sentenced to labor in mines or exiled to islands, and finally prisoners, if they have to endure imprisonment for their faith in Christ. This tradition is so characteristic of Christians that heathens point at them: Look how much they love one another! Thus, the property of Christians serves them for building an authentic fellowship, and this when money has so often made enemies even of brothers! More often than not the ardent love of their neighbors tends to inflict on Christians accusations of squandering. But squandering caused by love of one's neighbor certainly deserves a better name… Consequently, the beneficial philanthropic activity of the Church was officially recognized by Christian emperors. If one of Socrates' remarks is to be believed, Constantine the Great supported the Church of Alexandria in its work by instituting the distribution of bread to the poor.

8. It was the bishop alone who was in charge of the money intended for the poor. As he manages it in the name of the Lord, Apostolic Canons describe him as a mediator between God and the poor. The faithful should make donations, while the bishop should manage and distribute them. Therefore, let no one demand that he should account for them; for it is God Himself Who is his judge. The deacon has no right to distribute money to the poor without the knowledge of the bishop either. Origen gives special instructions for managing church property and care of the poor. Firstly, the heads of churches should be most careful of not using anything that belongs to widows and the poor for their own benefit. Then the distribution of aid should be purposeful; that is to say it should take into account the dignity of the beneficiary, the reason of his impoverishment, the conditions in which he was raised - in prosperity or in poverty since his very childhood. Aid should be different for men and women, old and young people, the strong and the weak. Some should be given full support, while others only some, especially if they can still earn their living, if only partly. The number of children should also be taken into account. St. Cyprian was a model bishop in his zealous care of the poor. When he had to leave Carthage, he called upon his people not to abandon widows, the sick and the poor of all kinds. At the same time, he advised them to uphold the same principles in giving aid as those we have just seen in Origen. Besides, he allocated a certain sum from his own property for visitors in need, probably because it was not possible to support them from the church property. When this sum was spent he sent another. St. Cyprian was in possession of money and had an opportunity for doing as he did. As we know from his Life ascribed traditionally to Deacon Pontius, in the beginning of his conversion, even before he was baptized, he sold his property and immediately distributed the returns to the poor. However, part of it - his Life mentions gardens and the estate - was returned to him later. His Life does not say how it came, but it was believed to be the divine fate. He did not sell it for the second time to benefit the poor only because he did not want to provoke envy and inflict persecution upon his community.

St. Ambrose demands from bishops that they should be careful and prudent in managing church property. The bishop is instructed to give visitors all that is necessary but nothing superfluous lest his other duties with regard to the clergy should come into conflict. St. John Chrysostom does not wish to see the money intended to the poor put much away for a rainy day. It should be distributed immediately and quickly, while the care for the future should be left to the Most High. This advice was partly conditioned by the unreliable situation of that time. St. John Chrysostom relates the following fact: a person who was put in charge of the poor collected a great amount of gold and prudently saved part of it for a rainy day. And what do you think, an enemy came to the country and stole the gold, making it useless for both the poor and their benefactor.

If the funds of a community were inadequate, it could rely for aid on others, more numerous and affluent communities. St. Cyprian, for instance, invites a certain African community unable to support a new poor man in addition to its regular expenditures to send him to Carthage which would certainly take care of him. When Numidia was heavily attacked by the barbarians and many of those who lived in this province had to languish in prison, the Numidian bishops strained every effort to ransom as many of these miserable people as possible. They appealed also to the Christians in Carthage for voluntary donations. St. Cyprian sent to Numidia a considerable sum of 100.000 sesterces or about 10.000 rubles in our system, writing that everybody made their contributions with great zeal required by their faith and the magnitude of the misery they had to relieve. On behalf of his parishioners he thanks God for the opportunity to take part in such an outstanding and good cause and promises to render a helping hand if Numidia, God forbid, is subjected to a such a misery again. During the time of St. Ambrose, too, there were opportunities for donations to relieve similar needs. It is an excellent school of generosity and selflessness, St. Ambrose writes, to ransom prisoners, to deliver people from their enemies, to save them from disgrace, to return children to their parents and parents to their children and citizens to their motherland. At that time the inhabitants of Illiria and Thrace stood in the need of precisely this kind of help. And today, too, as in the times of St. Cyprian, the Church and individual Christians are doing much to ransom prisoners.

St. Ambrose draws the special attention of those in charge of church property to their duty to help also those poor people who, ashamed of their poverty, seek to conceal it. In his calls to charity in general he does not forget any category of the poor, but shows the greatest concern for those who are utterly helpless and unable to draw the attention of others. Therefore, he commends those Christians who take care of orphaned young girls, helping them, sometimes at great expense, to marry, thus saving them from disgrace.

9. As we see in St. Ambrose, the public charity of the Church always goes hand in hand with private charity. Generally speaking, the latter was never considered superfluous alongside that indirect aid to the poor which was expressed in contributions to the community fund. Tertullian refers to visiting the sick, especially poor ones, hospitality and supplying the needy with bread as natural manifestations of love of one's neighbor. The following passage from Apostolic Canons stands quite apart: If any one does anything without the bishop, it will be in vain and will not be reckoned as a good work. Such a monopoly on charity was alien to the Church and was not in her interests. On the contrary, St. John Chrysostom states categorically that a believer has no right to plead the church charity. True, the church property is used for the common good, but a Christian cannot be saved if he himself does not give charity. It does not follow from the fact that the Church dispenses charity that his sins will be remitted, but he himself should work in this field…

To her numerous admonitions to help poor people by charity the Church adds the instruction to protect their scarce property. The first Council of Toledo in 400 imposes the penalty of excommunication on any of the mighty of the earth who robbed an ecclesiastic, a monk or a poor man if he refuses to account for it before the bishop.

Though charity was considered to be the best way to use one's property, Fathers of the Church were against any extremes in this regard, and those who exceeded all moderation were subjected to severe reprimands.

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