In History, Perspective

The early Christians in Rome were renowned because they cared for all their own poor and needy and also for other people’s. While their care for outsiders brought them persecution, their care for their fellow Christians was admired.

Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth in the late 2nd century, wrote to thank the Church in Rome for the aid they had sent to his church. “From the beginning it is your custom to bestow your alms in all places, and to furnish subsistence to many churches. You send relief to the needy, especially to those who work in the mines; in which you follow the example of your fathers.”

A few years later, Tertullian noted how the non-Christians would comment with astonishment about the Christians, “See how they love one another.”

In the following century the pagan Emperor Julian (361-363) commented that “these impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agapae [love feasts], they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.”

The early Christians sought to fulfil the teaching of Matthew 25:31-46, in which our Lord Jesus, in His story of the sheep and the goats, commends those who provide practical care for even “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (verse 40).

This must be one of the most frequently misinterpreted verses of our age. To whom is Jesus referring? Does He mean the poor of the world, the sick, the disabled, the homeless? Or does He mean Christians who are poor, sick, disabled, homeless or otherwise in need? A number of modern Christian leaders are teaching that Jesus was referring to the poor of the world. But in the past the overwhelming majority of Christian scholars and theologians understood Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” as Christian believers, and this view is still widespread today. It is better grounded in the language of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus refers to His disciples as His brothers and sisters (e.g. 12:49-50).

So in this story we are taught to prioritise care for the Christian community. This is in line with the new commandment that Jesus gave His disciples in the last few hours before His death, “Love one another” (John 13:34-35), which supplements the command to “Love your neighbour” (Matthew 22:39). It is also supported by Paul’s injunction in Galatians 6:10 that we should “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers”. Not either/or, but both/and, with the priority given to our Christian family.

We live in a day of growing needs. The poor are getting poorer. It is right that governments, nations and agencies, both Christian and other, should work tirelessly to relieve their needs and bring about a more just and equitable world.

But what of the Christian poor, and especially the Christian persecuted, whose needs are also growing in our world today, as they experience increasing marginalisation, discrimination, harassment and violence? As Christians we have a Biblical duty, a Gospel warrant and Christian compassion to assist our “brother or sister in need”, as 1 John 3:17 refers to them. To neglect them is to neglect Christ’s followers, which is to neglect Christ Himself.

Just as the early Church were known for their love for each other, this should be the hallmark of our faith today too.

Reprinted from Barnabas Aid, published by Barnabas Fund , the aid agency for the persecuted church.

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