Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Role of the Church in Social Welfare

As the history of the Byzantine world makes clear, philanthropic service to society has always been an important part of the Church’s mission. Seeing Christ in the poor, members of the Church developed a philanthropic philosophy from the very beginning. In a distinct way, the Byzantine Church expressed this divine attribute, blending Greek and Christian understandings of its importance. The Byzantine Empire (which many of its citizens saw as a divinely appointed institution), as well as the Church itself, promoted and practiced philanthropy throughout its history, with varying degrees of sincerity. Both philosophical and practical examples of this abound and serve as an enduring testimony to this proper ministry of the Church throughout the ages.

Pre-Christian Greek civilization already had significantly developed notions of philanthropy expressed in numerous ways. For example, they established philanthropic institutions such as public guest-chambers, brotherhoods of hospitality, and, hospices. However, according to Demetrios Constantelos in his work Byzantine Philanthropy and Social Welfare, “their philanthropy was practiced in a limited field and was directed mostly toward the civilized Hellenes” (11).

Emporer Arcadios,
archetype of God, the Universal King
Christian ideas of universal philanthropy took the existing Hellenic understanding of this virtue and expanded it, insisting that Christians love and charitably serve the human needs of even their enemies and pagans. This latter practice greatly distressed the Emperor Julian (the pagan apostate upon whom we lovingly spit), who wrote, “It is disgraceful that… the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well” (15). Julian himself encouraged philanthropy, but Christianity, it seems, more successfully persuaded its faithful to take charitable action.

Many of the other Emperors in Constantinople gave good examples of Christian philanthropy. A common theme behind their philanthropic thought was that, as divinely appointed representatives of God on earth, they should exemplify this preeminent divine attribute. Counseling the Emperor Arcadios, Bishop Synesios of Cyrene gives an example of this type of thinking, emphasizing “that the king is the projection of the archetype, God the Universal King” and that the king must therefore make policies to benefit the people (45).

Many Byzantine clergy were also great examples of Christian philanthropy by their charitable work seeking social justice and equality. Certain of these, John Chrysostom, for example, gave generously to the poor out of their personal wealth. Chrysostom also built institutions of charity, such as hospitals and homes for the aged and infirm. Furthermore, in continuity with its early origins, the Church maintained the diaconate, which was created to serve widows and continued this work by seeing to the distribution of all kinds of welfare (Acts 6:1-4).

These few of the innumerable historical examples available partially demonstrate the Church’s consistent devotion to the service of the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the aged, the orphans, the widows, and all the needy. Since the apostolic age, the Church has emphasized social welfare as an important aspect of its work. Since the fourth century, the Church has sought ways to cooperate with the state in providing this welfare. Seeing Christ in the least of His brethren (Mt 25:40), the Byzantine Church throughout its history served Him and should never neglect to serve Him, the only Philanthropos.

3 comments:

Stilbelieve said...

"Since the fourth century, the Church has sought ways to cooperate with the state in providing this welfare. Seeing Christ in the least of His brethren (Mt 25:40)"


I see footnotes of Mt 25: 31-41 indicating that this is referencing to treatment of Christian missionaries - not necessarily all poor or in need people. In that sense, the bible should not be used by bishops or others to justify government social welfare programs.

John R.P. Russell said...

Stilbelieve,

I am struggling to understand your comment. Do I correctly understand you to be stating that you believe Christ is referring only to Christians as His brethren in Matthew 25:40? Well, I disagree. I believe He is saying that that the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned are His brethren.

Jesus Christ has become the brother of all mankind by taking on humanity. He became man and died for all human beings, even those who reject him. He washed even Judas' feet. He does not reject Judas - Judas rejects Him. He loves each and every human being completely as his own brother or sister and calls upon us to love them even as He loves them. In part this means to provide for their needs.

Anonymous said...

"The communal vision of Christianity must not be cultivated exclusively within the body of the faithful." -Vigen Guroian

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