It’s hard to imagine a more precarious existence than that of a newborn child in the Roman Empire. Infant mortality rates were so high that parents avoided becoming attached to their children until it became clear that they would survive infancy. Well, at least those children whose parents weren’t hastening their deaths in the first place.
In Roman households, the oldest living male, known as the paterfamilias, Latin for “father of the family,” literally held the power of life and death over newborn children. After a child was born, the midwife would place him or her on the ground. If the paterfamilias picked up the child, he or she lived. If not, the child was subjected to what was called exposure, left outside to the elements and animals, and abandoned.
Of those who were abandoned, the fortunate ones were saved from death and made slaves. The others died.
This was the brutal world into which Christianity was born—and Christianity brought this brutal practice, and many others, to an end.
Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, reminded me that Christian solicitude for the fatherless is as old as the Bible itself. To cite only one example, Isaiah 1:17 exhorts the people of Judah to “defend the cause of the fatherless.”
And so one of the things that distinguished the early Church from its pagan neighbors was the way it cared for children—all children, both newborns and orphans.
The Christian alternative was summed up in a fourth-century document known as the Apostolic Constitutions. It read “Orphans as well as widows are always commended to Christian love. The bishop is to have them brought up at the expense of the Church and to take care that the girls be given, when of marriageable age, to Christian husbands, and that the boys should learn some art or handicraft and then be provided with tools and placed in a condition to earn their own living . . .”
This concern for orphans continued to the Middle Ages right down to the present day. Last year, Eric Metaxas told listeners the story of Romanian composer Adina Spire, whose parents were murdered on her twelfth birthday. And who took care of the orphaned Adina and her sister and taught them and other orphans music? Orthodox nuns.
And for Christians, as important as the “what?” of our concern for orphans is the “why?” In addition to the many biblical commands to care for widows and orphans, Christianity introduced a subversive way of defining who belongs to a family.
Just think of Jesus. When told that his mother and siblings wanted to see Him, He said “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).
Familiarity with the text has dulled our ability to appreciate how shocking these words would have been to his audience. For them, loyalty to family was, after observance of Torah, the primary obligation of every pious Jew.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t urging his followers to break the fifth commandment. He was saying that the objects of their concern went beyond their kin. It extended to the least of Jesus’ and our brethren, starting with widows and the fatherless.
There are an estimated 150 million orphans in the world today. They’re still Jesus’ brethren and, thus, still ours. Our forefathers in the faith and our heavenly Father have shown us what to do. So it’s our turn to do it.
— by John Stonestreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint, a radio commentary that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million. Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries