The Health Care Debate, Early Church Style
Christian health care
As a result of these theological beliefs, Christians developed a robust system for caring for the poor, the ill, widows and orphans, and other members of society in need of care. When the plague struck, this system provided an opportunity for churches to quickly expand and care for those outside the church.
As early as A.D. 251, according to letters from the time, the church in Rome cared for 1,500 widows and those who were distressed. A hundred years later, Antioch supported 3,000 widows, virgins, sick, poor, and travelers. This care was organized by the church and delivered through deacons and volunteer societies. The churches in major cities had significant resources at their disposal, and though their care was not professional, it is likely to have saved lives and aided the growth of the church.
When the plague of Cyprian struck in 250 and lasted for years, this volunteer corps became the only organization in Roman cities that cared for the dying and buried the dead. Ironically, as the church dramatically increased its care, the Roman government began persecuting the church more heavily.
Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote, according to Ferngren, "that presbyters, deacons, and laymen took charge of the treatment of the sick, ignoring the danger to their own lives. … Their activity contrasted with that of the pagans, who deserted the sick or threw the bodies of the dead out into the streets." This care was extended even to those persecuting the church at the time.
This care likely led to much higher rates of survival for Christians. And after the plague, with a staff of workers and an existing administrative structure, "Christian medical care became outwardly focused, now enlarged to include many who were victims of the plague."
Finally, when Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, these services were formalized in a number of institutions, including the first hospitals. "The experience gained by the congregation-centered care of the sick over several centuries gave early Christians the ability to create rapidly in the late fourth century a network of efficiently functioning institutions that offered charitable medical care, first in monastic infirmaries and later in the hospital," Ferngren writes.
Modern health care
The experience of early Christian health care sheds light on what ought to be of foremost concern to modern Christians as the country reforms its health care system: beyond cost savings and the ability of a government agency to deliver health care, Christians must be concerned about the poor receiving care.
In the U.S., hospitals cannot typically refuse care to those without insurance; however, insurance is most often the key to receiving health care today. And expanding coverage to those who are without should be, based on Ferngren's study, a major concern for Christians.
The best way to provide care to everyone in the country may be up for debate. We may argue over whether to prefer new regulation of insurers and health care providers or a government-run plan. The need to provide care for the poor, however, was settled centuries ago.
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More health care coverage can be found in our science & health section, including:
We Need Health-Care Reform | And the real question is who gets to decide who gets attention. (July 22, 2009)
Caring for the Caregivers | Studies suggest that pastors' health declines are a church problem. (April 14, 2009)
Blessed Insurance | Many pastors lack access to adequate health benefits. (July 7, 2008)