Americans buy millions of self-help books each year, but we, the children of (post)modernity, are not the first to appreciate this genre. It was popular already in the ancient world. Military manuals have existed since at least the fourth century BCE, ready to advise on how to select the best warhorse and conduct an effective siege—or, conversely, survive under siege. The ancients dispensed advice on other topics, too, from cooking to dream interpretation, farming, oratory, friendship, and how to live well in one’s old age.
But there’s one topic on which pagans didn’t write: caring for others. I first noticed this absence while researching popular attitudes toward women—especially mothers—in antiquity and today. That research is, in turn, part of a book project in progress examining the similarities between the pre-Christian pagan approaches to issues of life and the modern post-Christian attitudes to these same topics.
This absence speaks volumes, as does the rise of the new sub-genre of writing on pastoral and practical care in the first few centuries of the church. Historians rightly study what is present in the documentary record, but considering absences can be no less illuminating, as it is in this case. Until early Christian leaders began writing letters, treatises, and manuals about care for single women, the poor, and the sick, and other vulnerable people, such writing did not exist.
In these documents, we find pastoral care that is wide-ranging, including not only the kind of spiritual and relational care that the term most often encompasses today, but also attention to practical needs. These texts bear witness, then, to the role of ministries of compassion—and to how the early church saw those ministries as foundational to healthy use of pastoral power.
Words of mercy about works of mercy encouraged the creation of more robust networks of care. This history is worth revisiting in an era when high-profile scandals of pastoral authority abuse have undermined many Christians’ trust in church leadership.
Emphasis on counter-cultural care for others abounds in the New Testament, so it’s no surprise this kind of writing would spread as the church grew. In Acts 2:44–46, for example, we hear of believers eliminating poverty and need within the fledgling Jerusalem church.
Still, the rise of more formal treatises about pastoral care, beginning in the third century CE, is particularly striking, as this was arguably the worst time for Christians to live in the Roman Empire. The assassination of emperor Severus Alexander in 235 CE unleashed the period historians dub the “third-century crisis.” From that point to Diocletian’s rise to power in 284 CE, emperors rose in the military ranks, took power, then got assassinated in quick succession.
Meanwhile, more than 200 years of debasement of the currency finally culminated in out-of-control inflation. A mysterious pandemic arrived around 250 CE and circulated for two decades, leaving a horrifying death toll in its wake. While empire-wide numbers are impossible to calculate, the plague carried off an estimated 62 percent of the population of the city of Alexandria, suggests historian Kyle Harper. And the first empire-wide persecution of Christians began in 251 CE.
Amid all these crises, pastors in the third century were ministering to people living through an age of upheaval that sounds remarkably similar to our own. How did they cope?
Tellingly, sermons, treatises, and letters from the time don’t show much interest in Christian accumulation of conventional power. They don’t consider how Christians might influence politics or government or the economy, and they don’t push back against religious persecution—something ordinary people had little chance to affect, anyway. Rather, these early pastors emphasized Christians’ obligation to love our neighbors in word, deed, and cash.
One particularly well-documented example is the ministry of Cyprian of Carthage from around 248 CE to his martyrdom in 258 CE. Early in his ministry, Cyprian wrote On Works and Alms, a treatise in which he went so far as to fence off the Communion table from those who failed to do such acts of love. Their hearts, he argued, were visibly unconverted.
In another treatise, On Mortality, which may have started out as a sermon, Cyprian rebuked those who refused to care for the sick and the dying during the plague. His description of the pandemic’s symptoms suggests his knowledge of it came from firsthand observation in caring for the infected.
Cyprian’s letters from this time are also filled with exhortations for pastoral care. Once, he responded to another pastor’s plea for advice in dealing with a new convert, whose job as an actor and acting instructor was considered scandalous by the local congregation. (This was one of the most dishonorable professions in the Roman world, and because of its association with pagan worship, it was especially dishonorable for a Christian.)
Cyprian’s reply advises not discipline but care: Does the convert have any other means of support? The church should care for him if not, he says—even offering to financially support the convert himself if needed.
Words like these were not only faithful. Historical evidence suggests they were also attractive. Christianity in the Roman Empire grew from less than one percent of the population in 200 CE to nearly ten percent a century later.
This growth is particularly remarkable and, frankly, surprising given the rising persecution in that same time. Why, when they knew conversion could mean death, did more people than ever come into the church? Sociologist Rodney Stark has argued that it was the church’s work of care, both practical and pastoral, that attracted converts and led to this explosive growth. The witness of good words and works bore rich fruit.
Can the same be said of us? If I were a historian living centuries in the future, studying documentary evidence about churches in the United States in the early 21st century, I would likely have the impression that Christians in our period were mainly doing two things: suffering abuses of spiritual authority and dealing with the aftermath of those abuses.
These are, after all, the topics of so many books, articles, and reports. Shining light on abuse and working to prevent it in the future is important, not least because justice matters to a just God. And yet, what are we missing if these conversations swallow up many others? What is the salient absence in the contemporary church’s documentary record? I would argue it is the absence of robust conversations on healthy use of pastoral power to care for our communities.
The example of the early church reminds us that if we talk only about what the church must root out—what we should not be or do as Christians—we can miss out on conversations about who and what we are called to be. And that means we miss out on opportunities to transform church culture for the better.
Healthy pastoral authority and care today should be an essential part of our conversations and endeavors, just as it was in the earliest days of Christianity. We cannot overlook the significance of our words—what pastors and other church leaders talk and write about—in bringing about change in local churches and their wider communities.
So on the one hand, yes, we should condemn the “bully pulpit” and the calls for the church to seek political power in a time of crisis. At the same time, yet more calls to unmask abuse and fight it are insufficient. We also need encouragement from the pulpit and in writing from Christian leaders on matters that were always part of the church’s countercultural witness in a cruel world: practical and spiritual care for the poor, the sick, widows, single mothers, orphans, and immigrants (James 1:27).
I witnessed the effect of this kind of encouragement in the Presbyterian Church of America congregation where my husband and I were members for seven years before our recent cross-country move. Right around the time we joined, the pastor had decided to emphasize adoption and foster care as essential ministries for our church. At that point, there were very few foster homes in the county, and the need far exceeded availability.
The pastor’s outspokenness in making such care for the local community a deliberate priority had significant effects within the congregation. The number of adoptive and foster families in the church grew. A new ministry created year-round meal trains and other support structures to help foster families. The church’s awareness of related needs in the local community increased, too, leading to additional ministry opportunities. The whole character of our church changed because of our pastor’s focus on pastoral and practical care.
The record of Cyprian’s ministry likewise reminds us that words and works of care have power to bring about change in local churches. Christians of the early church were not any less sinful than we are, any less prone to spiritual weakness and fatigue. But with leaders who pointed the flock to Jesus by speaking, writing, and modeling care, they transformed their entire culture. The same can be no less true today.
Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (forthcoming November 2023). Her next book, Priceless, is under contract with IVP Academic. She is book review editor for Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.