Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1

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As the church spread through the Roman Empire its ministries of mercy underwent considerable development. Social relief became a monopoly of the church in Rome and Alexandria, where it was manifested in distributions to the poor and in the establishment and upkeep of hospitals, orphanages and homes for the aged. By the 4th century the church was also bringing relief to people whom inflation had plunged into distress. During the time of Constantine the church enjoyed much favour. Constantine's attempt to create a Christian empire eventually resulted in the state taking over much of the responsibility of the church.

For example, the state now assumed as its responsibility the care of the poor though the church continued with this on a small scale. To Constantine himself is credited the observation that a changed religion involves a changed social order. As a matter of fact the Constantinian policy embraced two parallel but distinct objects. These objects may be described as follows Cochrane : 1 to create a world fit for Christians to live in and 2 to make the world safe for Christianity.

The former represents the attitude of the emperor to individual believers; it finds expression in an extensive scheme of moral and social reform designed to satisfy their demands and to promote their interests. The latter reflects his views regarding the Church as an institution, and it manifests itself in the project of a Christian establishment conceived more or less along the lines of existing pagan state-cults.

Constantine's reforms were limited to a certain tenderness towards dependents, women, children and slaves. Women, for example, were no longer to be compelled to undergo trial in the public courts, widows and orphans were to have special consideration at the hands of the judiciary and they were not to be forced to travel long distances for hearings Cochrane A law that forbade the separation mitigated the hardships of slavery by sale of man and wife, and the practice of manumission was encouraged, especially if it took place in the church.

In other respects, also, the emperor tried to maintain the cohesion of the family, especially by prohibiting divorce except on statutory grounds: to the specific exclusion of 'frivolous pretexts' such as drunkenness, gambling and infidelity.

Homosexuality and the Church

Constantine also called for the prohibition of gladiatorial exhibitions and the abolition of crucifixion as a form of punishment, no doubt out of respect for the memory of Christ. With this tasteless expression of Christian sentiment may be compared the enactment which forbade the branding of human beings on the face 'because the face is made in the image of God', while slaves, criminals and even conscripts continued to be branded on other parts of the body Cochrane In the earliest stage of his public career, Constantine maintained a more flexible though still strictly aristocratic type of society.

Once in power, however, he seems to have abandoned any such notion; for he maintained in all its rigour, the legal framework of the status-society. He promoted the tendency towards social evolution upon an occupational basis; in each and every case seeking to attach to the legal person fixed obligations commensurate with the privileges to which his status in the community entitled him; and, at the same time, scattering immunities and exemptions with a generous hand among favoured groups whose services he regarded as peculiarly valuable to the regime.

This programme was said to demoralise the middle groups while, at the same time, it transformed the free peasant into a serf. Post-Constantine churches spent great sums on the work of ransoming captives. St Ambrose proposed selling the precious vessels on the altars of his church in Milan to do just that. He declared:. There is one incentive which must impel us all to charity; it is pity for the misery of our neighbors and the desire to alleviate it, with all the means that lie in our power, and more besides.


Scott As we have shown, there is no doubt that the early Christian centuries were a period of significant social change and restructuring, witnessing the spread of Roman power across the Greek East as well as the emergence of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. The emergence of a new cultural form both indicated and enabled broader societal transformations Perkins In spite of what we have just noted, however, it can hardly be maintained that the early Christians deliberately attempted to restructure the empire in addressing matters of socio-economic justice.

Instead, during the first two centuries when Christians constituted a small minority, their concern was to help those who were dehumanised and oppressed by providing practical help.

Their concerns were motivated by compassion and characterised by communal justice and the love of God. Their input into changing society was essentially to provide charity and love as expressed in the Scriptures. Yet they were to have a profound effect in helping the poor and neglected. The medieval period was built on a system of feudal hierarchy. In this hierarchy, the lord of the manor, who, in turn, owed allegiance to and was protected by a higher overlord, protected the serf, or peasant.

And so the system went, ending eventually with the king. This hierarchical and systemic differentiation was generally biologically based, with birth right crucial to one's place in feudal society, as was hereditary provenance. Such a structure led to the exploitation and oppression of those lower in the hierarchy. The Catholic Church was by far the largest owner of land during the Middle Ages. The bishops and abbots, in exercising a primary loyalty to the church in Rome, provided a strong central government throughout this period. Hence the manor functioned on both a religious and secular basis.

The dominant economic institutions in the towns were the guilds who were also involved with social and religious questions. They regulated their members' conduct in all their activities: personal, social, religious and economic. Although the guilds regulated very carefully the production and sale of commodities, they were less concerned with making profits than with saving their members' souls. Salvation demanded that the individual lead an orderly life based on church teachings and custom. This led to a strong paternalistic obligation towards the common people, the poor and the general welfare of society.

It was accepted that some were to be rich, and that the poor had to subordinate to the leadership of the wealthy. However, it was equally emphasised that the wealthy had an obligation to use their riches to help the poor. Hence riches and wealth were not condemned, but greed, selfish acquisitiveness, covetousness and the lust for wealth were consistently condemned by the Christian paternalist ethic.

What we do see here is a concern for the poor. However, the support of wealth and not greed or selfish acquisitiveness was to obscure the absolute biblical focus on the poor that Jesus advocated. The teachings of Christ in the New Testament carry on part of the Mosaic tradition relevant to economic ideology. He taught the necessity of being concerned with the welfare of one's brother, the importance of charity and almsgiving. He condemned the rich and praised the poor as he took their side. The medieval church in many ways attempted to remain true to the teachings of its Lord as it set out to develop its society politically, economically, socially and religiously.

However, while on the one hand the Church drew up guidelines for helping the poor, and their assistance was structured accordingly, on the other hand, certain bishops began to allow believers to adopt a more comfortable life style. So the problem of the poor was attacked only at the level of its consequences and not of its causes. The poor were still dependent on the rich and, although some of the rich showed great generosity, the institutional and structural injustice which generated poverty was not dealt with at its roots.

The key figure to shape the medieval paradigm of mission thinking was Augustine of Hippo though, strictly speaking, he preceded the Middle Ages, at least if one takes this period to have begun around Bosch Augustine's circumstances and his reaction to them, influenced deeply by his personal history, were to shape both the theology and the understanding of mission of subsequent centuries. His reaction to an English monk, Pelagius, and the Donatists in North Africa essentially directed the missionary paradigm of the Middle Ages see Frend Augustine maintained that God became human in order to save human souls that are hurtling to destruction.

Hence not the reconciliation of the universe but the redemption of the soul stands in the centre.

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The theology of Augustine could not but spawn a dualistic view of reality, which became second nature in Western Christianity - the tendency to regard salvation as a private matter and to ignore the world, though this was not the view of Augustine himself. This particular view gave rise to the tendency of seeing mission as an attempt to develop the church rather than get involved with the world Bosch Augustine, however, promoted the involvement of the church with the world.

In this respect he maintained that the church's involvement with social change in relation to the poor was personal charity. Augustine was the architect of the doctrine of charity; obedience to God required a genuine concern for the needs of the poor Sider The Middle Ages also saw the rise of the monastic movement which greatly contributed to the Christianisation of Europe Tanner Only monasticism, says Niebuhr, saved the medieval church from acquiescence, petrification and the loss of its vision and truly revolutionary character Quoted in Bosch For upward of years, from the 5th century to the 12th, the monastery was not only the centre of culture and civilisation, but also of mission.

At first glance, the monastic movement appears to be a most unlikely agent for mission and transformation.


The church as a transformation and change agent

The communities were certainly not founded as launching pads for mission. They were not even created out of a desire to get involved in society in their immediate environment. Rather, they regarded society as corrupt and moribund, held together only by 'the tenacity of custom'.

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Monasticism stood for the absolute renunciation of everything the ancient world had prized, it was an endeavour to refrain from the 'sinful world'. It was 'flight from the world, and nothing else' Bosch Monasticism's one object, immediate as well as ultimate, 'was to live in purity and die in peace', and to avoid anything that could 'agitate, harass, depress, stimulate, weary, or intoxicate the soul' Bosch In the light of the above it may therefore sound preposterous to suggest that monasticism was both a primary agent of medieval mission and the main instrument in reforming European society.

That this was indeed what happened was due, firstly, to the esteem in which the general populace held monks Elliston Secondly, their exemplary lifestyle made a profound impact, particularly on the peasants. The monasteries became self-sustaining communities organised around rules for daily life, rules which pertained to work as well as prayer. This concept was revolutionary in the ancient world, where manual work was seen as fit for slaves. This concept would be emphasised again by Puritanism and have had a powerful effect on the western world. Thirdly, their monasteries were centres not only of hard manual labour, but also of culture and education.

The monks were encouraged to become scholars.

Thus, for the first time the practical and theoretical were embodied in the same individuals. This combination helped create an atmosphere favourable to scientific development, including both workshops and libraries. The monasteries became centres of Christian faith, learning and technical progress as they expanded into northern Europe. According to Cannon, in the West the monasteries became 'the highway of civilisation, itself' Cannon It is interesting to note how the monks related their profound spirituality to an eminently practical lifestyle.

They refused to write off the world as a lost cause or to propose neat, no-loose-ends answers to the problems of life, but rather to rebuild promptly, patiently and cheerfully, 'as if it were by some law of nature that the restoration came' Bosch Henry points out that the Benedictine Rule had been 'one of the most effective linkages of justice, unity and the renewal the church has ever known' The Benedictine monastery indeed became a 'school for the Lord's service', and was to have a profound influence in the centuries to follow.

The monastic movement, from its inception, has been concerned not only with the spiritual side of life, but also with its social and economic components. Ora et Labora was the motto of the Benedictine Order, and it also inspired many other communities. During the Middle Ages, the Church was deeply concerned about economic matters, not only on the theological level, but also on the operational one.


Hospices, orphanages and philanthropic work were supported by income generated through economic activities. However, most of these were done through the monasteries. Julio De Santa Ana points out that it was the monasteries that chose to radically eradicate poverty The monks saw the need to be involved in the transformation of society as their gospel responsibility. However, the concept of social or community transformation adopted by the medieval church can be classified as that of the conservative paradigm, poverty is just there: 'The poor you will always have with you' Mk The relationship of rich and poor is a personal one of mutual rights and obligations, which are ordained by tradition.

The responsibility of the rich towards the poor is to behave with fairness, forbearance and compassion.

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The responsibility of the poor, as taught in the medieval church, was to accept their place in life humbly, being hardworking, law-abiding, loyal and grateful for the charity of the rich. This is, usually, reflected in relief programmes to ease immediate hardship and in welfare approaches concerned with meeting 'basic needs'.

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  8. More broadly, it is seen in institutions such as the 'poor relief' at the parish level.

    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1 Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1
    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1 Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1
    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1 Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1
    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1 Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1
    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1 Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1
    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1 Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1
    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1 Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1
    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1 Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1
    Right Questions for Church Leaders, Volume 1

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