In an age of spiritual abuse scandals, the early church offers a positive model of pastoral authority.
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 …