Knowing church history reminds us that we’re part of a bigger family that spans culture, time, and geography. You don’t just have the Holy Spirit–you are a part of a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before you. Every Christian should know at least a little bit about church history.
What about those of us who directly care for vulnerable children and families, or support those who do? Surprising as it is, knowing some church history isn’t just helpful. It might just fuel our perseverance when times are hard.
The early church left us a rich legacy of “hospitality as discipleship.” In other words, the early church’s invitation to follow Jesus didn’t come through a sermon or evangelism pitch. It was a ministry of care, compassion, and meeting the needs of the vulnerable. They welcomed the hurting, sick, and outcasts into their life and fellowship. And the results were life-changing.
This article will give you a historical perspective on the early church’s practice of hospitality as discipleship and help you consider your part in God’s grand story of drawing people to himself.
Let’s start, of course, with Jesus.
How Jesus practiced hospitality as discipleship
In his ministry, Jesus cared for the most vulnerable. He didn’t just tell people about God. He healed the sick, restored dignity to outcasts, and showed compassion to the dejected.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus interacted with countless women who had been marginalized and rejected. You probably know the stories. The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). The Syrophoenician woman with the unresolved discharge of blood (Mark 7:24-30). The woman who crashed a dinner party to wash Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50). Mary Magdalene, who had been possessed by seven demons (Luke 8:1-3).
To use modern-day language, these women had suffered significant trauma in their lives. Each had their own story and journey and all hope seemed to be lost. Until they met Jesus.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jesus was the most “trauma-informed” person who ever walked the planet. He knew the human condition and experience better than anyone. He knew the destructive effects of sin–what we’ve done and what’s been done to us. He cared deeply and intimately for these women whom society deemed unlovable.
When it came to children, Jesus welcomed them, too. “Let the little children come to me,” he said. “Don’t stop them because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like them” (see Matt.19:13-15). Jesus even had the audacity to say that unless people became like children they could not enter God’s kingdom (see Mark 10:13-16)! This was quite provocative since responsible and proper adult males ran the show in Jewish culture.
Jesus had an Old Testament foundation for his approach to women and children. Ancient Israel believed that God was the Father of orphans and put those without parents in families (see Ps. 68:5-6). In the Law of Moses, Israel was called to leave the harvest surplus to the needy, including orphans (see Deut. 24:21).
Serving the vulnerable is embedded in the DNA of God.
The early church and orphan care
Jesus’ care for women and children and his ministry of meeting people’s physical needs, coupled with Israel’s history, compelled the early church to champion the hurting and vulnerable. To them, sharing the gospel with your words and showing the gospel with how you loved, treated, and welcomed people weren’t two different missions.
Both were at the heart of what it meant to be the people of God.
We see this articulated in the letter James wrote to fledgling Christian communities: “The kind of religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (see James 1:27).
Acts 6:1-7 is a also short case study that shows how important this was to the church.
The Christian church’s mission to serve the marginalized, specifically orphans and widows, profoundly impacted who made up the church in the first 200 years of its existence. In the 2nd century, a detractor of the faith named Celsus poked fun at Christians. He said the church only comprised “the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.”
This seemed funny to the wealthy men who ran the ancient world. But it was a game-changer for those living on society’s margins. Christianity offered a beautiful vision to vulnerable women and children that no one had before: the chance to belong to a vibrant, safe, and loving community they could call their own.
One reason the church had so many women is that Christians rejected the practice of exposure. Exposure meant that infants were exposed to the outdoor elements and left to die.
Because Roman families desired boys more than girls, girls were exposed far more often than boys. Christians found many of these girls and took them into their own families. After several generations, there were so many women that some historians believe the church was at least 60% female. With the church’s help, the practice of exposure was made illegal by AD 374.
Eventually, these girls grew up and married men, many of whom were not Christians. Some of these men were convinced of the gospel because of the conduct of their Christian wives (see 1 Pet. 3:1-2). Many of their children became followers of Jesus, too. This resulted in a significant expansion of the church!
Early church leaders like Justin Martyr (First Apology, ch. 67) and Tertullian (Defense, ch. 39) wrote about the church receiving offerings for orphans. Others urged Christians to adopt orphans, particularly girls, not least because they needed a family to pay for their dowry when it came time to marry.
Most local churches had established orphanages throughout the Roman Empire by the fourth century. Into the Middle Ages, monasteries took over this task, and many of these orphanages doubled as schools for the children who lived there.
Connecting hurting people to life-changing community
When Jesus left after his resurrection, he told his disciples, “As you go, make disciples of all nations” (see Matt. 28:19-20). The early church soon exploded in growth. By the mid-60s AD, there were churches all across the Roman Empire.
As we saw above, caring for widows and orphans was one significant way the church grew. Of course, Christians didn’t plan for this to be their primary growth strategy. There wasn’t a meeting after Pentecost where Peter or John declared, “Okay, we are going to save babies and help women, and then our movement will grow!”
Women and children weren’t a means to an end. Caring well for the vulnerable and hurting was the goal! But growth was the natural byproduct of the early church following in the way of Master Jesus. As more and more people were welcomed into the church community, they discovered a place to belong. This led to the life-changing belief that Jesus really is the Messiah.
It still happens today. When hurting people are connected to a life-changing community, their lives will never be the same.
We don’t care for vulnerable children–and their families–to grow our churches. That’s not love. That’s using and abusing people for some other goal.
But we can adopt the early church’s mentality that one of the main ways we work out our faith in the world is by caring for hurting people. And when we do this, God is pleased to work through it to change lives.
At Christian Heritage, we want children to be safe and flourish. That’s our highest priority. But how do we do that? Only by the church being mobilized and connected to families in hard places. Children and families will flourish when they have a healthy, thriving community. We believe local churches can and will be that for the families we serve.
Hospitality as discipleship: helping people belong before they believe
The key to seeing this come to fruition is a simple principle we must learn to embrace. We welcome people to belong before they believe–even if they never believe.
When serving vulnerable children, we do real-life discipleship in our homes, churches, and communities. Discipleship is so much more than downloading Bible information into our minds! It’s about how we walk with and obey Jesus and relate to each other daily. The children and parents we welcome into our lives get to experience these things through us.
Remember that as we step into hard situations with families, there’s a good chance that the parents you meet have never had healthy routines growing up or role models to learn from. Perhaps they didn’t have appropriate boundaries or people to affirm them and draw out their greatness. Perhaps even the church has been a place of shame and guilt for them.
But you can have a positive impact on them. You can welcome them as they are, without trying to fix or save them. That’s up to Jesus anyway, not you. Your responsibility is to create space for them to belong with you and in your community, even if they don’t believe what you believe.
Plant and water, then let God do the growing
There’s no secret formula to get people to follow Jesus. The children and parents we serve may never come to faith. They may not be excited about going to church with you. They may not want to pray with you. They may say, “Thank you” and be ready to move on with their lives after a placement, a hosting, or an event.
But you can’t control that.
What matters is that you are faithful to extend the love and hospitality of Jesus to people who are made in his image. We plant and water but God makes things grow (see 1 Cor. 3:1-9). Over time, we trust God will use our planting and watering to bring slow, gradual growth in the lives of the people we serve.
When we take seriously the possibility that people can belong before they believe, it gives us the freedom to reimagine what it means to be the church today. Don’t get me wrong. Knowing and believing the right things are important.
But no one comes to faith in Jesus because they lost an argument to an articulate Christian.
More often than not, people come to Jesus because they received genuine love from a Christian. After all, as Jesus said, “Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another” (see John 13:34-35).
Now, perhaps more than ever, people–especially vulnerable families–want to experience the love, compassion, and grace that Jesus so freely gave when he walked the earth.
We have the chance to show it to them. Will we?