From individual to organized compassion

Author: Frédéric de Coninck

How can we explain why many people in favour of individual compassionate actions towards those in need have reserves immediately we initiate discussion concerning structures dealing with these problems?

Organized compassion: the church

It is pointless to seek the answer to this question in the New Testament as it is not there. Governments at that time did not consider it their responsibility to care for the poor. So there was no idea of ​​a professional body dedicated to social work. Those considering social problems at that time never imagined the concept of organised compassion.

Can we conclude that the writers of the New Testament only advocated individual compassionate action? No, definitely not. When the problem of support for widows by the early church became too complex  it seemed perfectly normal to the apostles to designate seven people explicitly dedicated to that task (Acts 6:1-6 ) . Later, when Paul gave advice to young churches on how to become organized he specified the gift of service and the gift of showing mercy (Rom 12:7-8). In his first letter to the Corinthians, he mentions the gift of helping others (12:28). Peter, in his first epistle  is more limited in his list of ministries, but the effect is even more striking, he simply divides them into two categories: preaching and service (1Peter 4:11).


Even if the professional social worker did not exist in the first century of our era, it seemed normal in the church then to dedicate some people to this specific task.


The role of Christians

Today, where should we stand in our present day context where social action is financed by the state and carried out in establishments where both Christians and non-Christians work side by side? On the one hand, I do not see the problem as long as there is agreement on the aims of the project. We read in Romans 12:18 ‘If possible, and to the extent that it depends on you, live at peace with all men’. Paul insists here, in our dealings with others, to seek agreement before searching to find reasons to disagree. On the other hand if we consider that certain people are being neglected, ignored or despised, our role as Christians is to support them making sure their grievances are understood and to initiate appropriate Christian compassion until our voices are heard.