The Christian Compassion Revolution

In May, 2022, the US Senate rejected an abortion rights bill. A response to the possibility of the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade, the proposed bill would have guaranteed the legal right to abortion up until birth. This flies in the face of any arguments about the “viability” of an unborn child, and exposes our culture’s true view about infanticide.

In 1 BC, a Roman soldier named Hilarion wrote a domestic note to his wife:

Know that I am still in Alexandria; and do not worry if they [the army] wholly set out, I am staying in Alexandria. I ask you and entreat you, take care of the child, and if I receive my pay soon, I will send it up to you. Above all, if you bear a child and it is a male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out. You have told Aphrodisias, “Do not forget me.” But how can I forget you? Thus I’m asking you not to worry.[1]

This shocks modern readers now. Save the boy, but leave the baby girl to die? In the first century, this was accepted practice.

  • “If unwanted infants in the Greco-Roman world were not directly killed, they were frequently abandoned–tossed away, so to speak. In the city of Rome, for instance, undesirable infants were abandoned at the base of the Columna Lactaria, so named because this was the place the state provided for wet nurses to feed some of the abandoned children.”[2]
  • “In Sparta when a child was born, it was taken before the elders of the tribe, and they decided whether the child would be kept or abandoned.”[3]

Both infanticide and child abandonment were defended by philosophers and intellectuals that are otherwise revered as foundational for the Western tradition. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle: “As to exposing or rearing the children born, let there be a law that no deformed child shall be reared.”[4] Other luminaries of the classical world who approved of disposing of deformed or sickly infants include Cicero and Seneca.[5]

Early Christians were unanimous in their condemnation of infanticide and child abandonment.[6] In this, they were radically counter-cultural. According to historian Larry Hurtado: “So far as we know, the only wide-scale criticism of the practice, and the only collective refusal to engage in infant exposure in the first three centuries AD, was among Jews and then also early Christians.”[7]

Christian authors like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Lactantius denounced child abandonment. Lactantius wrote: “It is as wicked to expose as it is to kill” (Divine Institutes 1.6). In addition, a “sixth-century canon of the church called parents who abandoned children ‘murderers’ (Patri Graeco-Latina 88:1933).”[8] Later, in 374, Bishop Basil of Caesarea influenced the Roman emperor Valentinian to outlaw infanticide.[9]

But the early church was not content to sit on the sidelines and condemn the brutality of the pagans. They didn’t simply focus on gaining influence in the halls of power and passing laws. They got their hands dirty and they got busy saving, rescuing, and loving unwanted children:

Callistus of Rome gave refuge to abandoned children by placing them in Christian homes. Benignus of Dijon (late second century), who like his spiritual mentor Polycarp was martyred, provided protection and nourishment for abandoned children, some of whom were deformed as a result of failed abortions. Afra of Augsburg (late third century) was a prostitute in her pagan life, but after her conversion to Christianity she “developed a ministry to abandoned children of prisoners, thieves, smugglers, pirates, runaway slaves, and brigands.” Christian writings are replete with examples of Christians adopting throw-away children.[10]

Schmidt here is drawing on the work of George Grant’s Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present. Grant’s book is essential reading as we face the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade.

As the Christian church prepares for the seismic shifts that will no doubt occur if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade, we must recommit ourselves to the urgency and radically pro-life position and practice of the early church. We need a legion of leaders and faithful front-line workers to care for mothers in crisis, mentor young fathers, and adopt babies if necessary.

Living 2,000 years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are sometimes tempted to forget how radically the rag tag band of followers of this crucified Messiah have changed and impacted culture. Forgetfulness of history is perhaps a defining trait of our times, but Christians, of all people, cannot forget. Though the historical record of the church is not perfect, in their efforts to follow the Lord of Love, Christians have shown love and compassion to those typically rejected by the surrounding culture. That is our Christian heritage, and it should inspire us to courageous action in our current cultural crisis.

Gregory Soderberg is an academic tutor for the BibleMesh Institute. This post this first appeared on his blog.

[1] Letter of Hilarion, Oxyrhynchus Papyri (ed. B.P. Grenfell and A.S. Hunt), 4:744. Quoted in John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2021), 34.

[2] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 52.

[3] Schmidt, 52.

[4] Poetics 7.4.10 (Rackham, Loeb Classical Library 264), 623. Quoted in John Dickson, Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History, 34.

[5] Schmidt, 49.

[6] Schmidt, 51, citing the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas.

[7] Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctives in the Roman World (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 148. See also George Grant, Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc.: 1991), 17-32.

[8] Schmidt, 53.

[9] Schmidt, 51, citing Codex Theodosius 9.41.1.

[10] Schmidt, 53.