Medical Ministry in the Early Church


The early church continued the role of Jesus as a healer. fig463The twelve along with Paul and some others did miraculous healing. This was done commonly as a demonstration of their message, although certainly compassion must be part of it as well. As Paul said, the Greeks seek wisdom, while the Jews desire a sign. Medical care, especially miraculous cures, can serve as such a sign. An additional passage is James 5:14-15. This passage shows that caring for the sick is a normal ministry in the early church. The sick were to come to the church elders for anointing with oil and prayer. Anointing with oil was a common part of medical treatment (such as in the Luke 10 passage); so the oil could suggest medical care, at least symbolically. However, the anointing with oil could suggest the Holy Spirit. It may be too limiting to be dogmatic as to whether this passage is about miraculous or non-miraculous healing. Paul healed miraculously, but also gave Timothy medical advice for a nervous stomach (I Timothy 5:23). Either way, caring for the sick was seen as an important part of the ministry of the church.

The early church took the role of caring for the sick and dying seriously. The early church fathers and missionaries provide insight as to the church’s attitude and role in the area of medical care. Polycarp (69-155AD) stated that church leaders (presbyters) were to be compassionate and merciful. Part of this behavior involved visiting the sick. Justin Martyr (103-165AD) noted that Christians of financial means were to give to the church money to help those who are in need. Among these who were to be helped financially were those who were sick. Irenaeus (died circa 202AD) wrote that all Christians were to use the gifts given them by God for the good of others. One was the gift to heal the sick. Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339AD) notes that Christian witness was often most clear to outsiders during times of plague or other emergencies. Cyprian (died 258AD) saw the necessity to care for the sick and dead, both Christian and non-Christian alike, and encouraged his church members to have no fear of illness and death caused by providing such care. Dionysius of Alexandria (died 265AD) reiterated Cyprian’s call and more clearly noted the danger associated with providing such care.

Over time, medical care in the early church became more sophisticated. During the first millenium of the church “Nestorian” missionaries were setting up hospitals along with educational and spiritual institutions throughout Central Asia to provide help for the local peoples as well as to propagate the Gospel. It is evident that medical care and other forms of social ministry were considered a vital part of Christian life and ministry.

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This excerpt is from my book: “Christian Medical Missions”

I believe it is quite evident that the early church saw the importance of medical/health ministry. This could include miraculous healing. However, it could also include visitation of the sick, providing medical care or nursing care, and meeting the financial needs of the sick. There appears to be no assumption that the church is only to be focused on “spiritual needs.” And there seems to be no obvious presumption that miraculous or non-miraculous healing is given a superior position over the other.

A friend of mine is a churchplanter in animistic areas where there is no church. She says that miraculous signs, such as healing or exorcisim, are common when entering a new area. However, once a church is established, they gradually go away. This appears to be consistent with the idea that miracles are primarily signs… and miraculous healings would be a sign that would be appreciated.  in animistic settings. It also places miracles in a mid-point between two extremes. Extreme 1 is where miracles are rejected, or at least demeaned (coming from a culture where I am not interested in signs, it is a viewpoint that I am often tempted to embrace). At the other extreme are those who seek to “normalize” miracles, and view them as regular, continuous, and necessary. Since the early church saw miraculous healings decrease as churches proliferated, again this appears to support the view that they are primarily signs (history then contradicting both ‘normalizers’ and ‘cessationists.’)

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