Historian Gary Ferngren is a leading expert on the history of medicine, and in particular the early history of hospitals. He writes:
The hospital was, in origin and conception, a distinctively Christian institution, rooted in Christian concepts of charity and philanthropy. There were no pre-Christian institutions in the ancient world that served the purpose that Christian hospitals were created to serve. … None of the provisions for health care in classical times … resembled hospitals as they developed in the late fourth century.
It was not that there was no practice of medicine, but no formal education and certification of the vocation. Vagabond “healers” with various and sundry methods and motivations abounded; but there was no institutional form with local roots and oversight. Greek and Roman temples existed where the sick could go to pray or offer sacrifice in hope of a cure, and the “valetudinarium” existed as a place to mend injured soldiers. But again, there was no institution for the common population sick to receive trained, caring, long-term treatment and support.
Not that there wasn’t great need for it; since the Fall, the human condition is noted for its pain and suffering. Such was the world that welcomed the Word made flesh. No wonder one psalmist longed for One who, “sent his Word and healed them. (Psalm 107:20)” Among the many metaphors used to express the purpose and function of the Church is that it is like a “hospital for sinners”. I am well aware that such metaphors invariably fail to capture the fullness of God’s purposes for his church. Nonetheless, I think it is helpful for us to consider how we may be a church that not only welcomes sinners, but skillfully cares for them as well.
Like hospitals, a church is a local institution charged with the long-term care, concern, and support for its surrounding community. It has local oversight and accountability, and God richly supplies it with trained and/or gifted individuals called to the ministry of the “care of souls”. We have “nurses” that patiently nurse the hurting back to health; “doctors” able to diagnose spiritual illness and prescribe the healing balm of the Word; and “surgeons” able to reach within the soul to identify and remove the effects of bitterness, strife, addictions and the like. Though church as hospital may not be a perfect analogy, it recognizes the reality of being placed within a sin-sick world, and the consequential call upon it to be a place of healing.
This Sunday begins our advent season. As you reflect upon the first advent, keep in mind that Jesus came: to “seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10)”; and for the sake of those who needed the great physician, calling “sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32)”. As he faithfully “builds his church” how can you contribute to the care of souls in our midst?