Our Christian duty to orphans



In our country there are millions of orphans, neglected children and children who have been removed from their parents’ homes due to poor domestic conditions and still need to be placed somewhere in a suitable environment.

Afrikaans-speaking congregations and communities have always known that they have a religious and social responsibility to look after these children. We can look back with gratitude at dozens of large and smaller projects that have been successfully run by the Afrikaans community. We have successfully managed large orphanages, smaller foster homes and dozens of fundraising projects, responsibly.

In this year, historic milestones are reached in the church’s care of orphans and neglected children. A deacons association involved in foster care homes asked me to bring this whole matter back to the attention of the churches and the community, as the challenges to continue with these services are getting bigger. Awareness of the religious importance of this cause is one important step in cultivating renewed interest.

The social-economic conditions are weakening in our country, and thus the challenge of caring for these children is growing. The burden on the shrinking economically-active and financially-privileged segment of society is also increasing. A smaller and an aging group of people have to stand in more and more as the financial support base for institutions and projects that attempt to provide the necessary services.

Then, of course, there is the uninvigorating reality of the incompetent and corrupt public service which makes reliable service delivery almost impossible. We must therefore, collectively, think anew about this matter, so that new plans can be made to fulfill our duty in this regard.

The care of orphans (just like the care of widows) is deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian religion, and it is a matter that we must therefore approach with dedication.

The Old Testament

Two Old Testament perspectives deserve our attention when it comes to orphans. Firstly, the concept of God, which points to God’s merciful protection of the being, and secondly, the theologising of state law, so that the care of orphans is subjected to an ethical sense of duty.

In the Old Testament, God is presented as the “Father of the orphans and judge of the widows” (Psalm 68:6). This representation of God is based on a centuries-long theological tradition. Already in the covenant book, Exodus 22:21-23, God assures the orphans of his shelter and protection against oppression.

This “saving justice of God” dates back to the second half of the eighth century BC We then find the same motif again later in the cult songs (Psalm 10:14, 82:3, 146:9), the prophetic words of warning (Isaiah 1 :17; Jeremiah 7:6) and also in Jewish wisdom literature (Sirach 4:10). In all these texts, the right and the necessary legal protection of orphans are spelled out, and the people are called upon not to act contrary to God’s will.

In the Old Testament we are dealing with the “theologizing of state law”; in other words, law is drawn into the relationship with God, and so also into religious ethics. Said differently: The general law (where it deals with orphans) is not limited to human reasonableness, but must create room for legitimate religious-ethical influence. One example is Deuteronomy 24:17 where it is said: “You shall not pervert the rights of a fatherless person”.

The arbitrary change of legislation, which can lead to the disadvantage of orphans, must therefore be opposed by the religious community. The Jewish religious ethic is therefore not an ethic of interiority, but an ethic of social involvement; and this involvement focuses, among other things, on the legal protection of orphans.

The Jewish ethic of solidarity with and mercy towards the weak in society developed in the seventh century BC into a “culture of recognition”; the recognition of orphans’ right to shelter and protection. We read about this “legal culture” in the prophetic words of warning, where it is said that God will not leave unpunished the legal contempt of the orphans by the people (cf. Jeremiah 5:28; Ezekiel 22:7; Zechariah 7:10). We also read about this Jewish “legal culture” in Deuteronomy 10:17-19, 14:22-29, 15:11, 26:12-15 where it is stated that the rights of the fatherless must be maintained and that the unknown orphans must be shown love, as it is a social duty.

In the later Hellenistic period (from 333 BC), Ecclesiastes 5:9-11 warns against the love of money without a social consciousness. He claims that a person who is solely focused on his own financial gain, and thus does not want to be affected by the plight of children, will never be able to live in peace.

The New Testament

In James 1:27 it says: “it is pure and undefiled religion to look after orphans in their misery”. The “essential of our religion” is therefore, according to James, service or diaconia to orphans. This means at least care with food and protection against the injustices of life. Christians are therefore not supposed to withdraw from earthly social service. They must help to protect the weak against worldly injustice.

The church history

The oldest surviving extra-biblical document, namely the First Letter of Clement (96 AD) contains a rebuke from the congregation in Rome to the congregation in Corinth who did not care for their orphans. The letter was written a few months after the end of the bloody persecution of Christians by Emperor Domitian. The background is that contention and discord arose in the congregation because a group of younger members refused to submit to the guidance of the elders in matters related to the liturgy. Apparently the battle was about “charismatic renewal”.

One must understand that this discord and strife erupted in a congregation that was still mourning congregation members who had recently been brutally murdered. Furthermore, the orphans were dependent on the congregation for food and shelter. As a result of the strife and disagreement, these children could not be properly looked after diaconally, and the hospitality of the congregation towards Christians from other cities faded. This was reason enough for the congregation in Rome to write this admonishing letter in which the Corinthians are called to unity and persistence in the Christian virtues of mercy and hospitality.

Throughout the centuries, there have always been individuals and groups in the church who campaigned for the care of orphans(1). Depending on the circumstances, different strategies were followed. Since the fourth century there have been groups of deacons set apart to care for the orphans. The church realized then that this responsibility cannot be left to the state. Many monasteries of the Middle Ages made room for orphans. Later, orphanages were set up and operated by the church. Many innovative minds were needed to keep these institutions financially sustainable. One of the solutions was foster care homes, where a family, with the help of congregations, looked after children. Many other examples can be cited in this way.

The big problem throughout history has been and is the sustainable and reliable support of the state. Our current polity is not the first to disappoint in this regard. Just as in the past, the churches and the community organizations will have to devise new plans to get services delivered.

The following initiatives seem necessary to me:

1. Churches must engage with greater interest in legislation and the application of legislation affecting orphans. Churches’ legal departments, or councils or committees dealing with legal issues, have to respond to things like the reduction of government subsidies for social care.

The law rests on the general sense of justice. Injustice thrives, for example, when budgets for social assistance are scaled back, so that enough funds can be made available to finance the luxurious lifestyle of officials and politicians. Churches have a social-ethical duty to stimulate initiatives that can expose blatant injustice.

In this way, the “theologizing of the law” can be served again. The God of the Bible protects the rights of the orphan, and surely He expects his church to make its voice heard when injustice is clearly being committed for the sake of the ruling elite’s greed for money.

2. I believe that almost all conceivable ways of raising funds for childcare have been exhausted. Furthermore, the pool for funding is shrinking by the year. The question is: Is it really so? Within the broad African community, there are billions on investment. Have all fundraising efforts been tested?

Maybe for once (again) an attempt should be made to bring together representatives from the churches, business world and community to see if there might not still be untapped sources of financing hidden somewhere. In ancient Greek culture, the “eugetism”(2) played an important role in the fight against poverty. We must see if a larger number of wealthy individuals within our cultural community cannot also make a greater contribution in our circles to relieve the social need. If individuals and families are provided with the necessary information, larger donations and contributions to deserving charity projects may be made.

If we want to practice “pure and uncontaminated religion”, such an effort may not be in vain.


(1) Since late Antiquity, “care” was not limited to physical care. Following the seven works of mercy, seven works of spiritual care developed, namely to instruct the illiterate, to provide advice to the doubting, to comfort the mourners, to correct sinners, to forgive the unpolished, to bear with troublesome people, and to to intercede for others. Child care should also concentrate at least on these seven spiritual works.

(2) “Euergetism” is a neologism (new creation) at the beginning of the twentieth century, based on the Greek “your meals” which means benefactor. In the fourth and third centuries BC, wealthy individuals based on their pride in tradition helped to fight poverty within the Greek-speaking communities. These persons were not bound to a specific cult, but assisted their fellow cultists financially.