Deacon Laurence: Guardian of the Church’s Treasures

Deacon Laurence: Guardian of the Church’s Treasures

[Originally published Dec. 2021]

Brother Laurence (225-258) was one of seven deacons in the Early Church in Rome, in charge of the church’s treasures and the distribution of funds for the poor. But when Valerian took the throne and began persecuting Christians, hundreds died and serving the poor became more difficult. And when Valerian’s director of pagan religions demanded that Laurence turn over all of the church’s resources, Laurence did a most surprising and courageous thing.
Valerian, a General in the Roman army, came to the throne in 253 and ruled the Empire until 260. Valerian hated Christians, and was desperate for the “old glory of Rome” to be restored. While fighting the Persians, Valerian sent two letters from the battlefield to the Roman Senate ordering that firm steps be taken against Christians. The first letter of 257 commanded Christian clergy to perform sacrifices to the Roman gods and goddesses or face banishment. The second, issued a year later, ordered the executions of Christian leaders. It also required Christian senators, citizens, and matrons to perform acts of worship to the Roman gods or lose their titles and property, and directed that they be executed if they continued to refuse. All civil servants and members of the Imperial household who would not worship the Roman gods should be reduced to slavery and sent to work on the Imperial estates. Finally, churches were to be burned to the ground and all copies of Scripture to be seized and destroyed in huge public bonfires. These decrees were carried out in 257-258. Pastors and deacons were murdered, and hundreds of lay Christians, some among the higher classes, were put to death. During these violent days, Laurence hid and protected the written documents of the Church, including copies of the Scriptures.

Despite the horror of systematic persecution, the church was active, continuing to care for the almost 1,500 widows and orphans in the congregation. These were under the direct care of “Arch-deacon” Laurence, serving in his position of great trust, which included the care of the treasury and riches of the Church and the distribution of alms to the poor. Laurence had served the church well, and was beloved by the congregation for his deep love of people who were suffering, in ill health, and needing help during these harsh times.

After the death of the church’s pastor and six of the church’s deacons, the day soon came when the official head of the empire’s pagan religions (called the Prefect) demanded that Laurence hand over all of the riches of the church. As the last official church leader, Laurence responded by asking for three days in which to “gather the wealth.” Meanwhile, he worked swiftly to distribute as much church property to the congregation’s poor as possible, so as to prevent it from being seized by the Prefect.

On the third day, at the head of a small delegation, Laurence presented himself to the Prefect. When ordered to show the treasures of the church, he presented some of the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering, and declared that these were the true treasures of the church. He said, "The church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor. These are the treasure of the church. And truly they are treasures, in whom Christ lives, in whom there is faith in Him.” Ambrose, a Church Father, later wrote that “Laurence, who preferred to spend the gold of the church on the poor, rather than keep it in hand for the persecutor, then received the sacred crown of martyrdom for his unique and deep-sighted courage.” Many eye-witnesses testified that Laurence was put to death for this decision on 10 August 258.

As this year comes to an end, and we observe abject needs all around us, in every town and city and country, Laurence’s words remind us that our true treasure is Christ Jesus, the Incarnate God-Man. And that our churches’ riches are the members of our congregations, poor and rich, humble and lofty, unrecognized and lauded. These precious ones are valuable, worth investing our lives to serve, and the dying of self to defend and protect.
-Karen O’Dell Bullock
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