What are the responsibilities of the church to the poor? Has the church historically been a force for change?
Examples from the Early Church
In the Jerusalem church, believers “held all things in common” (Acts 4:32). This is a favorite verse for those who believe that redistribution is a central responsibility of the church. But, read in context, this phrase is an example of hyperbole. When there was a need, people sold their property to meet it.
These believers recognized that their responsibility to their neighbors was more important than their ownership of their property. However, in the next chapter, Peter affirmed Ananias’s and Sapphira’s right to their property and to the proceeds of its sale (Acts 5:4). So the Jerusalem church did not literally “hold all things in common,” though generosity was encouraged and practiced.
In 1 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy that only certain widows are to be put on the church’s rolls. The rest should remarry or be cared for by their families (1 Tim. 5:3-16). To put it differently, the church’s regular distribution of food was limited to those who had no other options or resources.
In addition to its regular charitable giving, the church also gave to help in emergencies, such as the famine in Jerusalem, for which Paul took up collections in Asia Minor and Greece (1 Cor. 16:1-4).
This analysis suggests that a balanced, scripture-based approach to helping the poor is considerably more complex than the “community of goods” model and takes into account such core biblical ideas as the significance of work and private property, as well as the importance of loving our neighbor with actions, not just words.
A Monastic Example
The issue of accumulation is particularly important here because without it, economic and technological growth, medical advancement, the arts, and a wide range of other activities would come to a grinding halt. Perhaps the most interesting example of Christian efforts to aid the poor and the idea of accumulation is found in the medieval monasteries.
St. Benedict of Nursia, whose rules for monastic life were the foundation for nearly all Western monasticism, mandated that his monks take a vow of poverty and at the same time be engaged in work. Benedict recognized that God gave Adam work to do in the garden before the fall, and so work was good no matter what society thought of it.
The Cistercian order is a good example of a monastery following Benedict’s rule. They made sure that the monks were all engaged in productive labor. At the same time, they banned conspicuous consumption and luxurious living.
But a curious thing happened. Productive labor resulted in increasing profits even as the monks took a vow of poverty. While some profits were given away, the limitations on transportation and the relatively sparse population still left a surplus after giving to the poor. Since it was wrong to let the produce spoil, it was sold and the proceeds were used to purchase more land, since the monks’ vow of poverty meant that cash could not be kept or spent on conspicuous consumption.
The new land, in turn, increased the productive potential of the monastery. The monks themselves could not work all of the land, and so they brought in tenant farmers who grew crops and gave a fixed amount back to the monastery. The monks thus provided employment for the lay people outside of the monastery, giving them meaningful work and a chance to benefit from their own labor.
The net result is that a strict understanding of the monastic vow of poverty led the Cistercians to become very rich while also benefiting those who lived around the monasteries.
Extensions to Today
The monasteries were therefore the beginning of many of the essential elements of capitalism, motivated by a biblical understanding of work and the image of God. The unintended effect of all this was to raise the amount of goods available to people and therefore raise the standard of living in Europe across the board.
The example of the medieval monasteries shows that dealing with poverty involves more than just feeding the poor. It requires economic structures that promote human flourishing holistically. Significantly, this does not mean reorganizing society to shift wealth from those who produce it to those who do not. It means providing opportunities to all to earn their own way and providing a safety net for those who cannot.
Biblical ideas about work, the image of God, property rights, and generosity lead to sound economic thought and approaches to social welfare that benefit society as a whole.
Unfortunately, very few people in the church and society today recognize the importance of these biblical ideas, the role of the church in economic thought, and the profound impact for good these ideas have had. However, this is the true responsibility of the church to the poor.
Editor’s Note: This article is an adapted excerpt from Glenn Sunshine’s chapter, “Who Are the Poor?” in For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.
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On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This article was previously published on Oct. 1, 2013.