The Church and the Poor
In the last article, we began an examination of the role of the Church in dealing with poverty. While it is abundantly clear from both Scripture and history that the Church must be involved in poor relief, some of the arguments of those who emphasize this aspect of the Church’s work misread and misunderstand what the Bible actually has to say about this.
We see this, for example, in Ched Myers’s Sabbath Economics. Myers argues that the story of the manna in the Old Testament is intended to teach us that God provides abundantly for our needs (not our desires), but forbids accumulation. Myers’s exegesis results in a host of distortions of the text—for example, his conclusion about the lesson of the manna is very different from Moses’ (Deut. 8:3)—and his economic assumptions lead him to twist Jesus’ parables, as discussed in the last article.
But what of his central idea, shared by other progressives such as Shane Claiborne, that the Church is to be an anti-capitalist community based on voluntary redistribution of goods?
First, as I argued in a previous article, the Bible is absolutely clear that those who have must share with those who have not. John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, John, James, all tell us that the rich are obligated to help the poor. So yes, in that sense, redistribution is a part of living faithfully before God.
On the other hand, simplistic, communal redistribution schemes are neither Biblically-mandated nor effective in truly helping the poor.
Ched Myers cites the manna story as a prohibition on accumulation, but ignores the fact that the Israelites carried out great wealth from Egypt, some of which they contributed to the building of the Tabernacle. Evidently, despite the manna, God was not concerned with them holding on to property, even great wealth.
This is not surprising, considering that the right to property is grounded in the image of God and God’s mandate to Adam in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the inalienable right to property is critical to the Jubilee, one of Myers’ inspirations for Sabbath Economics, as well as the laws prohibiting theft and covetousness.
But what about the “community of goods” described in the Jerusalem church, in which the 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. Yet a careful reading of the text and of the next few chapters shows that the Jerusalem church did not operate as a commune, whatever a superficial reading of this verse suggests.
Read in context, “they held all things in common” is an example of hyperbole—the rhetorical device of using exaggeration for emphasis. The following verses tell us that when there was a need, people sold their property to meet it. In other words, they recognized that their responsibility to their neighbors was more important than their ownership of their property, so they were quite willing to sell what they had to help others—but that means that they retained ownership of their property until a need arose which led them to sell it.
This is reinforced in the following chapter, where Peter affirms Ananias’ and Saphira’s right to their property and to the proceeds of its sale (Acts 5:4). In other words, private property was maintained in the Jerusalem church and thus that they did not literally “hold all things in common,” though generosity was encouraged and practiced.
Myers never explicitly rejects private property and does argue that redistribution should be voluntary. But since he also argues that accumulation is forbidden, it would seem that property ownership would involve the Christian in the kind of unjust economic system that Myers claims all believers are called upon to dismantle. How these two ideas fit together is not entirely clear.
Caring for the Poor: Widows
The trajectory of poor relief in Jerusalem does not stop in chapter 4 or even 5. Chapter 6 shows that the informal sharing of resources that had developed in the church did not work effectively; ethnic divisions led to a breakdown of the system that had to be corrected through a more organized approach to helping the poor (specifically, the widows) to be sure that all were adequately cared for.
Because of this experience, the church in Jerusalem drew up rolls of widows who were dependent on the church and appointed seven people to oversee the distribution of aid, the first deacons. At this point, the Jerusalem church numbered several thousand people, yet only seven were needed to deal with the needs of the church’s dependents. How did that work?
The answer is found in 1 Timothy. Evidently, the widows roll in Jerusalem became the model for other churches, including the church in Ephesus. Paul tells Timothy that only certain widows are to put on the church’s rolls; the rest should remarry or be cared for by their families (1 Tim. 5:3-16).
It is even possible that these widows were given specific responsibilities in the church. Early church documents indicate that the Church had an “order of widows” whose job was to minister to women in ways that would have been inappropriate for men. If so, this would be consistent with Paul’s warnings against idleness and his insistence that those who can work, do so (2 Thess 3:6-12).
To put it differently, the Church’s regular distribution of food was limited to those who had no other options or resources and who devoted themselves to prayer and service to the saints (1 Tim. 5:5, 10). As a result, there were relatively few who were on the rolls, and the church in Jerusalem could therefore get by with only seven deacons. While Christians also engaged in extensive ad hoc charity to the needy, only a very limited number of people were allowed to become dependents of the Church.
Giving for Emergencies
Or course, the Church also engaged in giving in emergency situations, such as the famine in Jerusalem, for which Paul took up collections in Asia Minor and Greece (1 Cor. 16:1-4). This is the context for 2 Cor. 8:13-14, which Myers uses to argue that redistribution must be a regular activity of the Church. But these comments did not deal with “regular” giving within the Church, but rather with a response to an emergency in a far distant church, one that gave an opportunity for a concrete demonstration of one of Paul’s central ideas, the unity of Jews and Gentiles in Christ (cf. Rom. 15:27).
None of this means that Christians are not called upon to share with those in need. We absolutely are, and on this point the progressive movement among Evangelicals is beyond doubt correct. The key question is how best to do this.
Words and Deeds
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, along with the importance of loving our neighbor with actions, not just words.
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. As it turns out, however, there are examples in history where a more Biblically-balanced understanding of economics and responsibility to the poor had a massive (though under-appreciated) impact on society. Surprisingly enough, some of the most important examples of this come from medieval monasteries, where the monks took vows of poverty. We will look at these in our next article.
Reprinted with permission of Prison Fellowship, www.breakpoint.org