Lessons from the Early Church Regarding Wealth and Poverty for Contemporary Christians

Helen Rhee, Professor of Religious Studies at Westmont College, reflects on the topic of wealth and poverty for contemporary Christians. At the end of this article she provides three practical suggestions for the discipline of simplicity and loving the poor and offers suggestions for further reading. Helen Rhee

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Table of contents

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Our Earthly Possessions

The handling of possessions in the early church was motivated and influenced by its understanding of God’s intent for and absolute ownership of the created world. While early Christian authors in general affirmed the legitimacy of private property, they considered it a share of the common creation intended for the common good.

All material goods are God’s gracious gifts intended for sustenance of all humans, through common access to His grace. Therefore, human possession of earthly wealth is good when it fulfills God’s creative purpose—sufficient provision of our needs and the needs of others for common enjoyment and flourishing.

On the one hand, this understanding affirms the material dimension of human needs. It also shows the appropriateness and necessity of providing for needs following God’s design for life and the common enjoyment of earthly goods. On the other hand, it reveals that the needs of others must matter in human stewardship of God-given possessions. This should influence our decisions about money or property. Human stewardship is always conditional in light of God’s absolute ownership and creative purpose (the common good).

Beyond sufficient provision and common enjoyment, we do not have a natural right to hoard money, indulge in riches, and display wealth conspicuously. These are all symptoms of avarice and greed according to the early Christian voices. Our possessions, even as the fruits of our hard work, are always contingent upon our broader social responsibility and our witness to God’s ultimate ownership. Moreover, while all wealth ultimately comes from God, wealth brings a real and powerful temptation and deceitfulness that easily leads to idolatry and injustice.

 

Application for Today: Four Principles

In light of these fundamental teachings, how should we handle God-given wealth and respond to poverty in our time? Consider the following four practical principles:

I. Use Resources to Rightly Nurture Soul and Body

Since we are physical and spiritual creatures with physical and spiritual needs, it is appropriate and necessary for us to use God-given money and possessions for our sufficient physical and spiritual care. Thus, we rightly spend in areas that nurture our souls and bodies. God expects us to enjoy His creation and the works of humans with gratitude. Sufficient care and appropriate enjoyment is not just about quantity but also quality, without harming people or God’s created world, or falling into consumerism and covetousness.

Key words here are “sufficient care” and “appropriate enjoyment” since these notions, and the notion of necessities, inevitably evolve and are contextualized through time (e.g., antiquity, medieval times, modern world) and geographical and social locations (e.g., Australia, Vietnam, USA). In this new era of a culture of affluence, what used to be considered “luxury” items decades ago such as smartphones, iPads, flat screen TVs, and laptops have become “necessities” for many in developed and even developing countries.

Many (even most) people in developed and developing countries have come to enjoy and even take for granted dining out, urban entertainments such as movies, concerts, sporting events, vacations, and domestic and international trips, not as an extravagant lifestyle but as affordable and necessary leisure. Here we do well to remember what the early church believed—that what feeds our bodies, as we use God-given money and possessions, affects our souls. We must consider how meeting our physical needs and finding enjoyment through material things helps and affects our spiritual needs—positively or negatively.

II. Practice Simplicity to Cultivate Inner Freedom

The early church exhorted qualified renunciation as evidence of an inner freedom from the grip of material things and therefore as a way of reorienting desire for spiritual good. They consistently saw through the real danger of wealth and its power to corrupt souls.

From the Shepherd of Hermas and Clement of Alexandria, to Cyprian of Carthage, renunciation or cutting away of at least some earthly riches in the forms of simple living and generous almsgiving is a partial antidote to dealing with insatiable desire for, attachment to, and pursuit of earthly riches. The virtue of internal freedom and contentment cannot be cultivated without actual cutting away or giving away of external goods because of the force and deceitfulness of wealth and our fallenness. Simplicity calls for the discipline of taking regular inventory of one’s possessions and cutting away one’s excess good and generous giving calls for going beyond the law of tithe and giving in proportion to one’s wealth.

III. Develop a Heavenly Perspective

In pursuing the second principle, prominent voices in the early church repeatedly exhort us to cultivate a heavenly perspective, i.e., placing our hope in and actively looking forward to heavenly riches as our true riches and security. This “heavenly” pursuit calls for a cultivation of eschatological hope and a reorientation of our values, which requires at the same time spiritual imagination and faith. Furthermore, this heavenly pursuit means investing earthly possessions into what is eternal, and transferring our earthly possessions into heavenly assets. What are our heavenly assets? From the early church’s perspective, it was first and foremost people as God’s image bearers. We must, therefore, think about ways in which we can invest the money and possessions we steward into people and their welfare, and nurture relationships near and far that last eternally. Those people, especially those people who cannot repay us, become our neighbors to love and respect.

This could mean giving to disaster relief works and urgent needs (e.g., to literally save the victims of disasters, to feed and provide shelters for the people without homes, to care for the sick, or to provide for the needs of struggling relatives or friends, etc.). This could also mean giving to the development organizations that work toward long-term, structural, and institutional changes for the betterment of the poor and the underprivileged (e.g., basic education and literacy, affordable housing, asset-based community development, microlending, access to health care, etc.). These are all direct and indirect forms of “people-investment”—fulfilling God’s creational intent—sufficiency for all humanity through common access to the created world (through productive means and finished products) for common flourishing.

IV. Allow the Gospel Proclaimed to Become the Gospel Embodied

Finally, the church was at the center of providing relief for the poor and the afflicted in early Christianity and throughout church history. There was no dichotomy in the mission of the church on whether to attend to either the “spiritual” or the “material/social” needs of the community.

The task of caring for the “widows, orphans and the poor” and other socioeconomically marginalized groups (such as the people with disability, the elderly, the sick, etc.) constituted faithfulness to the gospel and was never separated from the essential self-definition and mission of the church. The gospel proclaimed and the gospel embodied were never pitted against each other, nor did they compete for the loyalty of the faithful.

If the contemporary (evangelical) churches are to reclaim this holistic notion and practice of the gospel it must bridge the gap or wedge between the “spiritual” and “social/physical” ministries of the churches—which is an unfortunate byproduct of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the early twentieth century. The church is then uniquely positioned to recognize and deal with both material and spiritual dimensions of poverty. There is much to be learned from the lessons learned and lived by the early church.

Three practical suggestions for the discipline of simplicity and loving the poor

  1. The discipline of simplicity demands a discipline of contentment, which is a faithful and grateful response to God’s abundance and provision. Contentment requires a practice of restraint—saying no to the advertising phrases such as, “I deserve this” or “I’m worth it,” and severing a tie between identity or self-worth and particular goods of desire.
  2. A lifestyle of simplicity entails making ourselves accountable to others (perhaps in family, church home groups, close friends, like-minded people in our neighborhoods, even Facebook friends) for our consumption patterns: the kinds of goods we prefer and want and the ways in which we acquire those goods.
  3. Based on Matt. 25.34-46 (“the parable of the sheep and the goats”), early Christians saw Christ in the poor and thought the poor person was Christ in disguise. We may feel a bit uncomfortable about this attribution, but should constantly remind ourselves of the dignity and value of each poor person as God’s image bearer.

Further Reading

Brown, Peter. The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Holman, Susan R., ed. Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Rhee, Helen. Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.

Helen Rhee, Ph.D., is Professor of Religious Studies at Westmont College. She specializes in early Christian history, focusing on the diverging Christian self-identities in relation to Greco-Roman culture and society. Her books include Early Christian Literature: Christ and Culture in the Second and Third Centuries, Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation, and Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity.