Economic Witness of the Early Church – Moral Economy Series Part 6

Early Christian Communities & the Poor

Early Christian communities took quite seriously their responsibility in caring for one another and others in need. This does not mean that they always got it right – as many of the Epistles address, but they often were intentional communities of faith that are described as exhibiting economic fellowship, joy, and generosity (Acts 2:43-47). They sought to live according to Jesus’ vision for community where they shared possessions and distributed goods as those had need (Acts 4:32-37). And recognizing the need of the poor widows in their midst, the apostles appoint Stephen and six others to serve the poor widows a daily meal (Acts 6:1-7).

The Christian tradition of coming to the aid of those in need is evident from these early days of the Church and Saint Paul had a particular concern for the equitable sharing of resources among Christians. During a famine that swept Palestine in the mid-40s CE, Paul took up a special collection to aid the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:29). Paul himself writes of the responsibility of assisting the poor Christians in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:22-28; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4).

For Paul, such economic sharing and the equitable distribution of resources was at the very heart of Christian community. He sternly warned the Christians in Corinth against abuses of the Eucharist as some were eating at the Eucharistic feast while they allowed others to go hungry (1 Corinthians: 20-22, 27-29; 2 Corinthians 8-9). Paul saw this as a great offence against the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist and the gathered Christian community – the Body of Christ in the world.

The Apostle Paul encouraged generosity in giving to create a community defined by economic fellowship where the needs of all are met:

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
(2 Corinthians 8:13-15 NRSV)

As Paul clearly writes, Christian community is called to live in a manner where the equitable sharing of resources is the guiding principle. He concludes his statement by quoting Exodus 16:18 to echo the covenant that God has established for God’s people so that no one is left without the necessities of life.

While Paul was most directly speaking of care within Christian community, this by no means excluded Christian generosity and sharing with the poor and needy outside the Church. Many of the early Christian communities that exemplified economic sharing within the Church, understood how God’s love was to be manifest in economic sharing beyond the Church. In fact, by the third century the Church in Rome supported an unprecedented number of poor and needy persons that was truly unique in the Roman Empire at the time.i

God’s demand of justice for the poor and oppressed is timeless, as are God’s prophetic voices that remind Christians of God’s preferential option for the poor. James appears to echo Jesus’ teachings on the dangers of wealth when he compares believers with the lowly and the rich as doomed (James 1:9-11; 2:6-7; 5:1-6). He warns that Christians should not show partiality to the rich – thus ignoring the poor (James 2:1-9) and warnings against the rich who oppress the poor and needy (James 5:1-7).

In God’s eyes, our wealth does not belong to us alone. All that we have is part of what God has provided for the provisioning of life for all. We are stewards of the resources that we possess and part of that stewardship is in developing a more equitable sharing of resources. Timothy reminds us that it is God who is important and that true riches are not found in material wealth and that we are to be generous in our giving of time, talent, and treasure to take hold of all God offers us:

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19 NRSV)

Both James and John remind Christians that a living faith is one that is expressed not in paying lip service to what we believe, but in action that exemplifies that which we believe.

What good is it my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-17 NRSV)

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the worlds’ goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:17-18 NRSV)

James and John each call our attention – yet again – to God’s demand that we are bound by God’s commandments and live in covenantal relationships where caring for the poor and oppressed are not optional if we are true to our faith.

We cannot see the chasm created between the rich world that prospers and the poor, pitiable, blind, and naked (Revelation 6:15) and not put our faith in action to redress poverty that leaves hundreds of millions behind and sends tens of millions to their deaths. Time and again, Jesus and his early followers witness to the tradition of a living faith where God demands action on behalf of the poor and oppressed in the world. As the Body of Christ in the world today, our calling is no less than it was for the apostles and those early Christian communities.

i Martin Hengel, Property and Riches: Aspects of a Social History of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: PA: Fortress Press, 1974), pp. 42-43.

About the Moral Economy Series

The Moral Economy Series looks at the faith tradition of proclaiming economic justice, economics’s roots in moral philosophy, and how we might restore a sense of ethical economics toward building a moral economy that works for all. The Rev. Jay Lawlor draws on over twenty years of exploring the intersection of faith and economics in this new blog series on the Moral Economy. You can follow the Rev. Jay Lawlor’s blog – including the Moral Economy Series, by subscribing to updates via email, and/or following post updates on Facebook, and Twitter.