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The Cooley Center Articles: Early Christian Views on Wealth

The Cooley Center Articles: Early Christian Views on Wealth

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In our age of relative wealth, Dr. Rollin Grams writes about early Christian understandings of wealth.
In our age of relative wealth, Dr. Rollin Grams writes about early Christian understandings of wealth.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on Nov 10, 2010
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Early Christian Views on Wealth,Possessions and Giving
Dr. Rollin G. Grams,Director of the Robert C. Cooley Center 
For several reasons, study of early Christianity in Protestant circles is on the rise.Ecumenical dialogue, for instance, requires a return to the common ground of Christianwriters prior to the great schisms of the Church throughout history. Also, an increasinginterest in worship and spiritual disciplines has sent some Protestants on pilgrimage tomore ancient and liturgical forms of the Church. Recent challenges to long-standingChristian practices have awakened an interest in what the Church has taught and whyin years past. And challenges to Orthodox Christianity through sensationalist televisionshows and opportunistic authors reinterpreting the ancient past has sent us all back toinvestigate what was really going on in the first few centuries of the Church.However, some issues never wax and wane. Among them is the perennial issue ofwealth and possessions. In our day, the news covers stories on economic ethics daily:the practice of hiring part
 –
time employees and illegal aliens to avoid paying livablewages and offering benefits; unbalanced pay scales for executives and employees; aidfor victims of natural disasters; profit-driven policies on safety, medical care, andpensions; national health services; personal and national debt; programs for the poor;aid to developing countries; care for the elderly; fair trade practices; payment of taxes
and on the list goes.For Christians, numerous passages in Scripture speak to such issues, albeit in differenttimes and to different cultures.
The question raised here, however, is ―How were
Christians in the first four centuries of the Church living out the teachings of Scripture onwe
alth and poverty?‖
The following article is largely descriptive, although it alsoexplores some of the theological and ethical reasoning given by the early Churchfathers for the views expressed on wealth, possessions and giving under the headingsoffered.
Ecclesiology: The Church as a Caring Community 
The early Christians formed far more than a collection of individuals who adhered to acommon set of beliefs and practices. They were themselves a caring community that
used the metaphors of ‗family,‘ ‗body‘ and ‗third race‘ (after Jews and Gentiles) to
describe themselves. Financial giving, on such a view, was not philanthropy (giving toimprove humanity), tithing (giving a portion back to God for the support of a priesthood),or a way to reduce taxable income (income tax is a 19
th
century invention). Rather, itwas what family members do within their intimate and loving community. It was whatparts of the body do to secure the well-being of the whole body.Clement of Rome (late 1
st
century) spoke of the
church being preserved as Christ‘s
body through mutual subjection, a giving to other members according to whatever gifts
 
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one has. What we have (strength, wealth, wisdom, humility, purity) is seen as a giftfrom God to be used for the body of Christ. The rich, for example, should provide forthe needs of the poor in the Church, and the poor should give thanks to God, who hasgiven them brothers who can provide for their needs (
1
st 
Epistle to the Corinthians 
,XXXVIII). Justin Martyr (mid 2
nd
century) states that wealthy Christians voluntarily gavemoney to a common fund to help the needy (the sick, widows, orphans, strangers) andthat the community shared food at their gatherings (
1
st 
Apology 
, 67). Tertullian (late2
nd
 /early 3
rd
century) says Christians take up a voluntary offering once a month forfeeding the poor, burying the dead, for orphans, the elderly, those shipwrecked, andChristian prisoners, and that they hold common meals to feed the hungry rather thanenjoy excess (
Apology 
39). Cornelius, a bishop of Rome in the mid 3
rd
century, notesmore than over 1,500 widows and persons in distress were cared for by the church inRome (Eusebius,
Ecclesiastical History 
, 6.11). At this time, the Roman emperor,Demetrianus, was persecuting the church. Cyprian, a friend of Cornelius and bishop of
Carthage in North Africa, defended the Church by noting the empire‘s greed and failure
to help the needy (among other things) as the church did (
Treatise V, An Address to Demetrianus 
). In the mid 4
th
century, the apostate emperor Julian tried to turn theempire back to Roman religion after the triumph of Christianity under the Christianemperor Constantine in AD 312. Julian was goaded by the example and reputation ofJews and Christians in their help of the poor and needy, even the wicked and prisoners.He stated that it was a disgrace how Jews had no beggars and Christians supported thepoor both within and outside the Church. But those in the Roman religion did not do so,and many were in need of help (
Epistle 
22). In Ju
lian‘s comments, we see that theChurch‘s help of the poor began with the ‗household of faith‘ but extended to any in
need (cf. Gal. 6.10).The model for a caring, giving community was the Jerusalem Church in the book ofActs:
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and noone claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held
in common‘ (Acts 4.32,
NRSV 
). The Jerusalem church practiced voluntary giving thatinvolved selling property, giving the proceeds to the church and letting the apostlesdistribute the money to the needy. The result was that nobody was in need in thecommunity of believers.The understanding of the Church as a people taken from all nations (a third race) meantthat their citizenship was in heaven (as Paul said, Phl. 3.20). Thus, Christians werestrangers or sojourners on earth (cf. 1 Pt. 1.1, 17; 2.11), and the logical conclusion ofsuch an identity is that one does not accumulate goods in a foreign land (Hermas,
Similitudes 
, 1).
Creation: God-Given Resources Are to Be Shared, not Possessed 
While there is ample evidence that Christians continued to hold private property (therewere people with wealth in the church who could help the poor), the emphasis oncommunity and meetin
g one another‘s needs led some 4
th
century Christians to critiquethe very notion of private property. This entailed thinking beyond the Church to the very
 
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intent of God for humanity as a whole. Some saw divisions between the wealthy andthe poor as unnatural: God has created a world with abundant resources for all and not
for resources to be horded by a few. Chrysostom stated, ‗...When one attempts to
possess himself of anything, to make it his own, then contention is introduced, as ifnature herself were
indignant....‘ (
Homily XII on 1 Tim. 4: Migne 
, PG 62,563f). Gregoryof Nazianzus saw the divisions between people of poverty and wealth and betweenfreedom and slavery to be a result of the Fall. Similarly, Ambrose stated that
‗Nature has poured forth all
things for men for common use....Nature, therefore, has
produced a common right for all, but greed had made it a right for a few‘ (quoted in
Jerome,
De Officiis 
I,28; Migne,
PL
16,67).
Gregory‘s friend, Basil the Great, was born into a wealthy family but d
istributed hisinheritance to the poor and, among other things, established Basilias, a hospital(primarily for lepers) in the region of Caesarea. He insists that wealth is not given toone to do with as one pleases. Rather, one should take only what one requires tosatisfy immediate needs and give the rest to others. In this way, nobody would be richand nobody would be poor (Migne,
PG 
31,276f). If possessions are given one as adivine gift to be used for others, then withholding such a gift from others is tantamount
to theft. Basil says that it is the hungry person‘s food one is withholding, the nakedperson‘s cloak one is hoarding, and the needy person‘s money one is possessing
(
Serm. Super. Luc 
. Xii, 18). Thus, to the extent that one exceeds in wealth, one islacking in love (
Sermon to the Wealthy 
, Migne
PG 
31, 277C-304C).Such a view from the 4
th
 
century reflects Clement of Alexandria‘s perspective from the
2
nd
century, when he states,
That expression, therefore, ―I possess, and possess in abundance: why
then
should I not enjoy?‖ is suitable neither to the man, nor to society. But moreworthy of love is that: ―I have: why should I not give to those who need?‖
Forsuch an one
—one who fulfils the command, ―Thou shalt love thy neighbour asthyself‖—
is perfect. For this is the true luxury
the treasured wealth. But thatwhich is squandered on foolish lusts is to be reckoned waste, not expenditure.For God has given to us, I know well, the liberty of use, but only so far asnecessary; and He has determined that the use should be common. And it ismonstrous for one to live in luxury, while many are in want. How much moreglorious is it to do good to many, than to live sumptuously! How much wiser tospend money on human being, than on jewels and gold! How much more usefulto acquire decorous friends, than lifeless ornaments! (
The Instructor 
, 2.13; cf.3.6).Thus giving was not restricted to the needy within the Church. Justin (
Apology 
1.14),Hermas (
Shepherd 
, II), and Clement of Alexandria (
Quis divis salvus 
, xiii) explicitly saidas much.
Grace: Wealth Is a Gift from God to Be Given to the Needy 

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