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Early Christian Views on Wealth, Possessions, and Giving

[The following post continues notes and studies on the issue of wealth, poverty, and Christian ethics.  It originally appeared in an online publication: Rollin G. Grams, 'Early Christian Views on Wealth, Possessions, and Giving,' Explorations (Fall, 2010), an online publication of the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  Online: https://www.scribd.com/document/41882213/The-Cooley-Center-Articles-Early-Christian-Views-on-Wealth]

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 Christian writers prior to the great schisms of the Church throughout history.  Also, an increasing interest in worship and spiritual disciplines has sent some Protestants on pilgrimage to more ancient and liturgical forms of the church.  Recent challenges to long-standing Christian practices have awakened an interest in what the Church has taught and why in years past.  And challenges to orthodox Christianity through sensationalist television shows and opportunistic authors reinterpreting the ancient past has sent us all back to investigate 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 of wealth 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 livable wages and offering benefits, unbalanced pay scales for executives and employees, aid for victims of natural disasters, profit-driven policies on safety, medical care, and pensions, 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 different times 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 on wealth and poverty?”  The following article is largely descriptive, although it also explores some of the theological and ethical reasoning given by the early Church fathers for the views expressed on wealth, possessions, and giving under the headings offered.

Ecclesiology: The Church as a Caring Community

The early Christians formed far more than a collection of individuals who adhered to a common 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 to improve 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 19th century invention).  Rather, it was what family members do within their intimate and loving community.  It was what parts of the body do to secure the well-being of the whole body.

Clement of Rome (late 1st century) spoke of the church being preserved as Christ’s body through mutual subjection, a giving to other members according to whatever gifts one has.  What we have (strength, wealth, wisdom, humility, purity) is seen as a gift from God to be used for the body of Christ.  The rich, for example, should provide for the needs of the poor in the Church, and the poor should give thanks to God, who has given them brothers who can provide for their needs (1st Epistle to the Corinthians, XXXVIII).  Justin Martyr (mid 2nd century) states that wealthy Christians voluntarily gave money to a common fund to help the needy (the sick, widows, orphans, strangers) and that the community shared food at their gatherings (1st Apology, 67).  Tertullian (late 2nd/early 3rd century) says Christians take up a voluntary offering once a month for feeding the poor, burying the dead, for orphans, the elderly, those shipwrecked, and Christian prisoners, and that they hold common meals to feed the hungry rather than enjoy excess (Apology 39).  Cornelius, a bishop of Rome in the mid 3rd century, notes that over 1,500 widows and persons in distress were cared for by the church in Rome (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 4th century, the apostate emperor Julian tried to turn the empire back to Roman religion after the triumph of Christianity under the Christian emperor Constantine in AD 312.  Julian was goaded by the example and reputation of Jews 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 the poor 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 Julian’s comments, we see that the Church’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 of Acts: Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common’ (Acts 4.32, NRSV). The Jerusalem Church practiced voluntary giving that involved selling property, giving the proceeds to the church, and letting the apostles distribute the money to the needy.  The result was that nobody was in need in the community of believers.

The understanding of the Church as a people taken from all nations (a third race) meant that their citizenship was in heaven (as Paul said, Phl. 3.20).  Thus Christians were strangers or sojourners on earth (cf. 1 Pt. 1.1, 17; 2.11), and the logical conclusion of such 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 (there were people with wealth in the church who could help the poor), the emphasis on community and meeting one another’s needs led some 4th century Christians to critique the very notion of private property.  This entailed thinking beyond the Church to the very intent of God for humanity as a whole.  Some saw divisions between the wealthy and the 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 if nature herself were indignant....’ (Homily XII on 1 Tim. 4: Migne, PG 62,563f).  Gregory of Nazianzus, saw the divisions between people of poverty and wealth and between freedom 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 distributed his inheritance 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 to one to do with as one pleases.  Rather, one should take only what one requires to satisfy immediate needs and give the rest to others.  In this way, nobody would be rich and nobody would be poor (Migne, PG 31,276f).  If possessions are given one as a divine 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 naked person’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 is lacking in love (Sermon to the Wealthy, Migne PG 31, 277C-304C).

Such a view from the 4th century reflects Clement of Alexandria’s perspective from the 2nd 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 more worthy of love is that: “I have: why should I not give to those who need?” For such an one—one who fulfils the command, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”—is perfect. For this is the true luxury—the treasured wealth. But that which 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 as necessary; and He has determined that the use should be common. And it is monstrous for one to live in luxury, while many are in want. How much more glorious is it to do good to many, than to live sumptuously! How much wiser to spend money on human being, than on jewels and gold! How much more useful to 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 said as much.

Grace: Wealth is a Gift from God to be Given to the Needy

Another argument one meets is that wealth is given by God to be used for the poor and not on oneself.  This view even gets attached to the notion that works of charity are important for one’s future reward.  Chrysostom corrected the view that all wealth is from God, argued that the rich need the poor more than the poor the rich, and explained that those given wealth from God are to use it for the needy (Homily XXXIV). Ambrose saw the misuse of money (as in the case of Judas) as a misuse of grace (On the Duties of the Clergy, XVI).

Ethics 1: The Work of the Church includes Charity

Much could be written on this point, but a few words must suffice.  Chrysostom (late 4th century), echoing the sentiments of James 2, stated that one should not dress in silk to honor Christ when another outside is cold and poorly clad.  He asked what good golden chalices on the Eucharistic table are when a brother is dying of hunger (Evangelium S. Matthaei, hom. 50:3-4: PG 58, 508-509).  Jerome stated that the work of charity is better than ornamenting church buildings (Epistle 130).  This seemed to be a serious issue around his time in the 4th century.  Acacius (5th century), bishop of Amida, sold 420 vases to free 7,000 Persian prisoners.  Ambrose (4th century), Augustine, bishop of Hippo (4th and 5th centuries), and Deogratias, Bishop of Carthage (5th century) also ransomed captives.  The poor, moreover, were assisted by the Church.  Bishop Cornelius of Rome (late 3rd century) oversaw support of 1,500 people.  In the late 4th century, the church at Antioch supported 3,000.

Ethics 2: Giving to the Poor is a Moral Requirement

The early church saw helping the poor to be a moral requirement, not just something nice to do.  In this way, helping the poor went beyond care within a close community and could be extended to anyone in need.  While Judaism taught charity towards one’s fellow Jews (cf. Tobit 1.3), Jesus taught love even towards enemies (Mt. 5.43ff; Lk. 10.29ff).  Paul told Galatian Christians to do good to all, especially the household of faith (Gal. 6.10). 

One of the earliest, extant, Christian documents after the New Testament writings is the Didache.  The work begins by describing two ways, one leading to life and the other to death.  The path leading to death is for those unmerciful to the poor (5.2), whereas that leading to life involves generosity to those in need (1.4-5; 4.5, 7).  Indeed, Christians should not think of their possessions as their own but as something to share with other believers (4.8).

The early 2nd century Apology of Aristides was written about AD 124 to the emperor Hadrian.  The author characterizes non-Christians (he could not be speaking of the Jews, however) as  ‘…unmerciful to the poor, …, turning away the needy, oppressing the distressed, advocates of the rich, unjust judges of the poor’ (5.2).  Christians, on the other hand, are compassionate towards the poor, release the captives, bury the dead, and so forth (XIV).  Later, in a marvelous passage describing Christians, the author says,

[Christians] love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food [cf. Apostolic Constitutions V.XX]. They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them’ (XV).

Around AD 130, an unknown Christian wrote the Epistle to Diognetus.  He argues that the one who is an imitator of God is the one who ‘takes upon himself the burden of his neighbour; he who, in whatsoever respect he may be superior, is ready to benefit another who is deficient; he who, whatsoever things he has received from God, by distributing these to the needy, becomes a god to those who receive [his benefits]: he is an imitator of God’ (X).

Ethics 3: Wealth and Possessions are Dangerous

Several of the Church Fathers were critical of wealth and possessions.  In this, they simply echoed teaching already found in the New Testament: the rich man who wanted to follow Jesus (Mk. 10), the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16), storing up treasures in heaven (Mt. 6), realizing that money is the root of all evil and that we can take nothing out of the world (1 Tim. 6.7, 10; cf. Polycarp, Philippians 4), etc.  Thus when we find similar statements in the Church fathers, it is not because persecuted Christians were looking for a religious explanation of their poverty but because they were reflecting on the Bible. 

In the mid 2nd century, Hermas warns against ‘wicked luxury,’ ‘indulgence in many kinds of food and the extravagance of riches,’ for such are the deeds that make people most wicked (Shepherd II, 8th Commandment).  Later, Hermas says that repentance is difficult for the rich and those immersed in much business, referring to Jesus’ parable of the sower (Mt. 13.3ff; the cares of the world, like thorns, choked some of the seeds sown) (Shepherd III, Ninth Similitude, ch. 20).

Tertullian (late 2nd and early 3rd centuries) challenges our views on possessions when he suggests that we should not be bothered when robbed.  Christians should despise the world and remember that Jesus, who lacked money, always justified the poor and condemned the rich.  Tertullian concluded that Christians should not seek wealth, the root of all evil (On Patience 7).

Ethics 4: Give With the Right Attitude

Finally, in giving to the needy, one must also have the right attitude.  Ambrose (4th century) decries giving liberally without love or giving in order to be praised by others.  He knows of some who gave impulsively and thoughtlessly to the church when doing penance for some sins and later tried to regain their wealth (On Repentance II.9.83-86).

Conclusion

This brief essay offers only a partial look into the theological and ethical arguments on wealth and possessions by Christian authors in the first four centuries of the Church.  They do not endorse a particular economic system, not least because of the importance of voluntary giving, giving with the right attitude, and the concern to develop a theological perspective on wealth (ecclesiology, creation, grace).  The ethic of giving, although in part grounded in nature, was largely due to the particular beliefs and practices of the Christian Church and therefore not applicable to all.  The New Testament writings are clearly the primary source for reflecting on these issues among the Church fathers.

While the authors cited present a fairly coherent perspective on wealth and possessions, their writings also indicate that there was diversity among Christians.  In particular, after AD 312, the Empire became increasingly Christian, the Church grew in wealth, Christians moved into positions of power, and the Church developed one ethic for people taking vows of poverty, celibacy, and chastity and another ethic for everyone else.

This essay began with a note on the relevance of earlier Christian writings for discussions today.  Readers should be just as cautious about dismissing earlier writings on wealth and poverty as economically na├»ve as about co-opting patristic quotes for socio-economic and political agendas today.  Rather, the arguments, convictions, and practices of the early Christians leave us with the challenge to investigate further, beginning with the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament authors on this important and relevant subject.


One conclusion that does seem possible to state from the above quotes, however, is that the early Christians did not view possessions as a matter of indifference, let alone a reward, for their faith and discipleship of Jesus.  They saw wealth as destructive at worst and as a gift to be used for the needy at best. Indulging oneself in pleasure simply because one had the means to do so (whether individuals or the Church) was viewed by Christian authors of the first four centuries as an impossible possibility for those professing faith in Christ. Such a path displeased God and led to destruction.