To whom much is given
When Christians make a splash in the media, the cause is often less than honourable.
We’re renowned for what we’re against rather than what we’re for, and perceived as several paces behind the leading edge. A court-reporter friend of mine once heard a police prosecutor say that when he hears terms like lawyer or accountant he immediately thinks “fraud;” when he hears the word clergy his first thought is “sexual abuse.” Ouch! Is that how they see us? Imagine for a moment that communities of faith caught the attention of our nation – for good reason. We believe the gospel is still relevant, right? It is still the power of God for the salvation of all who believe?
What would it take for the wonderful truth of our gospel to be seen by those who currently perceive it as irrelevant and anachronistic? Allow me to provoke a disturbing discussion. For all our mission theories and strategies, I wonder whether catching the positive attention of our society might have something to do with a radical redistribution of Christian wealth.
Let me explain. We talk a lot about Christian love as our secret weapon in a pagan world. Through our love for one another, we demonstrate the gospel. The love of God, filling our hearts and lives through the work of the Holy Spirit, is the key. It’s hard to disagree with that. But what exactly does that love look like? Does the love we Christians express appear newsworthy? More importantly, does it compare with the models of loving community we find in the New Testament?
Love in the early church had a serious price tag. The technical (Greek) term that described Christian fellowship was koinonia, a word rich in meaning. The church took seriously its mandate to care for those with nothing. The wealthy were challenged by their understanding of love to resist the temptation for self-indulgence. Second homes and excess property were sacrificed to care for those in need. Parts of Acts 2 and 4 describe a depth of sharing that caught the attention of church members’ friends and families. Followers of Jesus had reason to gossip about the impact of belonging to their community of faith. There’s a tragic gulf between the love and fellowship enjoyed by early Christians and what we experience today. We read about it in our Bibles, but we struggle to reform our own self-centred materialism and individualism.
Some dismiss radical sharing amongst the Acts churches as a-typical. They assume such levels of community can never be replicated. I’m not so sure. Contemporary church commentators often point to the corruption of Christianity from the time Constantine made it a state institution. Maybe it’s worth a fresh look at the radical missiology of pre-Constantine churches.
From humble beginnings in a Jerusalem upper room to mid-way through the fourth century, more than half the Roman Empire had claimed allegiance to Jesus. Christian faith had spread like a clandestine disease, despite the most vicious persecution. What was it that caught the attention of onlookers? Without oversimplifying the reasons for the spread of early Christianity, more than one commentator suggests it had something to do with radical sharing of wealth and resources. Church was less a place of worship and more a gathered community of costly love and mutuality where people found tangible hope and practical care.
By the year AD250 the Christian church in Rome had a register of 1,500 needy persons that they supported.1 Second century Christian historian, Tertullian, noted how enemies of Christianity recognised mutual love and community as the Christians’ most distinctive sign:
“Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy… See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other.” 2 The last pagan emperor, Flavius Claudius Julianus (or Julian the Apostate), reigned as emperor for only two years (AD361 – 363). He was unsuccessful in his attempt to turn Rome from Christianity as ‘favoured religion’ back to the ancient pagan religions. He grudgingly commented to a friend: “…the godless Galileans (Christians) feed not only their poor but ours also…those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” 3
Aristides, a Christian apologist and historian in the second century, described the culture of the Christian church around AD125: “They walk in all humility and kindness, and falsehood is not found among them, and they love one another. They do not despise widows and they don’t grieve orphans. He that has distributes liberally to him that has not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as if he was their own brother; for they call themselves brothers and sisters, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit and God; but when one of their poor passes away from the world and any of them see him, he provides for his burial according to his ability and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or opposed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs; and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him. And if there is among them a man who was poor and needy and he has not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with the necessary food.” 4
The institutionalisation of ministry to the poor and suffering has been one of the tragedies of our time. Demarcated from the sphere of local faith communities, replaced with large institutions, it has become dominated by government regulation rather than the uncomplicated love of Jesus. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. We can capture again that counter-cultural essence of community experienced by the earliest followers of Jesus. I dream of the day when evangelical Christians take seriously Scripture’s teaching about selfish acquisition of personal wealth. Pastors, when was the last time we preached Paul’s advice to Timothy?
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:17-18) How does our popular understanding of faith compare with James’ definition?
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith but have no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17) The Apostle John gave a graphic definition of love: “If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18) The question for wealthy Christians, in this age of prosperity and retirement planning, is how much is enough? Where is the balance between wise financial planning and faith in God our provider?
Money and consumerism shape our Western culture. Maybe that’s why Jesus had more to say about money and financial stewardship than he did about heaven and hell and eternal life. 5 Imagine the interest it would generate if churches started taking biblical injunctions on wealth-sharing seriously. Maybe communities of faith practising a radical counter-culture approach to materialism would be just the thing to get the attention of our society – for the right reasons. Now there’s a discussion worth having! What could we do differently to make it happen in our church?
Brian Winslade is married to Liz and they have three adult children. At the time of writing Brian served as National Ministries Director for the Baptist Union of Australia, combining the roles of National Director of Crossover, and BUA National General Superintendent. Prac 8.
1 Hengel, Martin. “Property and Riches in the Early Church”, (Philadelphia; Fortress Press, 1974), 42-44
2 Tertuillian, Apology 39, Quoted in Peter C. Phan “Social Thought” Volume 20 of Messages of the Fathers of the Church, ed. Thomas Holton (Wilmington; Michael Glazier, 1984), 56
3 Julian the Apostate, quoted in Stephen Neill, “A History of Christian Missions” (New York; Penguin, 1964) 37-38
4 Aristides, quoted in Martin Hengel, “Property and Riches in the Early Church”, (Philadelphia; Fortress Press, 1974), 42-43
5 One in six verses in the Synoptic Gospels addresses issues of wealth.