The Economic Life of Christ’s Church, Then and Now

In recent posts during the Pentecost Season we have considered the emotional life of the Early Church in the first century, and taken a look at the challenge for us in the Body of Christ in the twenty-first century to reconsider “Body Life” (i.e. Christ’s intention for our shared life in His Church in every age) – how the Body of Christ is functioning when it is functioning properly, when it is healthy, when it is a fellowship that is truly caring, sharing, and burden-bearing. We have seen how that includes unwrapping our emotions, loving one another, hurting because other members of Christ’s Body are hurting, weeping with those who weep, comforting one another, praying for one another (praying earnestly, fervently, lovingly), and “following through” on our prayers – visiting the sick, putting our arms around the grieving, reaching out to those who feel nobody really cares, supporting victims of abuse, seeking a place of safety for the oppressed, forgiving one another, and not forgetting to “rejoice with those who rejoice,” affirming one another, and honoring one another – all are expressions of the emotional life of Christ’s Church, when it is doing “the work of ministry,” following the example of Jesus.

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 Well, what about the economic life of the His Church? What was the practice of the Early Church, during the Apostolic Age, regarding the use of one’s possessions? We see that “discipleship” and “stewardship” were inseparable. We can surely learn much from those first followers of Jesus, including many “eyewitnesses” to His life and earthly ministry. Suffice to say, the extent of their caring and sharing was certainly far different from what we see today in the average church, for that dimension of their Christian discipleship was radical, to say the least. We could accurately describe the practice of their faith as “radical Christianity.” In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes the kind of communal life (i.e. community life, “koinonia,” what believers had “in common” in an uncommon fellowship); that is what amazed non-believers, including persecutors of those first followers of Jesus. One of the most notorious enemies of Christianity had to exclaim in breathless wonder, “Behold how these Christians love one another!” Their kind of love (“agape” love), was the motivation for the sharing of their resources: “They had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (2:44-45). 

Luke was the faithful historian of the Early Church, and was obviously describing the Jerusalem Christians (the life and work of the “Mother Church, from the beginning). They were living in a time of drought and famine, and their needs were great. They were certainly not an ascetic group like the Essenes, as some biblical historians continue to suggest. For the Essenes were a communal group, living in their own isolated and insulated community in the Judean wilderness, not far from Jerusalem, near the Dead Sea. Some have insisted that John the Baptist was a member of that community of separatists, but there is no biblical or historical evidence to support such a conclusion. A few have even dared to suggest that Jesus Himself was an Essene, but our Lord was by no means one who separated Himself from this world, for that was His “mission field.” Furthermore, He sent His disciples into the world, to take the Gospel to “all nations” (Matthew 28;19-20). Read and meditate on the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus for His disciples, for His Church (for all believers in the ages to come)in the Gospel According to John, chapter 17): “Father, I am praying for my own, those you have given to me from the world…I am not praying for you to take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one in the world…I am coming to you, Holy Father; while I was in the world I protected them…I guarded them…but now I am coming to you…I ask you to sanctify them in the truth, for as you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world…that the world may believe that you sent me.”  

Furthermore, it is obvious, when one reads the entire passage in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, that Luke is giving us a word picture of the Church our resurrected and ascended Lord was building following Pentecost. Of course, those were hard times, when the followers of Jesus were suffering, not only from the lack of rain and a scarcity of food, but also from intense persecution. Therefore, those in the Early Church knew how much they needed each other and shared what they had with one another, so none of them would be without what was needed. Listen again to Luke’s description of their shared life, in all its aspects: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread in their homes and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (vs. 42-47).  

Many in the contemporary Church would say, “Well that is obviously not a realistic model for Christ’s Church in our own time, as it was “once upon a time long ago.” That was then, this is now! Times change, circumstances change, customs change, lifestyles change, and we must learn to adapt to our own times.” There is much truth in such an assessment, but there is also much we can still learn and benefit from when we take a closer and more open-minded look, not only at the New Testament’s descriptions of the emotional life of believers in Christ’s Church during its infancy, but also at their economic life, which remains a challenge for all who contend we should take the social dimensions of the Gospel seriously. Economics is a subject that Jesus had so much to say about during His teaching ministry. So many of His parables dealt with the peril of possessions, the sins of greed and covetousness, the danger of riches, and the judgment of God that will be devastating upon those who turn a deaf ear to the cries of the poor and powerless. This was also an important part of the Gospel that the apostles proclaimed, “the day of God’s wrath,” that will come when God’s righteous judgment is revealed, for God will repay people according to their deeds: everlasting life for those whose works are just and righteous, who are “merciful,” but wrath and fury for those who have only been concerned for themselves, their own needs, and did not obey the truth. Such people will experience anguish and distress. Those who do justly and respond to the needs of the marginalized and maligned, the disadvantaged and dispossessed, “the widows and orphans”  (the biblical metaphor for the poorest and most needy among us), will enjoy God’s blessing, glory, honor, and peace forever. All of us who bear the name of Christ should heed His warning when He speaks so clearly and plainly about the judgment of God to come, when the “sheep” will be separated from the “goats” (Matthew 25:31-46). 

In His teachings that have become known as the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5 and 6). Jesus admonished His listeners to lay up treasure in heaven” (6:19-20). How? By not hoarding, by not laying up treasure for ourselves on earth, but by using our financial resources to help alleviate human suffering, by having compassion on the helpless and hopeless – for after all that is all we will be able to take with us, the treasure “stored up for ourselves in heaven.” It is so obvious in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the epistles of the New Testament, that the followers of Jesus in the times nearest to the time of His life and ministry, were being admonished to take the words and commands of Jesus much more seriously, His teachings regarding selfishness versus service, greed versus generosity, covetousness versus compassion, indifference versus intervention, hoarding versus hospitality, exclusion versus inclusion, etc. For example, see our Lord’s parable of “The Great Banquet” (Luke 14:15-24), where those who had made such weak excuses for not accepting the Master’s invitation, miss out on the “great supper” (i.e. the messianic banquet), and the Master sends His servant out to invite others, the disadvantaged and disabled, even the “outcasts,” to come and join in the joyous feast and celebration (see also Revelation 19:5-9, “…the marriage supper of the Lamb,” when the “bride”, the Church, has “made herself ready”  to meet the “bridegroom,” Christ, she will be “presented to Him in splendor…holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. NOW CONCERNING THE COLLECTION FOR THE SAINTS” (I Corinthians 15:58, 16:1). That is Paul’s conclusion to the greatest sermon the Apostle Paul ever preached on the resurrection, telling the believers in Corinth that if they really believe this Gospel, then they must understand what this means for them (and for all believers) in terms of how much they care, and how much they share, how they live and how they give. Paul was talking about the special offering that was being taken for the relief of the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, Paul was talking about money! Those early followers of Jesus were not offended when the preachers talked about money! They understood that they were accountable to God for the way they used their financial resources. For after all, everything they possessed had been given to them by God, and they dared not confused “possession” with “ownership”! They knew God was the owner, and all their possessions had been “loaned” to them. It was a joy for them to give back to God! It was a privilege to use their resources to help meet the needs of others, not only their brothers and sisters in Christ, but their neighbors as well (in the Bible our “neighbor” is anyone in need). If we have first given ourselves to God as a “living sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Romans 12:1), then we feel compelled, not forced but constrained by our love for God, to also express that love joyfully and generously by giving our money to help meet the needs of others. We want to give our best to the Master. Nothing less is enough!

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In conclusion, I encourage those of you who claim to be followers of Jesus to remember this: THE WAY WE USE THE FINANCIAL RESOURCES GOD HAS ENTRUSTED TO US IS A GOOD SPIRITUAL BAROMETER TO GUAGE THE DEPTH OF OUR LOVE AND GRATITUDE TO GOD, AND THE QUALITY OF OUR COMMITMENT TO JESUS, WHO GAVE HIMSELF FOR US!

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