Faith & Politics Pt 2: Does Generosity Breed Dependency?

Another point from those who advocate the American church’s 21st century comfort with wealth: the European and Asian churches had to send money to the believers in Jerusalem (the ones who pooled resources in Acts 2) later on in the New Testament.  This suggests that by selling all they had, the believers later became financially dependent on the church, a reason to avoid similar behavior in modern times.

Generosity at work.
Generosity at work.

 I respectfully disagree with this perspective.  In Acts 11, the believers in Jerusalem were experiencing a severe famine. They would have needed support, even if the land had been kept by the wealthy Jewish Christians as a continuous revenue stream because there was no way to grow food (this is assuming the land sold was arable and not just “summer home” style luxury properties).  We don’t believe that people who are victims of natural disasters, especially in poor countries, are victims of their own overly generous spending habits.  Rather, what the early believers did to support the Christians in Acts 11 is an extension of the same generosity of spirit that led wealthy believers in Acts 2 to sell all they had to the poor.  They had much and the believers in Jerusalem were starving.  

That leads me to the next chapter in Acts, chapter 12.  We find out that Herod arrests and kills James and John (Actis 12:1-4).  Aggressive persecution begins in Acts 8:1-3 and continues through the book of Acts.  Since the believers in Jerusalem were regularly being put to death, I would say that economic opportunity for Christians in Jerusalem had become very limited (in addition to the famine). Who wants to hire or buy merchandise from a group that is being targeted by the government? How would a woman in those times feed her children if her husband was in jail?  Who would watch her children?  What if both parents were in prison?  Who was going to feed their children?  Who was going to protect the children from sex trafficking or enslavement?  Giving to the believers in Jerusalem continued for an estimated 10 years (probably beyond the famine mentioned in Acts 11), and is lauded again in Romans 15:23-29.  Paul even explicitly mentions that the Antioch and Macedonian Christians gave to the Jews out of their material blessings in thanks for the spiritual blessings that had come out of Jerusalem, suggesting that the Gentiles were facing much less persecution and economic challenges than the Christians.  The generosity of the Christians in Antioch and Macedonia is praised in no uncertain terms by Paul and there is never once a single suggestion that the Christians in Jerusalem had brought this need on themselves.

This same logic could be applied to many different charities doing great work at home and abroad.  I send money to International Justice Mission to support the pursuit of justice in countries like Kenya and India. My parents support Voice of the Martyrs’ in their mission to provide assistance to the families of martyrs based on the call in Hebrews 13:3. The poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized in communities throughout history are denied the same basic rights and economic opportunities of their peers.  Paul, Barnabas, Agabus and many other early Christians emphasized the role that wealthy Christians were to play in balancing these sorts of injustices.

One final thought on this: there is an option where believers could have owned the land donated by the wealthy cooperatively instead of selling it.  This would have allowed them to maintained a continuous revenue stream while simultaneously eradicating poverty. In fact, the idea of cooperative ownership and labor is supported in 2 Thessalonians 3:11, where Paul emphasizes that work and food go hand in hand.   It is an interesting idea.  However, the believers sold off their property before they encountered severe persecution and prejudice (Acts 8), so they likely expected to be able to remain economically productive.  There is also a possibility that any assets that had remained under Christian ownership could have been seized by the political leadership in Judea during the period of persecution.  This has often happened to oppressed people.  The poverty of African Americans in the US was perpetuated by economic injustice and those who achieved some success were often targeted unfairly or illegally and pushed back into poverty.  For a more detailed study on those issues, Chapters 5 and 6 of the book Lies My Teacher Told Me is a great resource.

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