In defending the somewhat cozy relationship between the American Church and wealth, many Christian leaders bring up a third point: The practice of pooling resources and eliminating poverty described in Acts 2 (See my first post for more details) was an anomaly because it was not repeated again in the New Testament.
The simple answer is that serious, focused persecution led by Paul (then called Saul) begins in Acts 8, scattering the Christian leaders of the day to the four corners of the Roman Empire and forcing many Christians that remained in Jerusalem underground (Acts 8:1-3). It’s hard to run an effective financial operation when everyone is in hiding. Additionally, those who could have worked to contribute financial resources to the community were being hauled off to prison and being put to death. This left many people in need, widows and children, but no one to care for them financially.
I would also respond, however, that the story of pooling resources and eliminating poverty didn’t end in Acts 2. The believers were giving again in Acts 4, with the story of Barnabas highlighted (Acts 4:32-47). In Acts 5:1-11, when Ananias and Sapphira lie about their gift before God, holding back some of the profit from the church out of greed, God literally strikes them dead. This story just shows how serious God was about the practice of dedicating resources to the church. In Acts 6:1-6, we discover that the widows received daily distributions of food from the church, eliminating hunger, and that the task was so serious that a staff of 7 was dedicated with God’s blessing full time to the task. The food was clearly being offered out of the bounty the church was receiving from its wealthiest members. What if a we offered every single mother in our midst three meals a day? In Acts 9:36-43, Dorcas’ virtue is defined by her great work among the poor, and she is raised from the dead by Peter.
In Acts 11, the Christians of Antioch and Macedonia gave their resources to sustain the starving in Jerusalem. This is generosity of note because it was the first example of international aid provided via the network of the Christian church. It also showed that outrageous generosity and eliminating things like starvation and poverty was not limited to local communities.
This act of generosity is further defined in 2 Corinthians 8:1-6 where we discover once again that the believers in Corinth have given everything they had to support the believers in Jerusalem. This is an extension of the principles described in Acts 2. The virtues of this, dare I say, “risky” gift are further extolled in 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, where Paul discusses the principles of sowing and reaping a great bounty. In Acts 24:17, Paul mentions explicitly that he risked his life and freedom to return to Jerusalem to bring back gifts and financial support for the church in Jerusalem.
In James 5:1-6, there is perhaps the most explicit condemnation of wealth accumulation since Christ. “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” Eesh! It would be hard to read that passage and not conclude that the accumulation of wealth is, indeed, a sin.
The practice of giving everything and combating poverty in measurable, impactful ways continued and spread throughout the Roman empire. Christians didn’t just give. They built institutions, they taught the poor to read, they built hospitals, and they offered equality before God to slaves and women. The Roman political establishment actually lost credibility with poor and craftsmen classes because Christians were more generous with the poor than the elites. 1500 widows and needy persons were on the rosters at a church in Rome during the year 250 AD, at the same time that Emperor Decius led one of the most comprehensive efforts to stamp out Christianity in Roman history.
I appreciate the need to think on both sides of this issue and to take an approach grounded in Scripture, but the point is not to win some sort of a theological debate. I’m interested in a vision. Is it the church’s role to eliminate poverty? Or is it a civic role? Thanks to voices like Bernie Sanders, there is a prescription for eliminating poverty on the table, leveraging civil democracy. What is the church’s response?