Christian Poverty

Seldom does a passage in the Bible bother me. When one does the reason is usually not that a it is too difficult to understand but that I understand it all too clearly. Acts 2:44-45 says this about the early church. “All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” If we should forget this it is repeated at the end of chapter 4 adding that “for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” In fact, the first recorded church committee was started because there was ethic tension within an already existing distribution of food to widows (When was the last time your church had to deal with ethnic differences?)

What prompted the early believers to live this way in the absence of any obvious teaching about it? My guess is that they viewed it as the natural channel for their love for each other to take in light of Christ’s sacrifice for them. The early believer would rather sell their own possessions than allow another believer to be in need. The modern day equivalent of selling a house in 30’s AD is selling a house. They were willing to become poor so that others might become rich and by doing so imitated Christ who became poor so that we might become rich beyond our imagination.

What often distracted me from these passages in the past was the question of whether it was communism. Ironically, it was more important than what was actually occurring. What was happening was not socialism but neither was it capitalism. What was occurring was something totally unique and had actually been God’s original intention for Israel, though it is hard to tell if they followed through (Exod. 25:35-45). Ananias and Sapphira we punished not because they failed to be generous. What the couple wanted was the appearance of generosity without it costing them much. They wanted social approval within the church without having to be generous and lied in the attempt.

So while I don’t have a house to sell, I have many other things of value. Trying to figure out how to get more is more often my mindset than considering what I could get rid of. And if I do sell I really don’t want to give away the money it makes me. Money brings both security and pleasure, things good in themselves. However, the result is too often that things own me, rather then me owning them. Supposing I overcome these difficulties there is another obstacle looming in my mind.

Say I receive an extra $20 from a relative at Christmas and plan to give it away. The average church usually has a men’s ministry, a women’s ministry, children’s ministry, etc. but not a developed ministry to meet the needs of the poor in the body. I am afraid that many churches resemble Ananias and Sapphira, desiring the appearance of generosity without having to make serious sacrifices. In addition, the church has abdicated a lot of that work to non-profits and government organizations. As far as ease of giving, with a direct purpose in mind, a non-profit would be a better bet for my $20. Non-profits do wonderful work, but they can also depersonalize the meeting of a person’s physical needs if they are the only outlet for generosity. It is not hard to be loving to people you’ll never meet while being a jerk to those you live with. Not that all giving needs to be local though.

I’ve heard several sermons about giving preached from 2 Corinthians 9. Verse 7, “God loves a cheerful giver,” is a favorite of pastors seeking to increase tithing in their congregation. However, Paul is not seeking to increase the Corinthian church’s general budget. Rather his purpose is to raise money for Christians in Jerusalem who are suffering from a famine. Likewise, many churches take weekly offerings based on 1 Corinthians 16:2. This is the same collection Paul is encouraging them to continue in his second letter to the church, with all the money going to Jerusalem believers. Paul has taken what was occurring among the believers in Jerusalem and extended it across nearly 800 miles. Christian unity is not limited by physical distance, geopolitical borders, ethnic difference, or socio-economic status. If one suffers we all suffer. If one suffers we aid them in their suffering.

That is the idea that has become so bothersome to me. I want to imitate Christ, who impoverished Himself so that I might become rich, without the poverty.

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