return to religion-online

Sharing the Wealth: The Church as Biblical Model for Public Policy

by Ronald J. Sider

Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and a professor of theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article appeared in the Christian Century June 8-15, 1977, p. 560. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


What is the biblical view of God’s will for economic relations among his people? For an answer, we shall look at the jubilee passage in Leviticus, at the new community of Jesus’ disciples, at the first church in Jerusalem, and at the Pauline collection.

Text:

To ask government to legislate what the church cannot persuade its members to live is a tragic absurdity. That the church has tried to do precisely this is one of the most glaring weaknesses of its commendable, sometimes costly involvement in social action in the past two decades.

Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder tells of a meeting of church leaders held in an embattled Chicago suburb in the ‘60s. Blacks were marching to demand an end to de facto housing segregation. Wanting to help, the clergy met to devise a strategy for bringing pressure on the city’s business and political leadership to yield to black demands. After listening for an hour or so to various economic and political schemes, Yoder raised a question. Were not the bank presidents and the mayor active church members? They were, the clergy agreed but they were puzzled at Yoder’s irrelevant query. It was not at all obvious to those concerned clergy that the church must first demonstrate in its common life together what it calls on secular society to embody in public policy.

In danger of repeating the same mistake is today’s movement of concern among church people for world hunger and injustice in the international economic order. Economic relationships in our Lord’s worldwide body today constitute a desecration of his body and blood. Only as groups of believers in North America and Europe dare to incarnate in their life together what the Bible teaches about economic relationships among the people of God do they have any right to demand that leaders in Washington or Westminster shape a new world economic order.

What is the biblical view of God’s will for economic relations among his people? For an answer, we shall look at the jubilee passage in Leviticus, at the new community of Jesus’ disciples, at the first church in Jerusalem, and at the Pauline collection.

Leviticus 25 is one of the most radical texts in all Holy Writ. Every 50 years, God said, he wanted all land to return to the original owners -- without compensation. Physical handicaps, death of a breadwinner, or less natural ability might bring some people to become poorer than others. But God did not want such disadvantages to lead to greater and greater extremes of wealth and poverty among his people. Hence a means was prescribed to equalize land ownership every 50 years (Lev. 24:10-24).

Before and after the year of jubilee, land could be ‘bought” or ‘sold.” But since Yahweh was the owner (v. 23), what the buyer actually purchased was a specific number of harvests, not the land itself (v. 16). And woe betide the person who tried to make a killing by demanding what the market would bear rather than a just price for the intervening harvests from the date of purchase to the next jubilee (vv. 16-17). Yahweh is Lord -- even of economics. No hint here of some sacred law of supply and demand, a law independent of biblical ethics and the lordship of Yahweh. The people of God submit to Yahweh’s lordship, and he demands structures that foster economic justice among his people.

Unfortunately, we do not know whether the people of Israel ever practiced the year of jubilee. The absence of references to jubilee in the historical books of the Old Testament suggests that it may never have been implemented. Nevertheless, Leviticus 25 challenges us as a part of canonical truth.

Jesus’ Sharing Community

Jesus walked the roads and footpaths of Galilee announcing the startling news that the long-expected kingdom of peace and righteousness was at hand. Economic relationships in the new community of his followers were a powerful sign confirming this awesome announcement.

The Hebrew prophets had inspired the hope of a future messianic kingdom of peace, righteousness and justice. The essence of the good news which Jesus proclaimed was that the expected kingdom had come. Certainly Jesus disappointed popular Jewish expectations. He did not recruit an army to drive out the Roman oppressors. But neither did he remain alone as an isolated, individualistic prophet. He called and trained disciples. He established a visible community of people joined together by their loyalty to him as Lord. His new community began to live the values of the promised kingdom which was already breaking into the present. As a result, all relationships -- even economic ones -- were transformed in the community of Jesus’ followers.

Jesus and his disciples shared a common purse administered by Judas, who bought provisions and gave to the poor at Jesus’ direction (John 12:6, 19:29). This new community of sharing did not end with Jesus and the Twelve, for it included a number of women whom Jesus had healed. Traveling with Jesus and the disciples, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna “and many others . . . provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8: 1-3).

From this perspective, some of Jesus’ words gain new meaning and power. Consider Jesus’ advice to the rich young man in this context:

When Jesus asked the rich young man to sell his goods and give to the poor, he did not say, “Become destitute and friendless.” Rather, he said, “Come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). In other words, he invited him to join a community of sharing and love, where his security would not be based on individual property holdings, but on openness to the Spirit and on the loving care of new-found brothers and sisters [Richard K. Taylor, Economics and the Gospel (United Church Press, 1973), p.21].

Jesus invited the rich young man to share in a new kind of security -- the joyful common life of the new kingdom.

Jesus’ words in Mark 10:29-30 have long puzzled me: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (emphasis added; see also Matt. 6:25-33). To me, Jesus’ promise used to seem at least a trifle nave. But his words come alive with new meaning when they are read in the context of the new community of his followers. Jesus inaugurated a new social order -- a new kingdom of faithful followers who were to share unlimited liability for one another.

In that kind of community, there would truly be genuine economic security. One would indeed receive 100 times more loving brothers and sisters than before. The economic resources available in difficult times would be compounded. In fact, all the resources of the entire community of obedient disciples would be available to anyone in need. To be sure, that kind of unselfish, sharing life style would challenge surrounding society so pointedly that there would be persecutions. But even in the most desperate days, the promise would not be empty. Even if persecution led to death, children of martyred parents would receive new mothers and fathers in the community of believers. In the community of the redeemed, all relationships are being transformed. The common purse shared by Jesus and his first followers vividly demonstrates that Jesus repeated and deepened the old covenant’s call for transformed economic relationships among God’s people.

The Jerusalem Church

However embarrassing it may be to some today, the massive economic sharing of the earliest Christian church is indisputable (see, for example, Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-37, 5-1-11, 6:1-7). Whenever anyone was in need, all shared. Giving surplus income to the needy was not enough. The Jerusalem Christians regularly dipped into capital reserves, selling property to aid those in need. God’s promise to Israel that faithful obedience would eliminate poverty among his people (Deut. 15:4) came true in the new church:

“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them . . . and distribution was made to each as any had need” (Acts 4:34-35).

Two millennia later, the texts still throb with the first Christian community’s joy and excitement. They ate meals together “with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). They experienced an exciting unity as all sensed they “were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). They were not isolated individuals struggling alone to follow Jesus. A new community transforming all areas of life became a joyful reality. The earliest Jerusalem Christians experienced such oneness in Christ that they promptly undertook extensive economic sharing.

What was the precise nature of the Jerusalem Christians’ costly koinonia? They did not insist on absolute economic equality. Nor did they abolish private property. Sharing was voluntary, not compulsory. But love for brothers and sisters was so overwhelming that many freely abandoned legal claims to private possessions. “ No one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own” (Acts 4:32). That does not mean that everyone donated everything, but whenever there was need, believers regularly sold lands and houses to aid the needy.

The essence of these transformed economic relationships in the Jerusalem church is unlimited liability and total availability. The sharing was not superficial or occasional. Regularly and repeatedly (as the imperfect tense of the verbs in the relevant passage of Scripture suggests) the believers sold possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 4:35). The needs of the sister or brother were decisive. In the new messianic community of Jesus’ first followers after Pentecost, God was redeeming all relationships. The result was unconditional economic liability for and total financial availability to the other brothers and sisters in Christ. The first Christians dared to give concrete, visible expression to the oneness of all believers.

Whatever the beauty and appeal of such a picture, however, was it not a vision that quickly faded? Many people believe so. But the Pauline collection proves exactly the contrary.

The Pauline Collection

Paul broadened the vision of economic sharing among the people of God in a dramatic way. He devoted a great deal of time to raising money for Jewish Christians among gentile congregations. In the process, he broadened intrachurch assistance into interchurch sharing among all the scattered congregations of believers. Furthermore, with Peter and Paul, biblical religion moved beyond one ethnic group and became a universal, multiethnic faith. Paul’s collection for Jews from gentiles demonstrates that the oneness of the new body of believers entails dramatic economic sharing across ethnic and geographical lines.

For several years, Paul gave much time and energy to his great collection for the Jerusalem church. He discussed his concern in several letters, and he arranged for the collection in the churches of Macedonia, Galatia, Asia, Corinth, Ephesus and probably elsewhere.

Paul knew he faced certain danger and possible death, but he still insisted on personally accompanying the offering for the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:4, 10-14; Rom. 15:31). Out of his passionate commitment to economic sharing with brothers and sisters came his final arrest and martyrdom. Yet he had a deep conviction that this financial symbol of Christian unity mattered far more than even his life. His understanding of Christian koinonia -- an extremely important concept in Paul’s theology -- is central in his discussion of the collection.

The word koinonia means fellowship with, or participation in, something or someone. Believers enjoy fellowship with the Lord Jesus (I Cor. 1:9). Experiencing the koinonia of Jesus means having his righteousness imputed to us. It also entails sharing in the self-sacrificing, cross-bearing life he lived (Phil. 3:8-10). Nowhere is the Christian’s fellowship with Christ experienced more powerfully than in the Eucharist, where the believer is drawn into a participation (koinonia) in the mystery of the cross: The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Cor. 10:16)

Paul’s immediate inference -- in the very next verse -- is that koinonia with Christ inevitably involves koinonia with all the members of his body. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (v. 17). As he taught in Ephesians 2, Christ’s death for Jew and gentile, male and female, has broken down all ethnic, cultural and sexual divisions. In Christ there is one new person, one new body of believers. When the brothers and sisters share the one bread and the common cup in the Lord’s Supper, they symbolize and actualize their participation in the one body of Christ.

That is why the class divisions at Corinth so horrified Paul. Wealthy Christians, apparently, were feasting at the eucharistic celebrations while poor believers went hungry. Paul angrily denied that they were eating the Lord’s body and blood because they did not discern his body (vv. 27-29). By this Paul meant that they failed to realize that their membership in the one body of Christ was infinitely more important than the class or ethnic differences which divided them. One brings judgment on oneself if one does not perceive that eucharistic fellowship with Christ is totally incompatible with living a practical denial of that unity of all believers in his body. As long as one Christian anywhere in the world is hungry, the eucharistic celebration of all Christians everywhere is incomplete.

For Paul, this intimate fellowship in the body of Christ had concrete economic implications. Paul used precisely this word koinonia to designate financial sharing among believers. Sometimes he employed the word as a virtual synonym for “collection.” he spoke of the liberality of the fellowship that the Corinthians’ generous offering would demonstrate (II Cor. 9:13). He employed the same language to report the Macedonian Christians’ offering for Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26).

Paul’s guideline for what sharing should be in the body of believers is startling: “I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality” (II Cor. 8:13-14; emphasis added). To support his principle, Paul quoted from the biblical story of the manna: “As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack’ ” (v. 15). It may indeed seem startling to rich Christians in the northern hemisphere, but Paul -- in guiding the Corinthians in their giving -- clearly enunciated the principle of economic equality among the worldwide people of God.

Pattern for Today’s Church

However interesting it may be, what relevance does the economic sharing at Jerusalem and Corinth have for the contemporary church?

Certainly the church today need not slavishly imitate every detail of the life of the early church depicted in Acts. But that does not mean that we can simply dismiss the economic sharing described in Acts and the Pauline letters.

Over and over again God specifically commanded his people to live together in community in such a way that they would avoid extremes of wealth and poverty -- that is the point of the Old Testament legislation on the jubilee and sabbatical years, on tithing, gleaning and loans. Jesus, our only perfect model, shared a common purse with the new community of his disciples. The first church in Jerusalem and Paul in his collection were implementing what the Old Testament and Jesus had commanded.

The powerful evangelistic impact of the economic sharing at Jerusalem indicates that God approved and blessed the practice. When Scripture calls for transformed economic relations among God’s people in some places, and describes God’s blessing on his people as they implement these commands in other places, then we can be sure that we have discovered a normative pattern for the church today.

What is striking, in fact, is the fundamental continuity of biblical teaching on this point. Paul’s collection was simply an application of the basic principle of the jubilee. The mechanism, of course, was different because God’s people were now a multiethnic body living in different lands. But the principle was the same. Since the Greeks at Corinth were now part of the people of God, they were to share with the poor Jewish Christians at Jerusalem -- that there might be equality!

Living the Biblical Model

What does the biblical teaching on economic relationships among God’s people mean for Christians striving for a new international economic order in our own time?

Central to any Christian strategy on world hunger must be a radical call for the church to be the church. As was noted at the beginning, one of the most glaring weaknesses of church social action in the past few decades has been its too exclusive focus on political solutions. In effect, church leaders tried to persuade government to legislate what they could not persuade their church members to live. And politicians quickly sensed that the daring resolutions and the frequent Washington delegations represented generals without troops. Only if the body of Christ is already beginning to live a radically new model of economic sharing will our demand for political change have integrity and impact.

We must confess the tragic sinfulness of present economic relationships in the worldwide body of Christ. While our brothers and sisters in the Third World ache for lack of minimal health care, minimal education, even just enough food to escape starvation, Christians in the northern hemisphere grow richer each year -- like the Corinthian Christians who feasted without sharing their food with the poor members of the church (I Cor. 11:20-29). Like them we fail today to discern the reality of Christ’s body. U.S. Christians spent $5.7 billion on new church construction alone in the six years from 1967 to 1972. Would we go on building lavish church plants if members of our own congregations were starving? Do we not flatly contradict Paul’s instructions to the early churches if we live as though African or Latin American members of his body are less a part of us than the members of our home congregations?

But what concretely might a wholehearted recognition of the oneness of Christ’s body mean? It would mean a massive discipling process in the churches, so that individual Christians would start living more simple life styles. Shouldn’t it be the norm, rather than the exception, for Christians to be involved in small weekly fellowship/worship/action groups where mutual discipling is a regular practice? Where Christians can, for example, evaluate each other’s income-tax returns and family budgets, discuss major purchases, and gently nudge each other toward life styles more in keeping with their worship of a God who sides with the poor?

Churches, likewise, would need to adopt more simple corporate life styles. Virtually all church construction today is unnecessary. At least three large congregations could easily share every church building if one group would worship on Saturday evening, another Sunday morning, and a third on Sunday evening. The heart of each congregation might be in small discipling groups, such as I have described, meeting in homes. Significantly simpler personal and ecclesiastical life styles would make assistance for economic development possible on an astonishingly increased scale. A small denomination of 50,000 members could by itself establish two new agencies the size of Church World Service, or two new Mennonite Central Committees, or one new World Vision. The Church of the Nazarene (with half a million members) could start 20 new agencies the size of Church World Service. The United Methodists (with 9.9 million members) could establish 400 new Church World Services!

Nor am I calling for poverty. In 1974 the median income of U.S. families was $12,836. Charitable donations to “religion” normally run at about 3 per cent ($385). Were a family of five to spend $10,000 of its total income on itself, it would have to cut out many luxuries, but it would still have a comfortable life style that would appear aristocratic to all but a tiny fraction of the world’s people. That leaves $2,451 extra per family available for ending poverty (those with incomes above the median could give more and those below, less). Assuming five-member families, a church with 50,000 members would have at least 10,000 family groups that could give $24,510,000. The cash disbursements of Church World Service in 1974 were about $11.5 million; MCC’s, $9 million; World Vision’s, about $20 million.

Now I do not mean to suggest that I expect this to happen, or that if a simpler life style were widely accepted all the newly available funds ought to go toward fighting poverty. What the figures are meant to demonstrate is that if Christians dared to change the ways they live, their increased giving could make a significant difference. In fact, a mere 10 million Christians in the U.S. could annually provide tile total $5 billion in foreign funds needed by developing countries, according to the 1974 World Food Congress, for investment in rural agricultural development. In 1974, 32 per cent of all U.S. economic aid to developing countries came from private contributions. If even one-fourth of all U.S. Christians had been following the formula spelled out above, the percentage of private contributions would have jumped drastically.

Daring to Live What We Ask

No one is nave enough to suppose that vastly increased aid from U.S. churches -- to both church and nonchurch groups in developing countries -- could proceed without problems. Certainly there would need to be strenuous efforts to avoid paternalism and prevent dependency. Long-term development and self-sufficiency would be tile goal. Obviously there would be difficulties; but the Third World church leaders I have talked with insist that these obstacles could be overcome far more easily than can our unwillingness to share.

The emphasis placed here on simpler personal and ecclesiastical life styles is by no means intended to belittle the importance of changing public policy. (Note, however, that living the new model would deeply affect the U.S. economy; and the powerful example of sharing could also profoundly influence the thinking and life style of non-Christians.) Certainly we should strengthen organizations like Bread for the World. Certainly we should work politically to demand costly concessions from Washington in international forums working to reshape the International Monetary Fund, as well as new policy in trade negotiations on tariffs, commodity agreements and the like. Certainly we must ask whether far more sweeping structural changes are necessary. However, our attempt to restructure secular society will possess integrity only if our personal life styles -- and our corporate ecclesiastical practices in local congregations, in regions and denominations, and in the worldwide body of Christians demonstrate that we are already daring to live what we ask Washington to legislate.

A radical call to repentance so that the church becomes the church must be central to Christian strategies for reducing world hunger and restructuring international economic relationships. The church is the most universal body in the world today. It has the opportunity to live a new corporate model of economic sharing at a desperate moment in world history. If even one-quarter of the Christians in the northern hemisphere had the courage to live the biblical vision of economic equality, the governments of our dangerously divided global village might also be persuaded to legislate the sweeping changes needed to avert disaster.


Viewed 15365 times.