As I’m writing this article, it’s just been announced that inflation in Britain has hit 9%, the highest it has been in many years. Meanwhile there are dire warnings that inflation could soon be accompanied by recession which will lead to high unemployment and with it house repossessions. Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to help us think Biblically about how we respond to this cost of living crisis.
Today, I want to have a look at how the New Testament church responded to economic hardship. First of all, we’ll look at narrative in Acts, then we’ll look at some instruction from Paul
Everything in Common
Acts 2:42-47 says:
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe[d] came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The situation here describes the Jerusalem church in the immediate aftermath of Pentecost. What we see here in v42 is an intense and deliberate devotion first to Christ and the Gospel through the apostles teaching and then to each other (“fellowship”). Our first observation should be that our priority as churches should be the proclamation of God’s Word. The Gospel and application of Scripture are essential because our relationship with one another will not be transformed without that transformed relationship with God through the Gospel. Furthermore, I believe that when our relationship with God is transformed through the Gospel then it is impossible for our relationships with each other not to be transformed.
Verses 42-47 unpack what that devotion looks like in practice. Now, it is worth noting two things here. First, that this does seem to describe the unique situation in the context of the festival and its immediate aftermath. Many of those saved would have dispersed back to their home towns and so I don’t think we are meant to treat this as a detailed blueprint. Secondly, we know from the incident with Ananias and Saphira that there was no compulsion to put everything into the common pot. This was a matter for each believer’s heart.
However, what we do see here is transformed hearts which lead to an attitude where people are ready to hold lightly onto what is theirs and to see everything they have as at the disposal of God’s family. This aligns with the principles we saw in Old Testament. A people who trust in God, who cling to Christ can hold lightly to the things of this world. There is a sense of being more than a community here, this is about being family.
The Collection for the Saints
Later, the church in Jerusalem would suffer intense hardship. This would lead Paul to arrange for the churches he had helped plant to collect money together for those in need in Jerusalem. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 we read:
Now regarding your question about the money being collected for God’s people in Jerusalem. You should follow the same procedure I gave to the churches in Galatia. 2On the first day of each week, you should each put aside a portion of the money you have earned. Don’t wait until I get there and then try to collect it all at once. 3When I come, I will write letters of recommendation for the messengers you choose to deliver your gift to Jerusalem. 4And if it seems appropriate for me to go along, they can travel with me.
So, concern for others and a willingness to help them practically was seen as crucial enough for Paul to give instruction on it. Churches were interconnected and so were expected to support one another. This support was not just about giving to direct missions work but included practical care for those in need. This was to be planned with wise stewardship. Note that once again, there isn’t legalistic prescription about how much people should give. Paul simply requires a portion.
Paul writes further to the church in 2 Corinthians 8-9. Again in those chapters we see an emphasis on generosity from the heart. The idea is that we are to be grateful for God’s outpoured, lavish provision to us which should lead us to show lavish generosity to others. Paul insists that this is a matter of fairness and that overtime, this loving concern should be reciprocal (v13-14).
However, note this, even those believers who were not experiencing prosperity were willing to give. The believers in Macedonia were struggling but they still had a strong trust in God which overflowed in a willingness to give what they could to those in a worse off position (v1-5).
Notice too that this sense of reciprocal sharing may not be on a like for like, one for one basis. The point is not that if I give £10 then I should expect £10 back, with our without interest. Rather, it is that we all seek to bless each other as we are able to with the gifts God has given us.
Paul writes further on the matter in Romans 15:26-27:
26 For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. 27 For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.
The Jerusalem church by sending the gospel out were able to bless the wider body spiritually. The other churches in turn were able to bless the Jerusalem church practically.
As we seek to apply these things to our context today, I would like to make the following concluding observations.
- Our priority has to be the proclamation of the Gospel and teaching of God’s Word. My own experience has been that when we put this first, then we also tend to see an increase in concern for showing practical love.
- Whilst I think we should expect an obvious overflow of practical love to surrounding communities, notice that the early church doesn’t seem to think in terms of merc ministries in order to create Gospel opportunities. Rather, practical love is seen in terms of what it means to be part of God’s alternative community.
- Christians should be encouraged to show generosity to the needs of each other. We do that first by teaching on concern for the poor and generous giving.
- Churches should be organised in order to facilitate planned/systematic generosity.
- Our help for others should not be seen as patronising/paternalistic. It’s not a charitable handout when we give to those in need within the church. Rather, this is our contribution to mutual blessing so that we in turn receiving blessing back from those we bless.