One thing most Christians have down pat is the knowledge that the Old Testament and the New Testament are to be read and interpreted differently because they fall under different dispensations.
Specifically in regards to finances, I think we may need to learn to read and interpret passages during the ministry of Jesus differently than passages during the establishment of the New Testament church.
Finances and Jesus’ Ministry
Jesus had a very temporary view of his ministry. By the middle of the gospel of Mark, Jesus is clearly communicating that he has his eyes set on Jerusalem where he must go to suffer and die. His call to would-be disciples is influenced by the temporariness of his earthy ministry.
Those who wish to follow him (Luke 9:57-62) must be willing to uproot their lives. A change of geography. A separation from family. A departure from your current business. To follow this itinerant preacher and stay in your context of living is impossible. Still, in Luke 10:5-12 these itinerant teachers of the gospel are to stay in the homes of established, localized people. Not all were called to give up homes and work, but certainly those who followed him on the way to Jerusalem must.
The key question is – how much of his teaching about money did Jesus intend to be applied to the generations of Christian who would follow Jesus?
Finances and the Early Church
Initially, the early church adopted a very temporary view of ministry and possessions. Clearly, the early church did some very radical things with their finances.
All the believers were together and had everything in common (Acts 2:44).
Remember for a moment the context of this statement. In Acts 2:8-11 we are reminded that a large part of the audience are displaced or temporary residents in Jerusalem. These are men and women from all over the empire who came for Passover and Pentecost. Sharing everything they have in common is a very natural response to this displaced audience. Also, it’s a very natural response to a short term second coming expectation of Jesus.
32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 4:32–37 (NIV84)
Again, we see early Christians making some very radical financial decisions like selling houses and bringing money to the apostles. This practice is very much consistent with a mindset of an imminent return of Christ. Why keep houses and property when he’ll be coming around the mountain at any moment? Furthermore, the need is great because all these dispora Jews who have come to town are sticking around for this great return. The longer they wait, the more financially desperate their situation becomes. As people of the land, they are dependent on fields and crops for survival, but hunkering down in a city away from home makes it nearly impossible for them to support themselves. In response, some Christians divest themselves of property to help provide the necessary resources to the displaced residents of Jerusalem.
In 2 Thess. 3:6-15 some scholars assume that the issue Paul is addressing is a subset of Christians in Thessalonica who are refusing to work because of their belief that Christ is coming quickly, and thus, work is not a noble thing to do in light of the imminent return of Christ.
Finances and the Maturing Church
By the way, I don’t really like the term ‘maturing church’, but couldn’t come up with anything better.
As the church ‘matured’, we see a different approach to finances compared to both Jesus’ ministry and even the early years of the church. Is this movement because of a lack of faithfulness or a maturing understanding of what it means to manage money, homes, and business in light of the delayed return of Christ?
As we’ve already seen in 2 Thessalonians, Paul tells this restless group of idle Christians to “settle down and earn the bread they eat” (2 Thess. 3:12b). In fact, in the Pauline letters there is never (that I can think of) a call to give up everything, sell everything, or adopt an itinerant lifestyle. Those early practices of the first chapters of Acts seem to have faded away. And no one is calling for the return to those days. In fact, the opposite seems to be true; work hard in your current job (Col. 3:23, 1 Thes. 5:21) and grow where you’re planted (1 Cor. 7:17, Rom. 12:13). The church is becoming a permanent fixture by this time, and people realize the timing of the coming of Christ may be longer than first anticipated. And seemingly, it impacts how they handle their finances. 2 Cor. 8-9 speaks of rich generosity, but there is no call to sell everything.
In fact, it is possible (this idea comes from Larry Osborne in the book Accidental Pharisees) that the church is realizing that the deep famine in Jerusalem could be because of the way the early church divested themselves of their property? Did the maturing church realize that sell property and share everything mindset was not sustainable and would cause a lot of financial need? Was the move away from radical generosity a God honoring move or another sign that the further we get from Jesus the less we live what he taught?
Did this maturing church walk away from the teaching of Christ? Did they see his teachings as specific teachings for a unique time or dispensation in history?
Is the call for the church today to practice rich generosity, but to avoid radical generosity? Are some called to radical generosity and divesting of property, while others are called to more reserved giving for the sustenance of the church?
Don’t expect me to have full answers here. What I love about the blog is the ability to present ideas for the formation of healthy thinking. This is not a article that I’ve perfected without faulty logic. Instead, these are some things I’ve been thinking around. I could be wrong here.
Here are the questions of which the answers allude me:
- Are Jesus’ teachings about money normative for Christians today or specific instructions for a unique time in history?
- Was a false understanding about the ‘quick’ return of Jesus an unhealthy foundation for their Acts of generosity? Did they get it right or get it wrong?
- Is there a distinct shift as the church grows to an established lifestyle (homes and jobs) with a more focus on rich generosity, but not on radical generosity?
The implications of some of these questions are huge, so hopefully some of your comments will be able to shed light on the discussion.