By David Chilton
God’s word certainly tells us to care for the poor. Even our enemies are to be given aid in distress (Proverbs 25: 21-22). More particularly, Christian brothers and sisters who are needy should be helped — out of our supply. This is, in fact, the very meaning of Christian fellowship and communion (both words are translations of koinonia). For example, in Paul’s description of the “body life” of the Christian assembly in Romans 12, he tells us that we should be “contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality” (v.13). The word “contributing” is the verb form of koinonia; in other words, if we are to have genuine fellowship in the body of believers, we must not be content with coffee and donuts on Sunday morning. We must be “fellowshipping to the needs of the saints,” truly seeking to help them in their difficulties.
The primary symbol of this sharing ministry among believers is the communion service, which in modern churches has been almost entirely stripped of its meaning. Far from being the “pretend meal” of congregations today, the communion service of the New Testament was the continuation and fulfillment of the Old Testament festivals (see Matt. 26: 19-30; I Cor. 5: 6-8).
It was a “love feast,” a common meal in which the Christians shared their food with one another. The participants did not get a little piece of cracker and a thimbleful of grape juice. They sat down and shared a meal. The danger Paul rebuked at Corinth was that believers were failing to discern the Lord’s body (I Cor. 11: 29). This does not mean they failed to comprehend some mystical dogma regarding the precise relationship of Christ’s physical body to the bread and wine. Paul was not rebuking a lack of intellectual understanding, but rather a lack of moral discernment. The Corinthians had been behaving sinfully, indulging themselves in gluttony and drunkenness, refusing to share food with one another (v. 21). The “body” they failed to discern was Christ’s congregational body, their fellow believers. They came to have communion, and did not commune together; they did not share, yet they called it a “sharing service.” Paul accused them of not eating “the Lord’s supper,” that each one ate “his own supper” (v. 20-21), with the result that “one is hungry and another drunk.”
And this is a problem with churches today—even though we’ve gotten rid of the alcohol in most cases (incidentally, we’re supposed to share the wine, not abolish it). In many modern “communion” services, the participants receive a token meal, close their eyes and chew away; thinking spiritual, inward-type thoughts in total isolation from their neighbors. But is this kind of service contributing to our mutual appreciation and loving relationship with one another as a body of believers united in Christ? Not usually, and not in the biblical sense of having the regular opportunity to break-bread and share a meal with each other. Even a full communion “love feast” service is itself a mere emblem of what we are to be at all times: “We who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (I Cor. 10: 17). Ideally, we should always be available to fellow believers, as members of one family in Christ.
The biblical command is that we do what we can to meet the needs of our fellow Christians who are truly in need. So, does this mean that the church should be encouraging everyone to equalize their wealth in the socialistic sense? Many Nominal Christian liberals say yes according to II Corinthians 8: 13-15:
“For this is not for the ease of others and for your affliction, but by way of equality—at the present time your abundance being a supply for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want, that there may be equality; as it is written, “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little had no lack.”
Paul is not speaking here of the redistribution of income. Paul is instructing the well-to-do church at Corinth to help meet the needs of the poor at the Jerusalem church. Nominal Christian liberals thus say the norm should be economic equality among the people of God, and that God desires a major movement towards economic equality in the new society of the church. But Paul is not calling for income to be equalized, that is a distortion. He is not saying that income and all resources be pooled together and redistributed equally as a model for the New Testament church.
In context it is obvious that Paul is requesting a voluntary sacrifice from the Corinthian church to help supply the needs of the poor in the Jerusalem church. This shows that well-to-do churches should be mindful of helping-out the poor churches in their communities, not commanding inter-church redistribution programs. The equality that Paul calls for in II Corinthians is for simple justice and fairness among believers, to help meet the needs of the poor and destitute members of the body of Christ. The book of James says by giving them “what is necessary for their bodies” (James 2: 16), that is, the necessities of life. The point is — not to forget the poor, and thus help make provisions for the “deserving poor” members of the congregation.
There are two other examples in New Testament scripture often cited by nominal Christians as to economic equalizing in the church. One is Jesus practice of sharing a common purse with His disciples (John 12: 6; 13: 29). The other is the so-called “communism” of the early Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 2: 44-46; 4: 32-37). At first glance, on the surface, these seem to be valid assumptions. But, upon examination and reconsidering the circumstances in a broader context, reveals a little more to the story. First, regarding the practice of Jesus and His disciples, it is readily admitted that a small band of itinerant, full-time missionaries who are constantly living together and having no place of permanent residence would probably find this to be an effective and efficient method of operating. But Jesus mission was a special circumstance for a limited time; this would not be considered normative for most Christians living full lives and raising-up a new generation. If the special relationship of Jesus and His disciples’ mission is normative, then all Christians need to take-up a nomadic existence as traveling preachers.
The second example (Acts 2: 44-46; 4: 32-37) is the one that is most widely used by so-called Christian socialists, sometimes called the “Jerusalem Model.” Yes, the early Jerusalem church practiced financial sharing or communism. No, this does not make it normative for all churches for all time. Why not? It was a unique situation requiring special circumstances.
On the Day of Pentecost, when Jews from around the Roman Empire had gathered in Jerusalem, Peter preached a sermon which immediately added 3,000 new believers to the church (Acts 2: 41). Shortly thereafter, 5,000 more were converted (Acts 4: 4). Because of the urgent necessity of receiving instruction (discipleship) in the faith, most, if not all of these new converts stayed in Jerusalem (Acts 2: 41-42). They had brought enough provisions to stay during the feasts, but they had not planned on staying in Jerusalem indefinitely.
The church in Jerusalem was suddenly faced with an immediate economic problem of gigantic proportions. Since God commands aid to needy brethren, the Jerusalem Christians stepped in to supply the needs of the new converts. Many of the needy were apparently from Israel, but many also were “Hellenized” Jews from other nations (2: 9-11; 6: 1). It was a special situation, and required special measures to deal with it. So the believers in Jerusalem who owned property liquidated it and used the proceeds for charity. Furthermore, Jerusalem itself was considered “condemned property” because Jesus had promised to destroy it (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) and the Christians knew they would have to leave when the Romans surrounded it. They sold their property knowing that the buyers would eventually lose everything in the city of Jerusalem. Again, these were special circumstances at a certain time in the early church, not a “model” for all the church for all time. It was a special tactic designed to meet the unique, emergency circumstances that arose. Selling-off property can continue only as long as there is property to sell. If all Christians were to simply liquidate all their property and capital, there would soon be nothing left and no means to continue helping the needy.
The example of these early Christians displays a tremendous willingness to sacrifice for fellow believers that rebukes our indifference in the modern church to help needy brothers and sisters in the faith. That is what we need to learn from these passages, not forced programs of income equalization, land reform and the redistribution of property and capital. The body of Christ is reminded repeatedly to be mindful of and provide for the poor and needy in our midst, being ready and willing to sacrifice if need be.
The Bible calls for equality before the law, not income equality. God calls on believers to be fair and just to both rich and poor, not showing favor to either.
“You shall do no injustice in judgment. You shall not be partial to the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty (rich). But in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor.”(Lev. 19: 15);
“Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom…” (Eccl.10:20b);
“The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the Lord, to make atonement for yourselves.”(Ex. 30: 15)
The Bible has a lot to say about specific remedies for poverty. Much of Old Testament law deals with the problem. However, none of the biblical poor laws are intended to be a long-term benefit to the poor. They are designed to allow the poor time to get back on their feet. In general these laws which specifically provide for the poor are not to be enforced by the state. The Bible prohibits us from turning every sin into a civil crime under the jurisdiction of the state. For example, the civil government cannot punish criminals unless given the right to do so by scripture.
To begin to alleviate and deal with poverty among believers, the church is commanded to tithe. In the New Covenant, the gospel has been dispersed throughout the world. There is, however, on a local level, a local feast that is required: the love-feast (communion), a weekly celebration in which food is to be shared at the Lord’s Table (I Cor. 11: 20-34; Jude 12). It is completely within the scope of the law to use the first part of our tithe’s to finance our participation in the “love feast,” remembering also to provide food for the poor in the congregation, that all may feast together (Deut. 14: 29; I Cor. 11: 21-22, 33).
A second aspect of the tithe (after the love feast) was used to finance professional theologians, experts in biblical law, teachers of God’s word, and professional worship leaders.
A third aspect of the tithe law was the third-year tithe. This tithe went to local elders of the covenant community who would dispense it to local; needy, aliens, orphans, and widows residing in the town. In the New Testament, this tithe is to be paid to the elders of our local church. The tithes and gifts of God’s people, along with the proper practices of worship and community in our local congregations are the biblical mandate for beginning to alleviate poverty in our midst. Special circumstances may call for more sacrificial measures and believers should be ready and willing to do what is necessary. We could begin by bringing revival to the way the church practices the so-called communion service and reinstitute the biblical “love feast.”
Article is an edited excerpt of David Chilton’s book Productive Christian’s in an Age of Guilt-Manipulators, conclusion by GospelBBQ.