Tuesday, August 02, 2005

THE EARLY CHURCH AND US (EXCERPTS)

I've taken a few choice excerpts from the article by Ray Mayhew (linked below) on the early church and their radical stance on caring for the poor.

The entire article is 25 pages long, and totally worth the download and the serious reading, but for those of you with short attention spans, or just curious...here's the "sampler platter" version for ya below..

ENJOY!

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Some choice excerpts from EMBEZZLEMENT: THE CORPORATE SIN OF
CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIANITY? By Ray Mayhew

While reading some patristic documents recently I was startled to discover that the
Church Fathers are univocal in their insistence that the bulk of the revenue collected by a local church belonged by right to the poor. There was no expectation among them that a large percentage of what was collected by a local congregation would be used for its own maintenance and ministry. In fact, to do so would have been viewed by them as a misappropriation of funds.

According to a United Nations study published in 1998 the combined wealth of the
world’s seven richest men could wipe out poverty and provide access to basic social
services for the quarter of the world who live in severe need. The net wealth of 10
billionaires is worth 1.5 times the combined national income of the 48 least developed nations. However, despite commendable initiatives of Bill Gates, relief for the global poor is not likely to come from the rich and powerful.

In the latest edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia the estimated personal
income of Christians world-wide (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox) was around $15 trillion. The amount given to church and para-church bodies was in the region of $276 billion—not nearly what it should be, but still a lot of money. However, the big question is, when we look at that which is given to the church, is how do we spend it? The United Nations has calculated that for $35–$40 billion per year, basic social services could be provided to all the poorest people on the planet. This includes both primary schooling and basic health care and nutrition. Reggie’s point, therefore, is undoubtedly true. There are vast amounts of revenue in our midst, which, if properly channeled, could have a huge impact on global
poverty.

Sadly, only a fraction goes in this direction. All the research indicates that the percentage of our budget given away that in no way directly benefits
our members—and therefore can be channeled to missions and the poor—is decreasing year by year (now at about 15 cents of every donated church dollar).

Unfortunately, it appears that we are not any more transformed in our church spending patterns that in our personal consumer spending patterns, and many now regard their giving as a “fee-for-service” responsibility rather than as a biblical imperative.

To give just one example, from the 75 million dollars in annual income received by
some of the Protestant churches in Chicago, it is estimated that less than 6 million dollars was spent outside the local congregations where the money was raised.

Such current priorities are difficult to justify in a world where 17 million die unnecessarily every year from infectious diseases and inadequate nutrition. Biblically, all of them are our neighbors—and many of them are our brothers and sisters. Our commitment to alleviate their suffering is of highest priority if we are to effectively incarnate the message we are called to proclaim. In the face of this, a re-examination of how we spend our money in the light of the Scriptures and the practice of the early church is long overdue.

As mentioned above, the assumption of most church leaders today is that we have the right to spend our revenue in ways that we believe would be most beneficial to the work for which we are responsible. Budgets are drawn up, employees paid, buildings built and maintained, and missionaries supported. This is the way things are done, and as long as there is an annual audit and no misappropriations of funds, all is well. But is it?

All of the above is built on two assumptions that are rarely, if ever, questioned. The first is that the revenue collected is “ours,” belonging by right to the congregation that gave it and who now, therefore, has the right to spend it. The fact that some churches tithe their income and give away ten percent to other ministries only reflects how deeply we believe it is “ours” to use in the first place. The second assumption is that how this money is spent is a pragmatic decision that varies from congregation to congregation (and culture to culture), depending on the perceived needs and objectives of each local church. I believe that both of these assumptions need to be reexamined in the light of scripture and church history.

It has been well said that the reason we study history is not simply to find out what
happened, but to discover who we are. In the area of economic justice and the use of
church revenue there is no better way to “discover who we are” than to read the early patristic writings. The record is unambiguous, church revenue, prior to Constantine, was used, both locally and in other parts of the Empire, primarily for the welfare of the sick, the poor, the imprisoned, the widow and the orphan. The local congregation did not expect a large percentage of what was given to be used for its own maintenance and ministry. In fact, to do so would have been viewed by most of them as a misappropriation of funds.

In the second century, Tertullian provided us with details of the church services in
North Africa. He spoke of every man bringing money, “whenever he wishes and only if he is willing and able. It is a free will offering. You might call them the trust funds of piety. They are spent on the support and burial of the poor.”

Justin Martyr provides us with similar insight from the second century practice of the Roman church. Speaking of the Sunday service he says, “the money thus collected is deposited with the president who takes care of the orphans and widows and those who are in straits because of sickness or any other cause and those in prison, and visitors from other parts. In short, he looks after all who are in need.”3 Justin explains that regular gifts were brought to the communion service to be used for the common fund. The church in the port city of Ostica, Italy, devoted as much space to storing goods to be redistributed to the needy as they did space for their worship services.

The general rule, for both individuals and churches, was, according to Augustine, that “not to give to the needy what is superfluous is akin to fraud” and “when you possess the superfluous you possess what is not your own.”

Giving in this way was not seen as generosity, it was viewed as an act of restitution. It belonged to the poor by right. Augustine instructed his own church to set aside at least a tenth of all their possessions and income for the poor (not the church). This was actually a concession to what he saw as greed because his congregation was not prepared to give up everything that was “superfluous”!

Quotations similar to those above abound in the early literature available to us.
Sadly, our contemporary approach has been very different. We usually calculate how much it costs to run the church, and then decide how much we can give away to missions and the poor. However, this is not usually done out of selfishness or lack of concern for the poor. It is the direct result of our theology of stewardship which appears to be quite different from that of the early church.

We should also not miss the obvious: when the Old Testament tithe was given, it
was given away to others. It was given to the Levites, a tribe to which those doing the giving did not belong. In contrast, when I give to the church, it is not “given away” at all.

I am the church!

Revenue given to the church directly benefits me as a believer in providing pastoral care, Bible teaching, family counseling, facilities for my children and a building for me to worship in. In that sense, very little is given away. Most of the money I give to the church is spent by the church on meeting my needs and those of my family. For this I am very grateful. However, I am also suspicious as to whether I am a valid recipient of such expenditure.

A refinement of the questionable fiscal construct mentioned above (that giving to the
church and clergy under the new covenant parallels giving to the Levites and the temple under the old covenant), is to concede that indeed the Levitical system cannot parallel the church, as it has been fulfilled in Jesus. But then to argue that a meaningful parallel can be drawn between the financial support of priests (as distinct from Levites), under the old covenant dispensation, and the support of the clergy under the New. Priests were indeed the shepherds of Israel and it could be argued that while the system requiring the manual labor of a Levitical tribe passed away, the teaching and shepherding responsibilities that were part of the
priestly role continue and are today exercised by the clergy.

Priests were of course supported by the Israelite community. The house of Aaron made up about 5 percent of the Levitical population and received a “tithe of the tithe” (Neh.12:47). [While the Old Testament system of tithes and
offerings is complex and difficult to unravel, many of us believe that though they are no longer a legal requirement under the new covenant, the concept of the tithe does provide us with some helpful guidelines in the Church Age]

Therefore if we conclude that there is, in fact, a parallel between the support of the priests in the Old Testament and the clergy in the New, and use a simple tenth as a guide, then a “tithe of the tithe” would still only qualify the clergy (and those working with them) to receive ten dollars out of every hundred given to the church.

It is my contention that the poor should be the primary recipients of the remainder—not the demands of an ecclesiological infrastructure (on average, eighty five dollars out of every hundred given to the church is spent internally, leaving only fifteen to be given away on causes that in no way directly benefit our members).

The care for the destitute and disenfranchised under the Mosaic legislation was, as we know, in stark contrast to their exploitation in the surrounding nations. Laws governing the gleaning of fields, loans without interest, the remission of debt and the provision of Sabbath and Jubilee years were unique to Israel and set her apart as a society. When the Talmud was eventually written, it would reflect this tradition by proposing that one fifth of one’s possessions be given to the needy, and devote an entire volume (“Pe’ah”) to the appropriate use of the tithe and the rights of the poor.

Irenaeus, in the second century, argues that the teachings of Jesus did not
abrogate provision for the poor in the Mosaic law, but rather enlarged and extended them, and that “instead of the law enjoining the giving of tithes” (which would go to the Levites), Jesus tells us “to now share all our possessions with the poor.” Many of the sub-apostolic documents, from a very early date, attest to the parallel between giving to God via the Levites under the old covenant and giving to God via the poor in the new covenant. Lactantius, early in the fourth century, forges the same connection in exhorting the church to give their resources to the poor. He calls on them to “bestow your riches upon the altar of God”. This is another example of how giving to the poor in the new covenant was viewed as equivalent to giving to “the altar” under the old.

It is not surprising that, after immersing himself for a lifetime in the patristic writings, John Wesley wrote his now famous lines that, “any Christian who takes for himself anything more than the plain necessities of life lives in an open, habitual denial of the Lord.” As we know, he practiced what he preached by giving most of his income away, wearing inexpensive clothes and eating only simple food. “If I leave behind me ten pounds,” he wrote, “you and all mankind bear witness against me that I lived and died a thief and a robber.” Strong words, but a faithful echo of patristic orthodoxy and ethics.

As there is now no “Levitical tribe” within the church the tithe that supported them
can now be given to God as we channel it to the poor. The expenditure of sacred revenue to maintain other aspects of the local church is nowhere mentioned in the New Testament. If we require a costly infrastructure of buildings, programs, and extra staff to function effectively in a given culture—which we often do—then other sources of revenue must be found. These expenses should never siphon off funds that God designates for the support of the poor.

As a pastor in a growing church of 3,000, located in an “edge” city in the
Midwest, I am acutely conscious of the potential implications in my own life, as well
as our congregation, if the above thesis is correct. Questions and doubts pile up one
upon another: where does the money then come from to maintain the programs, staff,
and buildings that we need? If we give most of it away, will we simply cease to exist, and then have nothing to give? Are we caught in a web of cultural and congregational expectations from which it is impossible to extricate ourselves without the whole edifice collapsing?

However, why they chose to do this was a deeply theological decision. It had to be. In the issue of sacred revenue they were conscious of standing on holy ground and handling holy things.


If the early church had possessed the political freedom to build churches, employ
staff, and run programs they probably would have done so. However, with the exception of supporting those who preached the gospel—which we will come to later— Jewish believers would not have seen building churches and employing staff as a valid use of the tithe. Revenue would have to come from elsewhere. How to use what was “holy unto the Lord” was not theirs to decide.

Their decision to give it to those degraded by hunger and disease had a huge
evangelistic impact but this was not the motivation for their actions. However pressing the need or valid the cause, the tithe was not seen as theirs to redirect as needed. They gave it to the needy because they understood it as belonging to them by right. The bulk of their funds did not even go into the missionary enterprise for which they both lived and laid down their lives—it went to those lacking the basic necessities of life.

Their conclusion that it should now be given to the weak and destitute was as
considered and weighty as Paul’s in defining the doctrine of justification. The fact that there is more about money and possessions in the Gospels which they wrote than there is about heaven and hell reflects how deeply they pondered these issues. It is safe to say, from the time and attention that they devoted to it, that for the Fathers, “the problem of poverty and wealth was the most important specific social issue that the early church faced, as indeed it has perennially been.”

The early patristic writings enthusiastically endorse the provision for the poor under the Mosaic legislation, and then go far beyond the tithe in championing the rights of the destitute. Today, if we are going to teach the tithe as a benchmark of faithful stewardship, we need to also teach how the early church used these trust funds in ministering to the needy.

The wisdom literature of Israel unequivocally asserted that “to give to the poor is to lend to the Lord” (Prov.19:17). It was upon this foundation that later rabbinic scholars placed almsgiving even above prayer and fasting as the primary act of devotion to God himself; “prayer with fasting is good, but better than both is almsgiving.” Jesus, himself, builds on this legacy by teaching in Matthew 25 that giving and caring for those deprived of wealth and dignity was indeed giving and caring for the Lord himself.

In the fourth century, Basil the Great was so moved by such truths that he built a
‘city’ on the outskirts of Caesarea devoted to providing medical care for the sick, shelter for travelers, clothing for the poor, and work for the unemployed. In describing Basil’s work, Gregory of Nazianzus instructs his readers to “go forth a little way from the city, and behold the new city, the storehouse of piety, the common treasury of the wealthy, in which the superfluities of their wealth, aye, and even their necessities, are stored.”

…the Jews used the word “zedakah” both for righteousness and almsgiving.
Giving alms and being righteous were considered one and the same thing. Jesus
endorsed this and used it as the criteria in separating the sheep and the goats at the end of the age. [It is insightful to substitute “almsgiving”, or “generosity”, for righteousness in certain New Testament passages: Rom. 14:17 becomes, ”the kingdom of God is...generosity, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”. See also 2 Cor. 9:9.]

Finally, the Matthean passage is also significant because Jesus tells us, without any
ambiguity, that God views ministry to the neglected and oppressed as the mechanism by which we can minister to him. As we have seen, this came as no surprise to the Jews, who already understood giving to the needy as giving to God himself. Their literature abounds in affirming the truth of Proverbs, that to give to the poor is to lend to the Lord. The rabbinic parallel in the midrash on Deuteronomy 15:9 is just one example: “My children, when you give food to the poor, I counted it as though you had given it to me.” Others include such statements as, “almsgiving is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High” and, “the one who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering.” “Zedakah” was not only the manifestation of a righteous life, it was also understood as the mechanism by which the pious Israelite could give to Yahweh himself.

What shocked his hearers was not that ministry to those in dehumanizing poverty was regarded as ministry to God himself—this was something they already knew. The shock was that Jesus now assumed the role of deity as the recipient of such ministry, and the role of the eschatological judge—a right restricted to Yahweh himself. Today, for us, his claim to deity is clear. What we need to recover is what his hearers already knew; that by giving to the poor we can give to the Lord himself. Not to do so is to deny him what is his by right and to thereby risk find ourselves among the goats, not the sheep, on the day of judgement.

In the late fourth century John Chrysostom echoed Matthew 25 in lamenting, “thou
hast been bidden to give freely to the hungry.....but thou dost not count him deserving even of a loaf; but thy dog is fed to fulness while Christ wastes with hunger.” Such perspectives were normative in informing the theology of stewardship in the early church.

After Pentecost, the apostles immediately embraced the Matthean mandate. The
economic sharing in their midst became both exhilarating and dramatic. Augustine’s
words, spoken some 400 years later; “whatever you have in excess is not your own,”
reflected the lifestyle that began in the streets of Jerusalem. Paul, himself, was even exhorted by the church council to remember the poor (“the very thing I was eager to do”— Gal.2:10), and the only systematic teaching we have in the Epistles on church giving (2 Cor. 8 and 9) is in the context of an intercontinental offering for the relief of the needy in Jerusalem, which Paul undertook on several occasions.

I have often unintentionally misused the Corinthian passage by preaching from it on the importance of financially supporting the local church. However, on a closer reading, it is obvious that it does not have anything to do with taking an offering for the maintenance of one’s local congregation.

In fact, we have no instructions in the Epistles on taking a collection for ourselves. What we find is teaching on the redistribution of wealth for the benefit of the poor in our midst, and the support of the laborer who is worthy of his hire.

Justo Gonzalez in his book, Faith and Wealth, an exhaustive study of patristic
writings on the subject, affirms that there is no doubt that the early church was univocal in endorsing the same fiscal priorities. The Didache, written sometime between 75 and 140 AD, instructs believers to “share all things with thy brother” and advocates that offerings go to the poor or to the itinerating prophets and teachers who minister in their midst.

Dionysus, Bishop of Corinth in the second century, speaking of the church at Rome, said, “for this is your practice from the beginning to do good to all the brethren in various ways and send contributions to many churches in every city, thus refreshing the poverty of those in need... by these gifts which you have sent from the beginning, you maintain your ancestral custom... providing great abundance for distribution to the saints.” F.F. Bruce maintains that one of the chief means of linking the Christian groups planted all over the eastern Mediterranean world was the practice of mutual aid. Writing about AD 125, the Christian philosopher, Aristides, noted that, “if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed, all of them provide for his needs. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy and they have not an abundance of necessities, they fast for three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.”

The power of this witness did not go unnoticed by the pagans. Even Julian, the
Apostate, who tried to stamp out Christianity, was forced to admit that “the godless Galileans feed not only their poor, but ours also.” By the year 251, the church of Rome was supporting more than 1,500 widows and needy persons, all of whom were “fed by the grace and kindness of the Lord.” Endorsing the rabbinic tradition, Cyprian maintained that prayer and fasting was of no avail unless accompanied by giving to the poor, while Origen ranked almsgiving third in importance, immediately behind baptism and martyrdom. However, their definition of almsgiving went far beyond giving their loose change to the hungry and homeless. It was defined as spending on oneself only that which was absolutely necessary and giving the remainder away. Nothing superfluous should be kept as long as others lacked the necessities of life. According to Gonzalez, “not to do so was tantamount to theft and even homicide” in the estimation of the Fathers.

John Chrysostom defined “necessities” as those things it was impossible to live
without—everything else was relegated to the category of “superfluities.” If you could eat conly pulses and stay healthy you should do so. If not, “garden herbs” could be added to your diet. However, he regarded meat as a luxury only to be consumed in moderation by those who were physically weak. Eating a Big Mac would most certainly be categorized by Chrysostom as indulging in a “superfluity”! He practiced what he preached and devoted his substantial personal income, as bishop of the imperial capital, to helping the needy—insisting that if we use more than is absolutely necessary on ourselves (as individuals and churches), we will be guilty before God of having embezzled what does not belong to us. His simple logic was that the superfluities of the rich were the necessities of the poor, and belong to them by right. For such preaching he was eventually deposed and exiled from the capital.

Charles Avila reminds us that “a salient characteristic of Christian service—koinonia
was “eleemosune” or “compassion.” The term originally meant the feeling from which the act of giving alms sprang. In time, however, it came to mean almsgiving itself. In the patristic age it signified a substantial transfer of one’s own income or property to a fund designed to enable the destitute and socially marginalized to live without suffering absolute want or degradation.”

The historian, Henry Chadwick, concludes that the practical application of charity was the most potent single cause of Christian success in the ancient world. This was not surprising as almsgiving was virtually unknown among the Greeks.33 The German theologian, George Kretschmar, said that in the final analysis it was not the miracles of the early church that impressed the populace—miracle workers were a familiar phenomenon in the ancient world, but the conduct of the Christians, the “propaganda of the deed”, that had such impact. Christians were unbelievably generous with their money, and it was always recognized that the prime responsibility of the church treasury was to provide for the needs of those degraded by hunger and disease.

But what about us, 1500 years later? Am I advocating that we now abandon the
buildings and religious infrastructure that we use to maintain the ministry of our local churches? Absolutely not. As a pastor I don’t see how this is realistically possible. However, I do believe that a radical course correction is called for. We must learn from our forefathers, and not allow these ecclesiastical necessities to absorb our congregational giving to the detriment of those denied what they need to earn a living and escape dehumanizing poverty. To do so is to spend on ourselves money that by right belongs to the needy, and betray our calling as those who seek to demonstrate God’s new order of justice and equity.

The Fathers used the motto “conversatio morem”—translated either, “death to the status quo!” or “constant conversion.” As we enter the twenty-first century, no other area demands a more urgent “conversatio morem” than our attitude towards church expenditure. The bulk of the tithe belongs to the poor and expenditure even on the “necessities” for running the local church must not be allowed to divert it.

In pioneering our way back, I find it helpful to stop looking at the church as an
organization I need to support, and to begin to see it as the primary community to which I belong. This community embraces distributional justice and lives on only ninety percent of its income, most of the rest being given away. The biblical model is not that, as an individual, I give away ten percent of my income to a religious organization (to which I belong), to finance its activities. Instead, the model is that the community to which I belong (the church) is made up of people who live on ninety percent of their income so that as a community, as one unit, they can give away ten percent of their combined personal income. Being financially responsible as part of this body means that my remaining personal income is now spread between meeting the needs of my nuclear family (personal housing, food, clothing, etc.) and the needs of my extended family (worship building, pastoral leaders, etc.). I cannot separate the two. The church is not an institution “out there”, which I support. It is the community that enfolds and identifies who I am as an individual.

The excitement of belonging to the church so defined is that, corporately, we have the economic power to do something of major significance about the issue of global poverty (in my own congregation we could potentially release over two million dollars annually).

Through the cross, God has created a body that has within it the economic resources to provide affordable housing, long term community development, and primary health care to everyone who needs it. Universal primary education would cost $8 billion a year—roughly what the world spends on arms every four days, or half what parents in the US spend annually on toys for their children. This might mean that as believers we will have to break rank with consumerism, live more frugally, and do church more simply—but this will only help us to express the type of community we are committed to become, a community which lives sacrificially, gives away generously and resources all those bereft of their basic human rights.

Most people want to invest their lives in changing the ugly specter of malnutrition and disease that is all too common on the nightly news. As the church now operates, the society around us is astonished at how much we spend on our operating costs. If we were seen, instead, as a group whose first fiscal priority was to empower those living in degrading poverty with the education and the tools they need to get jobs and feed their families, the evangelistic impact in our communities would be massive.

We can, of course, continue to justify almost any expenditure for larger buildings,
multiple programs, extra staff and media saturation under the banner of reaching our
community for Christ. However, if the guidelines of the New Testament and the example of the early church mean anything, we have to examine these expenditures in the light of more sober global realities. America is not only one of the wealthiest nations on earth, it also has within it more churches, Christian colleges, radio stations, bookshops and parachurch ministries than anywhere else on the planet.

While it can’t be denied that more needs to be done, no one in America is without access to Gospel truth. Continuing to pump multiple millions into reaching the same population pool without reference to the global poor and those without any access to the Good News is to violate the New Testament guidelines in using sacred revenue. As we have seen, except for the reference to some elders being worthy of double honor, the texts on the use of money center on giving to the poor and the support of those who we would describe today as missionaries.

Tertullian, in defending Christianity, asserted that Christians spent more in the
streets (among the poor) than the pagans did in their temples.41 No early congregation of believers in the Mediterranean world would have lavished their money on their local congregational expenses in the way that we do (even though they too could have justified it as a valid expense in reaching their community). In the light of Matthew 25 and the Great Commission, they steadfastly refused to consume sacred revenue on themselves. They pumped their funds into supporting the Christian poor in the Empire, and financing those going to the regions beyond. And it was, of course, this example of extravagant generosity that gave their local witness such impact and credibility.

It takes only $500 to create a new job among the poor and improve the living standard of a family of five by fifty percent within one year. If one percent of the worldwide income of Christians was used in this way, we would create 200 million jobs in one year—eliminating poverty among one billion people and empowering them to eventually purchase goods and services from the United States. Reducing our consumption and investing wisely in projects among the poorest of the poor is not only Christian compassion, it would also be to our long term advantage economically..

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1 comment:

Blue Cross of California said...

Healthcare is a great importance to many and I hope everyone stays healthy as it can be great help towards the future.