Thursday, June 17, 2010


As I sat with my friend Tom Crisp this week over lunch, we talked about the radical way in which the early church engaged with the poor. Their perspective was so Kingdom-minded that they fully embraced the idea of being in community with the poor at any cost. Their compassion for the needs of their brothers and sisters that they gladly surrendered their earthly possessions to ensure that everyone in the Body had enough to eat and a place to sleep.

In contrast, I began to see how the Church today – and this includes myself – has focused largely on engaging the poor by attempting to improve their economic status. Rather than give up what we have, our energies have been applied to helping the poor in our society to acquire the skills necessary to become like us and join the middle class of society.

Essentially, the early church sold off their possessions to become one with the poor, and today the modern church holds on to its wealth and looks for ways to eliminate poverty.

I say this less as a critique and more as an observation. I find this intriguing. In fact, I’m surprised that I’ve never heard this idea expressed before. And of course a wide array of questions begin to form and splinter outward from this realization.

Should the church be moving into poverty rather than moving the poor into the middle class?
Can we ever truly eliminate the “us versus them” mentality without becoming poor ourselves?
What does this idea of surrendering my wealth and my status in society have to do with following Jesus?

Certainly, if I wanted to, I could make a pretty strong case from scripture that following Jesus means laying down our lives, the poor are rich in faith towards God, and a whole lot more.

At the same time, I understand that there is a balance to this conversation. Scripturally, Jesus didn’t tell everyone who wanted to be his disciple to sell all that they had and give it to the poor first. However, in that same context, Jesus affirmed that all of the disciples had done just that and would be blessed a hundred fold in this life and in the life to come.

I also understand that, as a father and a husband, the idea of becoming one with the poor in this radical fashion brings more than a little discomfort. How can I reconcile this idea of giving up my possessions and my wealth if it means my children don’t have the food they need, or the education, or a place to sleep at night?

As I consider this new testament perspective on engaging the poor in this way, I am reminded that these same early Christians also developed a policy that said, “he who won’t work won’t eat.” So, I understand that there’s a balance somewhere between absolute poverty and begging for food versus working to provide for your own needs – and the needs of others.

Obviously, I have not fully thought this all out yet. I’ve only just recognized a difference between the posture of the early church towards the poor versus our posture – and my posture – to the poor today.

Like most of what Jesus taught us, putting his words into practice is not easy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.



Marc said...

Jesus was certainly about change but we've become settled in our routines as Christians. We're OK, who needs to care about the poor - that's God's job isn't it? It's Jesus who "will bring Justice to the nations" isn't it?

As Christians we've taken all the advantages of being "en Christo" and rejected the calling to, as N.T. Wright puts it, "be Jesus for the world". Obviously if we're his body, we ought to be pushing his agenda (Kingdom on Earth) in his mode (Cross - Self-Sacrifice).

But all this scares people and they fluctuate between hopelessness and apathy. Either "I can't save the world from poverty!" or "World? It's all passing away anyway!".

I'm in the same position as you Keith. Family. My strategy is to do all I can to support World Vision, IJM and Children International.

In the past, when there was poverty and injustice the cause was military conquest and might and this was the only answer. Today the cause is economic and the answer is us RICH FOLK sending money to agencies doing the Good Work.

For $22 a month with Children International you can sponsor a child and keep him or her out of poverty, prostitution or slavery and in school. Every person in the west should sponsor a few kids and poverty would be drastically reduced.

We can stay with our families and still save lives.

Keith Giles said...

Marc - I appreciate your comments, and I agree with you on all of it. Except that I'm not sure that "all we can do" is to give money to organizations.

I think in scripture the followers of Jesus are commanded to do more than write checks. I think we're called to be in relationship with the poor - to love them and know their names and invite them into our homes and befriend them, not write to checks to non-profits so they can do that for us.

Love is what we are called to, and sometimes that love is expressed in letting go of our money to support a non-profit group, but I'd argue that if love never extends to an actual human being - to actual human touch and contact and interaction - then it's not quite the love Jesus intended us to express.

Norma Hill - aka penandpapermama said...

being involved in "unfunded" street outreach (a half dozen or so of us supply breakfasts, basic personal items, blankets etc to up to 100 or so street people; and of course spend a lot of time with them, including inviting them into our homes for meals etc), we face this question a lot. The guy who started this has 5 teens of his own, and is pretty much full time involved in this right on the streets, his wife supports the family, but they've gone a good $20,000 in debt and their family is living really close to the edge. And they are content - and joyful - about it. The rest of us pitch in with what we have, and we're learning that we have a lot more than we thought we did, and a lot more than we need. And yes, it is worth it, for the street family - and, I'm more and more convinced, for us middle-classers who are losing our fascination with the comforts of middle class Christianity. I have been muddling about in my thinking about all this, but your post has asked questions that make the whole thing a lot clearer for me. Thanks. You have expressed in words what I have been experiencing in life. I hope others join in on this conversation.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Wanted to ask for some clarification before fully responding Keith....

When you said, "they (the Early Church)fully embraced the idea of being in community with the poor at any cost", are you refering strictly to within the Body of Christ (as the last sentence in the first paragraph suggests), or the "poor" in a more universal sense? As your post continues, it's hard to determine if you're speaking about poor people everywhere, or just people within the Body who are in need...

Keith Giles said...

The testimony of the early church, both in the NT and in the first 300 years of church history, was one of a radical concern for the poor in their community - both believers and unbelievers alike.

In fact, many pagans complained that "those christians" cared for, fed and even buried both their own poor and those poor who weren't even in their fellowship.

Concern for the poor was - and is - an expression of love. We do not only love those in the Body, do we? We are commanded to love one another, yes, but we're also expected to be marked by the character of service and love to all people.

Our love and service to everyone around us is an effective evangelism to which there is no argument or rebuttal. We don't preach the love of Jesus, we live it out and demonstrate it.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

Thanks for clarifying Keith...

We would totally agree that a "character of service and love to all people" is reflective of a life that has been changed by the Spirit of Christ.

But is that the same thing as "embracing the idea of being in community with the poor at any cost"?

What if it's not a question of "moving into poverty" OR "moving the poor into the middle class"? What if both of these approaches miss the point of the gospel altogether? What if we recognized that both classifications ("poor" and "middle-class", as relative as those terms may be...) are reflective of a mindset which forgets the temporary nature of both sets of circumstances (i.e. a Worldly mindset)?

Isn't our sense of community and brotherhood defined by Christ Himself, instead of any sort of social status (be it rich, poor, or "middle-class"...)? How could we see ourselves as "one" with random people, simply because of their financial situation...? Do we forget that the majority of the "poor people" in the world do not embrace such a lifestyle for themselves willingly? Do we forget that the vast majority of them would trade for a comfy, middle-class lifestyle in a heartbeat? Do we forget that we see this same quest for a "better life" repeated over and over again by those who come to the United States, chasing the "American Dream"? Doesn't almost every reality show on T.V. tap into people's innate desire to "have it all"? Do we forget that people can be trapped in the bondage of idolatry even if they don't own a single thing?

What if it's really not an issue of "us vs. them", but "them vs. Him"? We should of course be moved by the physical needs of others, and be compelled to act in accordance to those needs, but if in the end we are not primarily concerned with them being reconciled to the Creator, are we really living and acting in true love? The love that Jesus defines? Did He die and rise again so that we could merely learn to give out food, and prolong each other's lives by a day, or more importantly that we could be raised with Him, and live forever? And until that person who is poor by earthly standards comes to that point where the Holy Spirit works in their heart, and shows where their real poverty lies, (and prompts them to repentance...), then it's hard to see how we could really see ourselves as being "one" with them. A close look at the NT suggests that the Early Church also understood and maintained this distinction as well...