The New Testament and Economic Equality
In our article “The Early Church, Property, Riches, and Poverty,” we summarized the views of many of the Early Fathers as “an interpretation consistent with the Bible’s account of property that emphasizes economic egalitarianism as a far greater value than private ownership.” I’d like to take a brief survey of the New Testament that answers the question: Where did the Fathers find support in the Scriptures for this interpretation? Can we derive the principles of economic egalitarianism from a plain reading of the Scriptures on the topic? I believe we can, and in fact I would argue that the failure to do so is all too often because we are so beholden to a capitalist, individualist framework that we thwart the clear message of the Bible, forcing it to align with the economic realities of this present age.
The Gospel of Luke and his Acts of the Apostles give the most clear vision of Jesus’ message about wealth and property, and the subsequent early church practice. When Jesus was a child, we can imagine his mother Mary singing him to sleep, repeating a song she sang when he was still in the womb: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) When his cousin John was asked what repentance looked like, he said simply: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11) In a similar vein, when the rich young ruler seeks a recipe for earning salvation from Jesus, he repeats his regular stump speech (already recorded in Luke 12, and again here in Luke 18:22): “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The rich man could not do so and went away sad, but when Zacchaeus declares in the next chapter that he will give away the majority of his wealth to the poor and those he had oppressed, Jesus says: “Today salvation has come to this house!” (Luke 19:9). It’s clear from Luke’s story that the giving of excess wealth to others was more than just a voluntary act of benevolence. It is, in some intrinsic way, bound up in the liberating power of the Gospel - when salvation and repentance show up, then wealth and property will be dramatically re-ordered. We are welcome to join in the radical redistribution and hear Jesus say “salvation has come!,” or to refuse our role in God’s economy, and walk away sad and, ultimately, unrepentant.
When the Church was born by the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, we see again the fruits of the Gospel displayed in tangible, economic terms: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) In Acts 6, the entire order of deacon is specifically developed to continue this central ministry of receiving financial gifts from those with wealth and distributing to the needy. This general practice gets fleshed out in Acts 4-5, when, like the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus, we see two individual responses to the clarion call for radical economic egalitarianism within the Church. In Acts 4:36, Joseph, a Levite, sells a field and brings all the proceeds to the apostles for redistribution. In chapter 5, a man named Ananias does the same thing, yet keeps back a portion of the proceeds for his own use. Often the sin of Ananias is considered to be his dishonesty, as if saying “I sold a field, but I want to keep half of the profits!” would have made everything fine. But I find it interesting that only Sapphira, his wife, speaks, while Ananias is not recorded as actually speaking dishonestly. It seems that the apostles are just as concerned with the withholding of profits as with the lies. Certainly within the context of Acts 2 and Acts 4, it seems that the grave error of Ananias is not having “everything in common,” and depriving someone in need in the community to enrich himself.
It is evident that from the beginning, the church is fully realizing her mission through the economic redistribution of wealth and property, such that everyone who has ability gives, and everyone who has needs receives. Paul, writing to the Corinthians to collect money for the church in Jerusalem, summarizes it this way: “The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’” (2 Cor. 8:14-15) James takes the message even further, excoriating those who, like Ananias, keep back wealth that could meet other’s needs: “You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.” (James 5:3-4) This example is notable in that the call to share wealth extends beyond the confines of the family or Christian community, out into the relationships forged in labor and commerce. It seems that James believes the Church’s mission of economic equality is a mandate for all aspects of life.
In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays makes this point: "The New Testament witnesses speak loudly and in chorus: the accumulation of wealth is antithetical to serving in God's kingdom." Indeed, when taking this survey of the New Testament as an instructive whole, it seems impossible to side-step the clear meaning of Jesus and the apostles. Part of a holistic Christian discipleship is shedding the notion that property and wealth belong to me without exception, and are subject only to my whims and desires. We as Christians aren't simply custodians of the current distribution of property: all who are made in God's image, who mow our fields and harvest our food, have a Spirit-ordained claim to the means of a flourishing life, means which are often denied them under capitalism. While we can discuss and debate the methods, I think the ethical imperative is undeniable: the goal is equality, and there should be no needy person among us.