Economics According to the New Testament

Gold aureus coins with the faces of various Roman Leaders. These coins were found below the floor of a Roman house in Corbridge in 1911. From the British museum.

Growing up, I was often exposed to the idea that capitalism and Christianity go together. Profit and wealth were not simply compatible with Christianity, but were a sign of God’s blessing or your personal piety. I remember going to the Christian bookstore once or twice and seeing large piles of books with that topic specifically in mind, usually by Dave Ramsey, who was recently on the 700 Club for a new book of his. In that interview, one of the first things mentioned is how Ramsey and Robertson agree that wealth is a good thing, and that those who see wealth as bad are wrong, even “gnostic.” I don’t think the heretics here are the “gnostics” who believe that wealth is wrong; rather, I think the heretics here are Ramsey, Robertson, and others in their camp, who seem to have forgotten what the New Testament and early church taught concerning economics.

Ramsey likes to talk a lot about biblical finances. He claims that when he gives someone financial advice that it is done through following what the Bible says. Let’s take a look at what the Bible, specifically the New Testament, teaches Christians concerning finances.

First of all, Christ teaches his followers that they cannot serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24). This verse seems to provide a basic summary of Christ’s teachings on wealth. For Jesus, wealth is something of an idol that takes away from our ability to love God, and the hoarding of wealth means that we are not helping those in need. In the same sermon, Jesus commands his followers to give alms and not store up treasures on earth (Matthew 6:1-4, 19-21). In the same gospel, Jesus talks about the importance of serving the needy in the coming judgment as well (Matthew 25:31-46). Luke shares much of the same teachings concerning charity and compassion as Matthew; however, Luke is a little more blunt about it. In Luke 4, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 in his first sermon, which shows God’s preferential option for the poor, and in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26), they are much more hostile towards wealth. “Blessed are the poor” is matched by “woe to the rich.”

Jesus’ (in)famous teaching of “woe to the rich” is paralleled by his teaching that it is nearly impossible for the rich to enter the kingdom of God because they should sell their possessions and give to the poor (Matthew 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30). This teaching is condemning as it is for the rich, but we cannot forgot some of the others. In Luke 14:7-14, Jesus gives the parable of a wedding feast. In it, he teaches that if we throw a party, we should not invite the rich and powerful who can give us social status, but rather the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. There is also the conversion of Zacchaeus the wealthy tax collector (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus, upon his conversion to Christianity, proclaims, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Perhaps my favorite condemnation of wealth from the New Testament comes not from Christ, but from an apostle:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you. (James 5:1-6 NRSV)

Talk about harsh. Compare this to 1 Timothy 6:6-10.

In addition to all of this, I think we need to question what Jesus even thought of property. It’s obvious that Jesus was not a fan of wealth. However, I also don’t think Christ was particularly interested in the idea of property. I think the cleansing of the Temple shows an incident of property destruction, and in Luke 19:29-36, there is a curious little story about Jesus requesting a horse for his entry into Jerusalem. What is interesting is that he commands his disciples to just take someone’s colt. The owners even asked them why they were taking the horse, to which the disciples simply responded, “The Lord needs it.” Can you imagine this today? A wandering homeless preacher who claims to be the Son of God tells his flock to take someone’s car for him. That would go over really well I bet. Then, in John 12:6, it is mentioned that Jesus’ little group had a common purse, which was managed by Judas. Jesus’ practiced community of goods before the apostles in Acts (2:43-47, 4:32-37) did.

We often like to make the excuse that these teachings on community of property ended in failure and so the church moved on, but history does not support it. We are often taught that the Jerusalem commune came to an end almost immediately (Acts 5-6), but that is not what Scripture shows. Acts 11:27-30 and 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 both show a collection for a common fund in order to help the poor and serve the community. 2 Corinthians 8 and 9show the same behavior. I could go on and on about this, but I think John Wesley summarized the biblical teaching on this well in his commentary:

To say the Christians did this only till the destruction of Jerusalem, is not true; for many did it long after. Not that there was any positive command for so doing: it needed not; for love constrained them. It was a natural fruit of that love wherewith each member of the community loved every other as his own soul. And if the whole Christian Church had continued in this spirit, this usage must have continued through all ages. To affirm therefore that Christ did not design it should continue, is neither more nor less than to affirm, that Christ did not design this measure of love should continue. I see no proof of this.

Wesley is right on several accounts. First of all, love really is at the heart of it all. If we truly loved one another, we would share liberally with one another. In families we don’t need economic rules and regulations, because our love causes us to hold all things in common. Second, Wesley is right in that these teachings on community of property most certainly did continue long after Christ’s death and resurrection. The Didache, a late first or early second century Christian catechism, says this:

Thou shalt not hesitate to give, neither shalt thou murmur when giving; for thou shalt know who is the good paymaster of thy reward. Thou shalt not turn away from him that is in want, but shalt make thy brother partaker in all things, and shalt not say that anything is thine own. For if ye are fellow-partakers in that which is imperishable, how much rather in the things which are perishable? (Didache 4:9-12)

Centuries later, the Anabaptists at Schleitheim stated:

Of all the brothers and sisters of this congregation, none shall have anything of his own, but rather, as the Christians in the time of the apostles held all in common, and especially stored up a common fund, from which aid can be given to the poor, according as each will have need, and as in the apostles’ time permit no brother to be in need.

It continued from the apostles to the church fathers, and to many movements since. The gospel does not teach that wealth is okay, but that wealth is a product of greed and self-interest. Even if we make large sums of money, the gospel tells us to share it as lovingly, freely, and widely as possible. The economics of Jesus does not look like capitalism and materialism, it looks like community and mutual aid.

Cross-posted from my personal blog.

Photo Caption: These are Roman aurei, gold coins originally worth 25 silver denarii. They were issued from the 1st century BC to the beginning of the 4th century AD. Photo by Tim Nafziger from the British museum.