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The Early Church and "Wealth"

Articles on Christian Stewardship

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What did some of the early church Fathers think about wealth and money?


The Didache, or “The Teaching of the Twelve,” dates back to the second century. It is thus, apart from the New Testament, one of the earliest church documents extant. It was probably composed by a scribe in Alexandria, incorporating some material from other church documents of the time.

Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving. If your labor has brought you earnings, pay a ransom for your sins. Do not hesitate to give and do not give with a bad grace, for you will discover who He is that pays you back a reward with a good grace. Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own. For if you have what is eternal in common, how much more should you have what is transient!

Now about the apostles and prophets: Act in line with the gospel precept. Welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord. But he must not stay beyond one day. In case of necessity, however, the next day too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet. On departing, an apostle must not accept anything save sufficient food to carry him till his next lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet….

Everyone who comes to you “in the name of the Lord” must be welcomed. Afterward, when you have tested him, you will find out about him, for you have insight into right and wrong. If it is a traveler who arrives, help him all you can. But he must not stay with you more than two days, or, if necessary three. If he wants to settle with you and is an artisan, he must work for his living. If, however, he has no trade, use your judgment in taking steps for him to live with you as a Christian without being idle. If he refuses to do this, he is trading on Christ. You must be on your guard against such people.

Irenaeus (130–202)

Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus served the church when it was battling both persecution and heresies. He is one of the first church fathers to freely quote the New Testament, in his masterwork, Against Heresies. That book, from which the following is quoted, was written about 185 and aimed primarily at the Gnostics.

Therefore the offering of the Church, which the Lord directed to be offered in the whole world, is accounted a pure sacrifice with God, and is acceptable to Him, not that He needs a sacrifice from us, but because he who offers is himself honoured in his offering if his gift be accepted. By his offering, both honour and affection is shown to the King. And our Lord taught us to offer this in all simplicity and innocence (Matt. 5:23, 24). Therefore we must offer to God the firstfruits of His creation, as Moses said. Offerings are no longer offered by bondsmen, but by free men…. They [O.T. saints] offered their tithes; but those who have received liberty set apart everything they have for the Lord’s use, cheerfully and freely giving them (2 Cor. 9:7), not as small things in the hope of greater, but like that poor widow, who put her whole livelihood into the treasury of God (Luke 21:4).

Leo the Great, Sermon 10
In which work He only who knows what He has given to each, discerns aright how much a man can and how much he cannot do. For not only are spiritual riches and heavenly gifts received from GOD, but earthly and material possessions also proceed from His bounty, that He may be justified in requiring an account of those things which He has not so much put in our possession as committed to our stewardship. GOD’s gifts, therefore, we must use properly and wisely, lest the material for good work should become an occasion of sin. For wealth, after its kind and regarded as a means, is good and is of the greatest advantage to human society, when it is in the bands of the benevolent and open-handed, and when the luxurious man does not squander nor the miser hoard it; for whether ill-stored or unwisely spent it is equally lost.

Basil (329–379)

Basil the Great was bishop of the church at Caesarea and archbishop of all Cappadocia. He personally ministered to lepers even after he became a bishop. Basil was probably the first in Christian history to found a hospital.

From a commentary on Luke 12:18:

“Whom do I injure,” [the rich person] says, “when I retain and conserve my own?” Which things, tell me, are yours? Whence have you brought them into being? You are like one occupying a place in a theatre, who should prohibit others from entering, treating that as one’s own which was designed for the common use of all.

Such are the rich. Because they were first to occupy common goods, they take these goods as their own. If each one would take that which is sufficient for one’s needs, leaving what is in excess to those in distress, no one would be rich, no one poor.

Did you not come naked from the womb? Will you not return naked into the earth? (Job 1:21). Whence then did you have your present possessions? If you say, “By chance,” you are godless, because you do not acknowledge the Creator, nor give thanks to the Giver. If you admit they are from God, tell us why you have received them.

Is God unjust to distribute the necessaries of life to us unequally? Why are you rich, why is that one poor? Is it not that you may receive the reward of beneficence and faithful distribution…?

Ambrose (340–397)

Ambrose, the son of a high ranking official in the Roman Empire, also entered public life, becoming a civil governor in Milan. When he tried to settle a dispute between Arians and Catholics at the church in Milan, he himself was nominated as bishop, though he was not yet baptized. He took on these duties humbly and seriously, studying the Bible and theology, and teaching it almost as soon as he learned it. He served for 23 years as Bishop of Milan, during which time Augustine was converted through his preaching. Orthodox in doctrine, a foe of Arianism, Ambrose was also known as a composer of hymns.

From De Nabuthe Jezraelite, his exposition of 1 Kings 21:

The earth was made in common for all…. Why do you arrogate to yourselves, ye rich, exclusive right to the soil? Nature, which begets all poor, does not know the rich. For we are neither born with raiment nor are we begotten with gold and silver. Naked it brings people into the light, wanting food, clothing, and drink; naked the earth receives whom it has brought forth; it knows not how to include the boundaries of an estate in tomb…. Nature, therefore, knows not how to discriminate when we are born, it knows not how when we die….

The poor man seeks money and has it not; a man asks for bread, and your horse champs gold under his teeth. And precious ornaments delight you, although others do not have grain…. The people are starving, and you close your barns; the people weep bitterly, and you toy with jewelled ring…. The jewel in your ring could preserve the lives of the whole people….

A possession ought to belong to the possessor, not the possessor to the possession. Whosoever, therefore, does not use his patrimony as a possession, who does not know how to give and distribute to the poor, he is the servant of his wealth, not its master; because like a servant he watches over the wealth of another and not like a master does he use it of his own. Hence, in a disposition of this kind we say that the man belongs to his riches, not the riches to the man.

Augustine (354–430)

From his commentary on Psalm 131:

Those who wish to make room for the Lord must find pleasure not in private, but in common property…. Redouble your charity. For, on account of the things which each one of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders. On what account? On account of those things which each of us possesses singly. Do we fight over the things we possess in common? We inhale this air in common with others, we all see the sun in common. Blessed therefore are those who make room for the Lord, so as not to take pleasure in private property. Let us therefore abstain from the possessions of private property—or from the love of it, if we cannot abstain from possession—and let us make room for the Lord.

From a sermon to the rich:

That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.

John Chrysostom (347–407)

Grace and Blessing

“Golden-tongued” John Chrysostom preached often to his church at Constantinople on the duties of rich Christians to care for the poor. He takes up the theme in this homily, excerpted here, on Acts 4:32–37, challenging his listeners to imagine themselves living as the first Christians had lived, just three-and-a-half centuries earlier.

“And great grace,” it says, “was upon them all; for neither was there any among them that lacked.” Grace was among them, since nobody suffered want, that is, since they gave so willingly that no one remained poor. For they did not give a part, keeping another part for themselves; they gave everything in their possession. They did away with inequality and lived in great abundance; and this they did in the most praiseworthy fashion. They did not dare to put their offering into the hands of the needy, nor give it with lofty condescension. but they laid it at the feet of the apostles and made them the masters and distributors of the gifts. What a man needed was then taken from the treasure of the community, not from the private property of individuals. Thereby the givers did not become arrogant.

Should we do so much today, we should all live much more happily, rich as well as poor; and the poor would not be more the gainers than the rich. And if you please, let us now for a while depict it in words, and derive at least this pleasure from it, since you have no mind for it in your actions. For at any rate this is evident, even from the facts which took place then, that by selling their possessions they did not come to be in need.

Let us imagine things as happening in this way: All give all that they have into a common fund. No one would have to concern himself about it, neither the rich nor the poor. How much money do you think would be collected? I infer—for it cannot be said with certainty—that if every individual contributed all his money, his lands, his estates, his houses (I will not speak of slaves, for the first Christians had none, probably giving them their freedom), then a million pounds of gold would be obtained, and most likely two or three times that amount. Then tell me how many people our city (Constantinople) contains? How many Christians? Will it not come to a hundred thousand? And how many pagans and Jews! How many thousands of pounds of gold would be gathered in! And how many of the poor do we have? I doubt that there are more than 50,000. How much would be required to feed them daily? If they all ate at a common table, the cost could not be very great. What could we not undertake with our huge treasure! Do you believe it could ever be exhausted?

And will not the blessing of God pour down on us a thousand-fold richer? Will we not make a heaven on earth? Would not the grace of God be indeed richly poured out?

If this turned out so brilliantly for three or five thousand (the first Christians) and none of them was in want, how much more would this be so with such a great quantity? Will not each newcomer add something more? The dispersion of property is the cause of greater expenditure and so of poverty. Consider a household with husband and wife and ten children. She does weaving and he goes to the market to make a living; will they need more if they live in a single house or when they live separately? Clearly, when they live separately. If the ten sons each go his own way, they need ten houses, ten tables, ten servants and everything else in proportion. And how of the mass of slaves? Are these not fed at a single table, in order to save money? Dispersion regularly leads to waste, bringing together leads to economy.

This is how people now live in monasteries and how the faithful once lived. Who died of hunger then? Who was not fully satisfied?

And yet people are more afraid of this way of life than of a leap into the endless sea. If only we made the attempt and took bold hold of the situation! How great a blessing there would be as a result! For if at that time, when there were so few faithful, only three to five thousand, if at that time when the whole world was hostile to us and there was no comfort anywhere, our predecessors were so resolute in this, how much more confidence should we have today, when by God’s grace the faithful are everywhere! Who would still remain a heathen? Nobody, I believe. Everyone would come to us and be friendly.

But yet if we do but make fair progress, I trust in God that even this shall be realized. Only do as I say, and let us successfully achieve things in their regular order; if God grant life, I trust that we shall soon be progressing to this way of life.

John Chrysostom (347–407)

John Chrysostom gave up a legal career for the ascetic life. He served the church at Antioch of Syria as deacon, then elder and chief preacher. His homiletical skills earned him the moniker Chrysostom, “golden-mouthed.” He also wrote commentaries on Scripture. He was chosen Archbishop of strategic Constantinople in 397, but his strong preaching against sin offended the queen, who maneuvered to have John banished in 403.

From a homily on Romans:

If you wish to leave much wealth to your children, leave them in God’s care. For he who without your having done anything, gave you a soul, and formed you a body, and granted you the gift of life, when he sees you displaying such munificence, and distributing your goods, must surely open to them all kinds of riches…. Do not leave them riches, but virtue and skill. For if they have the confidence of riches, they will not mind anything besides, for they shall have the means of screening the wickedness of their ways in their abundant riches.

From a sermon on the poor:

“Anyone who would not work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) …. But the laws of Saint Paul are not merely for the poor. They are for the rich as well…. We accuse the poor of laziness. This laziness is often excusable. We ourselves are often guilty of worse idleness.

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