Sunday

The Church and Money - a Historical Perspective

Following an occasional series on the issue of money in the church portrayed in the new testament writings, I now take a slight historical detour to look at "Christian attitudes to finance in the first four centuries" - the title of an article by Frances Young of Birmingham University. I am grateful to Early Church for the heads up on this article.

Frances Young highlights three key themes in her essay:

1. The Ban on Lending Money with Interest

Young outlines the growth and consolidation of this teaching from its roots in the Old Testament commands (Exod 22.25; Deut 23.19; Ps 15.5; and Ezek 18.8) to its application to, first church leaders, then all Christians by the ninth century.

Although not opposed to banking as such, the early church did protest against the growing consolidation of wealth in the hands of a powerful few and the use of their economic power to lend money with interest.

2. The Use of Money to Care for the Poor

Young also provides some fascinating statistical data to illustrate the nature of the church's concern for the poor during this period. In the third century, for instance, the church in Rome is recorded as supporting 1,500 widows and other poor persons at an annual cost of between 1/2 and 1 million sesterces.

Just after 400 AD, the church in Antioch was supporting 3,000 virgins and widows, and the Church in Constantinople financed the care of 50,000 poor people.

It was during this period that some of the more well known quotations by outsiders commenting on the church's practice were noted and written down. The pagan satirist Lucian, for instance, notes of the Christians that "their original law-giver taught them that they were all brothers."

Tertullian, meanwhile, describes the varied use of the church common fund:
  • feeding poor Christians
  • providing for orphans both inside and outside of the church
  • paying for the funeral costs of poor Christians
  • supporting Christians in prison and those sent to the mines as punishment for their faith
Against this backdrop, Tertullian quotes outsiders as saying of the Christians, "Only look how they love one another!"

At a later date, the Emperor Justin expresses frustration in his attempts to revive the fortunes of the pagan cults. Forming imperial charitable institutions to rival those of the Christians, Justin writes, "It is disgraceful that all men should see our people lack aid from us, when no Jew has ever had to beg and the impious Galileans [i.e. Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well."

3. The Support of Church Leaders

The church in Rome in the third century is reported as having 150 paid "clergy" exercising a variety of serving/leadership functions.

Many of the church's salaried workers during this period were, in fact, appointed to administer the church's communal charity funds - a development anticipated in the narrative in Acts 6 concerning the appointment of the "seven" to care for the daily distribution of food to widows in the Jerusalem church.

Conspicuous for its absence until the 4th century is any reference to the use of money to buy or maintain buildings. By the fifth century, however, as Christianity became the official religion of the empire and started to receive government allowances, the proportion of the church's finances directed towards the poor dropped to about one-fifth, the rest being spent on the clergy and the upkeep of buildings (pictured).



1 comment:

The Friday Joker said...

"Although not opposed to banking as such, the early church did protest against the growing consolidation of wealth in the hands of a powerful few and the use of their economic power to lend money with interest".

It sounds as though Distributism really is as biblical and Christian as its founders (G.K.Chesterton et al) claimed it to be.