Rediscovering the Blessings of Christian Community in Tough Economic Times
- Tuesday, December 29, 2009
By now, there is no question that the U.S. is looking at an uncertain economic future. Both our personal and national debt is growing at a frightening pace, while the "new New Deal" administration in Washington D.C. marches on with sweeping economic policy changes that many Christians find troubling, to say the least.
With signs like this before us, the American church needs to look for ways that it can better prepare for what may be a long season of economic difficulty ahead in order to help people inside and outside the church. I say this not merely for pragmatic reasons, but in order for the church to be in the position to provide a potent witness to a world that is increasingly plagued by doubt and uncertainty.
What is sorely needed in the American church is an altogether different way of living life together. It is a vision based on the biblical truth that all our time and possessions really belong to God, and that we should invest our time and possessions in the way He sees fit. This does not negate property rights at a temporal level, but it acknowledges a higher ownership (God's) over all that we have.
Many authors have addressed this topic over time, with experience much greater than mine. But I hope the thoughts below are practical and helpful.
Learning from the Past
The first corporate example of this kind of community was (of course) the Church in the Book of Acts, where in Chapters 2 through 4 we see the first Christians selling their property to provide for the needs of others (e.g., Acts 2:42-47). As this continued, God added new members to the Church daily. Early church leaders, such as Barnabas, a Levite, sold their property and gave the proceeds to help this large but poor church. Barnabas, as a Levite, was part of a landed class. His gift alone would have gotten no small notice.
It is important to note that nowhere in Acts do we see any criticism of property ownership. The giving that was done was prompted by the Holy Spirit and was voluntary. But we also see a transformed group of people who realized that all they were and had ultimately belonged to God, who was free to redistribute it as he pleased and as his people needed. The early Church simply cooperated with that process. The Apostle Paul continued this work by gathering a large gift from Gentile believers to help their poorer Jewish brethren in Jerusalem.
But this miracle of generous community did not stop there. It has been replicated to varying degrees throughout Church history. The Moravians, a persecuted group of believers in what is now Germany, formed a similar community in the early 1700s when they, too, had a Pentecost like experience. That community, called Herrnhut, respected property ownership but encouraged great generosity among the community, both in giving resources and service. It's effects are still felt today in thousands of lives who were touched by the prayers, missionary efforts and similar communities spawned by that group.
Other Christian communities of the past have likewise encouraged generous giving and service. The Clapham Sect, which prayed and labored with William Wilberforce to abolish slavery in England, included exceptionally wealthy individuals who died penniless in order to purchase freedom for slaves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic book Life Together, discusses the miracle and challenges of living in community as he and other believers lived together in Nazi Germany. Various Roman Catholic communities have encouraged sacrificial giving and the sharing of possessions for centuries.
More recently, a friend at a Christian organization mentioned how he lived in a Christian community, which paid his way through law school. The reason: that community saw a calling in this man for encouraging biblically based legal reform for which he needed a law degree.
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