economics

How Should You Deal with Wealth and Poverty? Three New Testament Teachings

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What did you do yesterday? Perhaps you went to work, made money, paid bills and drove past the homeless person on the way home. Or, maybe you sent in yet another resume, looked at your dwindling bank account and wondered if you can make it another month.

So when we talk about wealth and poverty, we’re not talking about theory. We’re talking about life. As a result, it’s critical that we think biblically about these issues.

In a recent post, we saw what Jesus taught about wealth and poverty in the Gospels. Today, let’s complete our look at the Bible’s teachings on this matter by looking at the rest of the New Testament.

These three themes stand out:

1. Work to provide for yourself.

The creation ideal of laboring receives little attention in the Gospels, but the Epistles appeal to it with regularity. Paul frequently mentioned the duty to work, and he understood that laboring to meet material needs was a normal part of the Christian life. For example, Paul writes,

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands. (Eph. 4:28, emphasis added)

But we urge you, brothers… to work with your hands, as we instructed you (1 Thess. 4:10-11, emphasis added)

Paul not only believes honest work to be incumbent upon believers but also that labor is a means of meeting material needs, for “the laborer deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18; see Matt. 10:10; Luke 10:7).

Laboring to meet material needs was a normal part of the Christian life.

2. Work to provide for the poor.

Paul teaches that labor affords workers an opportunity to meet the needs of the poor. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to work, in part, so that they would “have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph. 4:28). The apostle frequently holds himself up as a model in this regard. In the book of Acts, Paul reminds the church at Miletus,

In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak. (Acts 20:35, emphasis added; see 1 Cor. 4:12; 9:6; 1 Thess. 2:9)

Paul’s emphasis on labor can be seen in his repeated warnings against idleness, such as, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10).

James exhorts his readers with the teaching,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction. (James 1:27)

The apostle Paul’s example aligns with James’s words — he was someone who aided the poor. This is evident in the apostle’s day-to-day ministry, as well as in the periodic benevolence offerings that he received and distributed from the churches to whom he ministered (see Rom. 15:25-28; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9).

In the New Testament an often appealed to instance of caring for the poor is the early church’s example of communal living. Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35 report this event:

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need…. Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that an o the tings that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Given the positive presentation and results of this communal living in the Jerusalem church, it is understandable that some throughout church history have viewed this situation to be normative for the Christian life. Several factors make this conclusion unlikely.

  1. These passages are narrative, not prescriptions. Viewing the wide-ranging narrative passages of Scripture as normative for the Christian opens up a Pandora’s Box of interpretation and risks confusing principle with application.
  2. Numerous passages and examples in the Bible contradict the notion of communal living being a requirement for believers. These passages include Matthew 25:14-30; Acts 5:4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15; and 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10.

Rather than viewing Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35 as normative for the Christian life, then, it seems better to understand this situation in the life of the early church to be an application of the principle of caring for the poor. In other words, many in the early church were impoverished; therefore, members of the body of Christ simply pooled their resources to meet the needs of their brothers and sisters. It was a contextual application of the gospel, not a timeless moral principle or a prescription for a specific political or economics system.

Labor affords workers an opportunity to meet the needs of the poor.

3. Don’t allow wealth to be a stumbling block.

Finally, the gospel teaching that wealth can be a spiritual stumbling block is also present in the book of Acts and in the Epistles. This theme can be seen in the most well-known, and likely the most misquoted, of Paul’s teachings about finances.

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim. 6:10)

The apostle continues,

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim. 6:17-19)

Clearly, as Jesus does in the Gospels, Paul warns about the spiritual pitfalls that accompany the love of money, not about the evils of money itself.

One other way that the theme of wealth being a potential spiritual stumbling block can be seen in the book of Acts and in the Epistles is in the warnings about coveting and greed. These books contain many explicit warnings about coveting, such as,

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have. (Heb. 13:5).

They also contain examples of individuals who were guilty of this sin, including Ananias and his wife (see Acts 5:1-10), Simon Magus (see Acts 8:18-23), the owners of the slave girl from whom Paul exorcized a demon (see Acts 16:19), Demetrius the silversmith (see Acts 19:24-27), Felix (see Acts 24:26) and Demas (see 2 Tim. 4:10). These examples and the contexts in which they occur yield the same conclusion that Paul communicates in Ephesians 5:5,

For you may be sure of this, that everyone… who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

The sin of covetousness both disqualifies one from ministry (see 1 Tim. 3:3) and is a mark of end-times apostasy (see 2 Tim. 3:2; 2 Peter 2:1-3).

This post is a modified excerpt of Dr. Jones’ book Health, Wealth and Happiness.

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  • economics
  • wealth and poverty
  • work
David W. Jones

Dr. Jones is a Professor of Christian Ethics and serves as the Associate Dean of Theological Studies and Director of the Th.M. Program at Southeastern Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Every Good Thing, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics and is the co-author of Health, Wealth, and Happiness. He comments on the Bible over at redeemedmind.com.

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