Christian Generosity: Some Ground Rules from the Bible and the Early Church

Image: lincolnparks.com

Image: lincolnparks.com

I came across this article on The Generosity of the Early Church, which gives a good overview of the principles and practical application of generosity in the churches of the New Testament.

It makes sense to start with what the New Testament really says about true generosity. What comes out looks rather different from the almost unquestioned acceptance by evangelical Christians today of tithing (giving 10 percent of your income) as a guide for financial giving. What follows are my own ponderings and interpretations, but they tally very well with those of the article linked to above.

God loves a cheerful giver is still the guiding principle [2 Corinthians 9:7]. Human beings are creatures of habit. Drift easily sets in and we lose the freshness of sacrificial giving and the joy of generosity. Many Christians then find convenient ways of justifying personal wealth by giving a bit here and there.

In the gospels, there are examples of ‘giving to charity‘ in today’s sense, e.g. John 13:29. Yet chiefly we are urged to show justice to the poor by identifying with them and sharing what we have with them in the new, classless society that is the Church. That’s why the first Church in Jerusalem shared meals in homes with glad and generous hearts, and met each other’s financial needs by sacrificial giving [Acts 2:45-46]. It was the Holy-Spirit-inspired pattern for all ages.

Everyone must give, and the New Testament way is “the apostles’ feet”: you give to your church for God’s work. How much to give? Tithing is an Old Testament practice which is not laid on Christians. It can be a start, but Jesus, the pioneer of a new covenant, shows a new way: give everything you can – which is usually more than you think you can.

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The Apostle Paul gives some helpful guidelines:

* Give as much as you can [2 Corinthians 8:3];
* Give freely, without pressure [ibid, v.3,8];
* Give cheerfully, not grudgingly [chap.9:5-8];
* Give as an expression of care and unity in the kingdom of God [chap.8:4];
* Give, trusting God to bless and reward the lavish heart [chap.8:4].
* Give as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and be blessed in blessing others [chap.9:14-15].

Several articles have caught my attention on the subject of generosity.

Larry Jones writes about “Is Giving Really Giving?”. He questions the supposed absolute of not expecting to receive anything in return (Luke 6:35). Through the act of giving we do experience an equivalent or reward. I believe that God has created a “universal law”, whereby when we give back to Him and others, He opens up at least the possibility for equivalent rewards.

David Matthias offers an inspiring testimony of generous giving which did not involve any money changing hands! Read about how several people’s pressing needs were met by sharing possessions.

Zach Nielsen offers some challenging insights on “financial peace” – the contentment that comes through being generous and unselfish with what has been entrusted to us. His post is particularly useful in that he links to various articles for and against the notion that money is by nature a danger to faith.

Here Nielsen puts his finger on the moral and intellectual dilemma we all face vis-à-vis our wealth:

‘I’m afraid the framing of this discussion leads us to ask the wrong questions. Like the junior high boy who wonders “how far is too far” with his girlfriend, we are quickly caught up in questions about how rich is too rich, how poor is too poor, and the like. Where is the line? Do I feel guilty for having too much? Do the kids have enough? What does “enough” even mean? Should I feel guilty about not giving as much as so and so? If I give more, does that mean I am more spiritual?

‘The hamster wheel of comparison, propelled by our spring-loaded legalism, keeps spinning to exhaustion. We are all tempted to be proud about what we give or feel guilty about what we don’t.’

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

So, what do we do about this? How do we start to effect change in our giving? Operation Church offer the graphic above. It makes thought-provoking reading, but any Christian who is conscientiously exercised to build generosity into their life ought to look hard at the paradigm shift it advocates.

One early Christian text can help us here. The ‘Didache‘ (Greek for “teaching”) is of uncertain date, but internal evidence leads most commentators to place it at the latest AD 100. It is a short handbook of moral and practical governance for churches, perhaps in Syria, and it is anonymous.

Here are some quotations on generosity (and meanness) which carry the freshness of Early Church clarity.

Let your money sweat in your hands until you know to whom you should give it.

Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving.

Do not hesitate to give, nor grumble when you give; remember who is the good Paymaster of the reward [i.e. God].

Share everything with your brother, and do not say it is your own; for if you are sharers in the imperishable, how much more in perishable things?

 


Another early Christian writing gives us valuable insights. It is the Apology (reasoned defence of the faith) by Marcianus Aristides, a converted philosopher from Athens. Some authorities suggest he had sat at the feet of the Apostle John. In all likelihood, he prepared this Apology in AD 125, because the emperor Hadrian visited Athens that year.

Here are some sentences on generosity from Aristides. His style of writing is heavy and rhetorical, and so is the Victorian English of the translation! Here I have at times modernised the phrasing without (I trust) altering the sense of what was written.

“Christians live in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. So they do not embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. If one or other of them has servants or slaves, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.

They love one another, esteem widows, and rescue orphans from any who ill-treat them. Whoever has [wealth] gives to him who has not, without boasting. When they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother.

“Whenever one of their number who was poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability contributes to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. If there is among them any that is poor and needy, and they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to have food which they can supply to the needy one.”


The Shepherd of Hermas is an anonymous early Church writing, probably composed in Rome around AD 140. It consists of a series of pictures or revelations made to a character named Hermas, which are then interpreted to him by an angel (called the Shepherd) or by an ageless woman, representing the Church.

One of these pictures is an allegory of generosity and how it benefits both the giver and the receiver in equal measure – which is what God intended in the first place. I have abridged it slightly, as the original is rather wordy, and modernised some of the phrasing to make it more readable.

As I was walking in the field, I observed an elm and a vine. As I considered them and their fruits, the Shepherd appeared to me and said: “These are intended as an example for the servants of God.

“The vine produces fruit; the elm is an unfruitful tree. But unless the vine is supported by the elm, it cannot bear much fruit, and the fruit which it does bear is rotten because it trails along the ground. Therefore, when the vine is cast upon the elm, it yields fruit, both from itself and from the elm.

“This is a similitude for the poor man and for the rich.” “How so, sir?” said I; “explain the matter to me.” “Listen,” he said: “The rich man has much wealth, but is poor in matters relating to the Lord, because he is distracted about his riches; he offers very few intercessions to the Lord, and those which he does offer are small and weak, and have no power above. The poor man, with fewer distractions and greater needs, is often in prayer, and his intercession has great power with God.

Harvesting vines grown on elm trellis in Italy

Harvesting vines grown on elm trellis in Italy

So, when the rich man refreshes the poor, and assists him without hesitation in his necessities, the poor man (being helped by the rich) intercedes for him, giving thanks to God for the one who bestowed gifts upon him. This moves the rich man to continue to interest himself zealously for the poor man, that his wants may be constantly supplied. For he knows that the intercession of the poor man is acceptable and influential with God, and by it he (the rich man) is blessed.

“Thus, both accomplish their work, and it is a great work, acceptable before God. Poor men, interceding with the Lord on behalf of the rich, increase their riches; and the rich, again, aiding the poor in their necessities, satisfy their souls. Both, therefore, are partners in the righteous work.”

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

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  1. A picture of generosity | Jesus Fellowship Church - April 20, 2018

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