|Redistribution and the Church|
The Church and the poor
We see this, for example, in Ched Myers’s Sabbath Economics. Myers argues that the story of the manna in the Old Testament is intended to teach us that God provides abundantly for our needs (not our desires), but forbids accumulation. Myers’s exegesis results in a host of distortions of the text—for example, his conclusion about the lesson of the manna is very different from Moses’ (Deut. 8:3)—and his economic assumptions lead him to twist Jesus’ parables, as discussed in the last article.
But what of his central idea, shared by other progressives such as Shane Claiborne, that the Church is to be an anti-capitalist community based on voluntary redistribution of goods?
First, as I argued in a previous article, the Bible is absolutely clear that those who have must share with those who have not. John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, John, James, all tell us that the rich are obligated to help the poor. So yes, in that sense, redistribution is a part of living faithfully before God.
Ched Myers cites the manna story as a prohibition on accumulation, but ignores the fact that the Israelites carried out great wealth from Egypt, some of which they contributed to the building of the Tabernacle. Evidently, despite the manna, God was not concerned with them holding on to property, even great wealth.
This is not surprising, considering that the right to property is grounded in the image of God and God’s mandate to Adam in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the inalienable right to property is critical to the Jubilee, one of Myers’ inspirations for Sabbath Economics, as well as the laws prohibiting theft and covetousness.
But what about the “community of goods” described in the Jerusalem church, in which the believers “held all things in common?” (Acts 4:32) This is a favorite verse for those who believe that redistribution is a central responsibility of the Church. Yet a careful reading of the text and of the next few chapters shows that the Jerusalem church did not operate as a commune, whatever a superficial reading of this verse suggests.
This is reinforced in the following chapter, where Peter affirms Ananias’ and Saphira’s right to their property and to the proceeds of its sale (Acts 5:4). In other words, private property was maintained in the Jerusalem church and thus that they did not literally “hold all things in common,” though generosity was encouraged and practiced.
Myers never explicitly rejects private property and does argue that redistribution should be voluntary. But since he also argues that accumulation is forbidden, it would seem that property ownership would involve the Christian in the kind of unjust economic system that Myers claims all believers are called upon to dismantle. How these two ideas fit together is not entirely clear.
Caring for the poor: widows
Because of this experience, the church in Jerusalem drew up rolls of widows who were dependent on the church and appointed seven people to oversee the distribution of aid, the first deacons. At this point, the Jerusalem church numbered several thousand people, yet only seven were needed to deal with the needs of the church’s dependents. How did that work?
The answer is found in 1 Timothy. Evidently, the widows roll in Jerusalem became the model for other churches, including the church in Ephesus. Paul tells Timothy that only certain widows are to put on the church’s rolls; the rest should remarry or be cared for by their families (1 Tim. 5:3-16).
It is even possible that these widows were given specific responsibilities in the church. Early church documents indicate that the Church had an “order of widows” whose job was to minister to women in ways that would have been inappropriate for men. If so, this would be consistent with Paul’s warnings against idleness and his insistence that those who can work, do so (2 Thess.6-12).
To put it differently, the Church’s regular distribution of food was limited to those who had no other options or resources and who devoted themselves to prayer and service to the saints (1 Tim. 5:5, 10). As a result, there were relatively few who were on the rolls, and the church in Jerusalem could therefore get by with only seven deacons. While Christians also engaged in extensive ad hoc charity to the needy, only a very limited number of people were allowed to become dependents of the Church.
Giving for emergencies
None of this means that Christians are not called upon to share with those in need. We absolutely are, and on this point the progressive movement among Evangelicals is beyond doubt correct. The key question is how best to do this.
Words and deeds
The issue of accumulation is particularly important here, because without it, economic and technological growth, medical advancement, the arts, and a wide range of other activities would come to a grinding halt. As it turns out, however, there are examples in history where a more Biblically-balanced understanding of economics and responsibility to the poor had a massive (though under-appreciated) impact on society. Surprisingly enough, some of the most important examples of this come from medieval monasteries, where the monks took vows of poverty. We will look at these in our next article.
How can we think more clearly about our worldview? Glenn tells us in his book, Why You Think the Way You Do.
 This is another example where Myers draws a conclusion about what a passage is supposed to teach that is very different from the lesson that Scripture itself tells us we are to learn from the incident (Deut. 8:3).
 This just scratches the surface of the kinds of problems this book raises, such as arguing that the Eucharist is primarily about redistribution and “remembering” the poor instead of “remembering” Jesus.
 These widows may have been deaconesses such as Phoebe (Rom. 16:1) or the deaconesses arrested in the early second century by Pliny the Younger.