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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century

“The poor of this world”

The Lord Himself had implied that it was to the poor that the Gospel was more successfully preached. And Paul observed that in Corinth, not many mighty had been called, but most of them were poor (1 Cor. 1:26-28). “Christianity in its beginnings was without doubt a movement of impoverished classes…the Christian congregation originally embraced proletariat elements almost exclusively and was a proletarian organization” (1). It has also been observed that the New Testament generally is written in very rough Greek, of a low cultural level when compared with other Greek literature of the period (2). The way he exhorts the Thessalonians to work with their own hands so that the world couldn’t criticize them implies the readership of Thessalonians were mainly manual workers (1 Thess. 4:11). Likewise Eph. 4:28.  Paul wrote as if the “abysmal poverty” of the Macedonian ecclesias was well known (2 Cor. 8:1,2); and yet he goes on to reason that they had “abundance” in comparison with the “lack” of the Jerusalem Christians (8:14). The Jewish Christians called themselves “Ebionites”, based on the Hebrew word for ‘the poor’- “it was probably a conscious reminiscence of a very early term which attested by Paul’s letters as an almost technical name for the Christians in Jerusalem and Judaea”(3). Even if not all these poor converts were slaves, they were all subservient to their employers / sources of income. Craftsmen would have had to belong to a pagan trade guild, normally  involving idol worship which a Christian had to refuse, and slaves of course had no ‘right’ to their own religion if it differed from that of their household. Everything was against the spread of the Truth amongst the poor of the first century. And yet, the Truth grew and prospered, as it marched through town after town across the Roman empire. There can be no doubt that its’ development was due to the early believers’ spiritual energy and powerful example, rather than to any favourable social dynamic. And yet right before our eyes, the very same miracle is going on. And it is a miracle, of first century proportions. The poor of Africa, Europe, Asia, the Americas, those with so much to distract them, with  so much to attract them to false, feelgood religion…are in the face of all this, in the very teeth of gripping, wrenching poverty and the distraction this brings with it, not only coming to the Truth but spreading it so powerfully. For real poverty does distract, terribly. How am I going to feed my children, pay the rent when it needs all my salary, from where to get new clothes for growing children, how to live in a room that has no windows as a -30 Winter approaches…all this distracts, terribly, from spiritual matters. And yet it is being overcome, day by day and hour by hour, by the power of the true Gospel in the lives of very ordinary women and men. And in the barest essence, the Western brotherhood is also distracted by the things of this world, and yet is also waking up as it did 120 years ago to the power of the Truth we possess.  

The early church chose its leadership according to spiritual qualifications. The radicality of this is easily lost upon us in this age. But we need to understand that religion was perceived as almost a hobby for the wealthy, who showed their wealth by being patrons for a cult or religious idea. True Christianity was not a hobby. It was and is a life-demanding commitment, which demands the very core of our personhood. It wasn’t a question of mere manners, following a certain set ritual and clothing; it’s about morals, about real character-changing ethics. It’s no spare time hobby, engaged in for social reasons. Further, the idea of a poor person being in a decision making position in a religious group was bizarre to the first century mind. To respect a poor person was very hard for them: “If you're poor, you're a joke, on each and every occasion. What a laugh, if your cloak is dirty or torn, if your toga appears a little bit soiled, if your shoe has a crack in the leather. Of if several patches betray frequent mending! Poverty's greatest curse, much worse than actually being poor, is that it makes man objects of mirth, ridiculed, grumble, embarrassed…Sons of freeborn men give way to a rich man's slave”(4). That Christianity should follow a poor man and His poor disciples was a real challenge to society. And yet, Christianity spread amongst rich and poor alike. The encouragement to us is that even when it is apparent that what we are preaching is just not what society wants to hear, or even appears able to hear, the power of the Gospel itself will bring about a response if we truly witness. When Paul commands to place the poor brother in a position where he can make judgments between wealthy brethren who are disagreeing with each other [only the wealthy could afford to take out litigations as they were doing], he was really asking a lot. But he never baulks. He always goes for it, and fearlessly, without any embarassment, lays down the implications of Christ and demands our response. 

Wealthy Individuals

It is worth noting, though, that the NT does reflect the fact that a number of wealthy individuals came to the Truth too; and that these were bound together in fellowship with the poor. There were wealthy women amongst the earliest followers of Jesus (Lk. 8:3); and James and John came from a family who owned their own fishing boat and could employ servants (Mk. 1:19,20). Zacchaeus was wealthy- and note that he wasn't commanded to divest himself  of all that wealth (Lk. 19:1-10). Consider the Philippi ecclesia- the wealthy lady from Lydia, the homeless slave girl, the middle class, respectable jailer, and the slaves of his and Lydia’s household. There was nowhere else in the ancient world that all these classes could come together in such unity. Paul himself was not poor- “to be a citizen of Tarsus one had to pass the means test of owning property worth at least 500 drachmae” (5). He was thought wealthy enough to be able to give a bribe (Acts 24:26). He assured Philemon that he personally would meet any debts arising from the situation with Onesimus. Consider the other wealthy converts: the Proconsul of Cyprus (Acts 13:12), Lydia, Jason who was wealthy enough to put down security for Paul, assisted by prominent women (Acts 17:4,9), Greek women of high standing at Berea (Acts 17:12), Dionysius and Damaris in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), Crispus the ruler of the Corinth synagogue (Acts 18:8 cp. 1 Cor. 1:14), Erastus the city treasurer (Rom. 16:23). Marta Sordi quotes evidence for there being Christians amongst the Roman aristocracy even during the first half of the first century (6). These few wealthy converts would have bonded together with the mass of poor and slaves who had also come to Christ. It was a unique unity. The list of believers’ names in Romans 16 is there for a purpose: to show how all types had come together in the Rome ecclesia. Women are named and greeted [uncommon in contemporary Jewish letters of the time]; some names are common slave names: Phlegon, Hermes, Philologus; whereas tradition has it that the  Narcissus mentioned was a famous and wealthy member of the court of Claudius. Greetings are given from two members at Corinth: “Erastus the treasurer of the city [of Corinth] salutes you, and Quartus, a brother” (Rom. 16:23). There is an intended juxtaposition here: of the wealthy and powerful brother Erastus, and the unknown [slave?] Quartus, who all the same was “a brother”, on the same spiritual standing. Phoebe is described as the prostates of the Cenchrae ecclesia and Paul himself- a word translatable as “patroness” (Rom. 16:1,2). It could be that she funded Paul’s activities at least in part. The same implication may be behind Paul’s description of the mother of Rufus as being his “mother” (Rom. 16:13). This would have continued the example of wealthy women like Joanna supporting the ministry of Jesus (Lk. 8:2).  

If one goes through the Acts and the New Testament letters and makes a list of all the individuals who are named, we have a list of about 78 people. About 30 of these people have some indication in the narrative as to their social status; and the majority of these are from above average social stations. For example, the way Achaicus, Fortunatus, Tertius and Lucius in Corinth and Clement in Philippi all have Latin names in Roman colonies could well indicate that they were from the original stock of colonists, who tended to be well ahead of the local population. Gaius had a home big enough for the Corinth ecclesia to meet in (Rom. 16:23). Crispus was the leader of the Corinth synagogue and yet he and Gaius were the first people Paul converted there (1 Cor. 1:14). Thus in this case the initial response was from the socially well to do, although the later converts were generally poor. By all means compare with how wealthy Lydia was the first convert in Philippi. Anyone who was a household leader or with a home large enough to accommodate the ecclesia was clearly of a higher social level. Thus the Philippian jailer, Stephanas and Chloe had a “household” (1 Cor. 1:11; 16:15), as did Philemon; and even Aquilla and Priscilla although artisans were wealthy enough to have room to host an ecclesia (1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5). Titus Justus [whose name implies he was a Roman citizen] lad a house adjacent to the synagogue in Corinth. Mark’s mother had a home in Jerusalem that could accommodate a meeting (Acts 12:12); Baranbas owned a farm (Acts 4:36); Jason was wealthy enough to stand bail for Paul and entertain his visitors (Acts 17:5-9). An Areopagite was converted in Athens (Acts 17:34). Apollos and Phoebe were able to travel independently. Remember that most people at the time lived in cramped tiny rooms, so unbearable that most of their lives were lived outdoors as far as possible. Tertius was a “scribe”, which was a learned profession; Luke was a doctor. Yet next to these brethren are listed the likes of Ampliatus (Rom. 16:8), which was a common slave name. Romans 16 is an essay in the unity between rich and poor in the early ecclesia. Although the majority of Corinth ecclesia were poor, there were still some in good standing enough to be invited out to banquets in the course of their business obligations (1 Cor. 8:10; 10:27). The slave at conversion becomes “the Lord’s freedman” and “the free person Christ’s slave” (1 Cor. 7:22). Thus this extraordinary unity between social classes was made possible through being “in Christ”. 

“Not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” were converted in Thessalonica (Acts 17:12 RSV). Lydia was a wealthy woman, trading in luxury garments (“purple”), and a female head of household. The attraction of the Gospel for wealthy women has been often commented upon in the historical literature. We are left to imagine wealthy sisters marrying poorer brethren, or remaining single, with all the scandal attached to it in the first century world, pining for children, comforted only by each other and the surpassing knowledge of Jesus their Lord. 

All this said, there is no question that the early church was characterized by its poverty; for “to the poor the gospel is preached” succesfully. " The fact that some Christians in the first century sold themselves into slavery to help out fellow believers suggests the poverty of the Christian community as a whole" (7). This further reflects the bond there was between rich and poor, free and slave. In the first century generally, however, the gap between rich and poor was growing (8). And yet true Christianity brought together in one all the social classes in an extraordinary unity. We have commented elsewhere how the shortage of marriage partners led to intermarriage between social groups, within the ecclesia. This was yet something else which contributed towards the startling and arresting difference between the ecclesia and the world in the first century, and which attracted men and women to it. The evidence that Christianity drew largely from the poor cannot be gainsaid, and yet the sizeable evidence above indicates that it was far from purely working class. The wonder is the way the rich and poor bonded together to create a unity that arrested the attention of their surrounding world. Even in the ministry of Jesus was this so. The disciples were from very varied backgrounds; and Lk. 5:30 RVmg. describes how publicans and sinners had Pharisees and Scribes among them as they all sat at the same table gathered around Jesus. There was something in His person and teaching which welded people together. 

The Jerusalem ecclesia is an example of how rich and poor were united together. There were clearly wealthy members- Simon of Cyrene owned a farm (Mk. 15:21). Barnabas sold lands (Acts 4:36). Ananias and Sapphira had land. And then there were the middle class. Mary owned a house in Jerusalem and had at least one servant (Acts 12:12-17). Levi was a tax co9llector wealthy enough to throw a large banquet, implying he had a large home (Mk. 2:13-17). James and John had a fishing business in Galilee that employed day labourers. And then there were the poor. The Lord Jesus and the apostles healed the beggars and diseased, who presumably became members of the church. Acts 6:1; 2:44; 4:34 imply there were large numbers of very poor people in the church. James the Lord’s brother was presumably a carpenter, poor like the Lord was. And yet he was the leader of the early church. Unlike many other religious movements, early Christianity drew its members from right across society; and one of the poorest was their leading light! This unity, as we have so often said, would have been their biggest single advertisement. And yet the Acts record artlessly says so little about social or economic class distinctions- precisely because they were not important. Any uninspired writer would have made great capital of this phenomenal feature of the early church.


(1) Karl Kautsky, Foundations Of Christianity (Orabis & Windrush, 1973 ed)., pp. 9,323.

(2) Adolf Deisman, Light From The Ancient East (Hodder & Staughton, 1927); A.J. Malherbe, Social Aspects Of Early Christianity (Louisiana State University Press, 1977), ch. 2. More recently, a translation of the Gospels has been produced by Andy Gaus, entitled The Unvarnished Gospels (Threshold Books, 1988). His aim is to reflect the roughness of the Greek used in the Gospels in contemporary English. This is well worth reading. Peter’s letters are a strange exception, although this may be because he was illiterate and wrote through a secretary. The relative roughness of Paul’s letters shows that he was writing to his readers in a style they would understand, rather than exercising his own cultural level.

(3) Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin, 1993 ed.), p. 23.

(4)Juvenal, quoted in Roland Worth, The Seven Cities of the Apocalypse and Roman Culture (New York: Paulist, 1999), p. 41.

(5) Derek Tidball, The Social Context Of The New Testament (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1997 ed.), p. 93.

(6) Marti Sordi, The Christians And The Roman Empire (Norman: University Of Oklahoma Press, 1986), p. 28.

(7) K. Donfried & P. Richardson, Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome (Eerdmans, 1998) p. 131.

(8) Wayne Meeks and Robert Wilken, Jews And Christians (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1978).