16-6-5 Wealth In The Church
The early church started undeniably poor, meeting in homes, funded by
the few wealthy converts. There was a lay ministry- there is no hint that
salaries were paid nor tithes raised from the converts. However, over
time, Christianity became more socially acceptable. The overall wealth
of the members increased. The socially marginal no longer comprised the
majority of congregations. By the 3rd century, churches started
to own buildings and then land. Initially of course, Christianity as an
illegal religion had no right or opportunity or even desire to own buildings
or to meet in a permanent place. Salaries started to be paid to the ministers.
Cyprian of Carthage and other writers point out how there developed a
dichotomy between the ministers of poor rural areas, who lived on very
little, and those salaried church workers of the urban areas, who became
very wealthy. They began to spend their wealth on lavish clothing and
church buildings, and to flaunt these things, justifying them in the name
of Christís service. There also developed in Syria and Asia Minor especially
almost a dogma that one must leave their wealth and property to the church.
And thus the churches grew wealthy. And with it came politics, division,
doctrinal and moral apostasy, endless concern about church funding issues
even though the church had never been richer, and a loss of focus on the
man Christ Jesus, who though He was rich became poor [Gk. Ďa pauperí]
for our sakes.
The Western Christian world cannot deny that all this hits close
to home. Those in the poorer world must also beware of where things could
develop for them too, if the Lord delays His return. Brother Alan Eyre
concludes his classic study The Protesters by saying that the Truth has
not usually been lost purely and solely by false teachers or wholesale
doctrinal apostasy; but rather by the inroads of materialism leading to
these things. In Contra Celsum we read Origen justifying the Christian church
against Celsus’ criticisms that it is a church of poor, simple people. That the
majority of Christians would be poor and simple was indeed the expectation of
both the Lord Jesus and Paul. Yet Origen seeks to justify the Christian church
as middle class and respectable, with respected intellectuals amongst its
membership. It was and is this desire to be seen as worldly-wise and ‘normal’
which is the death-knoll for any revival of Christianity. It was this which led
to the acceptance of the Trinity; and it is this which robs true Christianity
of its radical nature and appeal today. Perhaps in our last days this lesson
needs to be learnt as never before. The Lord’s picture of the world of the last
days is of a household eating and drinking, absorbed with being normal (Mt.
24:38; Lk. 17:27). But the Lord’s point is that this very ‘normal’ behaviour is
what He finds so wrong.