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A framework for a biblical theology of wealth and poverty

Andrew Perriman

The covenant with Moses was intended to establish the basis on which the people of Israel would successfully inhabit a naturally bountiful land. A simple rule applied: if the people kept the law of God, they would enjoy the prosperity that would accrue to them from the land:

And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers. He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples. (Deut. 7:12-14)

The language both here and at several points in the patriarchal narratives (eg. Gen. 16:10; 17:2, 5-6; 22:17; 28:3; 35:11-12; 48:4) suggests that the presence of the people in the land is conceived as a restarting of the story of humanity. The command to Adam to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land becomes a promise to Abraham to make him fruitful and to multiply his descendants in the land which God would give him. Prosperity, therefore, must be understood not only in material but also in relational or familial terms: it is a measure of the general well-being and productiveness of a community, it is shalom.

Failure to observe the terms of the covenant, however, would result in hardship and suffering in the form of the loss of the prosperity of the land – through disease, famine, military conquest – and ultimately in the form of the loss of the land itself through exile (cf. Deut. 28:15-68). The analogy with the creation narrative continues: just as humanity had originally lost the prosperity and security of the garden as a consequence of disobedience, so disobedient Israel would forfeit the material prosperity of the land that had been promised to Abraham.

Prosperity, poverty and the law

Prosperity for Israel is conceived primarily in national terms. The law required giving in various forms and active concern for the plight of the poor, but it did not enforce economic equality or the redistribution of wealth within the community. In view of this, there were bound to be persistent disparities of wealth within the nation: as Jesus said, the poor would always be with them (Mark 14:7). The problem was to be addressed, however, at two levels. On the one hand, Israel’s rulers were expected to defend the interests of the poor and helpless. On the other, individuals within the community could enter into a virtuous circle of giving and receiving. Acts of righteousness, prominent among which was generosity towards the poor, would lead to prosperity, which would spill over into further acts of righteousness (cf. Ps. 37:25-26).

There is no systematic bias towards the poor. Private property was protected by the law; theft and covetousness were prohibited in the decalogue; both the poor and the rich were entitled to judicial impartiality (Ex. 23:2-3). There are, however, various constraints imposed upon the possession of wealth. Property rights were not absolute: the people in the last analysis were only ‘aliens and tenants’ in a land leased to them by God (Lev. 25:23; cf. Ex. 19:5). The law of Jubilee, the sabbath year, and the sabbath itself had a moderating effect on the acquisition of wealth and built into the economic system a requirement of trust in God as provider. A significant proportion of personal wealth was taken in taxation.

The failure of prosperity

Perhaps inevitably, Israel failed to maintain the standards of economic justice required by the law. The theological response to this failure comes in various forms. There are general warnings in the Wisdom literature about the moral and spiritual dangers of wealth. A more substantial critique emerges from the prophetic writings. After idolatry the refusal to deal justly and compassionately with the plight of the poor is the most significant factor in the judgment that comes upon Israel and Judah (cf. Is. 1:21-25; Amos 2:6-7).

Although at an individual level poverty may be attributed to laziness, at a social level it is seen as a consequence of the failure of the rich to act justly and provide for those in need. The unrighteous wealthy will suffer eschatological judgment on a ‘day of punishment’:

Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees, and the writers who keep writing oppression, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be their spoil, and that they may make the fatherless their prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the ruin that will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth? (Is. 10:1-3)

Under these circumstances the helpless poor, victims of abuse and neglect, will receive divine favour: He is ‘a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress’ (Is. 25:4). In some respects, therefore, the poor are closer to God than the wealthy: they are more likely to look to the Lord for help (Ps. 9:9-10; 69:32-33), they are more likely to be found in the company of the righteous (Ps. 14:5-6). There is the beginning here of an inversion of the covenantal association between righteousness and prosperity which will become more sharply evident in the Gospels.

Poverty and crisis

As we approach the Gospels we need to keep in mind the fact that Israel is in just that state of eschatological crisis that was foreseen by the Old Testament prophets, and that this state of crisis has implications for how wealth and poverty are assessed theologically.

First, because of economic injustice, at both a personal and a systemic level, we are in a situation in which the righteous are much more likely to be poor. This obviously brings into question the covenantal link between torah observance and prosperity, but the issue here is not that the formula no longer applies but that Israel has failed in torah observance and therefore has brought judgment upon itself, the imminent loss of well-being. Failure at the national religious level has resulted in a fundamental distortion of the covenantal framework: the whole theology of prosperity has broken down. The accumulation of wealth had become a substitute for trust in YHWH. At a time when Israel needed to be saved from its sins, and from the consequences of its sins, the nation was serving mammon rather than God (Matt. 6:24), was storing up grain in its barn not realizing that destruction was imminent (Luke 12:21), was feasting at its table to the neglect of the poor but within a generation would suffer the punishment of gehenna (Luke 16:19-31). Wealth offered no prospect of escape from this national disaster.

Secondly, Jesus’ critique of the possession of wealth and his preference for the poor and marginalized cannot be detached from the context of the judgment and salvation of Israel. The preference arises because, by and large, it is those on the margins who are willing to receive healing and forgiveness and who will form the community of renewed Israel gathered around Jesus. It is on the margins that new life begins to break through.

Thirdly, personal wealth would be of little value for those who were called to share in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the kingdom of God, who faced ostracism, the confiscation of property, imprisonment, expulsion and possibly death. It would be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:23-24). The rich young ruler could not bring his abundant possessions with him along the difficult and dangerous road of discipleship (Matt. 19:21-22). None of them could: ‘whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:33). The disciples who had left their homes and their livelihoods were promised the abundant blessings of a new community centred around Jesus – this was the only form of prosperity that would sustain them during a period of persecution (Mark 10:29-30).

Poverty and wealth in the New Testament church

The same basic eschatological framework must be taken into account when we consider the teaching and praxis of the early church. Jesus’ insistence that his followers, the core of renewed Israel, should sell their possessions is directly implemented in the communal life of the early church. Land and property were sold and the money distributed to those in the community of believers who had need (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). It appears, though, that this was done only when the need arose: it was not a requirement of discipleship that personal wealth should be automatically abandoned. Ananias and Sapphira were given the option of keeping part of the proceeds from their land (Acts 5:3); the description of Tabitha as a woman ‘devoted to good works and acts of charity’ seems to imply that she acted independently, giving from her own resources (Acts 9:36); Mnason was an ‘early disciple’ who had his own house in Jerusalem (Acts 21:16).

It seems likely that there were contextual social reasons that at least encouraged this practice, in addition to a strong recollection of Jesus’ example and teaching: the openness of the poorest in Jerusalem to the gospel, the large numbers of diaspora pilgrims who converted on the day of Pentecost, the possibility that the earliest followers of a discredited messiah were barred from the usual sources of public charity. There is no evidence that churches outside Palestine adopted the same radical model of economic communalism. One easily imagines that there was a high level of mutual support within the communities, but nothing suggests a systematic renunciation of personal wealth. Churches met in the homes of wealthy patrons, believers continued to hold public office (Acts 13:6-12; Rom. 16:23) or run businesses (Acts 16:14; 18:2-3).

The sharp criticism of the rich that we find in James’ letter to the ‘twelve tribes in the Dispersion’ (James 1:1) cannot be detached from the later warnings about an imminent day of judgment (5:1, 8-9). John warns his readers not to love the things that are in the world – ‘the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions’ – because ‘the world is passing away along with its desires’ (1 John 2:15-17). Material possessions will be of no value in a time of eschatological crisis. In general terms, though, wealth is seen as damaging to the spiritual integrity of believing communities.

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 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. 6:9-10)

Paul invokes the Old Testament principle of charitable giving when he urges those who are ‘rich in this present age’ to ‘do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share’ (1 Tim. 6:17-18). What differentiates giving within the New Testament from Old Testament practice is the connection with grace: giving is not simply a mark of righteousness under the law but a gift of grace, a charism (Rom. 12:8; cf. the emphasis on ‘grace’ in 2 Cor. 8:4, 6, 7, 19; 9:14). We do not, however, entirely lose the Old Testament connection between giving and receiving, between doing what is ‘right’ and prospering in the fullest sense of the term. The Corinthians can expect to reap what they sow (2 Cor. 9:6; cf. Prov. 3:9-10; Mal. 3:9-11; Luke 6:38; Gal. 6:7-8). The ‘sufficiency’ (autarkeia) with which God will bless them will provide the material basis for them to ‘abound in every good work’ (2 Cor. 9:8). The quotation of Psalm 112 in the next verse invokes the conventional paradigm of the righteous man who acts justly (5), gives freely to the poor (9), and in whose house are ‘wealth and riches’ (3).

Some conclusions…

1. As a general matter of biblical interpretation questions relating to wealth and poverty, justice and injustice, etc., need to be investigated primarily not as abstract ethical issues but as problems posed within a narrative and essentially eschatological framework. Critically, this connects our thinking with the calling and experience of the people and establishes a distinctly missional orientation.

2. If we are right to understand the renewal of the people of God in Christ as a ‘new creation’, a new humanity, the question arises – a question posed to us not least by prosperity theology – whether we should not also take seriously the material dimension of that renewal. Although we must remain awake to the treacherous nature of wealth, its power to corrupt and deceive, we also need to accept that as the people of God we are not always in a state of eschatological crisis. If the church is in a position to be fruitful, multiply, labour and be prosperous, this must be understood under the rubric of ‘new creation’.

3. From a missional point of view, perhaps one of the key questions to ask as we think about where we locate ourselves socially and economically is: Where does the renewal of creation, both as prophetic sign and as proleptic reality, show up best? Where does new life become apparent? This question must be carefully demarcated from two traditional vocations: on the one side, the evangelization of individuals, and on the other, social-humanitarian assistance.

This essay is based largely on material found in A.C. Perriman (ed.), Faith, Health and Prosperity, Paternoster 2003 (a report for the Evangelical Alliance).

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Re: A framework for a biblical theology of wealth and poverty

As I read this first rate summary and account of a biblical attitude to wealth and poverty, I found myself wondering whether the ‘eschatological crisis’ (if there was such a thing) of the 1st century (or thereabouts) wasn’t, in a sense, a ‘crisis’ which is always with us, at all times, in this world, and that we are called to live out a prophetic lifestyle which, incompletely, embodies and still points to ‘the age to come’.

This lifestyle would no longer, in a distantly historical sense, be a critique of a covenant disobeyed, in the same sense that Jesus came to call such a critique into being. But in an up-to-date sense, the people of God are being called to live prophetically in relation to the social and economic practices of their times, and these are not so far removed from the practices of the covenant disobeyed in Jesus’s time that there is not a parallel application today (as Jesus to Israel, so the church to the world).

In that sense, I would think that it is still relevant for the people of God to have the same radical attitude to ‘mammon’ that Jesus was urging. The practice of a shared lifestyle is just as important today as it was then, as an alternative to the corrupting influence of self at the root of ownership and possessions.

In addition, there is also a need for a renewed attitude to wealth creation, which would not be for the selfish enjoyment of the few at the expense of the many, but for the benefit of God’s entire creation. The point which Andrew’s essay leads up to is just the point at which the really interesting discussion begins.

It seems to me possible that the ability to create wealth is a ‘spiritual gift’ amongst God’s people (Romans 12:8b), not for personal benefit alone, but for the common good. That’s how it looks to me, when I consider people and individuals in the body of Christ. Some biblical characters seem to have had this gift - eg Abraham, Jacob, Joseph - perhaps, partly because of their covenantal relationship with God, but maybe also because that was how they were gifted.

The guiding principle here is ‘for the common good’ - 1 Corinthians 12:7. In fact Paul went further - desiring that there should be ‘equality’ - 2 Corinthians 8:12. It is hard to argue that this no longer remains the case. This is not the ‘equality’ of communism, which in fact was never equality, but a kind of rhetoric which disguised the creation of privilege for the elite, and imposed drab uniformity on the majority. It is more the recognition of mutual care and concern in the midst of divesrity.

Maybe this is why throughout church history there have been ‘recovery movements’, attempting to recapture the simplicity, purity and mutual concern of the lifestyle of Jesus and his followers. (I’m not so sure this was abandoned outside Palestine). Originally, the various strands of monastic  movements had lay origins. The Mennonites and Amish were serious attempts to recover a lifestyle which looked inwards (at the needs of God’s people) and outwards (as a critique of the world). Likewise the experiments in communal living of the 1960’s and 70’s. Even today, shared living is at the heart of many recovery movements, which have mission as their focus. 

To conclude where I began, maybe there is a historical uniqueness to the ‘eschatological crisis’ (if it existed), but there is no less a crisis today than there was then, because the underlying conditions which informed the crisis are just as prevalent in the world today as they were then. The radical living of the sermon on the mount and elsewhere in the gospels perhaps continues to be a two-edged sword - for God’s people, and for the world. 

Re: A framework for a biblical theology of wealth and poverty

…I found myself wondering whether the ‘eschatological crisis’ (if there was such a thing) of the 1st century (or thereabouts) wasn’t, in a sense, a ‘crisis’ which is always with us, at all times, in this world, and that we are called to live out a prophetic lifestyle which, incompletely, embodies and still points to ‘the age to come’.

It occurs to me that perhaps we simply need to distinguish between the particular eschatological framework for the dominant New Testament evaluation of wealth and poverty and the general ‘creational’ framework for a current missional response to injustice and inequality. I made this point on Ben Thurley’s blog:

Rather than pretend that we are facing an eschatological crisis today that is an extension of the crisis faced by the early church, I would prefer to speak of the church facing a creational crisis. Eschatology is about transitions in the history of the people of God, salvation from situations of judgment or oppression; creational crises are with us all the time, which is why I think a missiology that is oriented towards a new creation is far more relevant to us now than a missiology oriented, as in most of the New Testament, towards rescue from opposition, hostility, persecution, etc. It is on this basis, theologically, that I think we can begin to make a case for encouraging a global campaign to end world poverty. Whether that campaign will be successful, of course, is another matter.

Of course, a ‘creational missiology’ has a decisive future orientation in the hope of new creation - we are not abandoning eschatology altogether. But the approach allows us to preserve what I think are important interpretive distinctions.

Re: A framework for a biblical theology of wealth and poverty

Escape/engagement might be a way of describing the antithesis between a fully-blown 1st century eschatology and events unfolding beyond then to today.

My main point was to suggest (with some reasons why) that Jesus’s teaching/lifestyle was as relevant for today, and today’s situation, as it was in the 1st century. But if the antithesis suggested above is a fair summary, then to maintain relevance to two so totally contrasting situations would be a remarkable feat!

The recent Christian Associates papers (very challenging reading) have thrown up previous comments you have made, Andrew, eg ‘Strange but true: the irrelevance of scripture for the church today’, which have a bearing on recent discussions about inspiration, canon etc. It must be somewhat frustrating when the same issues reappear but with no connection to previous discussions! They also show how little your thinking has changed - at least in the last two years or so.

I still think there are some problems to be ironed out - though that may simply betray a residual unreconstructed ‘modernist’ mindset. Sorry to be such a dripping tap.

P.S. Should this discussion be transferred to Ben Thurley’s blog? The thought of you conducting a simultaneous discussion on two fronts many thousands of mile apart is mind-boggling!

Re: A framework for a biblical theology of wealth and poverty

I think a missiology that is oriented towards a new creation is far more relevant to us now than a missiology oriented, as in most of the New Testament, towards rescue from opposition, hostility, persecution, etc. It is on this basis, theologically, that I think we can begin to make a case for encouraging a global campaign to end world poverty

I’ve asked this question before, Andrew, as have one or two others, in the context of your attempt to promote this new theological paradigm, but each time I read it, it irks me again…

The "new creation" paradigm undoubtably works on many levels and can be helpfully incorporated into a wider theology. But to use it over against the "rescue" paradigm, I find problematical. I agree with your contesting that the early church faced a particular threat that is no longer entirely relevant: i.e. complete eradication by the brutality of Rome. However, the "rescue" paradigm surely remains an absolutely relevant paradigm for a great many Christian believers in so many parts of the world. For them a "new creation" paradigm must exist alongside, not over against, a "rescue" paradigm.

And this is what concerns me : that we in the materially wealthy west may go off on a further tangent (we already border on global irrelevance at times), defining and setting forth a "new creation" theology and praxis which is indulgent and irrelevant to other parts of the body of Christ in non-western geographical regions. Parts which, I would want to suggest, we are actually called to reach out to, missionally, upholding, creating equality within the Messiah’s community, East and West, North and South.

The fact that as an example of the "new creation" paradigm, the now oh-so-popular theme of "eradicating global poverty" is mentioned, worthy as it may be, rather than, say, the rather politically unpoplular / overlooked idea of eradicating global persecution of religious minorities, serves only to heighten my concerns. What I mean by this is that the former is now practically a mainstream political agenda within the UK; the latter would be much more counter-cultural.

Perhaps within your worldview, there is a way in which you can narrow the gap that I see within the ideas you are setting out, a way that presently evades me?

Under the sign of Christ

However, the "rescue" paradigm surely remains an absolutely relevant paradigm for a great many Christian believers in so many parts of the world. For them a "new creation" paradigm must exist alongside, not over against, a "rescue" paradigm.

John, I wouldn’t disagree with this. Where believing communities are harrassed or oppressed because of their faith in Christ, cry out to God for respite and vindication, and expect God to intervene and defeat their enemies, it does not seem inappropriate to re-use the language of New Testament apocalyptic. What I think is potentially dishonest and very misleading is the attempt to interpret the experience and calling of the prosperous and free western church within the framework of that paradigm.

…setting forth a "new creation" theology and praxis which is indulgent and irrelevant to other parts of the body of Christ in non-western geographical regions.

Well, yes, obviously if you define a new creation missiology in those terms, you’ve got a problem. But a ‘rescue’ missiology that says that ultimately social and material injustices don’t matter because it’s getting to heaven that’s really important isn’t going to get you very far either. I think that a new creation approach can help us to make sense of our prosperity, but the biblical idea of prosperity is thoroughly relational, social, cultural, political and self-giving: the church is called to model a ‘new humanity’ that is precisely not self-indulgent and ‘irrelevant to other parts of the body of Christ’; the church as a missionally-oriented new humanity remains under the lordship of Christ and must therefore be fundamentally characterized by a willingness to make itself of no account for the sake of others (cf. Phil. 2:7 and Rogier Bos’ essay).

The question, I would suggest, is: What sort of new humanity / new creation has the eschatological crisis described in the New Testament made us to be? While we may hope to begin to model prophetically and proleptically the wholeness of creation restored, we do so in a world where sin and suffering, injustice and persecution, weakness and failure, are inescapable - so we can model new creation only under the sign of Christ, under the sign of one who was persecuted, suffered and ‘failed’ because of sin, but was not abandoned by the creator God and was raised to a renewal of life.

Re: Under the sign of Christ

Well, yes, obviously if you define a new creation missiology in those terms, you’ve got a problem.

I have no wish to so define a new creation missiology, Andrew, not at all: I want to be on board with an effort that seeks to define the kind of new creation theology which you go on to enlarge upon in your comment. In fact, that’s the point of my post - I feel the need to highlight any presentation of "new creation theology" which could be misconstrued by a fading western Christian body which is anxiously looking for new ideas but not necessarily wanting to engage with issues that really require new heart and the repentance that is implied by that.

But a ‘rescue’ missiology that says that ultimately social and material injustices don’t matter because it’s getting to heaven that’s really important isn’t going to get you very far either

I’ve never bought into that kind of theology myself, Andrew, and never written anything that would imply a support for it, so I’m not sure why you raise that in connection with my post (except, perhaps, with a particular readership in mind?).

What I think is potentially dishonest and very misleading is the attempt to interpret the experience and calling of the prosperous and free western church within the framework of that paradigm.

I agree wholeheartedly, in that sense we have the same target in our sights. However, it will be no less dishonest if we allow ourselves (in the emergent community or beyond) to integrate the language of "new creation" paradigm without the true change of heart that is required: I’m absolutely clear that what I’m talking about is a heart-rending sensitivity that never allows me to think about my western theology in isolation from a world in such great need; a world in which I am constantly aware of, feeling a particular responsibility for, those which, I understand, the Scriptures bring me into a spiritually familiar relationship - they are my "brothers."

Personally, I feel that this aspect of our praxis  and theology is closely linked to the kind of "revival" which has escaped the western church for so long. And I think it so because it is an issue of justice, not merely preference; an injustice that keeps us in nothing less than a place of judgement: given over to what we have loved. I want to be sure that when we use new language, it is indeed the sign of a renewed heart which has replaced it’s former loves.

It hasn’t explicitly been raised yet, but I would think that the eschatological narrative of Revelation, which speaks about Mystery Babylon and it’s excesses, has something significant to say to us about the use of our prosperity; a message which very much has the "rescue paradigm" alongside the emerging "new creation paradigm" perhaps?

Re: Under the sign of Christ

I want to be sure that when we use new language, it is indeed the sign of a renewed heart which has replaced its former loves.

I think that this is a very important point. There is certainly a danger that we change the rhetoric and leave the praxis untouched. I am inclined to think that those who have a ‘heart-rending sensitivity’ are a gift to the community as a whole - but they will probably always be somewhat exceptional. There are social realities here that we just have to accept. Am I being too cynical? In any case, I would hope that the change in rhetoric - which ought to reflect a real reorientation of theology - will give those with such gifts a proper place within the life and witness of the wider church.

Re: Under the sign of Christ

There are social realities here that we just have to accept. Am I being too cynical?

For the record, Andrew, what sort of things are you thinking about here?

Re: Under the sign of Christ

I suppose what I’m thinking is that communities of believers may be marked, characterized, by the presence in their midst of those who have the gift of quite radical self-giving or ethical militancy - as would be true for other distinctive gifts, such as prophecy or serving. But my assumption is that probably the majority of individuals in those groups will exhibit lifestyles much closer to the cultural norm - though one would hope that they wouldn’t be unaffected by their association with people who have what you call a ‘heart-rending sensitivity’ to injustice and inequality. It’s as communities, small and large, that we can embrace and reconcile spiritual and cultural diversity and tensions such as that between prosperity and self-giving that seem unavoidable in a new creation ecclesiology.

Re: Under the sign of Christ

Isn’t "the presence in their midst of those who have the gift of quite radical self-giving or ethical militancy" (see Andrew’s comment above) intended, in some way, to shape the entire community? Otherwise we have a very individualised view of the body of Christ, in which nobody is really influenced by anyone else. I realise that this statement is somewhat qualified later in Andrew’s comment - but the tone seems to be that the existence of ‘radicals’ in the body of Christ has little significance for the lives of the majority.

 I feel very uneasy about the statement: "probably the majority of individuals in those groups will exhibit lifestyles much closer to the cultural norm", because it exhibits no self-questioning about the culture in question. There is something about western culture in particular which seems designed to inhibit the social outworking of the gospel which lies at the heart of the kingdom Jesus came to announce. We rightly oppose the individualistic gospel of ‘modernism’ - but modernism hasn’t gone away; it’s right there in the way we live our lives in highly individualistic, private, and, let’s be honest, selfish boxes.

But I have raised the subject of the kingdom - which for Andrew is a purely 1st century term and phenomenon, entirely to do with the victory of the ‘Son of Man’ - not at the cross, but at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and Rome, at a less certain later date.  The entire content of the gospels is linked somewhat exclusively to this version of a 1st century eschatological crisis. After the crisis, the teaching is redundant - we are in new territory. Prior to AD 70, the teaching was to prepare the disciples for rescue and escape. Post AD 70, by this view, a different set of teaching is needed - to equip the church for its task to bring redemption across the entire creation.

My argument is that the post AD 70 territory is not all that new, and that Jesus came to inaugurate a new kind of society before AD 70, not just to prepare a people for rescue from Judaism in AD 70 and the oppression of Rome at a later date. That at all times and in all places, the purpose of the church is to express, in whatever way is appropriate, that new society - and that it ‘succeeds’ (and certainly obtains a ring of integrity and authority) insofar as it moves towards that new society. Pentecost therefore was, and is, a primary motor of this new society, and expression of what Jesus meant by ‘the kingdom’.

The heart of the issue is very much to do with attitudes to riches and poverty - with which this thread began, and which have been the subject of John’s strongly expressed and held interventions.

God is most definitely biased towards the poor and disadvantaged. I commend the post "Being Young, Sleeping Rough" on this site.

My first contention is that unless we have got to grips with the ethical teaching of Jesus in the gospels, we are not in a position to begin to work out ‘new creation’ realities. This is mainly because the ethical teaching does not just address behaviour, but requires a new heart - in which nothing less than a death and a rebirth can bring about the changes which will be adequate to the challenges.

My second contention is that the church can do all it likes to clean up its act: become more seeker-friendly, become more relevant to the culture, adopt this or that new paradigm etc. But the founder of the church is still Jesus, and I have a suspicion that we will be judged for our success or failure on the way in which we became light: a visible new society and an active influence throughout society, a city set on a hill and salt spread throughout the world, by obeying his teaching. 

How am I doing in this particular journey? Still on pilgrimage, still wanting to do better, still feeling that the challenges of the gospels are just as great now as they were the first day I became a Christian. The gospel that I identify with is the one expressed by rogier - downward mobility - and the one expressed by those people who in simple ways were giving help to youngsters sleeping rough on the streets of Glasgow. I hope people in the church referred to were able to give some of their time and resources to befriending those youngsters.

Re: Under the sign of Christ

Yes, the presence of radical individuals will shape the community, but I don’t really expect everyone in that community to become equally radical in self-giving. I just don’t think that’s realistic, and it seems to me entirely consistent with the body metaphor as Paul uses it: we are charismatically differentiated individuals who are committed to contributing our different charisms for the building up of the body in love. That is how we model the diversity, richness and interdependence of renewed humanity. In view of the following statement, I don’t see how you can object that I am recommending a highly individualized view of the body of Christ in which there is no mutual influence: ‘It’s as communities, small and large, that we can embrace and reconcile spiritual and cultural diversity and tensions such as that between prosperity and self-giving that seem unavoidable in a new creation ecclesiology.’

I am also uneasy about the statement ‘probably the majority of individuals in those groups will exhibit lifestyles much closer to the cultural norm’, which is why I asked earlier whether this assumption was too cynical. But I did make the point, which you seem to have overlooked, that if you are an integral part of a community in which there are people with a heightened sense of injustice, it’s likely that you would share something of that sensitivity, if only by association and even if it didn’t lead to a radical change of lifestyle. Perhaps that needed to be said more clearly.

I think another point needs correcting. Yes, I am inclined to regard the coming of the kingdom of God as in effect an event that took place in the early centuries of the church, as God became king over his people in the place of Caesar. But a central argument of the New Testament is that the kingdom of God is now the kingdom of the Christ - lordship is given to one who suffers for the sake of others, who gives himself - which radically transforms what that kingdom means. But then the whole point is that that kingdom has come: as those who confess Christ as king, lord, above all other kings and lords, we live and work under the conditions of that kingdom, under the sign of Christ. The ‘theoretical’ reason for this, I would suggest, is that the only way we can be renewed humanity in a fallen world is through a fundamental willingness to give ourselves for the sake of others. Again, my earlier comments need repeating because they seem to have been overlooked:

…the church is called to model a ‘new humanity’ that is precisely not self-indulgent and ‘irrelevant to other parts of the body of Christ’; the church as a missionally-oriented new humanity remains under the lordship of Christ and must therefore be fundamentally characterized by a willingness to make itself of no account for the sake of others.

Re: Under the sign of Christ

The corrections as to what exactly you said are mostly valid. I disagree with your understanding of what the coming of the kingdom of God meant in the 1st century - at least, I think you overemphasise one aspect of the kingdom to the detriment of much more important aspects. Also it’s only true to say that the kingdom of Christ ‘has come’ in the sense that Jesus became Lord (for me, through the cross, primarily); it still has to be worked out through the lives of his followers, and there is still a greater denouement to come. I don’t suppose you would disagree with this.

Your comment doesn’t take account of the wider issues I was pointing to - especially the place of the gospels, Jesus’s teaching and lifestyle in their bearing on today, and for today’s church, as God’s new society. You didn’t respond to my comment on the nature of western culture - as something that needs radical surgery in our lives - the kind of surgery recommended in the gospels.

I think what much of this comes down to is our view of ‘the world’, and how the mandate to care for and therefore affirm creation balances with its corruption and provisional nature in view of the ‘new heaven, new earth’ to come, and the hostility of the world system to God. Overemphasise either one or the other, and there are problems.

Re: Under the sign of Christ

I am also uneasy about the statement ‘probably the majority of individuals in those groups will exhibit lifestyles much closer to the cultural norm’, which is why I asked earlier whether this assumption was too cynical.

Thanks for the clarification, Andrew. If I understand you correctly, I would tend to agree that what I think you are describing is an aspect of the body analogy to some degree and, in that sense, is not rooted in cynicism.

The healthy tension that can exist in a body / community scenario is one that welcomes and exposes its heart to the one(s) who have particular sensitivity. That is an act of acute trust, if done with integrity. Conversely, the acutely sensitive, gifted personality must learn that the body takes time to react, absorb and respond to the challenges it provides. Where such a mutual reality is allowed to flower, it has historically produced considerable transformation.

There are though many pitfalls and anxieties that lead to the marginalisation and eventual expulsion of those gifted with sensitivity. The Messiah himself is our Chief Example: "look to him who endured such hostility from men…"

So on the one hand we recognise social realities; to do so is not cynical. However, unless we can also recognise that many social realities are themselves, in fact, cynical in nature - because they are fallen, mortal, corrupt - we risk ourselves becoming cynical about these realities, because to do so is easier than confronting, in godly manner, the mental and emotional strongholds that exist within the hearts of the people who make up society.

It is a narrow path and a rare personality that can walk between these two restrictions: cynicism on the one side, complacency and compliancy on the other; the central path is perhaps what we might term the prophetic.

Re: Under the sign of Christ

I strongly agree with Andrew here that

There are social realities here that we just have to accept.

I would argue that these are not only social realities, but the realities of the way God works in the world. From a postmodern perspective, is it reasonable to expect everyone to buy into the same narrative? For some it is poverty, for some it is persecution, for some it is the environment, for some it is issues in local or national politics, … for some it is making sure that they do the best job in raising their kids and supporting the local church. This lack of a unifying narrative is a curse for postmoderns, but it may also be the doorway to redemption.

For every issue, God will find a place in someone’s heart. The reign of God is closer to the balance of the Tao than it is to a military operation. If we listen to each other and respect what is on each of our hearts, and then consider what our place in bringing about God’s reign is, and then do it in community with each other, well … maybe then we can begin to make wholistic progress that does not do more damage than good.

No more pastors kids ignored for the sake of ministry. No more morality at the expense of compassion. No more evangelism at the expense of respect. There should always be someone looking after every issue. This makes us weak, but through our weakness …

God, the ultimate Tao master, works by letting us do what we would naturally want to do, not by forcing the same vision and desires on us all. As our wills become consecrated (our wills become God’s will), at the same time God’s will becomes our will. Prayer is a two way conversation. Not only are our actions imprinted with God’s personality, but also his work is imprinted with our personalities.

defining freedom in a post-modern context

What I think is potentially dishonest and very misleading is the attempt to interpret the experience and calling of the prosperous and free western church within the framework of that paradigm

We are agreed on the main point you make, Andrew. I’m also interested to discover how, in a post-modern context in which all narratives are "created equal," freedom is understood and the bearing this might have on the important debate regarding a biblical theology of prosperity.

Below I quote Churchill (again, for those familiar with the angst and handwringing thread!) because he defines, in very clear terms, those political elements which prescribe traditional / mainstream Western concepts of freedom:

We cannot be blind to the fact that the liberties enjoyed by individual citizens throughout the British Empire are not valid in a considerable number of countries, some of which are very powerful. In these States control is enforced upon the common people by various kinds of all-embracing police governments. The power of the State is exercised without restraint, either by dictators or by compact oligarchies operating through a privileged party and a political police.

It is not our duty at this time when difficulties are so numerous to interfere forcibly in the internal affairs of countries which we have not conquered in war. But we must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.

All this means that the people of any country have the right, and should have the power by constitutional action, by free unfettered elections, with secret ballot, to choose or change the character or form of government under which they dwell; that freedom of speech and thought should reign; that courts of justice, independent of the executive, unbiased by any party, should administer laws which have received the broad assent of large majorities or are consecrated by time and custom. Here are the title deeds of freedom which should lie in every cottage home. Here is the message of the British and American peoples to mankind.

The kind of questions I want to ask in response to Churchill’s treatise of freedoms, which, presumably, would be a definition rooted in modernity, are:

Are there elements which "emergent" communities would wish to uphold, question or outright reject?
To what other yardsticks will we turn in defining material, political or spiritual freedom?
Is evangelicalism too caught up with notions of spiritual freedom that are not rooted in practical liberation of the actual afflicted?
In post-modern drives to recognise alternatives to common meta-narratives, such as the evangelical one, and to dignify the advocates of other religions, are clear ideas of liberty and freedom still in view? Or is the concept obsolete within postmodernity?

Re: A framework for a biblical theology of wealth and poverty

I said I would make it all the way over here soon, and now that it is not as late at night as it was (for me, at least) when I last tried registering and logging on, I’ve made it. Distance seems so much shorter over the internet.

I agree that constructing ‘new creation’ and ‘rescue’ theologies as exclusive of each other seems unhelpful. The question about how best to bear witness to some of the tensions between them, though, is a very useful one. I would also suggest that there are dimensions to the crisis the church faced in the first Century not simply summed up as church confronting hostile Roman power. For example, the overcoming of hostility, ingrafting of ethnic outsiders and reconciliation of Gentiles and Jews (surely ‘rescue’ and ‘new creation’ paradigms are married here too closely to be separated?)

And, just as ‘rescue’ remains vitally relevant for the church today, so clearly does ‘reconciliation.’

I don’t think that there is much to be gained in arguing the merits of which is the more urgent or necessary for the church - solidarity with persecuted minorities or action against poverty. If we aren’t doing all of this (and more) in all the ways that we have opportunity and gifts, then what the hell are we doing?

But John, I think you’ve misplaced where the reference to global poverty crept into this conversation (probably because it has been carried out across several sites and days). I first raised it as a reaction to what I perceived as the potential for a ‘new creation’ eschatology to let the contemporary church off the hook with regards to wealth and poverty.

 I also have to say, as an Australian Christian looking at the UK political scene that for all the problems of the campaign against poverty - celebrity, co-option by clever politicians, a tendency towards easy answers to hard questions, etc. - I would give anything to have a Prime Minister and Treasurer who looked on action against global poverty as even remotely thinkable and did more than sneer at anti-poverty activitists.

As for whether concern for the persecuted is more counter-cultural than concern for global poverty, you’re right it is easy to wear a white band, harder to bear witness against key defining values of our age:

Economic independence, acquisitiveness and reward for effort are key values of our time and place. What would it say about God’s new creation if the church were to live the ‘manna economy’ (2 Corinthians  8:8-15) more fully, even just in its own sharing among the global community of believers?

Re: A framework for a biblical theology of wealth and poverty

thanks to (both Andrew and) Ben for your comments; I’m genuinely reassured by the tone and direction of them. With respect to clarification:

I don’t think that there is much to be gained in arguing the merits of which is the more urgent or necessary for the church - solidarity with persecuted minorities or action against poverty.

As your later comments bring out, Ben, my point was less about the merits of which is more important and more about where we, as a community in which a prophetic charism operates, ought to be pointing: our gaze has the opportunity to be ahead of the world, not behind it. In the missionary activities of the global Christian movement, this has been born out in practice: the world’s poor were in our sight long before they became a snowballing political and popular bandwagon. I’m glad the great and the good, pop-stars, politicians and entrepeneurs like Bill Gates, are getting on board - that is their duty as those who have the priveleged place of leadership in the world. I applaud them, (even if I distrust some of them). But the Christian community through it’s compassion-based missionary orders - such a that of Mother Theresa - and organisations - such as the Mercy Ships - has been there ahead of them for a long time.

Now, around the world the Christian community is facing severe threats and this is an issue which very rarely has the ear, let alone the voice of the "great and good" speaking out for it. It is for this reason that we, as those prophetically and compassionately concerned, and living in the free, prosperous west, have such an important duty of care towards them. The situation in Sudan, stretching back ten years, now being repeated in Nigeria; equally perplexing persecution within Eritrea; incomprehensible neglect and abuse within North Korea. The list could go on and on. That these situations are in respect of those who rightly look to us as their spiritual "brothers" through the Messiah, makes it even more our duty to be concerned and to act appropriately on their behalf, as we are able to do so.

Thus, I do think there are times when it is right to suggest one agenda now should have a particular priority above another. The "global health and poverty" agenda probably wouldn’t be where it is were it not for the Western Christian community - that is a rare piece of good news. For myself, I feel it must not be allowed to overshadow an equally dark foreboding, which now threatens to overwhelm many vunerable Christian minorities.

As you suggest, Ben, for the Western Christian community, our response to such could become one of the key defining values of this age. If we allow a self-congratulatory stance regarding the global poverty issue (which will not be solved for decades, even if all the current agendas are properly carried through, which would be rare indeed…) to make us slow off this other mark, we will have missed yet another opportunity to demonstrate that our faith is authentic. If we fail to engage with such an agenda because of its political incorrectness, then our indictment of ourselves shall be even greater.

What is Downward Mobility?

First thought: it seems to me that when we’re talking about the persecuted of North Korea, China, and the many countries in Africa, we’re also talking about the poor in North Korea, China, and the many countries of Africa.  I don’t really understand the need for a distinction.  Certainly, Christians are being violently percecuted and losing their lives all over the world, but those same Christians are also being persecuted economically (which is quite violent in itself).  If we’re talking numbers I’d be interested in comparing the deaths from preventable diseases, hunger, and water contamination versus those who lose their life for their faith.  Just to be clear, I don’t think one deserves priority over the other because they seem to be, quite often if not always, one and the same.  Needless to say, we should be doing something about it.

Second thought: This one may be for another thread.  But if we are going to be judged based on "doing" as Scripture so often states, where is the line.  Coming from a Reformed tradition I was raised with "justification by grace through faith" which meant an intellectual, emotional consent to Jesus as Savior.  Christ’s righteousness was imputed to me.  In other words, God saw me through Jesus.  This becamse dissatifactory when I actually read the Bible for myself.  But now I’m caught and left wondering (as Luther did), which commandments do I need to keep?  How often?  How many times can I screw up? etc.  I’ve had to redefine the "JF model."

It seems to me that we’re all a journey after Jesus Christ, seeking to walk in his steps.  Salvation comes to us by trusting that he is the way, loving his kindness, and being humble enough to admit we’re still a long way off and that we need the Spirit’s help to get there.  However, if there is something we would be judged on I would think it is something like downward mobility.

Third thought: If I were to right a doctoral dissertation it would be on the feasibility of downward mobility.  If you were to run those two words through a search engine and handful of the returns would view the idea positively while the majority of others would be highlighting the disruption of the middle class.  How are we to call others to downward mobility when it is being forced upon them in a negative way?  You all will have your own answers, I wonder if you think it is an answer in itself.  Aside from the freedom of simplicity, those who choose downward mobility are showing others that upward mobility is not all that it’s cracked up to be.  It removes the shame and fear so often associated with poverty.  I wonder, though, what you all would also suggest are the practical applications of downward mobility aside from moving into stressed neighborhoods (which can lead to gentrification if not careful) and sending your own kids to underfunded, urban schools (which is also mentioned in the papers).  I await your replies.

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