3. The New Church’s Economics Contrasted
When Christ hit the scene in 30 AD with his teachings, his approach to the physical and spiritual was revolutionary, encouraging a view of something beyond the material needs of the time. Christ established a principle-based approach to economics that not only blended the Ten Commandments with everyday life, but pointed his followers away from the material to the immaterial.
But what did this mean for those who taught after Him, specifically the apostles Peter, Paul and John? Unfortunately, the epistles we do have from these three saints do not reveal many explicit details on the economic philosophy of Christian thought at the time. However, if we take a deeper look at Paul’s view of culture and society, we can find some threads for how they might’ve approached economic issues.
First off, we need to establish the basic economic doctrines that are being discussed. Most followers of the day approached life from one of two starting points: a Hellenistic or a Judaic worldview. We touched on the roots of Judaic economic thought in the past, noting how one’s economic practices as a Jew for most of ancient history sat in this place that blended their religious identity with national identity. For most Jews, this meant that following and practicing the principles of their faith was a subject of national pride, and that it benefited the other members as well. This was also made with a more isolationist mindset, where the practices were not meant for the world, but for the nation of Israel and all who inhabited it.
In contrast, we have Hellenistic thought. Obviously there is rather significant evidence of the Greeks and their allies enacting trade and completing business, as one would expect from a rather large empire. That said, we still know so little about the exact nature of said activities. Historian Darel Tai Engen of California State University notes that:
‘Although the ancient Greeks achieved a high degree of sophistication in their political, philosophical, and literary analyses and have, therefore, left us with a significant amount of evidence concerning these matters, few Greeks attempted what we would call sophisticated economic analysis.’
Why was this? Richard Ebeling from the Future of Freedom Foundation suspects that it’s:
‘due to the fact that for the ancient Greeks, questions concerning “economics” were considered subservient to other themes considered far more crucial to human life and society.’
After all, why discuss money and business when you can think about minds and souls and the Good? However, a study of daily practices in Greek cities reveals quite a bit about Greek culture and their view of economics, such as how the heavy presence of slavery diminished work’s value in the eyes of Athens’ residents, or how labor was something to be divided between classes.
Economic trade was a necessity, but in the eyes of men like Plato and Aristotle, it was not a good in itself, but a necessary evil in order to pursue the Good, or the true (aka philosophizing). So men would trade and enable commerce as was needed, but those who were truly blessed had been given the chance to think about and explore reality in grander terms.
The Church would grow under this mindset, as well as the Roman expansionism of the day, where the spread of roads and sea trade enabled the spread of the gospel alongside luxury and mercantile goods, allowing for the historical and literal fulfillment of Acts 1:8, where Christ implores his followers to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In the earliest days of the Church, the community started out with a simple principle; sharing all you had with others. Acts 2 tells us that after 4000+ people came to faith in the city of Jerusalem, they formed a rather close knit community that promoted a form of economic equality:
44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This practice would eventually expand to the other churches, with members providing for those less fortunate in the church and outside of it. We would also see Paul and other travelling teachers gathering funds for other churches when they were in need, as well as asking for donations.
That only provided for internal needs, however. The rest of the church was encouraged to engage in normal trade to provide for themselves, to still have a (aka a real job, including teachers like Paul), and to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, assuming it did not go to the idols of the day.
But these were issues of how one personally acted in an economy or in a church community, not necessarily how one might view the economy as a whole. But this isn’t surprising in the least. Economic or political reform was never something desirable by the Apostles, hence their lack of support for any of the political uprisings during their life. They wanted to see change on an individual level, not on a larger level. After all, Christ was going to return soon, and he was the only one who could overthrow entire societal systems.
For the Church, Christ provided a mental shift regarding economics, albeit one that was not based in revolution but in personal development. His followers used the situational economic network of the time to spread their message and to maintain some kind of economic presence despite the fact that Jewish and Hellenistic thought contrasted the dualist spiritual nature of the Gospel. While it does not provide some grandiose framework for how to think about how we spend money or the most efficient ways to do it, it did provide people with better ways to act economically on a personal and interpersonal level. This theology would eventually be used to provide the basis for future work by Augustine and Aquinas.