Fathom Mag

The Church’s Witness

There is one thing the church has never been condemned for: helping the poor.

Published on:
January 9, 2017
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In the introduction to his wonderful historical work, Turning Points, Mark Noll poses a simple question to his Christian readers: Why should we study the history of our faith?

Among the several compelling reasons that Noll asks, one in particular catches my attention each time I read it.[1]

. . . it is just as prudent to look for help, to realize that the question I am bringing to Scripture has doubtless been asked before and will have been addressed by others who were at least as saintly as I am, at least as patient in pondering the written Word, and at least as knowledgeable about the human heart.

Noll, of course, is not dissuading us from personal study of the scriptures but is rather reminding us of the historical character of our faith, of the 2,000-plus years of devout men and women who have earnestly sought to live out the gospel in an often hostile world. He’s reminding us that we are not the first. 

We are not the first Christians to grapple with issues of race, gender, and sexuality. We are not the first to live through war and witness the mass displacement of peoples. We are not the first to live beside both unimaginable wealth and crippling poverty. And, we are certainly not the first to be misunderstood, to have our motives questioned, and to have the veracity of our convictions doubted.

Should we question our convictions about giving? Let’s ask the early church.

Nowhere have we more clearly, and with less controversy, displayed the love of Christ before a skeptical world than our care for the poor. Though our words have often failed us, or been met with contempt, rarely have even our fiercest opponents condemned an outstretched hand to those in need. 

Nowhere have we more clearly, and with less controversy, displayed the love of Christ before a skeptical world than our care for the poor.

Whatever else the world has thought of those claiming the name of Christ, at our best, they have known that we will love those that are without.

This has been part of the fabric of the church from its earliest days, when believers gathered just after Pentecost, “selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:43).

As the church spread, this impulse to care for those in need spread with it. When disaster, plague, and war struck ancient Rome, the church was there, caring for the poor and sheltering the homeless. 

Care wasn’t seen as a matter of preference; it was known to be the duty of Christians. No one expressed this more pointedly than Basil of Caesarea, who said,[2] 

When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not—should you not be given the same name? The bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. All these you might help and do not—to all these you are doing wrong.

The church has never understood itself solely as a vehicle for salvation. It is also to be the hands and feet of Christ to all who are in need.

A Major Philanthropic Misstep before the Reformation

At times, though, we’ve lost sight of this. Whether because of persecution or mere idleness, we’ve occasionally come to value our own safety and security over the welfare of our brother. We’ve given not out of love, but to assuage our guilt or perhaps in a misguided attempt to secure our own salvation. We’ve shifted the burden to states and institutions, minimizing our own responsibility. 

In those moments, however, we’ve often been called back to our duty as stewards by both crises that demanded action and by prophetic voices like that of Basil, who in the midst of natural disaster and famine in his home city, wrote to the desert ascetics challenging them to answer, “Whose feet will you wash? To whom will you be a servant? Among whom will you be last of all?”

The church has never understood itself solely as a vehicle for salvation.

The church again found itself in need of a challenging call at the eve of the Reformation. As medieval Europe suffered through decades of war, famine, and plague, the issue of poverty reached a critical mass, and the church’s method of relief was found to be woefully inadequate. What was that method? Almsgiving.

For those not familiar with this old-fashioned term, almsgiving simply refers to “personal charity,” donations given by individuals to those in need. While that probably sounds fairly harmless, and maybe even noble, it’s important to understand the motivation behind almsgiving at the time. 

The primary purpose was not to alleviate poverty, but rather for the giver to earn eternal merit. In fact, because the medieval church had come to idealize poverty as a favored state to secure salvation, they saw little need to eradicate the condition. In their estimation, the poor had little to fear. It was the rich who needed an opportunity to overcome their own wealth. 

This system, as you can imagine, led to disorganized and ineffective giving. More significantly, though, it distorted the responsibility of individual Christians and local congregations.

Because the welfare of the poor was not the primary motivation for giving, the recipient became a peripheral concern. One could just as easily contribute to the construction of a statue or a cathedral, and still reap the same eternal reward as if he had helped his brother in need. 

As the famous indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel would say, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” (You have to admit, for heresy it’s pretty catchy.)

Enter the Reformers

Prominent Reformation leaders, including Luther, Zwingli, Carlstadt, and Calvin, contributed significantly to the reform of poor relief both within the church and within the cities and governments of Europe. They were instrumental in crafting legislation that centralized and organized relief efforts. They also encouraged greater lay and community participation, shifting the responsibility within the church from a few leaders to the entire priesthood of believers. 

Perhaps most importantly, though, they reclaimed and reemphasized a right motivation for giving. 

Luther reminded his readers that “there is no greater service of God than Christian love which helps and serves the needy.”[3] He challenged them to offer this service not for their own gain, but solely out of love. “It is the nature . . . of that which is done in love not to seek its own, nor its own profit, but that of others, and, above all, that of the community.”[4]

Likewise, Zwingli, in offering a critique of the money lavished on images and cathedrals, reminded believers of their common identity and brotherhood with the poor. He wrote, “. . . we lay luxury on them [the images] with silver and gold. . . . What we, however, should give to the needy images of God, to the poor man, we hang on the images of man; for idols are images of man, but man is an image of God.”[5]

In even more forceful language he warned Christians, “Yes, all patrons of idols will have to give account to God, that they have let his own image go hungry, freeze, etc. and have so expensively adorned their own idols.”[6]

Zwingli, like Luther, echoed the sentiments expressed by Basil of Caesarea over a thousand years earlier. Care for the poor wasn’t simply a worthy endeavor or a nice idea. It was the sacred duty of all Christians, at all times.

It’s time we listen to Basil and Luther.

I wonder if we find ourselves at another point of crisis. While we surely don’t idealize poverty, or even give indiscriminately, we do live in a time overwhelmed by war, by displaced peoples, and by fear. And as the church has struggled to effectively and coherently articulate our place through political discourse and debate, the skepticism and anger of the world has seemingly increased. The temptation to turn inward seems to loom ever larger. 

And while I would never claim to be a prophetic voice, or even a particularly wise one, I also don’t think we have to wait for the next Basil or Luther. As individuals and as local bodies, we simply need to meet needs. We need to do the uncondemnable. We must again, day after day, elevate the welfare of our brothers and sisters over our own security and comfort.

We need to be a servant to someone. To someone, we must be last of all.

[1] Mark A Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group), 6.

[2] Basil the Great, “I Will Pull Down My Barns,” in Peter C. Pahn, Social Thought: Messages of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1984), 117.

[3] Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, vol. 45, ed. Walther I. Brandt (Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1962), 179.

[4] Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, vol. 2, ed. Henry Eyster Jacobs (Philadelphia: The Castle Press, 1915), 31.

[5] Lee Palmer Wandel, Always among us: Images of the poor in Zwingli’s Zurich (London: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 61.

[6] Ibid., 63.

Cover image by Jay Black.

Sean DeWitt
Sean is an amateur historian, amateur theologian, and aspiring writer. He has masters degrees is historical theology and history of Christianity, and primarily uses that education to offer obscure historical information to uninterested friends and family. He lives in Arkansas with his wife, two little kids, and zero pets (he is not a pet person).

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