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What Did the Early Church Say About Economic Justice?

St. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Basil the Great

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  • Mark Smith

    I do not understand why this is a foreign thought. Do we not pray " thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" ? Do you really think in the Kingdom of God He wants some people to have to much and some to little? When He rained down manna it was not so. Jesus said, " In my fathers house there are any rooms" sounds like to me the Kingdom is communal and equal. Lets us bring the Kingdom to all areas of our life, not just Sunday.

  • Steve Burch

    Wow! I am amazed at what I just read here. I had no idea that the early Church took such a daring stand on equality. Bravo to The Plough for daring to write and publish this article, which opposes popular economic assumptions.

  • Jon Stevens

    And yet, every time I turn away from giving away my money to someone I encounter who is in need, every time I turn away I become that rich young ruler who turned and went away sad for he had so much. And when I do that, I am turning away from Jesus. Until I can see Jesus in the faces of those around me, I worship the wind.

  • Chana O'Leary

    First to Angela: Socialism and Communism are COMPLETELY different political systems. One bears absolutely NO RELATIONSHIP to the other. I have lived in socialist countries. They have private property, entrepreneurship, etc. AND they manage to have a better life for EVERYONE in their society...because they genuinely feel (as I was told many times) that: What is good for the individual is usually good for our communities and our societies. Americans should really educate themselves about the strong and significant differences before they start lumping the two completely different systems together in the same sentence. That said, I posted some excerpts from this on my Facebook page - and it got no "likes" at all. Which says, I think - a great deal about the focus and the (let's face it) - basic selfishness of many Americans today. Thank you, Plough, for once again calling in our day - for what Jesus did in his - a radical realignment of our thoughts and our ways of thinking.

  • Dave

    Angela, please take the words of Jesus at face value: "You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only." "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." "They should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts." "Go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." "You cannot serve God and riches." "That which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God." You can't believe Jesus said those things? Please believe it. But nowhere did Jesus say "Go and create a socialist government." Jesus is not asking the government to follow his commands; he's asking you and I to do so. True, some of the commands of Jesus are quite stringent, but it's better to contemplate that actual words than to try to duck into an argument based on politics.

  • Angela

    I can't believe this! If God wanted communism or socialism, he wouldn't have given every man his own vine and fig tree, and laws to help the poor out of the tithes. If Jesus demanded everyone give up all their possesions, then Peter and Lazarus would not have had a house to invite him to, nor would any of the saints in the epistles had houses for the church to meet in. The church in Jerusalem voluntarily held things in common -- they made no rules forcing people to join in, as the incident with Annanias makes plain, and you read nothing like that in New or Old Testament. You also don't read any of the other churches practicing the same type of holding everything in common -- although they did all radically care for one another's needs, I'm sure. It probably was because most poeple in Jerusalem weren't FROM there, so they all had to pool resources to stay there for several years. Yes we should radically use everything we can to aid others instead of 'holding on' to it for ourselves, but we have to have something which is ours, legally and morally, in order to have something to share. Let him who stole, steal no longer, rather let him labor... to have something to share. God loves a cheerful giver. You can't give what is not 'yours.' But you do hold all things as God's, not your own, and must be willing to share anything you have. Christians living in 'civilized' countries can only legally share everything and care for the poor in a society with private property rights. Under communism it was ILLEGAL to assist your neighbor, and the government stole people's property and livelihood to line the pockets of the officials, creating famine that killed 20 million peasants and created 70 years of economic chaos. Even in your quotes above, it is OWNERS who are to give to the poor. They had to preach it because it is a voluntary personal obedience to Christ's command to care for each other and the poor that each person works out between them and the Lord. Paul would not have asked each one to set aside what they would for taking to the poor in Jerusalem, if no one in the church had a claim on any money of their own, he would have said something about how the whole assembly should decide how much they could send out of the common fund.

  • Sharon Kieliszewski

    I like Mother Theresa's comment, "What we desire is not class warfare but a class encounter where the rich save the poor and the poor save the rich".

In an age when Christianity is comfortably entwined with consumer capitalism, the early Christians’ passion for social and economic justice can come as a shock. From the first days of Christianity, the duty to care for the poor and marginalized was at the center of the gospel. Jesus preached a way of life free of possessions, the first church in Jerusalem abolished private property, and the early apostles warned of privilege and wealth. Remarkably, three centuries later – when Christianity was well on its way to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire – the church’s version of economics remained as communitarian as ever. Church fathers such as Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo preached in a way that makes today’s peace and justice talk sound tame. In their own words:

Saint Basil the Great (330–379 AD):

Fling wide your doors; give your wealth free passage everywhere! As a great river flows by a thousand channels through fertile country, so let your wealth run through many conduits to the homes of the poor. Wells that are drawn from flow the better; left unused, they go foul…Money kept standing idle is worthless; but moving and changing hands it benefits the community and brings increase…

“I am wronging no one,” you say, “I am merely holding on to what is mine.” What is yours! Who gave it to you so that you could bring it into life with you? Why, you are like a man who pinches a seat at the theater at the expense of latecomers, claiming ownership of what was for common use. That’s what the rich are like; having seized what belongs to all, they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor.

Did you not come naked out of the womb? Will you not go naked back into the earth? (Job 1) So where did the wealth you now enjoy come from? If you say “from nowhere,” you deny God, ignore the Creator, are ungrateful to the Giver. If you say “from God,” then explain why it was given to you.

When a man strips another of his clothes, he is called a thief. Should not a man who has the power to clothe the naked but does not do so be called the same? The bread in your larder belongs to the hungry. The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot. The money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. You do injustice to every man whom you could help but do not.

If you are rich, how can you remain so? If you cared for the poor, it would consume your wealth. When each one receives a little for one’s needs, and when all owners distribute their means simultaneously for the care of the needy, no one will possess more than his neighbor.

Yet it is plain that you have very many lands. Why? Because you have subordinated the relief and comfort of many to your convenience. And so, the more you abound in your riches, the more you are deficient in love.

Saint John Chrysostom (347–407 AD):

If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness; you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him. You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts.

Now don’t tell me that you actually work hard. If you call earning money, making business deals, and caring for your possessions “work”, I say, “No, that is not work. But alms, prayers, the protection of the injured and the like – these are genuine work.” You charge the poor with idleness; I charge you with corrupt behavior.

Don’t you realize that, as the poor man withdraws silently, sighing and in tears, you actually thrust a sword into yourself, that it is you who received the more serious wound?

Let us learn that as often as we have not given alms, we shall be punished like those who have plundered. For what we possess is not personal property; it belongs to all.

God generously gives all things that are much more necessary than money, such as air, water, fire, the sun – all such things. All these things are to be distributed equally to all.

“Mine” and “thine” – these chilling words which introduce innumerable wars into the world – should be eliminated from the church. Then the poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD):

The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. When you possess superfluity, you possess what belongs to others. God gives the world to the poor as well as to the rich.

Redouble your charity. For, on account of the things which each one of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders. Why? Do we fight over the things we possess in common? We inhale this air in common with others, we all see the sun in common.

Blessed therefore are those who make room for the Lord, so as not to take pleasure in private property. Let us therefore abstain from the possessions of private property – or from the love of it, if we cannot abstain from possession – and let us make room for the Lord.


Does the early Christians’ teaching on justice apply to us today? How do we – and our churchesneed to change? Share your thoughts.

Read more from the early Christians in Eberhard Arnold’s The Early Christians in Their Own Words.

painting of monk feeding poor Detail from Louis Gallait’s “Monk Feeding the Poor”
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