The Book of Acts and Global Poverty

The Book of Acts and Global Poverty

by Andy Chrismer

“And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:45, ESV)

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32, 34-35, ESV)

In the second and fourth chapters of the book of Acts, we read of the radical generosity of the earliest Christians in Jerusalem.  People would sell much of what they owned to help their fellow brothers and sisters whenever a need arose. While private property still existed, people “were so willing to share it with those who could use it in some way that it was as if the property was communally owned.”1  The Greek verb in 2:45 is in the imperfect tense (“were selling”), indicating that this was a regular, continuing practice and not just a one-time act2.  In fact, the selling of assets to care for those in need remained an established practice that was common among churches through at least the second century3.

An obvious question arises: what does this mean for us today?  Of course, when applying a biblical text, we have to take it in context, so we have to first figure out if it was meant to be applied, and if so, how exactly it applies today.  Sometimes an author is just describing something simply because it’s what happened, without prescribing or endorsing any of it (the Gospel authors were obviously not recommending that anyone deny Jesus or cut off people’s ears).  And even something that was meant to be normative may not have the exact same application in other times and cultural settings; 1 Timothy 2:9, for example, was most likely an exhortation against flaunting wealth and not a universal condemnation of braided hair4.  

On the question of if the passages in Acts were meant to be normative, the answer appears to be yes.  The author (presumably Luke) probably meant for this behavior to be imitated by at least the other Christians in his time, as evidenced by his mentioning it more than once and tying it to a principle that he seems to have been commending: that they were “of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own” (Acts 4:32, ESV)

In order to determine how, exactly, these passages apply today, it would be helpful to tease out some general principles from the text and then figure out how to apply those principles in our own context.  Two principles we find here are

(1) People are stewards, not owners, (Acts 4:32), and we should therefore be willing to sacrifice what we have to benefit others, and

(2) Christians have a responsibility to ensure that no one in the “family of faith” (i.e., our fellow Christians) is in need.5

While an obvious application of (2) is to provide for needs in our local congregations, stopping there would leave many of us in affluent countries with a lot of money left over, since we live in a place with less severe poverty and more social safety nets than existed in the world of the early church.  Like the Apostle Paul (see Rom. 15:23-28, 1 Cor. 16:1-4, 2 Cor. 8-9), we should also be concerned not to neglect people far away, a consideration that is all the more important today in a world that is much smaller and more connected than it was two thousand years ago.

The importance of addressing distant needs, both of Christians and non-Christians, intensifies when we consider the facts of global poverty6, keeping in mind principles (1) and (2) above.  Every day, 16,000 children under the age of five die of preventable diseases.  There are 767 million people worldwide who live on less than $1.90 per day (and that dollar amount already factors in differences in cost of living).  And as I write this, we are seeing perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II

While extreme poverty isn’t new, our ability to do something about it is.  The gap between the global rich and the global poor is larger than ever before.  And those of us who live in developed countries like the U.S. are nearly all among the global rich; in fact, the average American is among the richest 5% of the world’s population7.  (You can enter your income into the “How Rich Am I?” calculator to see where you rank.)  Since the marginal effect of money on well-being diminishes the more you have, our relative wealth means that by donating money, we can benefit others far, far more than the same amount of money would benefit ourselves.8

Not only are we richer than ever, we are also less limited by geography than ever.  For most of human history, having any effect on the lives of people in other parts of the world was extremely difficult, if not impossible; peoples far away from each other couldn’t interact, or if  they could, it was difficult to know how to help each other effectively.  Today, this is no longer true; we live in a time when a person can make a donation from their home computer and impact people on the other side of the world, and when knowledge of effective interventions and effective charities is better than ever.

In a unique time like ours, most Christians in affluent countries today can and should be giving away far more than we currently do.  The average American Christian donates about 3 percent of their income.  Even the slightly higher level of generosity that many of us theoretically believe in is inadequate; the idea of the tithe, that Christians have to give away 10% of their incomes, often carries with it the unfortunate corollary that only 10% needs to be given away and that the rest is ours to spend as we please, even if we could afford to give away more.  And actually, the Old Testament tithe, much like the food laws, is never reaffirmed in the New Testament; for followers of Jesus, neither the early church leaders nor Jesus himself ever specified a percentage.  But based on what we do see in the New Testament, we can assume that they would expect people with wealth like ours to give away much more than 10%:

“Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 3:11, ESV).  

“But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, ESV)

1. Blomberg, Craig.  Christians in an Age of Wealth: A Biblical Theology of Stewardship.  Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan. 110.

2. Witherington, Ben. Jesus and Money. Grand Rapids, MI, Brazos Press, 2010. 101.

3. ”Their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another….Therefore they despise all things [i.e., material goods] indiscriminately and consider them common property”.  Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus. 13; translated by A.M. Harmon. The Passing of Peregrinus. The Runaways. Toxaris or Friendship. The Dance. Lexiphanes. The Eunuch. Astrology. The Mistaken Critic. The Parliament of the Gods. The Tyrannicide. Disowned.  Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1936; quoted in deSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2000. 215.

4. Some first-century women would braid their hair with gold; see Keener, Craig. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. 2nd ed., Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2014. 605.

5. This is not to deny that Christians also have some responsibility to address local needs outside of the church or to financially support some of the other functions of our local churches.

6. While this article focuses on global poverty, questions of how much we ought to be donating towards missionary efforts, or towards other high-impact causes, do not affect the core of my argument, which is that there is at least one thing – namely, global poverty alleviation – that is more worthy of our money than much of what we normally spend our money on.

7. MacAskill, William.  Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference.  New York, Gotham Books, 2015. 18.

8. William MacAskill calls this idea the “100x Multiplier”: “If you earn as much as the typical American worker, then you are one hundred times as rich as the very poorest people in the world, which means additional income can do a hundred times as much to benefit the extreme poor as it can to benefit you or me.” Ibid., 22-23.

1 Comment

  1. Dominic 3 years ago

    Thanks so much for putting this down, so perfectly!

    I particularly liked how seriously you take it without dismissing the fairly obvious implications for ourselves or watering them down.

    One thing I am not sure about is how important the “one heart, one soul” is. Is this kind of a precondition for encouraging radical generosity? In other words, should we only encourage people to share radically generously once they have achieved a state of being “one heart, one soul” with their sisters&brothers? Or should we encourage radical generosity even before we achieve “one heart, one soul”?

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