How might the practices of the early church inform our handling of possessions in modern times?

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— by Helen Rhee

The handling of possessions in the early church was motivated and influenced by its understanding of God’s intent for and absolute ownership of the created world. While early Christian authors in general affirmed the legitimacy of private property, they considered it a share of the common creation intended for the common good.

All material goods are God’s gracious gifts intended for sustenance of all humans, through common access to His grace. Therefore, human possession of earthly wealth is good when it fulfills God’s creative purpose — sufficient provision of our needs and the needs of others for common enjoyment and flourishing.

On the one hand, this understanding affirms the material dimension of human needs. It also shows the appropriateness and necessity of providing for needs following God’s design for life and the common enjoyment of earthly goods. On the other hand, it reveals that the needs of others must matter in human stewardship of God-given possessions. This should influence our decisions about money or property. Human stewardship is always conditional in light of God’s absolute ownership and creative purpose (the common good).

Beyond sufficient provision and common enjoyment, we do not have a natural right to hoard money, indulge in riches, and display wealth conspicuously. These are all symptoms of avarice and greed. Our possessions, even as the fruits of our hard work, are always contingent upon our broader social responsibility and our witness to God’s ultimate ownership. Moreover, while all wealth ultimately comes from God, wealth brings a real and powerful temptation and deceitfulness that easily leads to idolatry and injustice.

In light of these fundamental teachings, how should we handle God given possessions in our time? Consider two practical points:

Firstly, since we are physical and spiritual creatures with physical and spiritual needs, it is appropriate and necessary for us to use God-given money and possessions for our sufficient physical and spiritual care. Thus, we rightly spend in areas that nurture our souls and bodies. God expects us to enjoy His creation and the works of humans with gratitude. Sufficient care and appropriate enjoyment is not just about quantity but also quality, without harming people or God’s created world, or falling into consumerism and covetousness. 

Key words here are “sufficient care” and “appropriate enjoyment” since these notions, and the notion of necessities, inevitably evolve and are contextualized through time (e.g., antiquity, medieval times, modern world) and geographical and social locations (e.g., Australia, Vietnam, USA). In this new era of a culture of affluence, what used to be considered “luxury” items a decade ago such as smartphones, iPods, flat screen TVs, and laptops have become “necessities” for many in developed and even developing countries.

Many (even most) people in developed and developing countries have come to enjoy and even take for granted dining out, urban entertainments such as movies, concerts, sporting events, vacations, and domestic and international trips, not as an extravagant lifestyle but as affordable and necessary leisure. Here we do well to remember what the early church believed — that what feeds our bodies, as we use God-given money and possessions, affects our souls. We must consider how meeting our physical needs and finding enjoyment through material things helps and affects our spiritual needs — positively or negatively. 

Secondly, prominent voices in the early church repeatedly exhort us to invest earthly possessions into what is eternal, and to transfer our earthly possessions into heavenly assets. What are our heavenly assets? From the early church’s perspective, it was first and foremost people as God’s image bearers. We must, therefore, think about ways in which we can invest the money and possessions we steward into people and their welfare, and nurture relationships near and far that last eternally. Those people become our “neighbors” to love. 

This could mean giving to disaster relief works and urgent needs (e.g., to literally save the victims of disasters, to feed and provide shelters for the homeless, to care for the sick, or to provide needs of struggling relatives or friends, etc.). This could also mean giving to the development organizations that work toward long-term, structural, and institutional changes for the betterment of the poor and the underprivileged (e.g., basic education and literacy, affordable housing, asset-based community development, microlending, access to health care, etc.). These are all direct and indirect forms of “people-investment” — fulfilling God’s creative intent — sufficiency for all humanity through common access to the created world (through productive means and finished products) for common flourishing.