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01.3.2 Church Giving in the Time of Justin Martyr

One of the doctrines that divide Christians today is giving in the church (see Giving vs Tithing).  The debate is primarily between those who say that we need to follow the laws of tithing as described in the Old Testament, and those who say that all should give as Paul described in second Corinthians chapter 8 where he describes what some people call “abundant sharing”.  Both of these practices share one feature; most of the congregants, if not all, are expected give to the church, whether or not they have much or not.

However, neither of the above models is quite the model that Justin presents.

“the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”[i]

Let’s break this down, and look at it.

“there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.”   There must be something wrong here. The church isn’t keeping all the money for its staff, buildings, and programs.  The money, it says, was distributed to various people attending the service.

“And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit;” and what is collected is deposited with the president.”  This explains where the money comes from; it does come from the people in the congregation, but only from those who were well-to-do and willing.

“and what is collected is deposited with the president.”  The money that was collected was presided over by the “president”. This is the same as what happens at churches, there is somebody in charge of the money.

“who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.”  This explains who got the money; orphans, widows, the sick, anyone in need, prisoners, traveling strangers. The last phrase says it all.   The money was given  to all  who were in need.

There’s an old joke that I hear from time to time about somebody taking money out of the collection plate as it’s passed around. Sometimes people laugh, but everyone knows that it’s just a joke because churches expect everyone to give as much as they can, and don’t expect to have to give out much of the congregation. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be occasional gifts to missionaries,  people in need,  or even to ministries, i.e. the Stephen Ministry, or others, that  minister to poor people.  But the primary money that gets collected every week in most churches in America and a lot of other places in the world fund big churches, paid staff , programs and/or equipment.

And of course, it is so very understandable. Churches are expensive to build and maintain. Full time staff are expensive too. Of course, that is also missing in the original Christianity model. In primitive, original Christianity assemblies of people met in houses for the most part led by people who worked elsewhere like the rest of the assembly. Big Church buildings only became the norm when Constantine sought to make Christianity the religion of the empire, and Christian churches began following the model of the big pagan temples. But we are getting ahead of ourselves

Wow!  Poor people were not expected to give.  The rich gave, and those in need received right there in the weekly church service!

Justin claims that these things were taught to the apostles by Jesus,[ii] and is how things have been practiced in original Christianity up until the time of Justin.

In A Sermon Not Commonly Taught: When Not to Give, I look at a verse in second Corinthians chapter 8 that is rarely, if ever, taught;

For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according as a man hath, not according as he hath not. For I say not this, that others may be eased, and ye distressed: but by equality; your abundance being a supply at this present time for their want, that their abundance also may become a supply for your want; that there may be equality: as it is written, He that gathered much had nothing over; and he that gathered little had no lack.2Co 8:12-15

This verse seems very much in tune with the practice that Justin describes for distribution in the church.

Also just because some of Justin’s theology is suspect in some areas doesn’t mean that we should discount his account here. By most accounts Justin was a respected Christian teacher. He is not philosophizing here at all, rather, he is just recounting the events of his day, telling what they did for worship services and giving and why they did them that way. This are very probably the practices of the day even if there were variations on the day of the week and so forth practiced in other places and so forth.

Still think that churches today are models of original Christianity?  Does your church do this?


[i] Justin Martyr, 1st Apology, Chapter LXVII.—Weekly worship of the Christians.

[ii] Ibid., “He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration” is the last line of the above chapter of the first apology in which Justin delineates all of the elements of the worship service practice at that time. This includes the reading of the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles, prayer, the practice of Holy Communion, as well as this practice of distribution of funds among the saints presided over by the president at the worship service. Justin is claiming here that this worship service plan, this liturgy, was directed by the Lord.

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

March 7th, 2011 Posted by | Movements | no comments

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