Calvin thought your church should devote half of its wealth to the poor. Does it?

One of Calvin’s hobby horses often ignored by modern conservative Christians was his sharp criticism of the way in which churches, clergy, and Christians used their wealth. In the Institutes (4.4.6) Calvin wrote the following:

You will frequently find both in the decrees of synods and in ancient writers that all that the church possesses, either in lands or in money, is the patrimony of the poor. And so this song is often sung there to bishops and deacons, that they should remember that they are not handling their own goods but those appointed for the need of the poor; and if in bad faith they suppress or waste them, they shall be guilty of blood. Accordingly, they are admonished to distribute these goods to whom they are owed, with the greatest awe and reverence, as if in God’s presence, without partiality. (emphasis added)

Does your church view its property as the “patrimony of the poor”? Calvin thought that pastors who could support themselves without the provision of the church should do so, for “if they receive anything belonging to the poor, [they] commit sacrilege.” To be sure, he thought the church should provide for all of the needs of those who “work for the church.” (4.4.6) But he limited the total funds appropriate to this end to roughly one fourth of the church’s revenue. In addition, another fourth could go to the “repair of churches and other buildings.” (4.4.7)

What did he think should happen with the rest? It should go to the poor. As he puts it, in the medieval era, to curb the greed of the clergy, “canons were enacted, which divided the income of the church into four parts: one for the clergy, another for the poor, a third for the repair of churches and other buildings, a fourth for the poor, both foreign and indigenous.” The latter fourth, Calvin admitted, was to be given to bishops, but that was for the purpose of their showing hospitality to travelers, prisoners, and other needy persons. (4.4.7) Calvin concludes, “To sum up, what the same man [Ambrose] said in another place we see to be very true: ‘Whatever, then, the church had was for the support of the needy.’ Likewise: ‘The bishop had nothing that did not belong to the poor.'” (4.4.8)

So how does your church budget match up to this standard? Calvin insisted that the church’s responsibility to the poor was not a marginal part of the church’s life. God appointed one of the church’s four offices for the care of the poor, and Calvin stressed adamantly and repeatedly that the deaconate was no secular office: “it was not secular management that they were undertaking, but a spiritual function dedicated to God.” (4.4.5) In other words, the way in which the church uses its wealth is not a lesser matter. It is a direct expression of the kingdom of God in our midst.

We often think of the giving of offerings in church as giving to God, and rightly so. But we should not forget that often the New Testament talks about the church’s giving simply in terms of giving to the poor. When we think of pastors as those who cannot earn a living because they have devoted their lives to the church, pastors are rightly seen as being included in this category. What the church does with its wealth, then, should be a partial fulfillment of Jesus’ command to “sell your possessions, and give to the needy” (Luke 12:33), in imitation of the early church, which did just that (Acts 2:44-45). If anything, the New Testament is even more radical in its teaching on this matter than Calvin was.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 17, 2012, in Social Issues and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Calvin thought your church should devote half of its wealth to the poor. Does it?.

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