Early Christian Teachings for the New Millennium
By Eric Stetson — May 15, 2020
When people today think of “church,” what usually comes to mind is a large building where worship meetings are held each week. Although communal worship of God through ceremonies, liturgies, choir music and Christian rock bands can help to uplift us and strengthen our faith, many Christians may be surprised to learn that this is not the essence of what church is supposed to be. In fact, the early Christian church was more of a socioeconomic institution or even a virtual nation — a community of people choosing citizenship in the Kingdom of God and committing to care for each other as fellow divine citizens or brothers and sisters in God’s human family.
Like any nation, the Kingdom of God has laws and expectations of its citizens. The church is called to be a visible manifestation of the society of heaven on earth. This means that being a member of the church is a commitment far greater than occasional or even weekly attendance at worship services. To belong to the church is similar to being a citizen of a country, and much of the business of a country concerns economic issues such as the just distribution of resources and the rules by which people and organizations manage their affairs. Unlike most earthly nations, however, which are not necessarily governed according to divine principles, the church’s mission is to bring the teachings of God into the practice of all aspects of life and the social and economic wellbeing of people who pledge allegiance to God’s Kingdom.
Jesus taught that we should “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Mat. 22:21). This means we should not see our membership in the church as inherently incompatible with our obedience to the law of whatever earthly nation to which we belong. As dual citizens of heaven and earth, we should pay our taxes and follow any law that does not force us to violate God’s commandments in our own conduct of life, and we should also take seriously the demands of God’s Kingdom and fulfill the specific responsibilities, above and beyond secular law, that church membership entails. In so doing, we become eligible for both tangible and intangible benefits of a divine fellowship that we have chosen to join.
Economic Security and Equality in the Early Church
What, specifically, are the responsibilities and benefits of a church that is seeking to embody the Kingdom of God on Earth, rather than merely to provide inspiring spiritual meetings and celebratory events for a Christian audience? The Book of Acts, which was written as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of the organization of the first Christians into a church body and what they understood to be the appropriate role of the church in people’s lives. In Acts, we read of a church that would be almost unrecognizable to most people today — a church that in its basic practices and emphasis was something markedly different than the church-as-theater which developed in later centuries and which has, in one form or another, been the prevailing concept of the body of Christ for most of Christian history.
Before continuing, let me make it clear that I have nothing against worship services and ceremonies, nor am I opposed to buildings erected for the purpose of bringing people together in praise and celebration of God. Beautiful physical structures and rituals can serve as powerful tools to draw souls closer to the spiritual Source and awaken our hearts to our true divine identity and destiny in Christ.
But my point is that these things are tools, not the core nature of the church itself. Jesus taught that “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Mat. 18:20) — it does not need to be a formal congregation in a special building. Jesus furthermore suggested that private prayer is preferred by God over public religious performance, counseling that “when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. … But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Mat. 6:5-6).
Perhaps because of these teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ — and perhaps also because of his example of the Last Supper, where he broke bread with his disciples and instructed them to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) — the public gatherings of the earliest Christians were focused on a communal meal, called a love feast. The communion service of the ancient apostolic church involved eating real, nourishing food, not a tiny wafer, and the food was provided on a daily basis. As the Book of Acts reports, “Every day they … broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:46-47). Free food was distributed daily to poor members of the church such as widows, and this was considered so important that wise and Spirit-filled disciples were chosen to govern this ministry to ensure its fairness — including leaders of the caliber of Stephen, who became the first Christian martyr after Jesus (Acts 6:1-5).
How could the church afford to give away so much food every day? They were able to do so because the Christians at that time believed in a radical egalitarian philosophy. They held “everything in common” and “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45). “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (4:32). As a result, “there were no needy persons among them.” (4:34).
Wealthy Christians were expected to give up their excessive wealth for redistribution by the church. As recounted in the Book of Acts, “from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (4:34-35). This was not merely an optional practice of especially devout believers, but rather was a universal expectation. To illustrate the point, the Bible praises a man named Barnabas who sold land and donated the money to the church (Acts 4:36), but condemns Ananias and Sapphira, who also sold land and gave only some of the proceeds to the church, but lied about how much they earned and held back a portion of the money for themselves. As the story goes, God actually struck them dead because of their greed and dishonesty (5:1-10), and “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (vs. 11).
There is little fear in the church today of the evil consequences of the hoarding of wealth, despite that Jesus himself warned of how difficult it is for the rich to enter heaven (like a “camel through the eye of a needle,” Mat. 19:24); and described a rich man who neglected to help the poor as tormented in hell (Luke 16:19-25); and overturned the tables of the money-changers and drove them out of the Temple with a whip of cords (John 2:15). Jesus was clearly very strongly against economic greed.
Despite all of this, churches that ask for a 10% tithe from their members are typically viewed as hard-core, while more mainstream churches dare not even ask for that much. Only very small and extreme sects require church members to share all of their wealth in common, as did the church of the apostles. But in light of Biblical teachings, it seems that Christians should embrace tithing and should encourage the wealthy to be even more generous than that if they can find it in their heart to do so.
It is important to understand that the primary purpose of tithing or donating financial resources to the church is not supposed to be to raise money for building large and ornate sanctuaries — and certainly not to enable ministers to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle. Nor do we give to the church so that God will return the favor and bless us with prosperity, for if this is why we give, then it comes from a selfish motive rather than an authentic desire to serve the Lord. We are called to be generous with our resources so that the church will be well funded because the mission of the church is to help as many people as possible, in body, mind, and spirit. The church is called to save people from life-destroying and soul-crushing poverty — and by embodying such tangible compassion, to teach the transformative truth of the Gospel, that God loved us and came to save us even when we were wretched and poor in spirit.
By providing economic security for all believers, the ancient church enabled people to look beyond their immediate material circumstances and begin to fulfill their higher emotional and spiritual needs — which as psychologists have shown, can only occur once the basic needs for food, shelter, and physical security are fulfilled. Furthermore, by expecting the wealthy to donate excess property and resources, and thus creating a much greater degree of economic equality among members of the church, early Christian leaders powerfully taught the lesson that all human beings are equal in the eyes of God — contrary to the materialistic lesson taught by the market economy, that some people are worth very little compared to others.
The Changing Economy and the 21st Century Church
In ancient times, most people worked with their hands or their muscles, and it was possible for a person of average or even below-average intelligence to earn a living wage as long as they were in good physical health. Farming, animal husbandry, and small-scale craftsmanship made up the majority of income-producing jobs. This was the normal, seemingly permanent human condition until just a few centuries ago.
With the advent of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, mechanization made it possible for workers to produce more products more cheaply and efficiently. At first this was a good thing, increasing the overall standard of living despite great inequality of wealth between owners of industrial technology and the working class. Machines made it possible for more people to work with their brains instead of relying on physical brawn, and this unleashed a tremendous amount of previously untapped human potential. Meanwhile, even average people who labored with their bodies rather than their minds could be paid more, because their work was made more productive through mechanical inventions.
But as the progress of human knowledge and technology continued at an ever-faster pace, by the late 20th century ordinary workers no longer reaped the benefits of economic progress; instead, they began to fall behind. The rise of computers and advanced robotics have caused more and more jobs to be eliminated as a result of automation, including an increasing number of semi-skilled and even largely mental types of employment. In the early 21st century, tremendous progress in the field of machine learning and the looming emergence of full-blown artificial intelligence threaten a future of unemployment for a large percentage of the human population — anyone without a high level of creative thinking ability or other skills and talents that are not easily reproducible by intelligent machines. According to an Oxford University study, nearly 50% of all jobs are susceptible to automation.
Such dire predictions do not necessarily imply a future in which half of all adult human beings will be unemployed, however. Unless a Nazi-style ideology gains ascendency and people who are deemed unnecessary for economic production are exterminated or imprisoned, a much more likely result of the rise of robotics and AI is that society will find other things for people to do, whose jobs were replaced by intelligent machines. Governments, for example, might expand the military to encompass a large percentage of the formerly civilian population, or create wide-scale civil service programs similar to that of the New Deal era in the United States or the make-work jobs that were common in the Soviet Union. Wealthy individuals might employ more people as servants or in service-sector roles. Corporations, political campaigns, and other nongovernmental organizations might hire millions of people to engage in constant in-life product placement and promotion or ideological persuasion, woven into the routines of their daily lives and broadcast through their personal social media feeds — essentially paid advertising that looks organic.
In general, most of the new jobs that will be created in the new millennium will likely involve subtle skills of human interaction or creative talent — the type of things that artificial intelligence may be less capable of doing effectively, or not able to do at all, because of a continued desire of people to engage with real human beings rather than robots. Ministry, in all its various forms, may play a much larger role in the economy of the future, because the expression of spiritual inspiration and God-inspired compassion are not easily replaceable by machines. Such manifestations of the human soul in its fullest glory might be mimicked robotically to some degree, but not in a way that would feel as authentic and satisfying as interacting with a real, flesh-and-blood, Spirit-filled person.
We should hope that there will be many more job opportunities for humans ministering to other human beings in the coming centuries, because many of the other alternatives may tend to be degrading rather than uplifting. Prostitution of one’s body, mind and soul to wealthy individuals and corporate and political agendas in exchange for a paycheck may become the norm, unless a large amount of wealth is held by organizations with higher values, such as the church, and is used to create positive forms of employment. In a post-scarcity world where large amounts of human labor is no longer needed for basic economic production, most people’s work will be some form of service or emotional labor, or selling one’s allegiance and moral agency to a person or entity endowed with greater accumulations of capital. To whom, or what end, do we want most human workers to serve? The pleasures of the rich? The competition of profit-seeking corporations, armies, governments, and political movements? Or the ministry of the Heavenly Kingdom?
It is vitally important that Christians consider this issue, the high stakes involved, and the potential outcomes. Money can be understood as units of potential energy — and whoever has more money has more agency to determine how energy is used, including people’s time spent on any kind of activity. With intelligent machines becoming more efficient than human beings at using energy for production of basic goods and services, new human employment will often involve well-capitalized institutions paying people to serve and promote their ideologies and interests, for good or for ill.
In such a profoundly changed economy, churches can gain tremendous ability to shape the future of this world into the Kingdom of God on Earth, if members choose to empower the church with financial abundance. On the other hand, wealthy and powerful agents of evil, such as authoritarian governments, aggressive militaries, and amoral profit-maximizing corporations whose practices violate human rights and harm our planet’s environment — as well as churches inspired and funded by the dark side — will also have greater power to use their financial resources to influence people’s choices and thus the potential direction of society.
Therefore, we can see that the new millennium will be a battle for the very soul of humanity, in which money will be the primary tool deployed in the service of both good and evil, because of the increased dependence of human beings on sources of income tied not to tangible production but to abstract philosophies and ideas competing for supremacy. The degree to which this will likely be the case is unprecedented in human history, and is a direct consequence of unstoppable forces of technological and economic progress.
The Meaning of Ministry and the Rise of Missional Employment
Biblical Christianity provides several teachings that can help us to envision the future of the church in connection with the post-20th-century economy. First, as we have already seen, the early church was radically egalitarian and focused on helping the poor — and this was based on principles taught by Jesus himself. However, as often happens in socialistic communities, some people sought to take advantage of the generosity of those who were providing resources for the less fortunate. For this reason, the second epistle to the Thessalonian church warns of idleness among the believers and commands that “one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” (2 Thes. 3:10).
But what if not enough jobs are available for everyone who wants or needs to be employed? Or what if there are enough jobs, but many of the jobs require people to compromise their principles in the service of morally degenerate institutions, such as those that exploit people and the planet for excessive profit, or which take away people’s natural rights and freedoms through excessive force or control of people’s self-expression? In such circumstances, which are likely to become more common in the age of automation and technological unemployment, how can the church reconcile the calling of radical generosity and the virtue of work?
The Apostle Paul’s teachings about ministry offer a path forward to solve this seeming conundrum. Although Paul himself worked as a tentmaker while sharing the Gospel in communities where he lived, that was a time when tents were made by people rather than machines — today, Paul’s skills of craftsmanship would be obsolete and he would be out of a job. Fortunately, he defined ministry in such a broad way that many occupations we today consider to be deserving of financial compensation can logically come under the umbrella of the Fivefold Ministry he outlined. As the apostle wrote, Christ’s desire is “to fill the whole universe” (Eph. 4:10), and therefore “Christ himself gave [the ministry of] the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (vss. 11-13).
In other words, it is through continuous building up of the body of Christ, i.e. the Kingdom of God on Earth in the form of the church, that God’s purpose is fulfilled, namely that all souls shall attain to the fullness of divine-human potential, and that the world in which we live may reflect the glories of the heavenly realm. To do this, we are called to various forms of ministry as Paul mentions. Let us consider how broad is the scope of this calling and how many vital, salaried occupations can be rightfully considered ministerial in nature, or missional employment in the sense of working directly for the mission of God to be fulfilled.
- Apostles: General authorities of the church.
- Prophets: Advocates for justice, righteousness, equality, human rights, and other worthy causes; authors, journalists, filmmakers, artists and musicians calling attention to important issues and offering visions for the future.
- Evangelists: Missionaries and others sharing the Gospel in person or through writing, imagery, videos and films, radio and television, podcasts, websites, social media, etc.
- Pastors: Leaders of church congregations, support and recovery groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, and youth groups; community service organizers; therapists and life coaches; military and hospital chaplains; midwives and doulas, wedding and marriage counselors, end-of-life counselors, and funeral directors.
- Teachers: Child care workers, teachers of children at all ages in any subject where Christian principles or interpretations may be relevant; theologians and religious scholars; Bible study leaders, Sunday school teachers, and other study group leaders; and people using the arts to teach moral and spiritual lessons.
The church should be able to employ people to do all of these things, providing large numbers of jobs and helping to fund education and training for low-income members to become qualified for such professional roles. Continuous and relentless evangelism by missionaries everywhere on the face of the earth, fulfilling Jesus’s Great Commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Mat. 28:19), can provide temporary employment for members of the church who have lost their jobs and need to earn an income doing some positive activity that does not require a specific professional skillset, while they seek new employment outside the church and/or go through job retraining programs.
To fund such a large and active ministry — which would also serve as a social insurance program to guarantee as many church members as possible a job if they need one — the church should encourage its members who are employed outside the church to tithe at least 10% of their after-tax income. Salaries for members employed in the church’s various ministries should be kept low, emphasizing the honor and privilege of serving God to earn one’s daily bread, rather than enabling believers so employed to indulge in a lifestyle of excessive materialistic pleasures.
This is a much-relaxed version of the radical socialism of the original church founded by Jesus’s apostles, adapted to the needs and conditions of the 21st century and beyond. By embracing the concept of paid ministry and expanding it to encompass much more than the tradition of compensating pastors to lead their congregations, we can restore the originally intended function of the church as an institution focused on creating economic security and equality. Indeed, we can do this by using financial resources to employ numerous members, who might not otherwise be able to find work compatible with their Christian values in the emerging post-human economy, to do all kinds of important work to build the Kingdom of God, thus solving a major socioeconomic problem at the same time as we manifest a divine vision for the future of our world.
There is one other key principle we should apply — derived from the teachings of Jesus himself — which can enable the church to gain great wealth and power far beyond what tithing itself would seemingly make possible. Instead of spending all of the funds donated as the money comes in, most of the principal should be invested in a diversified and profit-generating portfolio of stocks, bonds, real estate, etc., and the dividends and capital gains from the church’s investments should be spent as described above. This is consistent with the Parable of the Talents, in which Jesus praises the righteous servants who invest the money entrusted to them by their Master, earning double the original value for the Lord (Mat. 25:14-30).
In this way, even as foretold by Jesus in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Kingdom of God begins as something tiny but shall become so great and mighty that it provides shelter for the people of the world. For “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Mat. 13:31-32).
With only one million adult members earning an average of $30,000 per year and tithing to the church, after merely ten years the church would accumulate an investment fund of $30 billion, and at a conservative rate of return of 10% per year (about the same as the average annual gain of the S&P 500 stock market index over the past 90 years), would be able to spend up to $3 billion per year employing people in many different forms of ministry. If each full-time employee were paid an average of $20,000 per year — perhaps somewhat more in countries with a high cost of living such as the United States, and somewhat less in developing nations, where people live more cheaply and where much of the evangelism work would likely be done — 150,000 people could be employed by the church. That would completely cover a 13% unemployment rate among church members, which may be a typical rate in the latter half of the 21st century due to automation. All of these numbers could be scaled up further with additional membership growth and longer time for the investment fund to grow.
A church that takes its economic mission seriously and implements such a vision could realistically ascend to a high and far-reaching position of social influence, rapidly gaining members and transforming the world through such a large professional ministry as no church has ever done before. This church would have the funding and human resources to teach the Gospel through the incredible power of the arts, at the highest level of creative imagination and quality, using the latest and most sophisticated technologies. It would be able to create its own multimedia empire, its own schools and universities, and human services and programming of all kinds embracing people at every stage and walk of life. It would be able to win many millions of souls to the Kingdom of God through continuous in-person outreach in communities around the world. This church could thus become one of the most powerful institutions on Earth within a few generations.
Sustainable Business and a Church-Influenced Economy
As the church grows toward a level of membership and economic clout even a fraction of the one-million-member example provided above — for example, perhaps after ten years of having only about 33,000 tithing members, yielding a one billion dollar investment fund — it would be able to start building its own businesses to compete directly with companies that are driven entirely by the amoral profit motive.
Church-owned businesses should observe principles of the triple bottom line, balancing the interests of people, the planet, and profit. Because the church will not demand that its companies maximize profits, they will be able to pay employees more, charge customers less, and observe policies of greater respect towards the planet’s environment. As a result, such businesses may be more popular with the general public and be able to defeat competitors in the marketplace, thus shifting the economy of the world in a more sustainable direction. The larger and more economically powerful the church grows, the greater the influence — a relentless engine of growth of the Kingdom of God in the world of business, systematically overthrowing the dominions of greed and recreating the economy according to divine principles.
Before the church reaches the size and institutional maturity where it can begin to do this through direct entrepreneurial investment, its members should buy as much as possible from existing companies that are following sustainable and humanitarian principles and buy as little as possible from companies that are not. This is consistent with the principle taught in the early church that Christians should not eat food sacrificed to idols. In the Apostle John’s vision in the Book of Revelation, Jesus specifically names this as a sin of one of the churches at the time (Rev. 2:14). Since Jesus taught that we cannot serve both God and Mammon, the idol of money (Mat. 6:24), eating food sacrificed to idols may be broadly interpreted as purchasing or partaking of any consumer goods that have been produced through the worship of the false god of unbridled capitalist greed. This is the most prevalent and the most destructive “idol” of modern times, and the one that Christians today must staunchly refuse to tolerate in our personal and communal habits of life.
Early Christians were willing to face persecution and even death for boycotting the idolatry of their own time. The least we can do, in our own more comfortable circumstances, is to change our consumer spending habits to be more consistent with upholding human rights and the protection of the natural environment that God has given us to care for on this beautiful and precious planet over which we have dominion. The survival of our rich and diverse ecosystem is at stake; pollution and climate change are destroying what God gave us to preserve, and these manmade evils threaten ultimately to destroy ourselves. Halting and reversing the damage is a crucial part of the mission of the 21st century church.
In conclusion, perhaps the most important point to understand, in all its dimensions and implications, is that we are called to create systematic progress toward the ideals of the Heavenly Kingdom here on Earth. The church is not to be a passive, ethereally spiritual group of people who merely gather together to enhance their own religious experiences. Christians have been given by God the weighty assignment to do our utmost to manifest the teachings of Christ in society. We are to become “kings and priests” reigning with Christ in the Millennial Age — an age of restoration of Earth from a fallen condition to a sublime new era when the Spirit of God shall fill the hearts of all people and all the systems of life and civilization.
In the vision of John, the spiritual world calls us to this mission. “And they sang a new song [to Christ], saying … You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10). We are not merely to live in a corrupted world, dreaming of heaven; our duty is to transform the world in its image. This world is a world in which, for better or worse, money reigns. It is therefore the sacred responsibility of the Christian church to harness this powerful tool for the good, so that Christ’s influence may extend beyond the human heart and into all the institutions of our collective life — so that God shall reign not only in heaven, but also on earth.
Trusting in this vision of sacred economics for the new millennium, let us begin. Amen.
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