Guthrie's Gospel

Economic justice from a Christian perspective

Category: Paul

A Christian Case for Socialism

Some Christians in America have taken to raging against the threat they believe socialism poses to America and to Christianity.  They see socialism as the antithesis of all things Christian and they are not entirely off base in their fears.  Some movements and countries that have called themselves socialist have been explicitly anti-religious.  The former Soviet Union is a clear example of this.  Religious people (as well as many others, it is worth noting) were oppressed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their beliefs.  But even so, does it stand that Christianity and socialism must always be opposed?  No, it does not.  Christianity and socialism actually have much in common.

In the book of Acts, Christ’s Apostles lived in a communal way.  The book states that “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” and “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:32).  Holding things in common, giving to anyone who had need, that seems very similar to the radical socialist notion of mutual aid, often expressed in the phrase “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

The accounts in Acts are born out in the Pauline and the Catholic epistles.  Paul, in 2 Corinthians, reiterates the egalitarian spirit of the early Christian commune, saying, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened;  but by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may supply their lack, that their abundance also may supply your lack—that there may be equality.  As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” (8:13-15).  In 1 Timothy, Paul condemns greed, proclaiming “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” before exhorting Timothy to “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy.  Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share” (6:10, 6:17-18).

And Paul is not alone in his epistolary encouragement of equality and charity.  James says “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (2:15-18).  Peter writes in his first epistle, “Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.  As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (4:9-10).  In 1 John, we are again told “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?  My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (3:17-18).

From the Acts of the Apostles through the Epistles it is clear that the Apostles and the early Church believed that charity and a striving for material equality were requirements for being a good Christian.  However, this parallel between Christianity and socialism did not arise from Jesus’ followers, but rather from their faith in God’s teachings.  Christ himself is the wellspring for Christian socialists.

Christ, in His teachings, repeatedly condemns the rich and the accumulation of wealth.  In Luke, Christ declares “But woe to you who are rich, For you have received your consolation” (6:24).  In Matthew He states, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” and “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (19:23-24, 6:24).  In describing the final judgement, Christ tells of how He will deal with the greedy by saying, “‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’…And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-43,46).  Christ’s wrath against greed also takes tangible form when He drives the merchants from the Temple, crying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” and “Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!” (Mark 11:17, John 2:16).

By the same token, Jesus extols generosity and sharing throughout His teachings.  In Mark, He tells His followers to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (12:31).  In Matthew, He tells a rich, young man “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (25:21-22).  In Luke, He advises giving to those who cannot give back when He says, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid.  But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.  And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (14:12-14).  He further promised eternal salvation to the generous, saying “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me…Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:34-36,40).

Through His teachings and actions, Jesus made it clear that to be righteous the prosperous must distribute their wealth to the poor.  This teaching was not some new innovation, but a continuation of God’s teachings as given through the Prophets, David, and Moses.  Indeed, in declaring His mission, Jesus cites Isaiah, announcing “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). As Christians, we must strive to emulate Christ’s example.

On the role of women in the church and 1st Corinthians 14:33b–36

As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

In this passage, Paul is saying that in every congregation women should be silent according to the law. If a woman does not understand something, she should wait to ask her husband until they are home. It is important to understand this passage in order to understand the role of women in the Jesus movement and in order to understand Paul’s views on women.

Taken on its own, the passage places women in a heavily subordinate role to men within worship. It also seems to place husbands as the supreme authority for wives, for it is through their husbands, and not anyone else, that wives are instructed to seek knowledge. Taken in historical context, though the meaning, or at least the authenticity of this passage becomes less clear.

Barr points out that the tone of verses 34 and 35 doesn’t seem to agree with his other letters. In Galatians 3:28 Paul wrote that neither male nor female existed for the followers of Jesus. Paul also acknowledges various women as coworkers in Christ with him. In Philippians 4:2–3, Paul refers to two women who “have struggled beside” him “in the work of the gospel.” In Romans 16:1–2, Paul asks those he writes to assist Phoebe, a deacon in the church of Cenchreae, in “whatever she may require” of them. Barr and the Harper Collins Study Bible both assert that Phoebe was likely the person entrusted to deliver Paul’s letter to the Romans. Barr further notes that Paul greets seven women as coworkers in Romans 16.

As Barr also points out, verses 34 and 35 also appears to contradict other passages in 1 Corinthians. In verse 11:5, Paul refers to women prophesying, but does not condemn them for such activity. Likewise, in verses 11:11–12, Paul seems to emphasize the interdependence of men with women and not the dependence of women on men. Viewed through the context of Paul’s other letters and even through other passages within 1st Corinthians, the meaning of this passage seems either unclear or contradictory to Paul’s views on women.

Barr acknowledges that some scholars view verses 34 and 35 as a latter addition to 1st Corinthians. The Harper Collins Study Bible also points this out, noting the verses’ similarity to the likely pseudepigraphal epistles to Timothy and Titus. Beyond the unusual viewpoint verses 34 and 35 put forward when compared to the rest of Paul’s known writing, there are certain textual ambiguities that appear to lend credence to this claim.

There appears to be some confusion in the syntax of verses 33 and 34. The New Revised Standard Version renders the last part of verse 33 as the first clause of the sentence that continues into verse 34. In contrast, the New King James Version and The Orthodox New Testament translation published by Holy Apostles Convent both treat the last part of verse 33 as the final clause of the first part of 33. If this latter interpretation is correct, the command for feminine silence and submission in verses 34 and 35 is not explicitly connected to the practice of all assemblies, though such a connection may be implied.

There is also a point of ambiguity in the rhetorical questions of the verse 36. While they may censure outspoken women in Corinth, this is not entirely clear. If verses 33 and 34 are viewed as a later addition to the text, the meaning of verse 35 seems to fit clearly with Paul’s admonitions for orderly prophecy in verses 26–33. Such a reading is supported by the Harper Collins Study Bible footnote that says verses 34 and 35 were placed after verse 40 by some ancient authorities. The confusion over where these two verses should be placed in the text seem to support the possibility that the verses were later additions to Paul’s letter.

Additionally, referring to women speaking as shameful (αἰσχρὸν) is harsher language than appears in the surrounding verses, even when discussing the denial of the bodily resurrection, where Paul addresses one who questions bodily resurrection as “Fool.” This could indicate that Paul considers women speaking in assembly as worse than denying what he sees as a fundamental belief or that verses 34 and 35 were written by a different author.

Due to the way verses 34 and 35 contradict what Paul writes elsewhere and the confusion over where the verses should be placed in Paul’s letter, I tend toward interpreting these verses as non-Pauline. As a believer, verses such as this one which seem to contradict the witness of Paul’s writings and of the Gospels, have always troubled me. The general message I take from Christianity is one of love, equality, and charity, and passages that seem as uncharitable as this one have always been hard for me to reconcile. I find some comfort that these verses may be viewed to be non-Pauline and perhaps of lesser authority, although I am not comforted to know that the sentiments of these verses are repeated elsewhere in the canon.

 

Barr in the above works refers to David L. Barr’s New Testament Story: An Introduction