Three Historic Approaches to Money in the Church
An in-depth look at Through The Eye of the Needle
By Rosanna Anderson
This article was originally published in Giving Magazine Vol. 22, No. 4 in 2020. You can access the full issue here.
Peter Brown’s dynamic book Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350 – 550 AD (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009, 759 pages) analyzes the history of Christian theology and practices related to money in the Late Roman era: from the fourth century after Emperor Constantine’s conversion made Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire, through the sixth century when raids by Goths resulted in instability in the economic system throughout the empire. Brown debunks the notion that as soon as Christianity became a state religion, the rich and powerful people converted to the new faith and the church easily brought in a lot of money. A key insight is that “for pagans, Jews, and Christians…religious giving was thought of as a religious transaction.” This is seen in the “renunciation of wealth…[and] gifts to the poor, donations to the church, weekly offerings, offerings for the payment of vows…[which] joined heaven and earth in ways that were all the more deeply installed in the consciousness of believers for not being exhaustively analyzed.” That is a contrast to American thought in which we may associate money with worldliness, separate our faith from finances, and compartmentalize our giving.
Various beliefs about Christian uses for money were preached and practiced by bishops, church leaders, and members. Three main courses of action were followed. First, Ambrose preached and practiced giving money directly to poor people. Second, Augustine advocated giving money to build up the church so that as a strong institution so that it could help society, including the poor. Third, certain wealthy members of the noble class renounced their wealth and either gave it to church institutions such as monasteries in Israel and Egypt or developed their own local shrines to saints. An example of the latter was Paulinus of Nola, who poured his wealth into continually upgrading a shrine to Saint Felix, rather than dedicating it to Christ alone. This practice may be the source of pagan sensibilities being carried into the church of the Middle Ages. I will briefly discuss these three approaches and how they apply to preaching and ministry today.
- Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, (c. 340 – 397 C.E.)
Saint Ambrose inherited wealth from his family and gave alms to poor people in gold coins, an extremely generous practice that usually only emperors did. Ambrose, like his sister and brother, remained unmarried in order to dedicate his life to serving God. Ambrose built a basilica which became the mausoleum for his brother and where his own body was later buried. Brown explains that Ambrose was influential in shifting people’s views of poor people. “He went out of his way to view the poor…as fellow members of the Christian populus.” This is a definite improvement from class-consciousness. He encouraged church members to regard people who were experiencing poverty as related to them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
When Ambrose’s belief in others as Christian siblings permeates a local church, mission outreach expands into healing and blessing for everyone involved: those who receive as well as those who give. Brown notes that Ambrose’s sermons and writings emphasize “good will,” Christian “partnership in faith,” “sharing in the Mysteries [of the Eucharist],” and “the unity of faith and love.” Ambrose did not fear offending rich people: he taught boldly against practices such as shady business deals that harmed vulnerable people, for example in his work On Naboth. Preachers today may bravely warn people about greed and draw out positive qualities and expect the best from the congregation.
- Saint Augustine (354 – 430 C.E.)
Saint Augustine was Bishop of Hippo, the second-largest port city in North Africa which was crucial for sending the wheat harvest to provide bread for Roman citizens. He addressed people’s desire to connect with and honor God. Augustine preached that “almsgiving provided the ‘wings’ that brought the Dimitte nobis [forgive our debts/sins] of the Lord’s Prayer up to heaven.” (Mt 6:12) Pelagius and Augustine disagreed about original sin, so Augustine “pulled the traditional notion of almsgiving as a remedy for sin into the powerful gravitational field of a notion of the need for the daily expiation of sins that was implied in the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.” Brown remarks that Augustine frequently used the word “daily” for sin, prayer, and almsgiving. Connecting these concepts has had a lasting effect on Christian piety, as we seek to be faithful and rid ourselves of guilt through praying to God and by reaching out to give generously to people in need. A key practice in Wesleyan covenant discipleship groups is to give an account of times in the past week when the Christian engaged in acts of mercy, such as giving money, food, or other resources to a homeless person.
Regarding Augustine’s preaching, his hearers apparently “felt cheated when a sermon did not end with the rousing challenge of the prophet Isaiah (58:17).” Congregations today expect a serious charge before leaving the sanctuary to uphold the faith we confess as we go out to meet a world of needy people. A special feature of Augustine’s preaching ministry is that he looked to the apostle Paul to buttress his sermons on the duty of providing funds for clergy and serving the community by building more churches. Brown writes that the collective effort of “building churches brought together rich and poor alike” when they contributed financially as they were able and “involved the greatest sums and had the most spectacular results.” This commitment to new church planting is a legacy of Augustine’s leadership.
- Paulinius, Bishop of Nola (c. 354 – 451)
Paulinius was a Roman senator who embraced Christian faith but remained pagan at heart, because he poured his money into “the cult of a local saint” Felix in a shrine. This shrine was an extravagant goldroofed basilica that Paulinus continually encrusted with riches on his property next-door to his villa, while he gave offerings and wrote poems of thanks to Felix, effectively replacing Jesus or God as his Savior. His actions and justifications for lavishing money on a fancy building instead of helping poor people crystallize the problems of the veneration of saints– at the expense of worshiping Jesus or helping others– that developed in the medieval church.
We can learn from the history of our ancestors in faith:
- Consider the placement and role of the offering as an act of worship after the Word of God is read and proclaimed.
Preaching prepares people to respond to God’s grace through giving money, an activity in which everyone can participate
- Reformers called the Lord’s Supper “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” in order to keep our focus on actively worshiping God.
Aware of our countless blessings from God, we joyfully return a portion of God’s goodness to us and re-dedicate our life through worship. Honoring God connects our life of discipleship with entrusting to God our material goods and actions as people who belong to God. For online and hybrid worship services, pastors and worship leaders must continue to provide the offertory as a meaningful response to the Lord, as we help participants to embrace practices such as online giving.
- Building beautiful large churches may be seen today as an act of confidence that Christians will continue to uphold and support the congregation’s mission in the future.
During this era of the pandemic, some church members are unable to worship in the church building due to health precautions. They may express appreciation for viewing the simple beauty of the sanctuary as a place of prayer, connection with God, and the congregation, while participating in online worship services. Pastoral leaders are wise to uphold the maintenance of the church buildings and grounds even when it is not possible to use them as extensively as in the recent past. Upkeep of the church campus helps to prepare for the time when all members and friends will be able to safely gather again in person for worship, fellowship, and service with our brothers and sisters in Christ in our wider community of faith.
The Rev. Dr. Rosanna Anderson is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, Tennessee. She served on the denominational level for several years as the Associate Director of Stewardship at Discipleship Ministries, a program agency of The United Methodist Church.
Giving Magazine was a premier stewardship resource published by the Ecumenical Stewardship Center (ESC) from 1999 until 2020. The magazine served Christian faith communities throughout North America, providing thoughtful, practical, and inspirational content on faith and giving from thought leaders and practitioners alike. Giving was published annually from 1999 until 2018 (volumes 1-20), and then quarterly in 2019 and 2020 (volumes 21-28) in digital form only. In 2021 ESC closed its doors and committed its archives to the care of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving. For further information on ESC or its archives, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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