Rejecting 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 as a prescriptive positive law regulating how the church should give, but embracing it as an arrangement by which the church might be the instrument of God’s grace to others (as so intepretered by 2 Corinthians 8-9), by what hermeneutic do we discern our relationship to the poor or our responsibility to the church’s financial responsibilities?
Hermeneutic for the Poor
Christ Event. Jesus is the image of God in the world. And Jesus priortized a ministry to the poor. Luke 4:16ff is programmatic for the ministry of Jesus. It is his Messianic mission–to preach good news to the poor. This includes a compassion for the poor to alleviate their suffering and needs. It is the language of Jubilee where all debts are released. The poor are no longer poor. Indeed, Jesus explicitly called his disciples to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33a; see an earlier post).
Church. The church is the body of Christ in the world. And the church in Acts prioritized a ministry to the poor. Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 illustrate how dedicated the Jerusalem church was to sharing with the needy among them so that there would be no poor within their community (see an earlier post). They did what Jesus called them to do. They sold their possessions and gave to the poor.
Israel. We could also move back into the history of Israel (redemptive history) for further illumination since God intended that there should be “no poor” among them (Deuteronomy 15:4 which is echoed in Acts 4:34). Israel, like the Church, was to function as a redemptive community that redeemed poverty within the community and assisted others as well (“aliens” in Israel, for example, and “do good to all” as per Galatians 6:10). Deuteronomy 15 is illustrative of this for Israel as well as other texts scattered throughout the Hebrew canon (e.g., Amos and Hosea).
Luke-Acts. Returning to the framework of Luke-Acts, what Jesus–as the true remant of Israel and the image of God–“began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1), the church–the body of Christ–continues doing and teaching. We follow Jesus, the true Jew who is also the Son of God.
Given the data that Jesus’ ministry was a ministry to the poor, that this value was practiced and prioritized in Israel and the church, how do we live that out today? Understanding this value, we must commit ourselves to embodying it today. How do we move from then to now?
Analogous Method. We may think analogously as we seek to imaginatively invest our community’s present life with the meaning and value of the Christ Event. We must imaginatively place ourselves within the story (metanarrative or theodrama) of Scripture so as to participate in the mission and ministry of Jesus. In other words, given the theology of the Christ Event (and how the communities of faith in Scripture lived that out) and given the different situation in which we live as community, how ought that theology be lived out in this new situation?
We are not given specific rules and regulating laws for how to do this. Rather, we are given a story in which to participate, a life to imitate, and examples of earlier communites of faith–both in Israel and early congregations–to emulate. We embrace the gospel, watch how the gospel was embodied in the early chruch, and–with that guidance–seek to embody the gospel today. As Richard Hays notes (Moral Vision of the New Testament, 302), “the normative function of this narrative [Acts 2 and Acts 4] is still metaphorical in the sense I am describing: in this text, we are given neither rules for the community life nor economic principles; instead, we are given a story that calls us to consider how in our communities we might live analogously, how our economic practices might powerfully bear witness to the resurrection so that those who later write our story might say, ‘And great grace was upon them all.’ The Word leaps the gap.”
What is a “simple” theological hermeneutic? The most basic answer is: imitate Jesus as he imitates God. The incarnate life and ministry of Jesus is the pattern that is the image of the Pattern (God).
But how do we know what this means? We understand it, I think, through discerning the theological dynamic (or substance) that is the Christ Event, observing how that substance has been lived out in Israel and the early church, and applying that substance to our own circumstances. We read the text, discern the theology [the Christ Event as the imaging of God lived out in Israel and the church], and apply the theology.
Discerning and applying the theology is not filtered through some kind of patternistic lens that looks for positive laws to govern the life of believers and the community since these nowhere appear within the apostolic writings. It is not what they intended to do. Rather, discerning and applying the theology entails identifying the paradigmatic Christ Event (which the apostolic writings narrate, interpret and apply as the poets and prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures anticipate), observing how Israel in a typological way and the church in fulfillment lived out the values of that Christ Event (redemptive-historical concerns), and how, thinking analogously, we can live out those same values in our own context in a way the embodies the Christ Event analogous to how the early church did.
At bottom, the contemporary church is not a replica of the Corinthian, Jerusalem, or Roman churches. It is not identical–our context is different, for example. Rather, the contemporary church seeks to be an analogue of the Corinthian, Jerusalem and Roman chuches, that is, to embody and live out the Christ Event in our day as they sought to do in theirs. We do not replicate or duplicate the Corinthian church (or a constructed “ideal” church from the New Testament that never actually existed–nor would we expect humans to actually realize such ideals or perfection). Rather, we proclaim the gospel, live worthy of it, and thus become an analogue of those churches in the New Testament. What we have in common is the embrace and embodiment of the Christ Event itself though our embrace is often weak and our embodiment always flawed. Only Jesus himself–the incarnate body of Christ–is the true and perfect “church.”
So, the method is simple (I think), but also profound (profound because of the “mystery of the gospel” involved), as:
- Discern the mystery (reality) of the Christ Event (the gospel).
- Discover how this mystery was lived out in Israel and the Church to illuminate the potential practical outworkings of this mystery.
- Analogously live out those same values in our context.
On the topic of the poor, meaning that:
- The incarnate Jesus became poor to minister to the poor, calling his followers to care for the poor.
- Israel and the Church sought to have no poor among them and act benevolently toward the poor.
- Analogously, we live and give in such a way that there are no poor among us and we minister to the poor in our communities.
Pretty simple? At one level, yes indeed. Follow Jesus in serving the poor and observe how redemptive communities in Scripture lived out that value for guidance in serving the poor today. What potentially complicates this is if we expect to find specific positive laws that regulate the how, when, where and why of this service to the poor. If we expect to find a specific positive law about what to do with money put into the church treasury, then we will probably find one. But I would suggest that this expectation distorts the story and turns us away from thinking about embodiment (how to live it out; how to participate in the story) to how to construct (and obey) the pattern. It is much more simple to follow Jesus by embodying his ministry to the poor as a community of faith.
But at another level, living this out, finding ways to authentically minister, and having the heart/integrity/love to actually sacrifice for the poor (“sell our possessions and give to the poor”) is a difficult agenda for comfortable, materialistic and self-absorbed American Christians. Simple, but extremely problematic. It demands denying our selves, picking up our cross and following Jesus.
It is better to give than to construct legal regulations for giving.
“Father, increase our faith. Give us the heart to share with and minister among the poor as your Son did. Give us the wisdom to see how to do that in ways that display your glory and proclaim the good news of your kingdom.”
May God have mercy, and may he give us the grace to give rather than arguing about the “laws of giving.”
(P. S. So, what is the practical answer–however–to giving on the first day of the week? Should we or shouldn’t we? For what purpose? For what use of the money? More to come…..)