Re: [asa] A theology question (imminent return of Christ)

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Tue Oct 07 2008 - 22:52:24 EDT

Hi David,

One of the important points here is that we need to avoid thinking that in selling all and giving to the church the early believers were leaving themselves bereft of financial support - particularly when we keep in mind that the issue (even for us) isn't money per se. Rather the issue is the need for personal security in the face of illness, unemployment, old-age, etc. The fact is that for US we need money to purchase these things. But in the Greco-Roman context these things were obtained by membership in a close, mutually supporting, social network. The primary reason people were prepared to trade money for church membership (to put it in purely human terms) was because money in and of itself was actually useless - but membership in a community of the sort that Christians provided was priceless. So, for those "selling all and joining the church" it was, in fact, their membership of the Christian community which comprised their "retirement plan" (or "welfare benefit" or what

In this respect the early church was displaying something of the character of a very well known phenomonon of its day - that of the Roman collegia and Greek eranistai. These were collectives centered around economic, religious and/or social interests which among other things functioned in a manner similar to a friendly (or mutual) society. In such groups there was a shared sense of identity due to common national, economic, and/or religious ties. And the members were entitled to expect certain economic and social benefits of membership (not the least was the assurance of a proper burial!).

Now, I'm positively NOT saying that the Church was merely a sort of collegia/eranistai. BUT I am saying that the idea of joining an organization which demanded of its members a very high level of social, financial, and religious commitment in return for certain social, economic and religious benefits would have been familiar. Indeed, the similarity was so strong that Tertullian could draw a parallel between church and collegia in chapter 39 of his Apology ( Actually, having mentioned Tertullian, I'd suggest that reading chapter 39 of the Apology will provide a very real insight into the motives of those selling all to join the Christian community. Consider too the article on this theme by sociologist Rodney Stark at

Now I want to be (again) clear what I'm NOT advocating. I am NOT saying that people were joining the church ONLY to cash in on the benefits of membership. BUT in a society where there was no government welfare, no retirement homes (hence no benefit to having a retirement fund!), no charitable support for the poor, widows, orphans, etc, precious little in the way of hospitals, and in short a dearth of the sort of social support structures we take for granted, it was a fundamental necessity for a person to belong to a close-knit social group such as the collegia/eranistai.

And if membership of that group entailed an enormous degree of sacrificial giving (as per the Acts 4 church) -- which giving, while not obligatory (Acts 5:4) was nevertheless common -- we ought not be surprised if many thought that selling all and giving to the church was, in purely worldly terms, a pretty sound investment. Add to this the fact that such generous souls could be assured of a heavenly reward and I think it relatively easy to see why people were moved to this course of action.

In purely rational terms and against the backdrop of contemporary Western culture selling all and giving to the church may not make much sense. But in first century Greco-Roman society when the decision was influenced by more personal and religious motives, it doesn't seem all that hard to understand. It also makes some sense of the great difference in practice between the believers of the Greco-Roman world and ourselves.

Murray Hogg
Pastor, East Camberwell Baptist Church, Victoria, Australia
Post-Grad Student (MTh), Australian College of Theology

David Opderbeck wrote:
> Given that, I'm not sure it's responsible to sell off all of one's
> retirement funds (though with the way the market is lately, I'm also not
> sure it would matter very much!). At the same time, I'm sure all of us
> can stand to examine our financial decisions more carefully to determine
> if Christian generosity and hospitality really characterize our use of
> resources (I'm sure I would indeed fall short of those Acts 4 believers
> on this point).--

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Received on Tue Oct 7 22:52:40 2008

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