Sep 1, 2014

Koinonia and Cash

Money is often a deeply personal topic that many want to avoid, and that is especially true in some Christian circles.  Discussions about money in church settings are usually hush-hush, with facts and figures coming up when it comes to how much money has been raised for a new project.  Asking your fellow church member, or even anyone on your church staff, if they actually tithe, give to charity, and/or donate to others is a topic many shy away from.  This topic is rightly avoided for at least one reason: we should be cautious about not letting our left hand know what our right is doing when it comes to our charitable deeds (Matthew 6.3).  So what does cash have to do with koinonia? 

In many of the early church communities, the poor members were economically dependent the rich.  After St. Peter's sermon at Pentecost, the early Christians “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2.45, NRSV).  Despite many Christian “progressive” comments about how this verse shows us true “radical Christianity”, it actually shows us how rooted the early Christians were in Israelite ideas of fellowship.  The Festival of Weeks (“Pentecost” comes from the Greek rendering) was and is a time to “rejoice before the Lord your God—you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, the Levites resident in your towns, as well as the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are among you—at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name” (Deuteronomy 16.11, NRSV).  The rejoicing takes place with the poor (“strangers”, orphans, and widows) amongst the people.  This common rejoicing, this shared redemption, was part of the Israelite idea of koinonia.  The economic dimension – selling possessions and goods and distributing them –  was part of the early church celebration of Pentecost.

We see this not only in the New Testament, but in much of the 2nd - 4th century literature as well.  St. Clement of Alexandria proclaimed:

“God created humanity for sharing [koinonia], beginning by giving out what belonged to God, God’s own Word, making it common [koinos] to all humans, and creating all things for all. Therefore, all things are common [koina]… To say, therefore, ‘I have more than I need, why not enjoy?’ is neither human nor proper to sharing [koinonikon]… For I know quite well that God has given us the power to use; but only to the limit of that which is necessary; and that God also willed that the use be in common.” (Paedagogus 2.13.12)
In our modern economic environment, we are trained to think that we must become self-sufficient.  This affects us in many ways, especially when we attempt to “rely on God” in our spiritual lives.  In our attempt to become self-sufficient, we run the risk at becoming our own God and our tiny little community (a close circle of friends) becomes our own little church.  We see this play out in other ways, as well.  In many middle to upper class church communities today, very few people need each other in economic terms.  Most of our time is spent making or managing our resources (working, paying bills, shopping, etc.), and not distributing them to our sisters and brothers. Instead of investing time for community, many invest in fences to distinguish which property belongs to them.  St. Ambrose of Milan critiques those who live in luxury when the poor around them are suffering: 

There is your brother — naked, crying — and you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”
Some may object at the connection between our hard-earned cash and Christian koinonia.  Can we not just “save the souls” of our brothers and sisters, and not worry about their economic conditions?  Such thinking is reflected in Gnostic dualism (spiritual world is good, material world is inconsequential), and bad theology in general.  Christianity seeks shalom, a holistic completeness to the world, that can only be attained through koinonia with God.  Through this fellowship with God, we (hopefully) see the Image of God more and more in others around us, and we begin to love them – spiritually and even economically – as we love ourselves.  I close with very challenging words by St. Basil the Great:

“The bread you are holding back is for the hungry, the clothes you keep put away are for the naked, the shoes that are rotting away with disuse are for those who have none, the silver you keep buried in the earth is for the needy. You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided, and did not.”


Alvin Rapien writes about Theology at  He has also written several guest posts for The Unitive.  His main interest is the interpretation of the Old and New Testaments throughout the centuries, especially during the Early Church and in our (Post)modern age.

Visit the introduction to the Koinonia series to know how you can write about community, participation, and fellowship.

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