Paul the apostle, the ancient missionary and theologian, has appeared on a 21st century university campus! With his good friend, Don, a professor of ancient Hebrew literature, they speak the truth of the ancient Christians to students who ask Paul questions!
Adam: (A student of business) So, Paul, I was wondering what you do here in the 21st century.
Paul: What I “do”? I’m not sure what you mean.
Adam: I mean, are you hired by Professor Don, here? Or do you have some other job?
Paul: (A bit flustered) Well, I assist Don whenever he needs me to. I’m not sure what you’re hinting at.
Adam: Sorry, I’m not trying to hint. I just know that in your letters you were very serious about people having jobs.
Paul: Having jobs?
Adam: Professor Don, I’m sure you know the passages…
Don: (Smiling) Of course. First and Second Thessalonians. Second Thessalonians is most specific in the phrase “If you do not work, you do not eat.” And also in First Timothy, those receiving from the church must not be “busybodies” but actively working. However, I hardly think…
Adam: (Also smiling, interrupting Don.) Exactly. I am sure, Paul, that you do not want to take advantage of our good professor, here. You said that you did not do ministry unless you were working with your hands. Besides, you should be thinking about your future. Don’t you want your own place?
Paul: (Now also smiling as well.) Very interesting, son. So you see my arrangement with Professor Don as in opposition against my standard of work for God’s people. If I was living according to the standards of your society, I might say that I am in “retirement”. Would that be acceptable?
Adam: I suppose. But then you would be a draw on society, because you never put anything into it.
Paul: Providing a foundation to the Gentile church was not enough, eh? Were it not for me, you would have very little of what you “church” today.
Adam: Well, that is… true… I guess…
Paul: (Still smiling, enjoying Adam’s discomfort.) Look, son, I think I know your real point. As far as you can see, I am just a homeless man, perhaps insane, receiving free room and board from the beloved professor at no cost to myself, right?
Adam: I wouldn’t know if you were homeless….
Paul: Come, that must be your assumption, right? Otherwise why would I show up at a classroom door, looking for a handout?
Don: I want to clarify, however, that Paul is working for me. He assists me greatly in translating the Hebrew Bible and ancient Aramaic texts.
Adam: So why not just pay him, so he could have his own place and pay for his own food? Why have him be dependent on you? Why not just let him go?
Paul: I think I understand your questions, now. Let me try to answer them in order. First of all, about the passages I wrote. I was not writing that everyone must have a “job” with an employer, a salary and income tax. The Roman economy didn’t really work that way. If you had a “job” like one would have today, we would call that having a “patron” and you would work for him exclusively, doing as he commands, and he would provide your living for you. Or you might work day labor, in which you might work for a different person every day. In my previous life, I worked as a tent maker, which meant that I was an entrepreneur, or a self-employed businessman. Most people were self-employed in some way, since they worked their own family farms. This was less so in the larger cities, but there was really very little work that you would call “employment” in the ancient times.
Adam: All this to say….?
Paul: That my command to work had nothing to do with being independent, or “having a job.” A person could work in the fields, they could work in some way for the church, they could “volunteer” for twenty hours a week. But they had to work somewhere.
Adam: Or else they couldn’t eat? You would take away their food?
Paul: (Laughing) Oh, no. You see, in the first century, the only “welfare” system in the Roman cities was the Christian church. They would have mercy on anyone who was poor and assist especially those who were needy in the church. I was saying that the ones receiving regular assistance needed to be working to sustain themselves, if they can. If they can’t, then they needed to be working some other way. God made us to work, not to just think that because we have some special knowledge or authority that we can be provided for by others.
Adam: And by work, you mean….
Paul: Doing something productive, especially something that provides their own food and clothing.
Adam: So you had no one sponging off of anyone in the early church.
Paul: Well, I wouldn’t say that. After all, I wrote about this issue a number of times because there were many people who wanted to just live off of the church for no good reason. Part of this is because of the many apostles we had.
Adam: I thought there were only twelve?
Paul: Oh, no, many more than that. Timothy, Barnabas, Apollos, Junia, and many hundreds others were all apostles. And there was a command of our Lord that said that they were to be provided for by the church—“The worker is worthy of his hire,” he said.
Adam: So they were working?
Paul: Yes, they were teachers, educators. And for their knowledge of Jesus, the church would give them room and board. They wouldn’t usually stay very long in one place—perhaps a year or so. Then they would move on and teach about Jesus somewhere else. And the church would provide for them for their teaching.
Adam: But weren’t you an apostle like that?
Paul: Certainly. And I had every right to draw my room and board from the church for my teaching.
Adam: But you didn’t?
Paul: Barnabas and I felt from the beginning that the privilege that Jesus gave us was being abused by many people. So we refused to take advantage of it during the main part of my ministry. Later, when I was under house arrest, I was forced to accept the hospitality of the church.
Adam: You mean the hospitality of your jailors.
Paul: No. Do you think Roman jailors cooked and cleaned after their prisoners? No, it all had to be done by the friends and family of the accused. In my case, it was the church.
Adam: But the norm in the church was to have people work?
Paul: As it is appropriate to their skills. However, I want to challenge one assumption you made. You assumed that every person or family in the church should be economically independent?
Adam: That is what is appropriate, I would think.
Paul: But we were in no ways independent. Especially economically. It was so important that we all work because every member of the church depended economically on everyone else.
Adam: You mean like a commune?
Paul: No, not like that. Most of us had our own living places, but many wealthy people had a number of people working for them and living with them. In the ancient times, having people work and live with you is what is meant to be wealthy. But most people just live in their family units.
Adam: So how were they dependent on each other?
Paul: Economics were not as stable as you have in this country, in this time. Any little thing could destroy a family’s or a community’s ability to support themselves. Perhaps a family farm could be destroyed by insects. The provider of a family could have a dry spell of day labor. A city might be withered by a drought. Or war might ravage a community.
Adam: I thought the Romans mostly brought peace.
Paul: The Pax Romana was mostly for the advantage of the aristocratic Romans, not the common folk. They didn’t involve themselves in local skirmishes, unless it got in the way of Roman rule. But the point is this, in an insecure environment, with anyone being vulnerable to poverty or loss, the church community was always there to assist those in need, especially if they were of the church.
Adam: So if someone was in sincere need, you would help.
Paul: “Sincere” need? We usually knew enough about each other’s lives that we didn’t need to assume that the need wasn’t “sincere”. This was one of the main witnesses of the church—we would help people, not assuming that their misfortune was judgment from God or as a result of their sin, but we would assist out of charity. Everyone needs help sometimes, and it was the task of those who did not suffer misfortune to be there for others.
Adam: Well, I am glad that the church is a bit more economically savvy, now than it was in the ancient past.
Paul: Economically wise? In what way?
Adam: You were just saying that the church provides charity for anyone in need. This system creates laziness and dependence and an unstable economic system. And you were initiating the very system that the Reformation had to do away with—paying for a priestly class that provided nothing to the community.
Paul: Ah, like your pastors today, you mean?
Adam: A pastor today is paid by the excess of a particular community. If a community isn’t fiscally wealthy, they don’t get a pastor. And the pastor is paid because of his or her superior education. So they had to prove their place. Not just show up and say, “I’m an apostle” or a monk or whatever, and expected any stranger to provide for them.
Paul: And this is superior, why?
Adam: Because the church isn’t providing assistance to those who are just taking advantage of the system. This supports the economy of the country, it is not a drain from it.
Paul: So everyone only receives that which they deserve?
Adam: That is correct.
Paul: So no one lives off of charity?
Adam: There are some people who live off of the government. However, eventually, the government will stop giving to those who don’t deserve it.
Paul: I hope so.
Adam: You do? That’s good. I was afraid that you’d be some kind of socialist…
Paul: I hope the government steps out of welfare so the church could step in.
Paul: It is the church’s witness to the world, to provide charity that no one else provides. It is the demonstration of God’s care to give food to those who are not able to provide for themselves. And that without a large administration, a book of policies or hired workers.
Adam: But you would create a class of unproductive people in society. It would destroy the economy!
Paul: Not at all. Rather, you would have a group who would provide work for people that would be in accord with their ability. Remember, we began this discussion talking about work. It is a principle of the church that everyone should work, should be productive, but that the church should provide charity to everyone in need.
Adam: And you will create a class of people who only do “god work” a spiritual glut.
Paul: You are so concerned about unproductive people. Yet the economic system you support seems to have many people whom I consider unproductive. Pencil pushers, over-qualified decision makers, people who never make food or assist another person, but they only make money or paperwork appear out of thin air. The church would create a class of people who would work to build God’s kingdom. Build a class of people who will be followers of Jesus and not just speakers of Jesus.
Adam: Just as I said, lazy people—unproductive.
Paul: Is it unproductive to know people well enough to be able to meet their needs? Is it unproductive to visit people in the hospital or in prison? Is it unproductive to be friends with the friendless, to provide hope for the depressed? Is it unproductive to create places where the sick can rest in peace instead of on the street? Is it unproductive to grow food and give it to the poor? Is it unproductive to help the “sinners” of society to repent and depend on God’s grace? Is it unproductive to pick up food from those who cannot use it and give it to the needy? Rather, it is a work of honor. And even if it does not pay in this world, those who do this work in Jesus’ name will be rewarded by Him on the final day.
Adam: But you don’t understand. Such a society would economically self-destruct! There is nothing there to provide economic security—just like you were saying about the ancient economy.
Paul: If we have a whole sub-structure of society that is based on work toward mutual need and charity, it would be supported by God’s grace and power. Such a society would never need to worry about their needs because God would provide for them daily and make sure that everyone would be provided for, as long as they share with whoever is in need.
Adam: This is magic, not sound economic principles.
Paul: It seems to me that your capitalism is based on magic. Your “invisible hand” directs economic prosperity, as long as everyone is promoting their own economic self-interest. That’s the theory. But the reality is that you have to have a sub-structure of people perpetually in poverty to support your economic system. You must have a two-tiered structure—the poor struggling for survival behind the scenes, all the while supporting the “middle class” of the West, who are really the ruling aristocrats of today. The immigrants in your country, those who can only afford to work “under the table”, those who work below a living wage in your fast food restaurants and bargain stores, as well as the millions around the world who work on farms and factories— they are all the backbone on which your economic prosperity is dependant on. If you paid them for their work, rather than for the education level of their work, then your whole economy would collapse. The structure is only beginning to creak now, but soon it will fall throughout the world.
Adam: So you are a socialist, as I thought.
Paul: No. A socialist believes that the government should provide for those in need. I don’t think that we need to make demands of the rich. Rather, the Lord makes a request of those who have more than they need, and they obey if they follow the Lord. I am a Christian. I trust in God to provide for me, and do as he commands. That is my real work, to obey the Father through Jesus. And I believe that every Christian should do the same.
Adam: That is just too simplistic to be a real economic system.
Paul: Whatever you want to think. But the reality of it is that God is in control of His people. He knows what work He wants them to do, and we do it, if we are listening to Him. And part of that work is to provide both sustenance and work for those who are in need. Everyone takes their turn. Everyone, at some point, has more than what they need, and so they provide. Everyone, at some point, is in need of assistance and so they receive help.
Adam: I will never need help from anyone.
Paul: Oh, yes you will. And when it happens you will wish that you were a part of a community that assists you instead of treating you like it was your own fault. And when that day happens, cry out to the Lord. Perhaps he will help you. Or perhaps he will respond to you as you do to the needy now.