Christianity on Wealth and Poverty

On issues of wealth and poverty, Christianity places individual ethics within the context of the community: the economically advantaged have an obligation to the disadvantaged. Summed up in Jesus’ advice to the young rich man to sell his possessions and distribute his wealth to the poor (Mark 10:17-31), this injunction has been alternatively pursued and neglected through Christian history. During its early centuries house churches throughout the Mediterranean helped to serve the needs of the poor. Institutionalized as the official religion in the Roman Empire and its successor states from the fourth century onward, Christian churches maintained and expanded their social services network. The overriding concern of church leaders and their political patrons, however, was the maintenance of social and political order—viewed as an ethical good in its own right. With some exceptions, the vast inequalities of wealth and power in Christian societies occasioned little criticism. This dominant attitude outlived the Catholic-Orthodox split in the eleventh century and the sixteenth century Reformation. The advance of industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries marked a turning point. The Protestant social gospel and Catholic social teaching at the turn of the twentieth century, as well as the liberation theology of the 1960s and 1970s, elevated social justice as a salient, if not universal, Christian concern in practice.