In three previous articles in this series, we’ve refuted claims that the Bible requires wealth redistribution and equalization based on four different passages:
- Jesus’ instruction to the rich young ruler to sell all and give to the poor;
- the Old Testament Sabbatical year law requiring the “release” of debts every seventh year;
- the Old Testament Jubilee year law requiring the return of property to its original owner every fiftieth year; and
- the fact that the early Christians in Jerusalem “had all things in common.”
But many Progressives and others appeal to one more passage to justify their demands: Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth in which he stated the goal of the collections he took up from churches around the Mediterranean to relieve believers suffering famine in Jerusalem.
The New International Version translates 2 Corinthians 8:13–14 thus: “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality.”
If the other passages we’ve examined don’t prove that Scripture requires economic equality, surely this one does! Indeed, Ronald J. Sider wrote in his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger that this passage “clearly shows that Paul enunciates the principle of economic equality among the people of God.”
Is this interpretation warranted? You decide.
If Paul meant economic equality, then his saying “that … your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need” would imply that the Corinthians should give materially to the believers in Jerusalem now so that when the positions were reversed those in Jerusalem could give to them.
Is that consistent with Jesus’ saying in Luke 6:27–35 that we should give with no expectation of receiving anything in return? Does it fit with the motives Paul said should underlie the giving—grace, joy, generosity, and love (2 Corinthians 8:1–9)?
What then did Paul mean?
But as R.C.H. Lenski pointed out in his masterful commentary on 2 Corinthians, by writing “in the present time” and using verbs the tense of which implies instantaneous action, Paul emphasized that the effect of the Corinthians’ giving—that their abundance would fill the Jerusalem saints’ lack. In turn, the Jerusalem saints’ abundance would fill the Corinthians’ lack. There would be immediate and simultaneous equality.
That is, Paul intended no hint that the Corinthians should give now so that their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem might give later so that then there might be equality. On the contrary, the instant the Corinthians gave, the Jerusalem saints’ lack would be supplied out of the Corinthians’ abundance, and the Corinthians’ lack would be supplied out of the Jerusalem believers’ abundance, and there would be equality.
But what was the Jerusalemites’ abundance? And what was the Corinthians’ lack?
It seems at first as if the Corinthians have all the abundance and those in Jerusalem all the lack. Yet Paul insists that the Corinthians have both an abundance and a lack, now. Similarly, the saints in Jerusalem have both a lack and abundance, now. But at the moment the Corinthians give from their abundance to fill the Jerusalemites’ lack, the Jerusalemites’ abundance will meet the Corinthians’ lack. How can that be?
The key is what Paul has observed among the Corinthians: a tendency to boast of a generosity they had not yet exercised. Paul wants them to prove the love of which they have boasted (verse 8). They had begun the collection a year before, but they had not finished it (verse 10). Now they need to complete it, so that their “readiness in desiring it may be matched by [their] completing it” (verse 11). “So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you,” Paul tells them in conclusion (verse 24).
What the Corinthians lack is the fulfillment of their promise and desire to give generously; the moment they do so, their lack will be met, and so will be the financial lack of those in Jerusalem. What the saints in Jerusalem have in abundance is precisely their material lack—and the moment that is filled up by the Corinthians’ giving, so will be the lack of those in Corinth.
And that will be the equality achieved—an equality in which a material lack becomes a material abundance and a spiritual lack becomes a spiritual abundance.
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a former Christian college and seminary professor, and the author of the new booklet Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, from which this article is adapted.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.