Should Christians Pursue Poverty?


The religious poverty movement gained traction during the latter medieval period because, among other reasons, the institutional church had become endued with massive wealth, political power, and an ecclesiology that viewed the Pope as Christ’s vice-regent, ruling the nations in the risen Lord’s stead. Civil authority, large property holdings, and a deep coffer were the signs of the church’s divine approval and seen as essential elements of its larger mission.

Some became disillusioned by this vision of the church and took a decidedly different course with their lives. In obedience to Jesus’ instructions in the gospels, some Christians in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries divested themselves of nearly all their possessions and gave themselves to what St. Francis of Assisi called, Lady Poverty. Historian Bruce Shelly explains:

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries [Lady Poverty] had a host of admirers. Itinerant preaching and voluntary poverty appealed to the imaginations and consciences of many Christians. Growing numbers of lay-men, instead of relying on the prayers of monks and bishops, read the Bible in the vernacular and vowed to follow the gospel mandate: “Sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” Some of these believers chose orthodoxy, others opted for heresy, and at times only a knife edge seemed to separate the two. One thing is clear: [Pope] Innocent III’s vision of the ascended Christ who ruled, through his Vicar, all nations, all learning, and all grace in this life and the next, faced a formidable rival in the ancient image of the Savior who said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has no place to lay his head.” Where, after all, is true Christianity? In a sacramental institution or in a self-denying lifestyle?   

Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 4th Edition, 213-14

It was apparent to some that Pope Innocent’s vision of Christianity didn’t comport with Scripture, particularly when it came to wealth and earthly possessions. Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler to sell all of one’s earthly goods, give to the poor, and follow him in discipleship became a central text to those who believed that voluntary poverty was a vital component to authentic spirituality. Yet, while it is good to allow historic examples to prompt us to greater obedience to Jesus, we must address this issue of voluntary poverty from a whole-Bible perspective.

We can affirm the willingness of these folks to forsake all for Christ and to set their hearts on their eternal treasure rather than their earthly treasure. Certainly, their radical embrace of Jesus’ words in the Gospels concerning wealth has something to say to us today in the affluent West (see Luke 12:13-21).    

Is Poverty More Spiritual?
Nevertheless, there was a lopsided view toward wealth and an exalted (read: more spiritual) status given to poverty among these Christians. Speaking of one of the most famous leaders in this movement, St. Francis of Assisi, Nick Needham notes that his devotion to poverty was more than a spiritual discipline. As Francis gathered followers, he wrote for them a rule—a set of spiritual guidelines—that went beyond biblical parameters.  

The rule exalted poverty, not as a means to a spiritual end, but as an end in itself. Franciscans renounced the ownership of all property; they were spiritually married to ‘Lady Poverty,’ and begged for their food.” Poverty became the highest pursuit, the greatest good, and the most noble status.  

Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, 2:341-42.  

Scripture, however, does not place greater spiritual value upon poverty as such, as though it is something to be pursued. Actually, Scripture is more radical than that. The Bible calls the disciple of Jesus to be willing to renounce everything for him, not just material wealth (Luke 14:33; see also Phil 3:7-12). A person could gladly give up his wealth, for example, but hold on to his self-righteousness, pride, lust, and so on, and view his poverty as a means of establishing his right standing with God and a grounds for boasting (e.g., Matt 6:1ff; 1 Cor 13:1-3). His impoverished status would be spiritually worthless in such a case.    

A Whole-Bible Perspective
It is true that Scripture warns us to not love wealth, or to set our hearts on it, or to make it the aim of our life (Matt 6:19-34). We are to be content with what we have and to beware of how love for money easily corrupts the soul (1 Tim 6:6-10). The Bible also teaches that those who are poor in this life may experience greater faith because they have learned to depend on God in significant ways (James 2:5). If we must choose, poverty with the fear of the Lord is better than wealth without it (Prov 15:16). So is a peaceful household (Prov 17:1).     

But these truths do not imply that Scripture exalts poverty as a spiritually superior status or that it counsels the disciple to pursue it. The Bible is replete with exhortations to work diligently while also indicating that diligence is often rewarded with greater wealth (Prov 10:4; 21:5). Poverty often attends those who are lazy (Prov 6:11; 10:4). Agur asked God specifically to give him neither poverty nor riches (Prov 30:8-9). The apostle Paul recognized that some Christians might be wealthy, yet he doesn’t command them to sell all their possessions, but rather exhorts them to be ready to share, to be rich in good works, to not set their hopes on riches, and to not become proud of their wealth (1 Tim 6:17-19).  

To intentionally reduce oneself to poverty disables a person from providing for others.

Furthermore, Christians are to manage their God-given resources well, making good use of everything Christ has entrusted to them, including spiritual and material assets (Matt 25:14-30). Christians are called to labor diligently in order to provide for themselves (1 Thess 4:9-12) and to share with those in need (Eph 4:28). To intentionally reduce oneself to poverty disables a person from providing for others. And the early Franciscan practice of begging goes directly against the New Testament requirement for able-bodied Christians to earn their own living and to work for the good of others.[1] Yes, some Christians may be poor, but this does not mean that poverty as such is a superior spiritual status. Indeed, one must have some surplus if they are going to help those who are without it (Gal 2:10; see also Acts 4:34-35).        

Maintaining a Biblical Balance
In the affluent West, we need to be reminded of Scripture’s teaching on wealth and be challenged by figures in church history to harken more closely to Jesus’ words about money. But it is also possible in our current economic setting to react against such affluence and develop a sub-biblical outlook on wealth. As one seventeenth century pastor said, “Many an error is taken up by going too far from other men’s faults.” Like those in the various Catholic religious orders who sought poverty as a spiritual ideal, so we can be fooled into thinking that poverty itself is the end goal of our Christian lives, or that impoverishing oneself is the way to spiritual freedom.  

Rather, freedom is found in believing the gospel: that’s Christ’s righteousness is sufficient and that no work, including reducing oneself to poverty, can justify us (Rom 4:5). Then, with assurance of our right standing with God, we turn to Scripture to give us a full picture of what real discipleship looks like. Radical poverty may appear to some as more godly than the alternative, but it still belies a misreading of the New Testament. Remaining well-rooted in Christ and his gospel will enable us to avoid the lure of unbiblical teaching, even when that teaching appears plausible and wise (see Col 2:23).                      

[1]It appears that Francis modified his outlook on work in his Later Rule (1223). See Needham, 2:341-42.

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