What is it that makes Christians different? Prayer? Sexuality? Evangelism? A particular belief? For Christians, the answer to this question determines the shape of our lives, for we will focus our time, energy and money on those things we think central to discipleship. The answer of the Scriptures is simple: Christians are different in that they follow Jesus in loving others, with a particular emphasis on loving people living in poverty. So when people look at us they should be saying “Those Christians, they’re forever banging on about following Jesus in prioritising love and justice and poverty and putting their time, energy and money into helping relieve poverty.” Put quite simply, if justice for people living in poverty is not a core dimension of our spirituality we do not have Christian spirituality.
The Distinctiveness Debate in the Early Christian Movement
The first Christians were Jewish. It seems large numbers embraced Jesus as the crucified but risen Messiah who came to renew Israel, and through renewed Israel all nations would come to love and serve the God of Israel. For many the renewal of Israel meant returning to obedience to the Law of Moses. This was what made Christians distinctive.
As long as Christianity remained Jewish there would be no problem, but once it spread to the Gentiles the question raised its head. Do I have to become a Jew to become a Christian? A ferocious debate was had (see Acts 15) and a position was adopted by the apostles – it was not necessary for the Gentiles to observe the Law of Moses (Acts 15)
So what did make Christians different? If they weren’t required to live by the Law what were they to live by? The apostle Paul addresses this issue in the book of Galatians. A group of people from Jerusalem had come to the Galatian churches claiming that Gentile Christians had been joined to renewed Israel and must therefore observe the Law of Israel. Paul responds by arguing that “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”. We are no longer to conform to the Law of Israel but to the character of God shown to us by Jesus and nurtured in us by the Spirit of God (chapter 5).
In chapter 2 Paul recounts his post-conversion meeting with the Jerusalem leaders.
James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.
The Jerusalem leaders, argues Paul, did not think allegiance to Christ required observance of the Law. All that was required was “that we should continue to remember the poor”. Look up the major commentaries and this will be understood as a reference to financially supporting the Jerusalem church, but as Bruce Longenecker has shown in Remember the Poor, there are no grounds for this interpretation. Rather, knowing that charity for the poor, let alone justice, ,was not common in the Gentile world, the Jerusalem leaders wanted to emphasise that remembering the poor was a central feature of Christian discipleship. In the biblical tradition this called for both charity (using ones wealth to provide for the immediate needs of people who were poor) and justice (calling those who were not poor to cease exploiting the poor and to instead create social, economic and political systems that included those who were poor and served the interests of the poor).
In saying this the Jerusalem leaders weren’t putting service of the poor up against Paul’s picture of “faith expressing itself through love”. Rather, the supreme virtue of love for others was to be given concrete expression in love for the poor. In a world where people who were poor were ignored by those around them the Christian community was to mark itself out as a community of graceful love who extended themselves for people living in poverty.
Nothing has changed. Faith expressing itself through love remains the best summary of what Christian living is meant to look like and given over 1 billion people live in extreme poverty, charity and justice for them remain the supreme embodiment of the supreme virtue of love.
The pursuit of justice for the world’s poor cannot be seen as an optional extra for followers of Jesus. It is the visible manifestation of love and the thing those of us who follow Jesus must give ourselves over to. It must lie at the very centre of Christian living. Anything less is not biblical Christianity.