In the book of 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to the church at Corinth about an offering. He is collecting the offering for Jerusalem, and he invites the Corinthians to give the way Christ has given to all humankind. He shares the example of other churches, who gave more than expected, because they gave “beyond their ability.” Paul challenges the Corinthians to give in the same spirit. Close reading of the two letters to the Corinthian church suggests that the Corinthians actually suggested that Paul collect this offering, but at the time of this letter, they had not themselves contributed as expected. Paul writes:
8 And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5 And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. 6 So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
10 And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. 2 Corinthians 8:1-12 NIV84
I do not ordinarily expect my readers to wade through such a long passage, but in this case, it is important that you read the whole thing in order to see the way Paul prepares the church for his request. Paul is explaining what wealth is. He distinguishes between wealth in the eternal and infinite sense and wealth in the time/space sense. Christ was wealthy in the eternal and infinite sense, yet he gave it all up and accepted the poverty of time and space in order to pass on eternal and infinite riches. Paul holds up these two contrasting forms of wealth in order that his readers not confuse the two. Paul intends for the church at Corinth to see clearly that time/space wealth is not something to cling to.
In case they still have any concerns about the request, Paul elaborates on the way God uses time/space wealth:
13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 NIV84
Paul is talking about the means by which God provides for our needs in time and space. He has already pointed out that earthly wealth is nothing to compare with the riches of eternity. He has held up the example of Christ who did not cling to the riches of eternity in order that he might share them human beings. Then he clinches his argument, still appealing to the importance of our trust in God’s provision, by looking back to the experience of Israel in the wilderness. The wandering Israelites were totally dependent on God to provide for their every need. God taught them to trust his daily provision by enforcing the experience that if people gathered too much manna for their needs, nothing was left over, while those who misjudged and gathered too little nevertheless had enough. They might attempt to override their need to trust God, but it was to no avail; they had to trust him, because he simply did not allow them to pre-empt his work.
Paul says that this is the way things will work out if the Corinthians are willing to share what God has given to them. They have more than enough at the time of this letter. Instead of saying, “We need to keep this surplus, because some day we will need it,” Paul encourages them to give it to the Jerusalem church, which is seriously in need. The implication is that God has provided the Corinthians a surplus precisely because Jerusalem needs it. Like the ancient Israelite who did not gather enough for himself, the Jerusalem church is falling short. Just as God graciously made up the difference for the ancient Israelite, God is making up the difference for the church in Jerusalem, and the overage in Corinth is the way he has chosen to do it. Both churches are asked to remember that God is the one who provides for all of us.
Secular thinkers have infiltrated Christian thinking to such a degree that there are actually Christian professors and scholars who interpret this text as an example of the socialist mantra of the redistribution of wealth. In 2009, the Barna Group surveyed American adults asking questions designed to reveal those who had a Christian world view; only 9% of all American adults gave answers that expressed a Christian world view. Extracting from the total number surveyed the subset that self-identified as born-again Christians, only 19% of them expressed a Christian world view. (You can read the survey here.) It should, therefore, not be surprising that even among biblical scholars, there are those who do not interpret the Bible according to a biblical worldview.
For example, in the Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg, 2009), David E. Frederickson explains in his notes on 2 Corinthians 8:13-14, “Paul sought to create unity among diverse and geographically separated congregations through the redistribution of wealth.” Marx’s birth was 1800 years in the future when Paul wrote his letter, and twentieth century socialism had not even been thought of. No Christian of that day, especially not Paul, would have entertained the idea of the “redistribution of wealth” for one second. If such an idea had been proposed to the first Christian missionary, he would almost certainly have reacted to it the same way Peter reacted to the attempt of Simon Magus to buy the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9-24). Paul constantly wrote about the way God provided for him and for all Christians, and Paul was adamant that the riches of knowing Christ are not to be confused with the wealth that exists only in time and space. When he called on the Corinthians to get their priorities in order, he was not trying to assure that each church had the same amount of money as all the other churches. To reach such a conclusion requires twisting Paul’s words severely.
This is a good example of what not to do when reading the Bible. It is important that readers not project onto biblical text contemporary political and social issues that did not even exist in biblical times. It is important to read the full context of every idea expressed. It is important to look at the text from a Christian world view. (If you don’t know what a Christian world view is, you can read the report of the 2009 Barna Survey.)
Read in the context of the entire 8th chapter of 2 Corinthians, it is clear that it does not make sense to read these verses as an advance revelation of the gospel of socialism. Where or when have you heard a pastor or other Christian leader declare that the Bible teaches some philosophy or political agenda that is fundamentally unbiblical?