The 39: Christian Property

Article 38 continues the final topic of the 39 Articles, the relationship between the Christian and the commonwealth. Article 38 considers the question of the extent to which a Christian’s worldly goods should be given over to the work of the church.

The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.

Articles 38 preserves Cranmer’s original draft of 1553 with a clarification in the English translation of the Latin, Christianorum bona non sunt communia, "Christian men's good are not common." The article gives the necessary biblical correction to the over-realized eschatology of various Anabaptist sects on the Continent at the time which had also come to England. The Belgic Confession 36 and The Westminster Confession of Faith 26.1 both make similar prohibitions using similar arguments from Scripture against this teaching, which persisted well beyond the Reformation itself. Both the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Larger Catechism include such activities as a violation of the eighth commandment. Cranmer, who offers a fuller exposition in his Reformatio Legumas, explains how it is prohibited not only by the Decalogue but by the whole of Scripture: 

It is also proclaimed by some Anabaptists that there shall be a forced sharing of goods and possession, which they insist on so strongly, that they leave nobody without anything of his own. In this, they speak strangely, since they can discover that theft is prohibited by divine Scripture, and they can see that almsgiving, which we offer out of our own resources, is praised in both Testaments neither of which would be possible unless the ownership of their goods and possessions were left to Christians. There even emerge from the recesses of the Anabaptists some Nicolaitans, truly the most wicked of men, who argue that the use of women and even of wives should be promiscuously spread around by everybody. First of all, this evil and criminal desire of theirs is contrary to godliness and Holy Writ, and second, it contends violently against universal civility and that uncorrupted light of nature which has been lit in our minds (Bray, RL 2000 p. 199).

Thus Article 38 rests on the authority of the Scriptures arguing—as the New Testament does—that generous almsgiving and the sharing of the early Christians was not driven by any ban on private ownership. In Acts 5.4, Peter makes it very clear to the deceitful Ananias and Sapphira that their property was their own to keep or give away as they chose. There was no compulsion, but everything done remained under the Christian’s freedom of conscience. Moreover, the Apostle Paul makes the distinction between the believer’s possession of money and their love of it in 1 Timothy 6.10.

An Anglican finds further support for the article in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, which underlines the summary of God’s Law as our duty toward God and neighbor. The Christian is to love his neighbor as he loves himself, and to do to all men as I would have them do to them. Further study of the New Testament gives three principles of giving. A Christian is to give as God has provided (1 Corinthians 16.2); to give according to his or her ability (Acts 9.29); and, most importantly, to give according to his or her heart’s purpose (2 Corinthians 9.7 1 Timothy 6.17-19). The church of Jerusalem asked the apostle Paul to prioritize remembering the poor believer, the orphan, and the widow—something he was eager to do (Galatians 6.10).

I may be biblically justified in my stewardship and preservation of worldly goods, but the Scripture also commands that I share those things with those in need. They are God’s provision and gift, not my sole possession. There is a fine line between the attitude of "what is mine, is mine" and "what is mine is for God’s glory." Article 38 demands all Anglicans to know where the line is, particularly in an era when the prosperity gospel is taught and accepted by so many Anglicans today.

Henry Jansma (@VicarsGarden) is rector of All Souls Anglican Church in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and canon theologian for the Diocese of the Living Word in the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA)

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Henry Jansma