An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XXXVIII

Article XXXVIII.

Of Christian men’s Goods, which are not common.

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.

De illicita bonorum communicatione.

Facultates et bona Christianorum non sunt communia, quoad jus et possessionem (ut quidam Anabaptistæ falso jactant) debet tamen quisque de his quæ possidet, pro facultatum ratione, pauperibus eleemosynas benigne distribuere.

Section I. — History

THERE is no doubt, that the early Christians practised almsgiving and sacrifice of their own wealth for the Church and the poor, to an extent unknown in our days. There are indeed passages in the Apologies of Justin Martyr and Tertullian, which appear at first sight as if there were in the early ages a complete community of goods. The former speaks of Christians as having formerly placed their greatest pleasure in acquiring wealth and possessions, “but now bringing all that they have into a common stock, and imparting to every one in need.”[1] The latter says, “We, who are united in mind and soul, hesitate not to have our possessions in common. With us all things are in common but our wives.”[2] But, that they did not mean a real community of goods, appears from an earlier passage in the same chapter: “Even if there be with us a sort of treasury, no sum is therein collected discreditable to religion, as though she were bought. Every man places there a small gift on one day of the month, or whenever he wills, so he be but willing and able; for no man is constrained, but contributes willingly.”[3] It is plain that, where there were collections, according as men were able and willing, there could be no true community of goods. Clement of Alexandria wrote his tract, Quis Dives Salvetur, to prove, that it was not the design of the Gospel that all men should reject the possessions with which Providence had blessed them. It was one of the errors attributed to the Pelagians, “that a rich man must sell all that he has, or he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”[4] But, that this was not a precept of universal obligation, St. Augustine argues against them at great length.[5] Several early sects are mentioned, as having forbidden possessions, and denied salvation to those who had wealth, — as the Apostolici;[6] and the Eustathians, who for this and other errors were condemned by the Council of Gangra.[7] Persons, who adopted such opinions, were called by the fathers Apotactitæ.[8] The fact, that they were esteemed heretics, shows that the Church repudiated and condemned their peculiarities.

Some very zealous Christians in all ages have felt personally bound to relinquish their wealth, and devote themselves to a voluntary poverty; and with them may be classed the mendicant orders, and indeed all those religious communities which have required vows of poverty from their numbers. This, however, is a different view of things from that condemned in the Article. The Article refers to the belief that all property is unlawful, and that goods in a Christian society must be common. This is a tenet which has only been adopted, whether in primitive or later ages, by certain fanatical sects; and it is here especially spoken of as an error of the Anabaptists. With them the doctrine was a source, not so much of personal self-denial, as of efforts to subvert civil government and the whole framework of society; and it was not therefore to be treated as an innocent enthusiasm, but to be denounced as a dangerous error.[9]

Section II. — Scriptural Proof

A GREAT many passages from the new Testament might be brought to prove the danger of riches; and some few of our Lord’s own sayings seem even to enjoin on His followers a renunciation of worldly wealth. Such are Matt. v. 42; vi. 19; Luke xvi. 19‒25; 1 Tim. vi. 9, 10; James v. 1. The two most remarkable, however, are Matt. xix. 21, where the young man is bidden to sell all that he has, and give to the poor; and Luke xii. 33, where our Saviour, addressing His disciples generally, says, “Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not,” &c. The former passage (Matt. xix. 21) has been considered at some length under Art. XIV.[10] The other (Luke xii. 33) appears to me the strongest argument from Scripture in favour of their opinion who think that every sincere follower of Jesus Christ should divest himself of all his personal possessions, and embrace a voluntary and strict poverty. We must take heed how we weaken and dilute injunctions of our Saviour, especially when they cross our natural propensities. Yet we must not explain one passage of Scripture so as to make it contrary to other passages of Scripture. Our Lord tells us in another place, that, if a man “hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and his own life also, he cannot be His disciple” (Luke xiv. 26). Such a declaration, pressed to its utmost limits, would make us “without natural affection,” (a mark of heathen reprobation, Rom. i. 31,) and would even lead us to break the fifth commandment. And so of the passage in question; though in its most literal and general application it would not lead to consequences so serious as this, yet it would, so interpreted, make it impossible for us to provide for those of our own house, which St. Paul tells us would be a proof that we had denied the faith and had become worse than infidels (1 Tim. v. 8). It is probable therefore, that we must consider our blessed Saviour’s exhortation as rather addressed to His immediate followers, who could only follow Him in His wanderings, and preach His Gospel in the world, by utter abandonment of houses and possessions, than as applicable to all His disciples through all ages of the Church. And, even if we pressed His words to their utmost length, they would merely be an injunction to individuals to renounce their wealth, not a rule binding on society, that private wealth should be confiscated, and only a public fund permitted to exist.

In favour of that view, the only tenable argument is drawn from the early chapters of the Acts; where we read that the first believers “had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men as every man had need ” (Acts ii. 44, 45); that the multitudes of them that believed were of one heart and one soul, neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common (Acts iv. 32; compare 34‒37). This self-devotion of the primitive Christians affords indeed a most instructive example for all succeeding generations. It sprang from an intense feeling of love and gratitude to the Saviour; and whilst it was fervent and enthusiastic, it was reasonable and necessary. Had there not been self-sacrifice among the rich, what would have become of the poor of the flock, whose name was, for Christ’s sake, cast out as evil? But even at this very time we find the right of the owners to their property fully recognized in the Scriptures and by the Apostles, so as abundantly to show that no absolute community of goods had been exacted. The very fact that it is written, “No man said that ought of the things which he possessed was his own,” shows that the possessions were acknowledged to be theirs by others, though voluntarily renounced by themselves; and that therefore it was a voluntary renunciation, and not made according to an obligation imposed on them by the Church. Also, St. Peter said to Ananias: “Whilst it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” (Acts v. 4). So that, before the property was sold, the Apostle acknowledged that it was of right the property of Ananias; and even after it was sold, there was no necessity upon him to give it up to the Apostles. His sin was, not in the retaining of his goods, but in pretending to give all, and yet keeping back a part.

There are numerous injunctions to provide for our families (Acts xx. 35. 2 Cor. xii. 14. 1 Tim. v. 8), — to give alms (Matt, vi. 1; x. 42), — to make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness (Luke xvi. 9), — to lay by in store as God prospers us, and then to give (1 Cor. xvi. 2), — to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (Matt. xxv. 35, &c.), — to call the maimed, the lame, and the blind to our feasts (Luke xiv. 13), — to do good as we have opportunity (Gal. vi. 10), — to distribute to the necessity of the saints (Rom. xii. 13), — to give with a willing mind (2 Cor. viii. 12), not grudgingly or of necessity, as knowing that God loveth a cheerful giver (2 Cor. ix. 7), —to be given to hospitality (Rom. xii. 13) — to use hospitality one to another without grudging (1 Pet. iv. 9). All these precepts, whilst they impose the strongest obligations to abundant and most liberal almsgiving, yet presuppose the existence of distinct possessions, and of different ability to give in the different members of the Church. If all things were common, the grace and duty of giving from our own private means would thereby have become impossible. So again, the recognized distinction between master and servant, the one being enjoined to be just and liberal, the other honest and obedient, proves the difference of condition and the possession of property (Eph. vi. 5‒9. Col. iv. 1. Philem. 10‒20).

Especially, where the Apostles address the rich, and bid them to be rich in good works and bountiful to others, they clearly show, that there may be rich men in the Christian community, and that such may fulfil their Christian obligations, and lay up a good foundation for the future by giving liberally, though they do not sell all that they have. For example: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches … that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come” (1 Tim. vi. 17‒19). “Whoso hath this world’s good’s, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” (1 John iii. 17). “To do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. xiii. 16). Thus then Scripture plainly confirms the teaching of the Church, that “the goods of Christian men are not common as touching the right, title, and possession of the same: “but yet that every man, as a follower of Christ, has the most cogent and inevitable obligation, “liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.”


  1. Justin M. Apol. I. p. 61, B.
  2. Tertull. Apol. 39.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Augustin. Ep. 156, Tom. II. p. 542.
  5. Ep. 157, Tom. II. pp. 553‒559. See also Wall, On Infant Baptism, pt. I. ch. XIX. Vol. I. p. 396. Oxf. 1836.
  6. August. Hær. 40; Epiphan. Hær. LXI, Apostol.
  7. Bevereg. Synod. Tom. I. p. 415.
  8. See Bingham, XVI. xii. 1.
  9. See an account of their doctrines and proceedings, Mosheim, E. H. Cent. XVI. sect. III. pt. II. ch. III. 5, &c.
  10. See above, p. 344.


E. Harold Browne

(Edward) Harold Browne was an English bishop, born at Aylesbury and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1836, and two years later was elected senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1843 to 1849 he was vice-principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, and in 1854 was appointed Norrisian professor of divinity at Cambridge. His best-known book is the Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (vol. i., Cambridge, 1850; vol. ii., London, 1853), which remained for many years a standard work on the subject and is still beloved today. In 1864 he was consecrated bishop of Ely.

'An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XXXVIII' has 1 comment

  1. April 17, 2024 @ 12:06 pm Andrew

    These are so wonderful; thank you for doing this! Please stop italicizing the Greek, that’s not a practice and makes it look odd here as the chosen font doesn’t support it.


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