The Reformers and their Stepchildren ©2010 | free PDF
("the community of goods")
As noted previously, one side's error led to the other side's extreme, and this is also true in the matter of materialism. Since the popes and Reformers alike lived high above ordinary people, the "heretics" took to more obvious and extreme poverty. This of course would lead to the idea among subsequent generations of "heretics" that poverty is "Christian", yet the original motivation was not that this is what scripture taught, but to contrast more strongly with the greed and callousness of the Reformers. It should be noted that the first believers "had all things in common", but this was hardly "communism" since the sharing was completely and individually voluntary. Evidence for this is in the tragic case of Ananias and Saphira, who were free, as Peter stated, to give or not give as they chose. The whole point is lack of hoarding or indifference to the poor. As Paul said, the goal is that all in the community of believers would have equality through voluntary giving.1
Regarding the concept of "usury", in scripture it did not mean simply to charge interest on a loan, but to capitalize on someone's misery. That is, it was wrong to profit from someone who only borrowed due to an emergency.2 So the person who borrows to purchase something that is not absolutely necessary to keep them alive is not the victim of "usury" if they are charged interest. This is why scripture tells us to give without thought of repayment; the giving is to the very needy, the suffering. To withhold help since the victim could not repay was clearly a callous and unloving act.3 But of course this means that the borrower who is not suffering or who intends to either make a profit or buy "toys" should be expected to repay, even with interest. In fact, one could surmise that such interest might discourage borrowing for any other reason than necessity. In time the institutional church would counter the charge of greed by setting up orders of clerics who took vows of poverty. Curiously enough, the popes were never of such orders. Begging was hailed as godly, so some reasoned that the poor should not be helped!
As the "heretics" were forced in most cases to meet in the dark, another charge leveled against them (from Constantinian times) was that money and goods weren't all they shared. They were thus accused of sharing spouses as well, since "everything" was to be held in common. And this was exacerbated by the fact that they did not see the need for "clergy" to perform weddings, which at the very least labeled them as advocating cohabitation. Calvin also perpetuated this lie, though he and his followers were at one time accused of the same thing. That the Reformers could thus accuse the "heretics" of vile practices while admitting they lived exemplary lives is an obvious self-contradiction. But they turned this into support for their claim that the "heretics" only lived such exemplary lives as a hook and lure to a life of concealed evil. This habit of burning straw men was employed with regularity. But this charge more than any other was what began to turn the tide of popular opinion away from the "heretics" and into the arms of the sacramentalist church. It does not take much imagination, then, to see where the custom of a marriage license began.
Another belief of the "heretics" was that this stewardship extended to the earth itself, such that the real Christian was one who made efficient use of its resources and did not pollute or ruin it, as the earth was the rightful inheritance of future generations. So rather than being the villain of the modern world, whether economically or ecologically, true Christianity is its benefactor, while the sacramentalist mindset of both the Roman Catholics and the Reformers turned it into unbridled disregard for both the poor and the earth. We must know this distinction when discussing such issues in our modern world, where the charges that Christianity ruins the earth and foments materialism are frequently made.
To be fair, some pockets of "heretics" were driven to extremes, such as one might expect from battle fatigue. Relentless imprisonment, torture, and execution takes its toll, especially in a confined area. But in its typical fashion, the Reformers took such eccentricities as the norm and used them to blight the whole movement. It was used to prove their earlier allegations of evil intent. This was the side of the story they told, leading the careless follower to accept every word as the whole truth, and it is perpetuated to this day among the Reformed.
The chapter concludes by noting that had the "heretics" not been so treated and maligned, their economic views would have left little or no soil for the economic theories of Karl Marx to grow in. That is, the consequences of the victory of the Reformers were far-reaching and disastrous, shaping the western world for generations to come.