Themes / Bible & economy
The virtually unanimous position of early Christian thinkers was that the goods of creation were the common property of all creatures. Fresco: 'The Creation of the Animals', Raffael Sanzio, 1518.

'Are You Not a Robber?'

The Early Christians on Property

Jonathan Cornford

Manna Matters May 2024

It is God himself who has brought our race to a koinonia, by sharing Himself, first of all, and by sending His Word (Logos) to all alike, and by making all things for all. Therefore everything is common, and the rich should not grasp a greater share. (Clement of Alexandria)

A Christian Ethic of Property (Part 2)

In America, there are self-described Christians who have armed themselves with an array of semi-automatic weapons in order to defend their God-given property rights from their own government. In Australia, there are socially conscious Christians who denounce home ownership as an illegitimate institution. On one side we find Christians who view property rights as a sacred institution of the highest order, on the other we find Christians who see property rights as a foundational injustice. Both agree that property rights play a linchpin role in the shape of our economic and political order, and on that score, they are both right. Many people reading this will automatically resile from these two extreme positions, but will nevertheless feel some sort of tension between the two ideas: that there is something sacrosanct about property and yet also the suspicion that there is something unjust about it. How do we unravel this tension?

In this series of articles, I am moving by stages towards a practical and ethical conception of property ownership for Christians in 21st century Australia, and maybe even towards a political vision of property ownership. In the previous article (MM Nov 2023), I examined how property is conceived in the Bible. I argued that the Old Testament provides a strong basis for recognising rights in property as a foundational human good, but it is a rather different kind of property right from what we are used to. In particular, the Old Testament repudiates any conception of absolute rights in property—the right to ‘to do with mine what I will’—and instead subordinates property rights to a broader social vision. The New Testament does nothing to alter this conception of property, but rather turns a laser-like focus on our attitudes and behaviours with regard to property, and the effects this has upon us and upon our neighbours. The early Christian communities did not deny rights in property, but their defining move was ultimately to transcend them.

In this article and the next, I will attempt to provide a very brief survey of some of the high watermarks in Christian thinking about property rights in the intervening two millennia. My key proposition is that the Christian tradition holds rich resources which can help illuminate the questions and dilemmas of our own time. Nevertheless, digesting the wisdom of the past cannot lift from us the burden of having to think hard about the particularities and challenges of our own context, and this will be task of the fourth and final article in this series.

Early Christian thinkers

The early Christians (for the first three hundred years, or so) treated Jesus’ teachings on wealth and possessions with a level of seriousness that is entirely alien to the version of Christianity that we have been acclimatised to. As Christianity evolved from a Jewish sect into a predominantly Gentile community, early Christian thinkers and teachers were forced to think hard about what it meant to translate Jesus’ radical Jewish vision into the Graeco-Roman world, and this meant they had to think hard about property rights.

The Roman conception of property rights was starkly different to the biblical ideas we examined in the previous article. For the Romans, property—dominium—was conceived as a form of absolute power, and therefore of freedom. In the words of Jesuit scholar, Charles Avila, ‘Dominium was the ultimate right, the right which had no right behind it, the right which legitimated all others, while itself having no need of legitimation.’ The right of property allowed one to do what one pleased with a thing, including the right to abuse it. (This Roman idea of dominium is one reason the English translation of the Hebrew word, radah, as ‘dominion’ in Genesis 1:26 has been so damaging to the ecological sensibility of Western Christians. See MM May 2022) In early Roman law, the male head of a household (the Paterfamilias) had the right of ownership over his wife and children, which meant that he even had the right to execute them if he saw fit. This was extreme, even by ancient standards.

The Roman right of dominium was perhaps most shaped by the institution of slavery. As Rome’s imperial acquisitions expanded it also acquired vast numbers of slaves on whose shoulders it built its legendary wealth, and upon whom it came to depend. To do this, Romans had to treat slaves as things and not as people. To own property in Rome was to own slaves, which meant that ‘property’ was something that gave one power over people, and rendered them non-people. How disturbing then, to reflect that principles of Roman law embodying the concept of private ownership have remained the source of modern Western legal theory and practice up to the present day?

Into this world that sought and valued domination via property, the early Christians proclaimed a radical protest and advocated a scandalous alternate vision. The Didache, perhaps the earliest Christian text outside of the New Testament, sums up Jesus and the Apostles with frank directness: ‘Never turn away the needy; share all your possessions with your brother, and call nothing your own.’

The virtually unanimous position of early Christian thinkers was that the goods of creation—the land, sea, air and all that they produced—were the common property of all humanity, and, indeed, of all creatures! Their reading of scripture told them that for one person to hoard goods, and so deny them to others, was a damnable offence. Consider the words of the 4th century bishop of Caesarea, Basil the Great:

Are you not a robber? You who make your own the things which you have received to distribute? […] That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.

Basil the Great: 'Are you not a robber?'

Under this view, property rights only exist because of a wrong: they are a product of the Fall. Because of human selfishness, it was necessary to institute some system that regulated access to goods of creation. That is, property was a concession to sin. Indeed, this was also the main view of early Christians concerning the state: that it was a product of the Fall, necessitated by human sinfulness. Thus, the Church Fathers acknowledged that there was a place for ownership of property, but it could only really be justified if it was a means by which goods might be distributed to those who needed them.

In the first place, the role of property should be to ensure that every household has enough to provide for its own needs. The early Christians placed a high value on what the Apostle Paul taught about self-sufficiency (autarkeia – see 2 Thess 3:6-13): for them, and for Paul, the meaning of self-sufficiency was not so much independence—the early Christians had remarkably thick forms of economic cooperation—but rather a vision of households as units of productive care for their members. The stress was on contributing good work, and on a sense of enough. Indeed, the importance which the early Christians placed on limiting consumption to a modest sense of enough is rather confronting for 21st century Australian consumers:

Just as the foot is the measure of the sandal, so the physical needs of each are the measure of what one should possess. Whatever is excessive —the things they call adornments— are a burden for the body. (Clement of Alexandria, d.216)

On the whole, the Church Fathers walked a fine line: they generally did not condemn wealth as such, but they condemned a life of luxury in the strongest terms.

God has given us the authority to use our possessions, I admit, but only to the extent that it is necessary: He wishes them to be in common. It is absurd that one man live in luxury when there are so many who labour in poverty. (Clement of Alexandria)

The people are starving, and you close your barns; the people weep bitterly, and you toy with your jewelled ring .... The jewel in your ring could preserve the lives of the whole people. (Ambrose of Milan)

The only possible justification for wealth was that it be used to provide for the needy:

It is on this condition that He approves [ownership of possessions], and with this stipulation—that He commands them to be shared, to give drink to the thirsty and bread to the hungry, to receive the homeless, to clothe the naked. (Clement)

For Ambrose, the feisty bishop of Milan, it was not an act of charity for the wealthy to distribute their goods with the poor, but rather an act of justice: ‘you are repaying a debt’!

As more wealthy people began entering the church in the century after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, some Christian leaders began questioning the source of their wealth. John Chrysostom asked whether property was acquired by just labour or by ‘exploiting orphans’ and ‘robbing widows’. In his view, even more important than the rich distributing their goods was the need for them to stop amassing property in the first place: ‘unless you desist from your robbery, you are not actually giving alms.’

In summary, the early Christians had a very demanding view of property. Rights in property are a product of a fallen world, and serve the primary purpose of allowing households to provide for themselves a modest sense of enough. Thereafter, any possessions beyond such sufficiency can only be justified by their sharing with the needy. To be wealthy was to be in a morally questionable position that required concerted remedial action.

The good doctor: Thomas Aquinas

Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom preached and wrote at a time when the church was on the cusp of itself becoming a major owner of property—by which I mean landed wealth and slaves. In the two centuries following the conversion of Constantine (312 AD), Christianity moved from being a marginal and oppressed sect of commoners to becoming the religion of state, in the control of a super-wealthy aristocracy (see episodes 23 and 24 of MannaCast). Nevertheless, as the church evolved in Medieaval Europe, full of hypocrisies and outrages, it was never willing (or perhaps never able) to ignore the challenging teachings on property and wealth that it had inherited. Indeed, it was perhaps precisely because of the very evident failures of the church hierarchy that Mediaeval monks and friars continued to think hard about the economic implications of the gospel, now having to be applied to a far wider world of rulers, lords, peasants, markets, and merchants than the early Christians ever had to think about.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was the preeminent philosopher/theologian of this age, still referred to reverentially by some as ‘the Angelic Doctor’. Aquinas largely accepted and reaffirmed the teachings of the Church Fathers concerning property, however he also offered a far more positive and constructive account of property rights than they had done.

Thomas Aquinas

Property is not so much a right as a mode of responsibility, whose purpose is stewardship.

Aquinas agreed that, in principle, the goods of creation were the common property of all creatures, there for each as it has need. Nevertheless, the human institution of property—by which each family unit takes responsibility for a small patch of creation—was a fitting means by which humans could enact their special vocation of ‘dominion’  as finite creatures who must live within their limits. (Aquinas is faithful to the Genesis 1:26 meaning of 'dominion' / radah, and is not seduced by the Roman idea of dominium.) That is, property is not so much a right as a mode of responsibility whose purpose is stewardship. At root, Aquinas offers a very practical ethic of property:

Human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately.

Here Aquinas is pointing to a truth laid bare by every Common Room kitchen: something that is everyone’s responsibility quickly becomes no one’s responsibility. However, the parcelling out of property amongst humans is not just because we like to evade responsibility, but also for the more positive reason that it matches our particularity and our finitude: I cannot take care of the whole Earth; rather, I enact my responsibility for ‘the Earth’ through my care for this little patch of it. This focussed attention of each person to a portion of creation—‘property’—allows each to develop deep knowledge and expertise concerning that portion of creation, whatever it may be, and so manage it for the good of all in a way that a committee never could.

Aquinas agrees with Paul and the Church Fathers that the first task of property is self-sustenance. We are far better suited to take care of our own needs than others are, and, indeed, there is an inherent dignity in doing so. Here it is worth pausing, because it is rarely recognised that there is a vast difference between what the Christian tradition describes as self-reliance, or what St Augustine calls ‘self-love’, and what has come to be thought of as ‘self-interest’. In today’s understanding, self-interest involves pursuing your own desires, the rest of the world be damned. ‘Self-love’ in the Christian tradition simply recognises that, in the first instance, every creature is best equipped to meet its own needs and those of its young. But humans are unique of all creatures in that, whenever, for whatever reason, some creature is unable to care for itself, humans are also equipped, and indeed called, to provide care beyond themselves.

In Aquinas’ thought, the difference between self-love (which he commends) and self-interest (which he condemns) becomes apparent in the clear distinction he makes between the management of property and the use of property. Human affairs and stewardship of creation are best taken care of when each human has their own portion of responsibility to manage. However, this does not mean that humans have the right to consume whatever property they may own. We only have a ‘right’ to consume what we need in order to live. Thus, Aquinas comes to the striking conclusion that in a time of extremity, ‘stealing’ a loaf of bread is no sin, because a person is merely having to take the creation mandate into their own hands when all other human devices have failed them. In this instance, ‘property’ is a moral fiction, whatever its formal legal standing.

Aquinas comes to the striking conclusion that in a time of extremity, ‘stealing’ a loaf of bread is no sin.

Following the Fathers, Aquinas thus affirms that the first task of property is to supply our own needs, but beyond that, any superfluity should be directed towards meeting the unmet needs of others. Up to this point, property serves a human good. But once our needs are met, continuing to hoard material goods to ourselves does us no good: it fails to recognise what such material things are good for. Possessions beyond our needs ought to be distributed.

It is important to qualify that when Aquinas thinks about our ‘needs’ he does not only mean what is biologically required for survival. He understands that humans are social creatures, and that one function of property is to afford a certain social dignity that we all need: ‘no man ought to live unbecomingly’. This is clearly true, but it prompts the question: how much is required to live becomingly? Unfortunately, on this question Aquinas is silent: he seems to accept the socially determined norms of his time. Nevertheless, it does bring to our attention an enormously important point that must be confronted: the Christian tradition of thinking about property demands that we think about the thorny question of an adequate standard of living.


The Christian consensus about property in the Early Church and in Mediaeval times was radically different to our own, and closely rooted in their reading of scripture. The unanimous affirmation was that God has made all of creation available to all creatures, and that the human institution of property rights can only be justified if it is a means of ensuring the orderly care of people in a fallen world. Property should supply a dignified sufficiency for each family, but thereafter should be shared. Nevertheless, despite this powerfully consistent tradition of teaching, from the end of the Early Church period and developing through the Middle Ages, there began to be a growing discrepancy between the teaching and the practice of the church. When the Reformation finally fractured the authority of the Church, its teaching about property was washed away by the rising flood of capitalist acquisitiveness (see MannaCast episode 19). It is to Christian responses on the other side of this convulsion that we will turn in the next article.


Why do you cast out the fellow sharers of nature, and claim it all for yourselves? The earth was made in common for all ... Why do you arrogate to yourselves, ye rich, exclusive right to the soil? Nature, which begets all poor, does not know the rich. (Ambrose of Milan)