During this semester I have taken a course in environmental economics at Uppsala University. Our final assignment for the course was to pretend to write an article for the Solutions journal that explores an economic solution to a sustainability problem. I chose to write about how economic inequality is a root cause to many sustainability challenges and argued that the church should start practicing economic equality again just like in Acts 2:44-45. Below is an excerpt (with some added subtitles), and the whole article can be downloaded right here: One Heart and Mind – A Challenge of Redistribution for the Global Church.
Redistribution on the Denominational Level
If the church sees itself as a global body of brothers and sisters equal in value, economic equality across borders is logical. This is not very foreign to Christian practical theology – the only time the New Testament talks about churches giving money to other churches, it is stated that “[t]he goal is equality”.
On the denominational level, the Roman Catholic Church has a unique position. It is one single transnational organization with 1.2 billion members, with most people in the global South and most money in the global North. Because all national jurisdictions are subordinated to the Vatican leadership, redistribution would be easier practically compared to a network of autonomous denominations. Since the current pope, Francis, is Latin American and emphasizes the importance of poverty reduction, social justice and simplicity; internal redistribution of finances may not be a totally foreign idea for the Vatican.
Ideally, ecclesiastical provinces and dioceses should be economically equal, adjusted to population and a certain list of needs like poverty, climate change vulnerability, special interests of the Church, etc. This would result in that churches in developing countries generally becoming slightly richer than their Western counterparts.
Most other international church movements consist of nationally autonomous denominations that share theology and partnership through networks like the Anglican Communion or the Lutheran World Federation. Here, redistribution becomes more complex since it rather becomes a form of aid from richer national denominations voluntarily give to poorer ones, without a central authority that can organize it. Again, the ideal should be that all national denominations are economically equal adjusted to population and needs.
Redistribution on the Local Church Level
Then, we have the local church level, which is relevant not only for independent churches and denominations that do not have clear partner denominations internationally, but for all local churches. Even churches within internationally networked denominations often have an economy of their own with money that never reaches the denomination domestically.
Here, it is crucial that an international church budget standard about what is reasonable for a church to possess financially to perform religious and social activity based on population and need is introduced. It should contain both a maximum and minimum limit, and could be developed within for example the World Council of Churches. Then, churches that possess more than the maximum limit allow can redistribute money to churches below the minimum, using either their own missionary networks or the networks of other churches. The interval between the maximum and minimum limit should not be too wide so that the standard becomes impuissant, but not too narrow so that it makes creativity in church activities impossible. An example of an interval could be € 10-30 per active church member and month.
This proposal would for many churches in the West increase their international giving massively – for many far above the 10% that American churches gave in 1920. Would this even be practically possible? I am convinced that it would. Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California, gives 50% of their budget in international donations; and the Antioch Presbyterian Church in Chonju, South Korea, gives 70%. This will most likely mean major cutbacks in rich churches’ activities, which may include selling church buildings, not hiring anyone full-time, not being able to fund certain projects, etc. Obviously, there may be huge opposition to this among both leadership and members. Likewise, rich denominations may be reluctant to do major cutbacks in their national programs.
How can this problem be solved? Hopefully, information and communication between the churches and denominations that show what the donated money is doing will create incentives for redistribution; as well as moral teaching about the importance of simplicity, which can be founded both on sustainability literature and the life of Jesus and several monastic Christians throughout church history. It would be naïve to think that all churches would accept this though, and thus denominations will probably need to do a cost-benefit analysis: should they demand that all their member churches accept the “international church budget standard”, and risk that many churches then leave them, or should they make it a voluntarily commitment and risk that the interest will be far too low?
One must also take the risk of corruption into consideration; not even churches are sinless and it is probable that some of them will lie about their membership numbers and their needs in order to get more money, something that could be more prevalent in lower income countries where auditing is uncommon. Denominations should decide whether they want a control mechanism or simply let it pass by.
Something that I have not yet covered in this paper is individuals’ offering to their churches and denominations. This is a topic on its own, but I can shortly state that church leaders should consider the costs and benefits of voluntary giving or a fee, respectively. I think a fee would generally increase church income, but one should be careful not to put it on a level that is unbearable for some. A proportional fee dependent on the members’ income that increases as the income gets bigger, like a progressive tax, is recommended.
What is a realistic time frame for the implementation of this proposal? If the idea catches attention within some of the major denominations and/or the World Council of Churches within the coming five years, and it finds acceptance, it is not unlikely that the “international church budget standard” as well as redistributing churches and denominations will be realized within ten additional years.
In this article, I have proposed that Christian churches should practice global economic equality as an alternative climate financing and aid giving within civil society. It should not be done instead of lobbying for political climate financing and aid giving, but as a complement and a prophetic message to the politicians, who may get inspired by the initiative. There may be a risk if the model gets very popular that some politicians will use it as an argument for political international donations not being as necessary as before, but personally I find it dubious whether such policy makers would have been giving more even if the church did not.
[…] Is there a chance that this model of redistribution could be applied to states as well? Since many nations are governed by parties that are very skeptical to economic equality, I think a universal policy that tries to bring all nations to roughly the same economic standard lies very far away. However, it is not unthinkable that a rich and a poor country that share a socialist ideology do a bilateral agreement in which they strive for economic equality through redistribution. The same problem of dissatisfaction among the rich country’s population due to cutbacks is probable though, and has to be addressed in a similar way that I described above. But as international communication and awareness of global problems increase, I am optimistic that humanity will be able to leave the unequal status quo and pursue a world where all human beings are truly equal in dignity and rights.
 2 Cor. 8:14, NIV. Other New Testament passages that seem supportive of economic equality are for example Mark 10:21, Luke 3:11, 1 Tim. 6:8-10 and Jam. 5:1-6.
 Guardian, 2013. Pope Francis calls unfettered capitalism ‘tyranny’ and urges rich to share wealth. November 26th, 2013.
 Stone, D. 2007. Conerstone Simi Amphitheater. http://pastordavidstone.com/cornerstone-simi-amphitheater/ (accessed December 10th 2013); Muse, D., 2008. Church getting it right as to money! http://dennismuse.com/wp/blog/church-getting-it-right-as-to-money-francis-chan/ (accessed December 10th 2013).
 Veith, G. E., 2005. Who gives two cents for missions? World Magazine (October 22nd, 2005).