The Communal Life of the Community of Christ
“44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” Acts 2:44-45 ESV
“34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Acts 4:34-35 ESV
Dear Church Family,
In a 2002 poll by the Columbia Law School, 72% of respondents believed that the phrase, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is from the U. S. Constitution or a founding father. The phrase, in fact, is from Karl Marx, and a version of it ended up in the constitution of the Soviet Union. In Marx’s ideal society, everyone contributed what he or she could, and the state then distributed to all “according to his needs.” So…what’s wrong with that? In fact, isn’t that what Acts 2:44-45 and 4:34-35 say the early church did?
It is not the primary purpose of this letter to preach against Communism (although I’ll tell you what I think if you ask me). Rather, I want to make a couple of points. First, I’ve seen example after example of popular ideas being confused with the Bible. In a recent Wednesday evening Bible study, I noted that some popular ideas of Satan’s fall from heaven have more in common with John Milton’s Paradise Lost than they do with what the Bible actually says.
My main point, however, is to clarify what the Bible actually says about this early “Christian Communism” we see in Acts. The details of each of these stories make it quite clear that the “communal” holding of property was an attitude, not a legal fact or requirement. Repeatedly, these early Christians, in response to specific needs, would sell a piece of property. Acts 4:36-37 offers one specific example: Joseph of Cyprus (better known as Barnabas).
Acts 5:1-11 offers the best evidence of what I’m saying. A husband and wife named Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and brought some of the money to the Apostles, and they both ended up dead as a result of the judgment of God. So, what was their sin? Specifically, Peter says they lied to God, because they claimed that they had given the entire amount to the Apostles. In his judgment, Peter is explicit that the field belonged to them, and that they could have done what they wanted with the money (see Acts 5:4). In short, they laid claim to a false generosity.
Acts does not tell us that the early Christians were “required” to turn over their property. Rather, what made the generosity of the first Christians so noteworthy, so exemplary, was precisely that it flowed from the Spirit. They were not following rules; they were following God. A generosity that is enforced by rules can leave the heart out of the equation. Giving voluntarily, and out of compassion, reflects the heart of God. What does your heart, and your giving, reflect?