by Luke Wayne
Acts 2 describes the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the early disciples, their preaching of the gospel, and the beginnings of the Christian church. Amidst the description of the character and practice of this early church in Jerusalem, we come to the often discussed and sometimes controversial statement:
"Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need," (Acts 2:44-45)
This pattern is repeated in Acts 4:
"Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. And the apostles were giving testimony with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs." (Acts 4:32-35)
These passages have been taken by some to mean that the Christian gospel includes a call for the complete renunciation of the entire concept of personal property. A group called the Hutterites, founded by certain radical Anabaptists in the 16th century, live on communal farms where all property is collectively owned and all physical needs are met, but no individual possesses anything that is their own beyond the clothes on their back. They established this practice, central to their entire movement, primarily on these verses.1 In more mainstream circles, many today argue that political socialism and the mandatory redistribution of possessions are Christian ideals. They also appeal to these words in Acts 2.
These are shallow abuses of this text and must be challenged by the serious Biblical Christian. The reality is, however, that these verses are part of a consistent New Testament picture that does point us to radical generosity, self-sacrifice, and concern for others over ourselves. We must take that seriously even as we correct these passages gross misapplication. Further, they point also to the New Testament emphasis on the local church as an intimately connected faith community in stark contrast to the world around them. We do often lose this in the comfort and luxury of our individualistic, modern lives. The solutions offered by political socialism or Hutterite communalism, however, are not the answers.
The idea that these verses are meant to encourage imposing a coercive socio-economic, political system and to forcedly redistribute the wealth of believers and unbelievers alike throughout all of secular society is patently absurd on its face. Any honest reading of this text makes it clear that it is not prescribing a form of taxation and welfare. The Apostles did not demand or require the property of the brethren (much less the property of those outside the faith in the broader society). These men and woman didn't sell their possessions and give to the needy due to the cold force of some penalty or the imposition of a top-down mandate. They did so because they were "of one heart and mind." They were freely and voluntarily giving up what they had to meet the needs of their fellow Christians. The Apostle Paul would later write 2 Corinthians 9 instructing the church on the matter of giving to relieve the saints who were in need. There he wrote:
"Each person should do as he has decided in his heart—not reluctantly or out of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver," (2 Corinthians 9:7)
A life transformed by the grace of God and filled with His Spirit gives freely in joy and humble gratitude. To cheapen this to a political campaign for a socialistic economic policy is not only to grossly miss the point, but it is also, in fact, to slander the point. The gospel changes hearts and minds to the glory of God in Jesus Christ! To replace that with a message of secular party politics and tax policies is ludicrous. To do so in the name of Jesus is sinful.
As to the Hutterites and other groups that have forsaken private property and set up local communes in the name of Christianity, we can certainly sympathize with their desire to follow what they think the text of scripture says regardless of what it costs them. The problem is that they have read the text incorrectly. Nowhere in the Book of Acts, or anywhere else in the New Testament, do we see homes or fields or any such things that are owned collectively as church assets. On the contrary, whenever Christian homes are mentioned they are always private homes. Simon the Tanner still has his own house (Acts 10:6), Lydia still has her own house (Acts 16:40), and Phillip the evangelist still has his (Acts 21:8), though they open their homes freely to brethren in need of lodging. Income is also still private. Paul, for example, still works a secular trade (Acts 18:3) and does so to earn his own living and pay his own expenses, though as an Apostle he had the right to be supported by the churches (1 Corinthians 9). Paul paid for his food out of his own wages so as not to be a burden to others, and encouraged believers to follow his example in this (2 Thessalonians 3:8-9). Note his final words to the elders of the church in Ephesus:
"I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive," (Acts 20:33-35)
He also told believers not to steal, but rather to work so that they could earn enough to have something to give to others in need (Ephesians 4:28). The concepts of stealing, earning wages, and having something to personally give to others are all rooted in the fact that Christians still owned things.
Something radical happened in the minds and hearts of these early believers when they received the gospel and were changed by the Spirit of God. Its impact extended to their attitude toward their possessions, but this did not result in the complete elimination of private ownership and the legal collectivization of the church into a community organization that corporately owned everything. It accomplished something far more profound: people who owned things but lived as if they didn't. Men and women whose transformed hearts didn't regard their possessions as their own and who freely gave them up if someone was in need. This is why Acts 4:32 says:
"no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common."
They still had possessions, but they did not regard them as their own. Note Peter's rebuke to Ananias, a man who pretended publically to sell his home and give all to the poor but secretly kept some back for himself. Peter says:
"While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God," (Acts 5:4)
Peter gets to the heart of the matter. Ananias owning a house or keeping some money was not the problem. Ananias deceitful, selfish heart was the problem. Ananias lies and duplicity were the problem. This is what the gospel corrects. Externally collectivizing doesn't fix the problem. In most (if not all) Hutterite colonies, people still secretly find ways to procure little things for themselves and hide them around the farm for their own private use.2 New laws about our possessions won't change hearts. But hearts changed by the gospel will regard others before ourselves, and will, therefore, give freely of what we have even without such new laws.
- 1. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman, "On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren" (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001) 25
- 2. Donald B. Kraybill and Carl F. Bowman, "On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren" (The John Hopkins University Press, 2001) 27