Holding All Things in Common
“All who believed were together and had all things in common (Acts 2:44 NRSV).”
In the previous article in this series, we examined how signs and wonders in the early church were the result of the Spirit’s presence and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. The activity of the Spirit in both Jesus and his apostles meant that the lame walked, the blind saw, the sick were healed, the oppressed were set free, and the poor received the good news (Lk 4:18-19). Many of these signs and wonders manifested themselves outside the official community of faith, drawing persons to the mission of Jesus. Yet, within the church, there were also signs of the Spirit’s activity, one of which is described in Acts 2:44. As Jesus prayed (Jn 17:20-24), the Spirit produced a bond of unity which resulted in the first Christians holding all things in common.
In our modern politically-charged context where so many issues are seen as diametrically opposed extremes, Acts 2:44 is immediately filtered through the lens of economic systems such as communism or socialism. However, in the case of this passage, doing so obstructs the meaning of the expression within the context of the book of Acts. Instead of filtering the early church through the lens of modern economic systems, it is best to look at the ways believers held things in common in Acts and other places in the New Testament.
Acts 4:32-37 offers some brief explanation about the phenomenon of holding all things in common. This passage begins by reaffirming the unity of the first Christians, saying “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul (Acts 4:32).” This is an important point to note. The generosity of the believers flowed not from some civic obligation but from the common life of the Spirit. They held things in common not because they were forced to, but because they wanted to.
Furthermore, Luke says that amongst the believers “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions (Acts 4:32).” The important word here is “claimed.” From the subsequent stories of Joseph the Levite and Ananias and Sapphira, it is clear that Christians retained private ownership of their own properties. This point is made forcefully in Acts 5:4. Peter is adamant that Ananias’ property remained his own, and the decision to sell it and donate the proceeds was entirely voluntary. While the first Christians owned their own homes and possessions, they lived as if what they owned belonged to the entire community. Since all that a person has comes from God, houses can be opened to others and possessions can be sold to meet the needs of the poor. The believers did not cling to their right to call things their own, realizing that they were simply stewards of the things God had entrusted to them.
No Needy Among Them
Within this system of unity and generosity, Luke reports that “there was not a needy person among them (Acts 4:34).” Those who had an abundance met the needs of those who lacked. The passage clarifies the situation saying that believers sold lands and houses, and the proceeds were “laid at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:35).” The apostles then redistributed these funds as they saw fit to persons in need.
While the passages in Acts 2 and 4 idealize the generosity of the early church, Acts 6 adds a dose of reality. Throughout the scriptures, God’s concern for widows is clear. Therefore, when the apostles redistributed funds in the community, widows were of primary concern. However, Acts 6 reveals that human weakness and sinfulness can often interfere with God’s good work. According to the passage, Hebrew widows “were being neglected in the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1).” This reference is important because it establishes a clear example of what it means to hold all things in common. On a daily basis, the church used its common treasury to meet the basic needs of widows.
A number of references in Paul’s letters further elaborate on the generous spirit in the early church. Romans 15:25-29 discusses the collection Paul gathered from predominantly Gentile churches in Europe and Asia Minor to take to the believers in Jerusalem. This offering not only met the need of the poor in Jerusalem, but it also solidified bonds between believers in different parts of the world who might have otherwise been separated by language and culture. In 2 Corinthians 8:1-15, Paul challenges the Corinthians, who are relatively wealthy, to give generously toward this offering. He cites the sacrificial giving of the Macedonians as motivation to them.
Remembering the Poor
As the passages referenced above indicate, there was a clear effort within the early church to meet the needs of the poor within the community. At the Jerusalem Council, where issues related to the Mosaic Law were discussed and debated, care for the poor was a topic that received unanimous support. Later, Paul wrote that the apostles asked that he “remember the poor,” a thing he was eager to do (Gal 2:10). In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul addresses the topic of caring for widows in the church, which shows that his churches shared the same concern as the Jerusalem church for widows. The book of James makes the claim that pure and undefiled religion involves “care for orphans and widows in their distress (Jas 1:27).”
While many modern clergy are compensated quite handsomely for the labor of the ministry, historically Christian ministry has not been a money making endeavor. In fact, in the history of the faith, many servants of the church have either officially or unofficially embraced a life of poverty in order to serve others. With this in mind, it makes sense that the early Christians also provided for the needs of their elders. In Philippians 4:15-20, Paul recounts a time where the Philippians sent him a gift in his moment of need, even though Paul, in general, tried to work to support himself (I Thess 2:9). After giving instructions about the care of widows, Paul instructs Christians to support the elders who “labor in preaching and teaching (1 Tim 5:17-18).” When serving the church, elders forfeit the opportunity to earn money through other labors so it is only natural for the church to care for their needs. For the same reason, the Mosaic Law created a system whereby the Levitical priests could support themselves with a portion of the offerings presented in the Temple.
The first Christians, filled with the Spirit and bound by a strong sense of unity, held all things in common. From the book of Acts and the letters in the New Testament, it becomes clear that this expression entailed several things. One, believers recognized that the things they owned ultimately were given to them by God and could be sold to meet the needs of others in the community. Two, there was universal agreement amongst Christians that the church had an obligation to care for the needs of the poor, especially the needs of orphans and widows. Three, the church historically has provided for the needs of clergy, who labor and serve the people rather than pursuing other forms of employment. These forms of generosity were entirely voluntary and Christians continued to own their own property until prompted by the Spirit to share their abundance with those who lacked. The witness of the first Christians shows that many were moved to acts of extreme sacrifice for one another, so much so that there were no needy among them.
(1) Original image can be found on Flickr here.