The book of Acts includes two summary passages that describe the character of the first century church (Acts 2:42-45; 4:32-37). In both references, Luke, the author of Acts, narrates that the early believers gathered for worship, prayer, fellowship, and the breaking of bread. Even in our churches today, these actions are familiar and normal to us, as these are still considered the central acts of worship of the gathered people of God.
But perhaps more striking to our ears are the statements in which Luke tells us that these believers “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” He goes on to say, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”
What might cause such radical generosity among these believers? For sure, it was the power of the Spirit that compelled them to share what had been their own with the needy of the community. Indeed, the indwelling Spirit transformed their understanding of property as that which is privately owned, to viewing private property as that which must be shared with others. Their sharing with others demonstrated that there was a reevaluation of worldly possessions in light of the new work that God was doing in Christ.
But was the relinquishing of private property simply a form of asceticism through which the believers renounced the things of this world to focus on the things of God? To some extent, we would have to say yes. However, the giving up of private property for the well being of others was not simply an expression of genuine generosity that both provided for the needs of others as well as liberated those who acted this way from the temporal things of this world. This action was also a major step, if not the major step toward the formation of the beloved community.
The giving up of one’s possessions for the good of others was more than a simple life void of the distractions of private property. It was something much greater; it was one of the primary characteristics of community living among the early believers. Indeed, without the giving up of possessions to share with others, true community among the believers would not have been realized.
Consequently, these earliest followers of Jesus instituted something radical for their world. For sure, there were other communities in the Hellenistic world which held common possessions, following the teachings of those like Aristotle, who taught that friends held things in common. And the community at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, lived this way. But Luke’s narration of these summary portraits of the early church informs us that what they were practicing was different from much of the world around them, and the significance of their common living was brought on by the gospel and the power of the Spirit.
Yet, while the actions of giving up private property in the new people of God may have been something radical, and remains so today, the reality is that these actions, according to Luke, were actually normative for Christian identity and community. Luke’s narration of their selling private possessions is not so much for the purpose of informing us of the ideal to which the church is to attain, though this reason is there. Rather, the practice of community sharing among the early believers was a fact of being the Jesus-following, sprit-empowered, people of God. It was who they were.
The portraits of the church in Acts, therefore, are not primarily models of unreachable ideals the church is to hopelessly pursue; though the church should continue to pursue authentic community through such acts. Instead, these narratives express that which was and is normative for the church to be the church. To act differently means to be less than what the church is to be.
Through the practice of sharing possessions, the believers were materially expressing something deeper that was essential to their being the community of Jesus. Simplicity and communal sharing of possessions had become the normative economy of the new people of God, and this practice opened the way for other normative practices that shaped the community.
Service became the normative model of social relationships, instead of holding power over the other. Inclusive welcoming of all, rather than exclusion, became the norm of community formation. And humility, not power, became the norm for living in peace. Once the right to claim private possessions was reevaluated in light of God’s new work to create and shape a new community, and once these symbols of status were removed through the guidance of the Spirit, service, inclusion, and humility further shaped and characterized that community.
Western Christianity, and especially our American brand of Christian religion, has privatized religion to the extent that we cannot legitimately call it Christian, at least, I think, from a biblical perspective. This privatization of Christianity is in direct opposition to the original call of Jesus, who, although calling individuals to follow him, called them to a social community in which they were formed by his character and the Spirit and in which they found new existence and identity.
The pictures of the early church in Acts portray what Jesus envisioned as normative for the community of faith; a community through which individual character formation takes place that shapes the broader collection of God’s people into a true community of sharing, service, inclusion, and humility.
The sharing of possessions among the early believers, according to these passages from Acts, was on the same level of importance as the preaching of the apostles, the breaking of bread, prayers, and the worship of God. But such sharing was not simply a renunciation of one’s worldly possessions. Nor was it merely a generous act to help those in need. While both of these are true and necessary, the larger purpose for relinquishing wealth and possessions was so that authentic community in Christ would become a reality.