Are Christians supposed to live communally?

Are Christians supposed to live communally?                           By Jack Kettler

As a young Christian, my wife and I lived in a Christian communal ministry for seven years that worked with street people. We practiced food, clothing sharing (to a degree), transportation, all income, and jobs were communally shared. On the job situation, not everyone could do the same tasks for various reasons, like physical strength requirements. The ministry was not dependent on outside donations; it was self-funding by the work of everyone’s hands. The income was put into a common pot and distributed accordingly. Sometimes the accordingly was not so accordingly.    

At the time in the early 1970s, most of the participants in this street people ministry thought to some degree they were fulfilling the description of the Christians in the book of Acts 2:44 by having “all things in common.” If it was good enough for the early church, it should be good enough for us today was the thinking.

In this study, we will look at three texts from the book of Acts. From a cursory reading of the texts, there appears to be some level of communal sharing. Was this practice the norm for the church of all ages? How extensive was having all things in common? Was it an unusual time in history based on a soon to be prophetic fulfillment that necessitated such practice?

Two crucial texts from the book of Acts:

“And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” (Acts 2:44 ESV)

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” (Acts 4:32 ESV)

Matthew Poole’s Commentary provides helpful information on the Act 2:44 text:

“All that believed were together; not that they lived together in one house or street, but that they met (and that frequently) together in the holy exercises of their religion; and that manner of some, which St. Paul speaks of, Hebrews 10:25, to forsake the assembling of themselves together, was a sin not yet known in the church. (Text highlighting mine)

And had all things common; this was only at that place, Jerusalem, and at that time, when the wants of some, and the charity of others, may well be presumed to be extraordinary; and there is no such thing as community of goods here required or practised. Christ’s gospel does not destroy the law; and the eighth commandment is still in force, which it could not be, if there were no propriety, or meum and tuum, now; nay, after this, the possession which Ananias sold is adjudged by this apostle to have been Ananias’s own, and so was the money too which he had received for it, Acts 5:4. And these all things which they had in common, must either be restrained to such things as everyone freely laid aside for the poor; or that it speaks the extraordinary charitable disposition of those new converts, that they would rather have parted with anything, nay, with their all, than that any of their poor brethren should have wanted.” (1)

Pool notes that it was only in Jerusalem that individual communal sharing was practiced. It was not church-wide. Many people traveled to Jerusalem for the various feasts and temple rights. Often Jerusalem was filled to overflowing with countless numbers of people. When the events at Pentecost occurred, it was manifest that extraordinary. This Pentecost was a unique event in God’s plan of salvation. Upon the startling conversion of so many on a single day, there was confusion on what to do. God was doing something remarkable. Many of the new converts chose to stay and be part of this extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Those that stayed watched as the numbers of new believers increased daily. Those that remained looked for directions from the apostles. New Christians were added to the church each day. Many of the new converts did not have a place to stay and were running out of food. This background of events explains the instructions of the apostles on sharing were given at this time.

Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers likewise provides some additional historical context of Acts 4:32:  

“(32) And the multitude of them that believed.—literally, and the heart and the soul of the multitude of those that believed were one. Of the two words used to describe the unity of the Church, “heart” represented, as in Hebrew usage, rather the intellectual side of character (Mark 2:6; Mark 2:8; Mark 11:23; Luke 2:35; Luke 3:15; Luke 6:45, et al.), and “soul,” the emotional (Luke 2:35; Luke 12:22; John 12:27, et al.). As with most like words, however, they often overlap each other, and are used together to express the totality of character without minute analysis. The description stands parallel with that of Acts 2:42-47, as though the historian delighted to dwell on the continuance, as long as it lasted, of that ideal of a common life of equality and fraternity after which philosophers had yearned, in which the rights of property, though not abolished, were, by the spontaneous action of its owners, made subservient to the law of love, and benevolence was free and full, without the “nicely calculated less or more” of a later and less happy time. The very form of expression implies that the community of goods was not compulsory. The goods still belonged to men, but they did not speak of them as their own. They had learned, as from our Lord’s teaching (Luke 16:10-14), to think of themselves, not as possessors, but as stewards.” (2)

Observations:

The book of Acts and its particular genera of literature. The Bible uses many literary forms. For instance, the Bible uses genera’s such as; law, historical narrative, wisdom, poetical, gospel, didactic letters, or epistles, predictive, and apocalyptic literature to reveal the Word of God. The book of Acts has been classified as a historical narrative. This use of the genera of a historical narrative does not mean that we do not learn essential things about doctrine, but as a rule, it is different from the Pauline Epistles that are classified as didactic or instructional. Because the disciples met in an upper room in the book of Acts, it does not follow that all Christians must meet in upper rooms.

The point of this concern about genera is vital to the way Acts is understood in the three texts under consideration. The communal sharing we see in Acts is a historical, descriptive narrative, not a didactic or instructional dogmatic moral teaching binding on all Christians. The situation in the early church was unique. It was not the norm or pattern for all of the church. The model seen in Acts may very well have some applications in later church history.

For example:

1.      In times of war and famine.

2.      For Reformed Churches, there are synods, presbyteries, and general assemblies. Every church, at times, gets to host elders in their homes and supply food for the event. These types of events are not the norm for everyday church life.

3.      In addition, just like the book of Acts, sharing housing and supplying food for church-wide events is not permeant, and it is voluntary.

4.      Church ministries can run food and clothing banks to assist the poor among us.

5.      Other church support ministries such as overnight missions where food, beds, showers, and gospel preaching happens.

6.      There are hundreds of more applications for the church to serve that good be added to the above list. 

From the texts in Acts in this study, it can be gleaned as a principle that Christians are to love each other. Why is that? The apostle John tells us: 

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35 ESV)

More textual support and a closer look at Acts 4:34:

The text itself provides clues to how to understand the passage. It should be noted that the verb tenses in Acts 2 and 4 do not teach that all the property of the early Christians was sold by way of a permanent contractual sale. If someone had an extra house or a field not in use, the owners could voluntarily bring the proceeds of their sale to the apostles for distribution to the destitute believers. 

Consider the NIV translation of Acts 4:34:

“From time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, and brought money from the sale, and brought it to the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 4:34 NIV)

“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.” (Acts 4:34 ESV)

The NIV on Acts 4:34b-35 states, “From time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet.”

Craig L. Blomberg comments on the verb tenses:

“Again we have a rash of imperfect verbs here, this time explicitly reflected in the NIV’s “from time to time.” The periodic selling of property confirms our interpretation of Acts 2:44 above. This was not a one-time divesture of all one’s possessions. The theme “according to need,” reappears, too. Interestingly, what does not appear in this paragraph is any statement of complete equality among believers.” (3)

The Church in Jerusalem was not one big commune. There was an overflow of new believers creating logistical problems. It is evident in the text, “from time to time,” as there was need; people sold what they had to provide for others.

The passages in Acts does not say that all of your property must be sold and shared with everyone. Some people sold all or part of their property as they could. This sharing was voluntary. The apostles made the needs known to the growing early church congregation. Church members responded as the Holy Spirit moved them.

If so, it would contradict other teachings of Christ. Four examples will be cited that are contrary to the idea that the church is supposed to be communal.

The first two examples:

1. In the parable of the talents, we are told how the first servant receives five talents, and the second servant received two, and a third servant gets one. The faithful servants increased their talents and met the master’s approval.

2. Also, Paul, who said, “and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.” (Acts 18:3 ESV)

What about Ananias and Sapphira?

“But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira, his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” (Acts 5:1-4 KJV)

A third example:

3. Rather than support the idea of communal living, it is a persuasive case against it. Verse 4 supplies the answer, “Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” Ananias and Sapphira were under no command to sell their property and give it away. The judgment that fell upon them was because of their deceptive lying. Much like modern politicians, they were boasters, a type of pharisaism, doing things to be seen of men.

A fourth example, inheritance and corporation laws:

4. If this alleged early church communal sharing was now the church norm, this new doctrine has virtually repudiated Old Covenant inheritance laws and the subsequent development in the area of corporations and corporate law. The modern corporation is where income and housing, farms, buildings can be passed on to inheritors, and corporate business partners and the church can pass on its wealth to the future. Like inheritance laws, corporate law is connected to Christ; these laws did not just spring out of thin air. The Advent of Christ, Corpus Christi, is earth-shattering by its implications for doctrinal development.

A more in-depth look at corporations and their ability like inheritance laws to pass on wealth:

“What the corporation doctrine has enabled men to do is to transcend the limitations of their time and life-span. . . . Granted that corporations are not necessarily good (nor necessarily bad), it still remains true that the concept of the corporation has been important in history by giving continuity to the works of men.” – R.J. Rushdoony

Is there a contradiction in Scripture?

If the distribution and sharing in the books of Acts were mandatory, this would be a violation of the Eighth Commandment, which says, “Thou shalt not steal.” Forced redistribution at the hands of the fed or state government and even the church is theft. Inheritance laws, corporate laws that enable men to transcend the limitations of time and life span are good. The limited communal sharing in the book of Acts does not set aside or contradict the previous laws.       

Engel’s Gnomen provides a reasonable explanation of what was going on in the book of Acts church at this time:”

“Acts 4:34. Οὐδὲ γὰρ ἐνδεής τις, for neither was there any in need) so it ought to be in our days, even without goods being; in common,—a state of things which is suited only to the highest perfection (flower) of faith and love.—πωλοῦντες, selling) they laid out their wealth to good account, before that the Romans devastated the city. As the Israelites made gain from the Egyptians, so did the Christians from the Jews. [38]

[38] Viz. by selling their lands, which the Roman invasion would soon make worthless to the Jews.—E. and T.” (4)

Historical context and the coming Roman judgment on Jerusalem: 

This section enters into the genera of apocalyptic and is speculative.

Could there be a Scriptural reason for the unique situation in Jerusalem during the 1st Century that led to the particular kind of sharing of goods and the selling of property because specific prophecies were nearing fulfillment?

Consider Matthew’s instructions:

“Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take anything out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!  But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the Sabbath day.” (Matthew 24:16-20 KJV)

If the interpreter takes a partial preterist approach to Scripture, the Matthew text is a warning the early church to prepare to flee from Judea and Jerusalem because of the coming tribulation.

Luke warned the early church:

“And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, and then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter there into. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20-22 KJV)

Early Church father commentary:

“The members of the Jerusalem church by means of an oracle, given by revelation to acceptable persons there, were ordered to leave the city before the war began and settle in a town in Peraea called Pella.” (5)

If the Christians in Jerusalem followed the prophetic advice from Matthew and Luke, they were spared from the great tribulation of 70AD that came upon the Jews. This Christian exodus from Jerusalem probably numbered in the thousands. 

The Christians did flee and were saved:

“[As] Vespasian was approaching with his army, all who believed in Christ left Jerusalem and fled to Pella, and other places beyond the river Jordan; and so they all marvellously escaped the general shipwreck of their country: not one of them perished.” (6)

The seemingly communal mindset and individual sharing may have been set against the coming military invasion by the Roman armies and impending destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Therefore, the situation we see described in the three texts from Acts may have had additional special prophetical and historical considerations from Matthew and Luke, for example.

In regards to the initial question about Christians living communally, the answer is no. Certain things, like the voluntary sharing that happened, have been continued in ministries for the poor and other exceptional cases like war, famines, and floods.   

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

Notes:

1.      Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Acts, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 391.

2.      Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Acts, Vol. 7, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 25.

3.      Craig L. Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches, (Downers Grove, IL, Intervarsity Press, 1999), p. 162, 165.

4.      Johann Bengel, The Gnomon of the New Testament, (Edinburg, T &. T Clark). p. 555.

5.      Eusebius, (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, reprint 1979), Book III, 5:4, p. 138.

6.      The New Testament with a Commentary and Critical Notes, 6 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, n.d.), 5:228–29.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: THERELIGIONTHATSTARTEDINAHAT.COM

For more study:

 “What the corporation doctrine has enabled men to do is to transcend the limitations of their time and life-span. . . . Granted that corporations are not necessarily good (nor necessarily bad), it still remains true that the concept of the corporation has been important in history by giving continuity to the works of men.” – R.J. Rushdoony

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “Are Christians supposed to live communally?

  1. Jeffrey Paton

    Nice job! The only thing I would add to those who equate Communism with Christianity, is that Jerusalem fell into hard times, and Paul encourages Non-Communist Christians to bail them out. If Communism is a “Biblical Principle,” then it is a Principle that fails!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s