Here is the follow up article to the 1st part we had posted a while ago, written by Charles E. Moore, a member of the Bruderhof Community in New York.
Fortunately, the biblical authors usually indicate, or at least give clues, as to how to understand the import of what they were describing. By way of introductions, conclusions, comparisons, and contrasts with other episodes one can glean whether a certain event that happened in the past should be considered exemplary, counterproductive, or simply neutral.
It is clear that in Luke’s account there is no indication exegetically or historically that early Christian communalism was improper or a failed experiment. In fact, what we have is an exemplary description of what a Spirit-endowed community of believers looks like. In light of what we know of Jesus’ teaching regarding possessions, his own example, and that of his disciples who depended on a common fund and forsook everything to follow him, what happened at Pentecost and thereafter is perfectly understandable. No wonder Luke actually calls our attention to God’s blessing on the early church and its common life (Acts 2:47). Remarkably, each time Luke describes how the early church met the material needs of its members he also notes how the church was blessed and grew in number (Acts 4:31, 33; 6:7; cf. 5:14; 9:42 – cf. 9:31; 11:21–26).
Along with being united in devotion to prayer, the apostles’ teaching, the Lord’s Supper, and worship, Luke highlights how all who believed held all things in common. The miraculous liberation of the gospel and justice for the poor are co-equal signs of the arrival of the messianic age and the point of departure for the proclamation of the good news and the growth of the church.
Is there any indication that the early church’s common life together failed? First, there is not a hint in the New Testament that the early Christians discarded the Jerusalem church model as being unwise, inappropriate, or a failure. There actually appears to be no other pattern for church life. In fact, in 2 Thessalonians 3:6–15 (also Eph. 4:28 and 2 Cor. 8:13–15) Paul deals with an abuse of church charity that assumes some system of community sharing was in place.
Did other churches have to “rescue” the Jerusalem church, as some have suggested, because their communalism caused their own poverty? No. The church in Jerusalem suffered impoverished conditions for several reasons, but not because of its communalism. Two decades of poor crops developed into a “worldwide” famine during the reign of Emperor Claudius. The Roman province of Judea was hit particularly hard (Acts 11:29–29). The Jerusalem church also experienced tremendous persecution (Acts 8:1; 9:1, 2; James 1:1, 9;2:6–7; 5:1–6), while also having to support an unusually large number of teachers and apostles and playing host to numerous pilgrims. Beggars, knowing that almsgiving was a staple of Jewish spirituality, also liked to make their home in Jerusalem (e.g., Acts 3:2, 3).
So, was sharing all things in common in the early church a unique, unrepeatable event? Is it something we are really supposed to aspire to, a normative ideal we’re obligated to live up to today? It certainly cannot be in the sense of a pattern to be copied or imitated. Too many extenuating circumstances make this impossible. Nor can it be construed as a universal moral norm, as if Luke was outlining some kind of Christian social ethic separate from the church’s life and applicable to society at large. Luke was not describing what society in general could look like.
What happened in Acts should be viewed paradigmatically – as what life centered in Christ and filled with the Spirit looks like. The first church was the beginning of the Spirit’s new work on earth – a work promised to future generations (Acts 3:37–40) in fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer for unity (John 17:21 ff). As such, it was the first fruit of God’s coming future, aprototype of what the church could become elsewhere as the gospel was preached among the nations. When hearts are struck, when lives are revolutionized, those who believe willeagerly and joyfully band together to show forth the reality of Jesus’ transforming power in their midst. They will gladly exhibit a unity born of the Spirit – a unity of one heart and one mind that explodes into a common life of radical love.
Life without possessions is not only possible, but a consequence of the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Why all things in common? It’s the same reason why we devote ourselves to prayer and praise, to apostolic teaching, and to a common table and breaking the bread. These are some of the essential marks that distinguish God’s new society. Don’t these outer expressions express a living church infused with the spirit of God’s coming future? Isn’t sharing all things in common a proof that in Christ every wall of division, everything that separates, can come tumbling down?
As a youth I often sang the campfire song, “They Shall Know We are Christians by our Love.” Later on in life, I would regularly sing the hymn, “I Surrender All.” In sermons I would often hear how we were all one in Christ, brothers and sisters in the Lord. And yet, I began to wonder. Was there really anything that concretely indicated this? What actually showed the truth of this in my life? I had to admit I had precious little proof that such unity and surrender actually existed. I and those around me lived pretty much like everybody else in America. Our good Christian lives were lived mostly on a spiritual plane, not here on earth.
This was not the case for the earliest Christians. Jesus was not just Lord in heaven or of one’s heart. His authority and transforming power extended into the warp and woof of life on earth. His kingdom of peace and justice and love were felt and taking effect in the here and now. A brand-new order invaded the old.
What happened in Jerusalem two thousand years ago was a work of the Spirit. The Spirit descended on the church in an unusually powerful way. No one was coerced into sharing anything they had. The first Christians lived out their faith voluntarily, with joy. They weren’t forced into praying or praising God or into anything else for that matter. They simply exhibited a communism of love – the first fruit of the Spirit – and did so in way that changed the world.
The first believers didn’t have to live as they did, they wanted to. This doesn’t mean the life they shared was “optional” or some kind of “alternative.” No, they were compelled from above to live out their faith in concrete ways; their life together manifested Jesus’ lordship over all things, including possessions. They were so filled with the Spirit that they wanted to give themselves entirely, including their property, to demonstrating the reality of God’s kingdom. What about us? Isn’t this something we want to experience and give ourselves to? As Peter told his listeners long ago, this promise of the Spirit is “for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call ” (Acts 2:39).