Acts 2:44 – Commune or Communion?
And all who believed were together and had all things in common.Acts 2:44
There is in our time a renewed interest for the first Christian Church in Jerusalem. Some churches of our time like to present the Church at Jerusalem as a blueprint or model for today. We are told that we must go back to the original lifestyle of the first church. The complaint is that we have through the centuries strayed too far from our early beginnings and denied our roots.
These groups usually explain the Word of God in a Biblicistic manner, that is, without looking closely at the context of a verse or passage. Everything is literally applied in a strict fashion. This means that everything which was found in the early Christian Church must still be in practice today. Such groups have little eye for the further development of the church, as the Bible itself gives it, but remain standing at the perimeters of Acts 2. Sometimes the effects of such a stand are limited; often the results are a disaster.
Take the above-mentioned text, “They had all things in common.” The radical wing of the “Jesus Movement” in the seventies (the so-called “Children of God”) made this a basic demand of the Spirit for all times. Therefore they demanded an alternative way of life from the believers, the life of the commune, where indeed literally all things are “held in common” and it is a sin to have (own) property or possessions! Everything (even a person's own clothes) was issued by the commune and belonged to the commune. There are no personal possessions; one sleeps, eats and lives in the communal house. If someone earns any money, this is immediately destined for the treasurer (leader) of the commune.
This same text has, by the way, also been used to give a Biblical defense of communism. Everyone, it is said, is called to serve the community (in this case, the state) with all his abilities and possessions. The community has the right to claim private possessions if the need of the state requires this. In this explanation, Christ and Marx seem to have found each other.
Aside from the fact that a commune-type lifestyle has proven to be rather unhealthy and a breeding ground for all sorts of tension, it is nowhere proven from the Scriptures that such a lifestyle is a demand of the Lord. No one is obligated to sell all his personal possessions and to give the money to the church. Peter later tells Ananias, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Ananias could keep it or sell it, give part or all; it was his own free choice. The sin of Ananias was that he pretended to give all while in fact he gave only a part.
The communion of the church does not do away with the individual life of the members. Whoever makes a law out of this exemplary way of life in the Church of Jerusalem, goes farther than the apostles. And we should have a keen eye for the situation here.
The situation of the first Christian Church in Jerusalem necessitated the extreme measures mentioned in our text. There was, generally speaking, not such wealth then as there is today. Many who repented of their sins and joined the congregation, also lost their jobs and income (think of harlots and publicans). On the day of Pentecost a great multitude flocked to the church, and among them were many needy people. Think in this respect of the time and effort involved in caring for the widows (Acts 6). In order to meet this great and immediate need, various members of the congregation decided to sell (some of) their possessions and to donate the proceeds to the church for the support of these needy. The extraordinary situation demanded special measures.
This is quite something else than organizing a commune and making the communal way of life mandatory. This is a matter of true communion, of maintaining the ministry and supporting the needy.
The exact course of events in Jerusalem, as described in Acts 2, is not a model for today, even if we can learn from it. We do not have to sell our possessions today to support the needy. It is in our time and place possible to maintain the ministry and the schools and to support the needy, while still having our own properties. In this respect we have been greatly blessed by the Lord! But indeed, we do learn here that we must be prepared to go the limit and do our utmost to help those in need. This remains a lasting requirement in the Church of Christ! In this respect, we, too, have all things in common. We must seek the wellbeing of the communion of saints with all that we have been given.
It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, poured out on Pentecost, that we are not so tied to our earthly goods that we hang on to them at the cost of the upbuilding of the church and the benefit of our neighbour. The Christian Church no longer lives in the atmosphere of worldly materialism. Certainly, we know the value of our possessions, and we do not fall into the “spiritualism” of the commune, but we will also not cling to our earthly goods at the cost of the needs of the brotherhood. We do not make the communion into a commune, where all individual rights are lost, but we do have a keen eye for the communion which prevails over our private interests. For our communal interests are those of the communion of saints which has one Head, our Lord Jesus Christ.
The communion of saints is not a communistic system, or a commune, where we may not have anything of “our own.” But the communion of saints is born out of the love of Christ by whose Spirit the members are made willing to replenish the need of fellow members according to their ability.
Time and circumstances change. The principle is still the same: we care for each other in the love of Christ.