There was an incredible sense of community and sharing in original Christianity. This was seen at the beginning of the Book of Acts, from the day of Pentecost on.
And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need.
And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart,
praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to them day by day those that were saved. Act 2:44-47
What a picture! I must confess that I have never seen this the Christian Church, where people sold their possessions and gave them to “anyone” who had need. This says they shared everything they owned. In chapter 4 of Acts we read more about this:
And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul: and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.
And with great power gave the apostles their witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.
For neither was there among them any that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
and laid them at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto each, according as any one had need.
And Joseph, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, Son of exhortation), a Levite, a man of Cyprus by race,
having a field, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.Acts 4:32-37
This is extreme language. Look at the emphatic all-inclusive terms; “not one”, “aught”, “all things”, “as many as”, “any one”. The writer says “not one” claimed that what he possessed was his, no one lacked, everyone that had houses or lands sold them, any one that had a need received something in the distribution. Now it does say “houses”, and “lands” so it is acceptable that people didn’t sell their only house or land. But still, what generosity, what sharing!
And if you want to argue that that’s the way things were in those times consider these words by Justin Martyr.
“we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to every one in need;”i
This looks like it shows that the practice of communal sharing certainly continued through the time of Justin Martyr who lived a century or so after the Book of Acts. And it shows that it was not the norm to live communally and share freely, but rather to acquire wealth and keep it just like people do today and have done from the beginning.
Other examples include The Epistle of Barnabas, probably written early second century, which has guidance to live this life of sharing:
“Thou shalt communicate in all things with thy neighbour; thou shalt not call things thine own; for if ye are partakers in common of things which are incorruptible, how much more [should you be] of those things which are corruptible!”ii
The clear guidance here is that the spiritual realities of life in Christ are far greater than the trappings of life. People clearly had houses, clothes, possibly transportation animals or vehicles, and other things. Now while these were highly sought after by the unbelieving population, they still were needed by the Christians, but their prority was different. Fellowship in Christ was most important.
Tertullian, writing probably around the beginning of the third century, had this to say:
that the family possessions, which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives.iii
Now, up until this point which is a nearly three centuries after Christ, we have seen these statements how everyone had all things in common, which Tertullian continues. Tertullian also writes more, giving more details and talking about freewill and the loving nature of giving in the Church at that time:
On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.iv
We do not know if this is a continuation of how funds were gathered and disbursed in the first century, or what the sharing became over time. There are some significant points here.
- Note the freewill nature of the giving, “there is no compulsion”.
- While Tertullian says that they too had all things common, he writes that people put in a “small donation” as opposed to the “all” in references from earlier times. This language is clearly not as extreme as the earlier writings. And it appears that sharing was still there to a large degree, but perhaps to a lesser intensity and degree than original Christianity.
- While orphans and widows appear to always have been taken care of, this looks very much like the giving funds of many churches today with support for anyone in need.
- Giving of material possessions is part of sharing fully in fellowship. Look at how Tertullian contrasts that with how family possessions destroy brotherhood in the world.
There are a lot of reasons not to share at the level that the book of Acts appears to lead. I must confess that if I had lands and houses I might find it hard to sell them and give the money away. Of course, that is the point of the parable of the man who had riches and was told to sell what he had and give to the poor, which he couldn’t do. Sharing things today is complicated by the fact that so many of don’t own our houses and cars outright, so there is a potential liability in even letting someone use mortgaged houses and cars still owned by the bank. Furthermore, sharing needs to a community thing. I could see where it might be easy to get burned by giving away your surplus now only to find yourself in need later with no one to help you. Lastly, some of this reasoning appears to run contrary to Proverbs which says,
Go to the ant, thou sluggard; Consider her ways, and be wise:
Which having no chief, Overseer, or ruler,
Provideth her bread in the summer, And gathereth her food in the harvest. Prov 6:6-8
The wisest man, Solomon, says that there are reasons to store goods. In our time we save for future events, buying a house, car, furniture, or for old age. Judas carried the “bag”, which meant he was the treasurer, and kept funds to buy things as needed. So obviously, Jesus didn’t give everything away.
But the point Jesus made was that believers don’t serve Mammon, materialism, the acquisition of things. People really do get to the point where they love things. Their life becomes a slave to the acquisition of things. And the acquisition of things becomes more important than God and brotherhood. Believers love God, other believers, and people in general. And one of the ways they show that life is by sharing their things. They show their love by making God and people more important than things. You can’t serve both God and materialism. Original Christianity was a model of serving God and loving people with the things they owned.
i. Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1, The First Apology of Justin, Justin Martyr, Chap. XIV., ” The Demons Misrepresent Christian Doctrine.
ii. Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1, The Epistle of Barnabas, Barnabas, Chap. XIX., ” The Way of Light
iii. Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3, The Writings of Tertullian Part First, ” Apologetic, Tertullian, Chap. XXXIX
(c) 2009 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.