In Acts 4, we have another short paragraph summarizing the life of the early Church. We already saw one of these snapshots in Acts 2, and the description is almost exactly the same – shared possessions, likeminded hearts, and powerful ministry to the glory of God. But this amazing example of having everything in common has led to the recurrent and wrongheaded idea that the early Christians were some kind of socialists. Now, at this church, we are all about Christian community and sharing our lives together, but we are not trying to start a Christian commune. And so here are five reasons why what we see here in Acts is not what we know as socialism or communism:
First, what we see in Acts is partial, not total sharing – wives are certainly not shared in Acts, and neither are all the houses or all the land. Socialism usually calls for total sharing, the book of Acts does not.
Second, the sharing in Acts is as needed, not once for all. This passage, as well as Acts 2, consistently use imperfect verbs, indicating ongoing, periodic action, rather than a once for all liquidation of assets. The disciples would sell houses or goods from time to time. It was not the case that everyone sold their stuff all at once.
Third, the gifts in Acts are voluntary, not coerced. Socialism can only really work when it is enforced. But that isn’t what we see in Acts; in fact, in chapter 5, Peter explicitly denies this key socialist commitment. Christian giving is not enforced by the state, or even by deacons. It is motivated by love.
Fourth, when the apostles have everything in common, this is a temporary, and not a permanent measure. Two reasons for that: one, there is a unique need: remember, the early Church became a megachurch at Pentecost, when Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem for the feast. The ones who became Christians have stayed, in order to learn the Apostles’ teaching before returning home, and they need food and housing. But when everyone is fully taught and returns home, this level of communal living is never mentioned again in the Bible. Reason number two that this is temporary is that this work would have ordinarily been covered by tithes and offerings, but until now, the Christians haven’t been collecting their own tithe – they’ve been worshiping at the temple! Until the new pattern takes root, and the early Church has a reasonable deacon’s fund, the Church uses this extraordinary pattern of providing for the needy.
Fifth, this common life is local, not universal. This only ever happens in Jerusalem, and in addition to the immediate concerns about tithing and hosting all the Pentecost travelers is the reality that Jerusalem as a whole is a condemned city. Jesus has wrapped the whole city in yellow tape, and so the disciples happily sell off their property, knowing that in one generation, as Jesus promised in Matthew 24, Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the property will become worthless. But nowhere else in the NT do we see this lifestyle at work – not in Corinth, not in Galatia, not in Ephesus. Having everything in common was especially for this place, Jerusalem, at this time, in the few years before her destruction. Christians who become socialists based on these verses are making a huge mistake, and not actually living out what the Bible teaches.
But simply denying that socialism can be found in Acts 4 is not enough: we need to affirm the responsibility of Christians to give generously. The gospel of Jesus Christ shows us an example of the God of heaven coming down to earth and sharing everything that He had with us. He gave away the glories of heaven, laying His very life at our feet. The early church understood their giving as nothing more or less than imitating Jesus. Because Jesus shares everything He has with us, we are to live as a people who share everything that we have with one another, not selfishly claiming anything for ourselves, but laying everything we have at Jesus’ feet.