Acts 2-5 is a provocative passage detailing the narrative of the early church in Jerusalem immediately following Pentecost. This passage is commonly used to determine whether the Bible supports the implementation of socialist or free market principles in governance, an issue addressed in full here.
A less common perspective of this passage regards its implications for the treatment of the poor. There are four main points that arise in these chapters that speak to the way in which Christians are called to care for the poor.
1. The Early Believers Did Not Sell All Their Possessions
Acts 2: 44-45 states that following Pentecost “all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as any might have need.”
While this appears on the surface to support the idea that the early Christians renounced private property and lived communally in an effort to alleviate poverty, a more thorough study reveals that private property was not abandoned by early Christians. Acts 4: 34b-35 says “From time to time; those who owned land or houses sold them, brought money from the sales and put it at the apostles feet….”
Notice the passage does not say believers sold all of their property and laid all the proceeds from the sale at the apostles’ feet. John Stott points out,
Neither Jesus nor his apostles forbade private property to all Christians… the sharing of property and possessions was voluntary… the selling and giving were occasional, in response to particular needs, not once and for all.
The method that early Christians used to accommodate for the needs of the poor was to give of their personal possessions but not all of their possessions.
2. The Sharing In Acts 2-5 Was Totally Voluntary
In Acts 2-5 ,Christians gave and shared their wealth generously according to their own convictions. Neither the apostles nor the state demanded possession of property to redistribute it in an attempt to accommodate the needs of the poor. Christians gave generously of their private property to meet the needs of the impoverished among them.
Cheerful rather than mandatory giving is reinforced by scripture. 2 Corinthians 9:7 reads,
So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.
The point is that people ought not to give out of obligation or because they are compelled by force or fear. Acts 2-5 supports the idea that people should provide for the needs of the poor from their private property out of the kindness of their heart, rather than because the church or state asserts predominance over their property.
3. This Was Not A Permanent Practice, But A Temporary Measure
Acts 2-5 was a time of great need for the early church. Following Pentecost there were three thousand new believers, and more were added each day (Acts 2:41, 47). These new believers desired to continue in the apostles’ teaching, worship, fellowship, and prayers (Acts 2:42-46).
Many of these new converts were foreigners and did not have the ability to provide food and shelter for themselves in Jerusalem. In order to accommodate the continued discipleship of their new brothers and sisters in Christ, those Christians who had surplus resources gave freely to those who were in need. Thus the believers were “…together and had all things in common…” until the new believers returned home.
While great acts of generosity continued throughout the rest of the New Testament (Acts 6:1, Acts 17:5-9, Philemon 1), never again are believers described as holding all things in common. The spirit of Acts 2-5 remained, but there was no push to continue living communally or to reduce private property amongst Christians. This means that rather than communal living, the model for poverty alleviation is to allow the creation and preservation of private property as a source of wealth to be donated when a specific need is realized. This idea is clarified in the next point.
4. You Cannot Get An ‘Ought’ Out of An ‘Is’
The imperative (Christians ought to do this) does follow from the the indicative (Some early Christians did this). David Hume wrote,
An unremarked transition from premises whose parts are linked only by ‘is’ to conclusions whose parts are linked by ‘ought’… [is] altogether inconceivable.
What this means is that you cannot determine that because Christians shared all things (with some qualifications) in Acts 2-5, Christians ought to continue this practice for all time. The only way to get from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ in this context is to show that there are other passages in the Bible that do constitute a command that Christians ought to live communally. In regard to caring for the poor, this means that Christians have not been called to forsake private property in an effort to alleviate poverty in their midst.
Acts 2-5 documents a time of great joy and of physical hardship for the early church. To deal with this hardship, believers of means voluntarily pooled as many of their personal resources as each individual believer felt convicted to share. The fact that they “…had all things in common…” is not a support of wealth redistribution by church or state as a means to care for the least of these. It is a testament to the extent to which early believers were willing to share of their material affects.
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