Did the First Christians
From time to time we hear the assertion that the early Christians were the first “communists” for they practiced an early form of “communism.” Others will avoid these terms but will likewise claim that the early Christians were required to give up all of their possessions in order to be part of the body of Christ. They point out that Judas had the “money box” containing the joint funds of Jesus and His disciples (cf. John 12:6; 13:29) and we likewise should have a “common purse” that would contain everything believers hold together.
Certain “Christian communes” in the nineteenth century held this view, as did some in the 1960s. The Hutterites or “Hutterian Brethren,” an Anabaptist sect dating from about 1533 in Moravia and found in Western United States and Canada today, have promoted communal living for centuries. The contemporary Bruderhofs, established by Eberhard Arnold from Germany and today found mainly in the New England states, likewise promote community of goods. The “Twelve Tribes” groups, located mainly in the eastern United States but also in certain foreign countries, strongly promote communal living and say that this is the only way one may be faithful to God and be saved. But the question is whether communal living is actually taught in the New Testament. Were the early Christians necessarily communal and must we live a total communal way in our day?
On the day of Pentecost, Peter proclaimed the good news of the Messiah to Jews and proselytes from all parts of the Roman world. He declared that Jesus had been crucified but God raised Him from the dead and exalted Him to His right hand (Acts 2:22-36). Convicted in their hearts, his hearers asked, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (v. 37). “Repent,” declared Peter, “and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38; NASB). He further said, “Save yourselves from this perverse generation” (v. 40). Some three thousand souls responded to his message and were added by the Lord to the apostles (vv. 41,47).
Not only did God forgive and save these people on that great day, but He continued to work in them. Luke tells us that the disciples “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers” (Acts 2:42). Further, we see a great change in their relationships with each other: “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 anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number [together] day by day those who were being saved” (vv. 44-47).
Another significant glimpse of their corporate relationship follows: “The congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them. . . . For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need” (4:32,34-35).
The Spirit of God was at work to transform these believers and change their basic orientation from self to Christ and others (2 Cor. 5:14-15; Phil. 2:20-21). One of the prominent aspects of their life after forgiveness was their relationship with each other. Notice several of these features:
(1) They were baptized into the body of believers (2:41,47; cf. 1 Cor. 12:13).
(2) They participated in corporate worship with each other (2:42, 46-47).
(3) They shared their material blessings with each other as brothers and sisters had need (2:44-45). “They shared everything they had” (4:32, NIV).
(4) They sold their real estate and possessions to meet the needs of others (2:45; 4:34). The proceeds were brought to the twelve apostles (4:35,37; 5:2).
(5) The apostles distributed to each in need (4:4:35). Later, seven qualified men were placed in charge of this service and distribution (6:1-6).
(6) Selling of property was voluntary and not a requirement (5:4).
(7) The disciples were of one mind and soul (2:46; 4:32).
(8) They met together as an entire group in the temple as well as eating together as households or from house to house (2:46).
We can learn much about these first believers in Jerusalem from observing the first six chapters of Acts. More can be learned by reading the entire book. The questions that we wish to explore at this point are these: Did these early believers actually live communally? Did they give up all of their possessions at the point of conversion? Was this a requirement of God? Is communal living reflected in the remainder of inspired Scripture? How did the early Christians view money, property, and possessions? In answer, the following points may be made:
(1) Giving up all possessions was not a requirement for the salvation and discipleship of these early believers. Otherwise, there would have been nothing to give up and share after they were saved (cf. 2:45; 4:32,34-37). The only requirement was faith and repentance, expressed in baptism (2:38-41,44). Giving was a spontaneous response of love in the face of brotherhood need. However, giving was voluntary and not required even at this time. Peter makes this clear in his question to Ananias: “While it remained [unsold], did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control [at your disposal, NIV]?” (Acts 5:4a). Notice that it was not under the “control” of others in the community. God wants giving to come from the heart and from an inner compulsion.
(2) All property and possessions were not sold at once. This was a process over the days, weeks, and months as people had need (2:45; 4:34) and as individual believers chose to meet that need (4:34-37; 5:1-2). Therefore, there were people in the Jerusalem community who retained property that could be later sold and the proceeds given to the apostles to be distributed to others.
(3) The distribution of food in Jerusalem suggests that there was not a complete communal arrangement. Luke informs us: “Now at this time while the disciples were increasing [in number], a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving [of food]” (Acts 6:1). We infer from this that only the widows were receiving this food daily and that some of them were being overlooked. Seven men were chosen to take charge of this task (vv. 2-6). The point is that the entire community of at least ten thousand saints (cf. 4:4) were not the recipients of daily distribution from a common fund–a practice generally found in communal living arrangments. Later, Paul emphasizes the importance of paying for one’s own daily food rather than relying upon others (2 Thess. 3:12b–“eat their own bread”), an instruction that implies personal living arrangements (see vv. 6-15).
(4) These early believers continued to own houses (2:46). This is confirmed as we continue to read the book of Acts. For example, Saul kept “entering house after house” to drag Christians to prison (8:3). After the Lord appeared to Saul, he stayed in “the house of Judas” who may have been a follower of Christ (9:11,17). Peter stayed with Simon at Joppa, “whose house [was] by the sea” (10:6). Peter, after his escape from jail, “went to the house of Mary” (12:12). After Lydia turned to the Lord, Paul and his three companions went into her “house” and stayed with her and her household (16:15). At Thessalonica, the believer Jason had a “house,” apparently where Paul, Silas, and Timothy stayed (17:5) Luke implies that Aquila and Priscilla had a home in which Paul stayed (18:1-3). In Corinth, Paul stayed in the house of Titius Justus for many months (18:7,11). While at Ephesus, Paul taught the Christians “from house to house,” implying that they continued to own houses (20:20). We further read of “the house of Philip the evangelist” at Caesarea (21:8). At Jerusalem, Paul and his companions “lodged” with Mnason, implying that he had a house (21:16). These references show that believers continued to own houses or retain possession of their houses, yet they used them to extend hospitality.
(5) The remainder of the new covenant writings also reveal that Christians owned houses. For example, Aquilla and Priscilla had a “house” when they lived in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5) and when they lived in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19). Philemon had a house in Colossae (Phile. 1-2) and could offer lodging (v. 22). Nympha apparently had a house in Laodicea (Col. 4:15). Paul writes that the believers in Corinth had “houses in which to eat and drink” (1 Cor. 11:22) and sisters had homes (1 Cor. 14:35). These references imply that generally believers had their own houses in which to live.
(6) Numerous passages in Scripture indicate that Christians are to offer hospitality as they are able and have opportunity (Rom. 12:13; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9). Elders, for example, are to be “hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8), implying that they had the housing available to invite others to stay. A widow was to be placed on the list if she had “shown hospitality to strangers” (1 Tim. 5:10). From these passages we infer that believers had homes in which to carry out these instructions of hospitality.
(7) Although new covenant writings generally were “occasional” letters–letters dealing with certain occasions (e.g., dealing with correction, making plans for a journey, warning of false teaching, etc.)–we still gather glimpses that people owned personal property. For example, Paul owned a “cloak,” some “books,” as well as “parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Aeneas owned a “bed” (Acts 9:34). Lydia was able to make “tunics and garments” for widows (9:39). John writes of Christians who have “the world’s goods” (1 John 3:17) or “material possessions” (NIV). Granted, these are only incidental references, but they do exist.
(8) Believers were able to give of their personal funds for the Lord’s work. This is indicated in various passages. For instance, individual believers were able to give of their financial means to help others. If a person immediately gave all income into a central fund or treasury, this would have been impossible. For instance, Luke tells of the response of believers in Antioch to those saints in Jerusalem in need: “And in the proportion that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brethren living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). Individual Christians are to contribute to the needs of the saints (Rom. 12:13). In view of Paul’s plans to take a “gift” to Jerusalem, he writes, “Let each of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come” (1 Cor. 16:1-3). If all funds were immediately placed in a common fund, it would have been impossible for individual believers to carry out this instruction. Individual participation in this great collection is again emphasized in the book of 2 Corinthians: “He who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; and he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully. Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:6-7; cf. Chaps 8-9). Again, if no one had personal financial resources, Paul could not have commanded this as he did. Interestingly, he says the giving is not to be “under compulsion” (NASB, NIV), which is not the case in a communal arrangement.
(9) Believers continued to have personal property and continued to have funds that they could use for various purposes. For instance, Jason was able to pay a bond to the civil officials in Thessalonica (Acts 17:9). Paul was able to pay the expenses at the temple of four brethren who were under a vow (Acts 21:23-24,26). Hebrew Christians were able to accept joyfully “the seizure of [their] property” as they were persecuted for Christ’s sake (Heb. 10:34). Paul instructs that saints are to care for widowed mothers and grandmothers so that the community as a whole will not be burdened (1 Tim. 5:4,16). This means that they had personal funds that could be used to support these family members, funds that were not controlled by the congregation itself.
(10) The fact that some believers continued to own slaves suggests that they did not surrender all things at the point of their conversion to Christ. Paul writes to “masters” who own “slaves” in his letters to the Ephesians (6:9) and the Colossians (4:1). He also mentions believing masters in 1 Timothy 6:2. We are also aware that Philemon was the master of Onesimus, although he hoped that he would release his servant (Phile. 10-20).
(11) The life of Christ suggests that those who would follow Him while He was on the earth generally did not give up all of their personal possessions and property. We conclude this by examining a number of passages in the Gospels. For example, when Zaccheus came to Christ, he said, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). Although this tax collector may have had little left after all of this distribution of funds, he must have continued to have something. Jesus visited Mary and Martha in Bethany. Luke tells us that “Martha welcomed Him into her home” (Luke 10:38). Just before Christ’s death, Mary anointed the head and feet of Jesus with expensive ointment (John 12:3; Matt. 26:7; Mark 14:3). This ointment was worth the amount that could be earned in 300 days of work, perhaps about $20,000 or $30,000 worth! Consider also Peter, the apostle of Christ. Even after Jesus called him (Matt. 4:18-20), Peter continued to own a house in Capernaum (8:5,14). Mark actually calls this “the house of Simon and Andrew” (Mark 1:29). Along with His twelve apostles, Jesus allowed certain devoted women to accompany Him. Luke tells us that these women were “contributing to their [Jesus and His apostles’] support out of their private means” (Luke 8:1-3; cf. Mark 15:41). Many more examples could be cited, but these are sufficient to show that followers of Christ continued to have financial means, property, and personal possessions.
What shall we say to this abundance of Scriptural evidence? It is quite clear that followers before and after the death of Christ owned possessions and property and had income from which they could give to those in need and support the cause of Christ. Was the body in Jerusalem, immediately after Pentecost, communal in nature? Not fully. The believers were not required to give of their possessions. This was the loving and reasonable response to the needs that existed at that time, under unusual circumstances, when saints from many countries continued to reside this city. Further, as persecution arose, probably many disciples lost their means of income, and this also contributed to the open sharing. Yet even here, certain possessions continued to “belong” to the individual disciples. What is significant is that people did not regard them as their “own” but freely shared with those in genuine need (cf. Acts 4:32ff).
It is important to emphasize that this conclusion does not mean that Christians have the liberty to look upon their money and possessions in the way that most Americans view them. Nor does it mean that true believers can even regard their finances as most professing “Christians” regard them. True believers look upon their money, possessions, and property in a radically different way! They look upon themselves as merely stewards who use such material things for the glory of God and the benefit of others. Numerous passages in the Gospels and letters emphasize that we are indeed required to look upon material resources in a radically different way than does the world. Further, many passages give Christ’s warnings against riches and possessions. If there were not a serious temptation here, there would not be such repeated warnings of the peril of wealth.
Notice some of the passages dealing with stewardship, riches, and material possessions that are scattered throughout the new covenant writings: Matt. 6:19-24; 19:21-29; 25:31-46; Mark 8:34-38; 10:21-30; Luke 12:13-15, 16-21, 22-34; 14:25-33; 16:1-15, 19-31; 18:22-30; 19:8; Acts 20:35; Rom. 12:13; 15:25-29; 1 Cor. 16:1-3; 2 Cor. 8-9; Gal. 2:10; Eph. 4:28; 5:3-6; Phil. 4:10-19; 1 Tim. 5:9-10; 6:9-10, 17-19; 2 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 3:14, NASB; Heb. 13:1-3; James 1:9-11; 2:5, 15-17; 5:1-6; 1 John 3:16-18; Rev. 2:9.
It might be helpful to add here that it definitely is not wrong for Christians to live together and pool their resources to pay for living expenses. As we have noticed, the early believers often lived together. There was extensive hospitality. Paul, for instance, did not have a home (1 Cor. 4:11) and often stayed with others (Acts 16:15; 17:7; 18:3,7; 21:8,16; Rom. 16:23; Phile. 22). Peter did the same (Acts 9:32, 43; 10:6). In our own day, there are many benefits (such as economy and spiritual encouragement) to the arrangement of brothers living together. Further, there are benefits and blessings to the temporary arrangement of believers opening their home to saints in need, traveling saints, and workers for Christ. Therefore, our study should in no way be interpreted as a way to discount living together temporarily or permanently.
The point we should remember is that of balance. The world is characterized by greed, covetousness, selfishness, and materialism. They delight in money, possessions, and lands. They crave lavish homes, extravagant furnishings, luxurious automobiles, expensive clothes, jewelry, high incomes, bank accounts, costly vacations, and other worldly possessions and pursuits. Even professing “Christians” have fallen for this perilous materialistic trap. On the other hand, a few have advocated a total renunciation of all material things. Monks and nuns have taken the vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience (to religious superiors). They believe that their “gospel poverty” is a higher calling that will enable them to achieve spiritual perfection. Others have advocated communal living in which all personal possessions and financial resources are given to a central organization or to a “common purse.” As the monk and nun, these too have seen certain passages in Scripture and choose to give away their possessions. Generally, instead of selling their possessions and giving to the poor (cf. Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33), they are expected to give all things to the commune or the leaders of the community. We have seen that most of Scripture will not bear this interpretation and this application.
What can we learn from this present study? Several points may be considered: (1) Jesus, Paul, and others warn of the extreme danger of riches and possessions; (2) Everything we own belongs to God (1 Cor. 10:24) and must be freely used in His service; (3) Some may contribute more than others, according to their ability, but all are required to be open in their support of worthy endeavors to meet legitimate needs; (4) we will be judged by our honest and sincere use of the finances, possessions, and property that God has entrusted to us; (5) in come cases, we may be called upon to give more to meet pressing needs than at other times.