The book of Acts includes two summary passages that describe the character of the first century church: Acts 2:42-45 and 4:32-37.
In both references, the early believers gathered for worship, prayer, fellowship and the breaking of bread.
These actions remain familiar and normal, as these are still considered the central acts of worship of the gathered people of God.
Perhaps more striking to our ears are three statements about these believers:
- “They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
- “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
- “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”
What might cause such radical generosity among these believers?
For sure, it was the power of the Spirit that compelled them to share what had been their own with the needy of the community.
Indeed, the indwelling Spirit transformed their understanding of property as that which is privately owned, to viewing private property as that which must be shared with others.
Their sharing with others demonstrated that there was a re-evaluation of worldly possessions in light of the new work that God was doing in Christ.
But was the relinquishing of private property simply a form of asceticism through which the believers renounced the things of this world to focus on the things of God? To some extent, we would have to say, “Yes.”
However, the giving up of private property for the well-being of others was not simply an expression of genuine generosity that both provided for the needs of others as well as liberated those who acted this way from the temporal things of this world.
This action was also a major step, if not the major step, toward the formation of the beloved community.
Sharing possessions for the good of others was more than a simple life void of the distractions of private property.
It was one of the primary characteristics of community living among the early believers.
Consequently, these earliest followers of Jesus instituted something radical for their world.
For sure, there were other communities in the Hellenistic world that held common possessions, following the teachings of those like Aristotle who taught that friends held things in common.
And the community at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, lived this way.
Yet these summary portraits of the early church reveal practices that were different from much of the world around them, and the significance of their common living was brought on by the gospel and the power of the Spirit.
While the actions of giving up private property in the new people of God may have been something radical, and remains so today, the reality is that these actions were actually normative for Christian identity and community.
Noting that they sold private possessions was not primarily for the purpose of informing us of the ideal to which the church is to attain, but rather to emphasize that this was a fact of being the Jesus-following, Spirit-empowered people of God. It was who they were.
The portraits of the church in Acts are not primarily models of unreachable ideals the church is to hopelessly pursue, though Christians should continue to pursue authentic community through such acts.
Instead, these narratives express that which was and is normative for the church to be the church. To act differently means to be less than what the church is to be.
Simplicity and communal sharing of possessions revealed the normative economy of the new people of God, and this practice opened the way for other normative practices that shaped the community.
Service became the normative model of social relationships, instead of holding power over the other.
Inclusive welcoming of all, rather than exclusion, became the norm of community formation. And humility, not power, became the norm for living in peace.
Once the right to claim private possessions was re-evaluated in light of God’s new work to create and shape a new community, and once these symbols of status were removed through the guidance of the Spirit, service, inclusion and humility further shaped and characterized that community.
Western Christianity, and especially the United States’ brand of Christian religion, has privatized religion to the extent that we cannot legitimately call it Christian, at least, I think, from a biblical perspective.
This privatization of Christianity is in direct opposition to the original call of Jesus, who, although calling individuals to follow him, called them to a social community in which they were formed by his character and the Spirit, and in which they found new existence and identity.
The pictures of the early church in Acts portray what Jesus envisioned as normative for the community of faith – a community through which individual character formation takes place that shapes the broader collection of God’s people into a true community of sharing, service, inclusion and humility.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. He is the author of “Reframing a Relevant Faith.” A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, Wilderness Preacher, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @WildernesPreach.