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
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
(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
(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
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
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.