To read other parts of the series, go here.
I wear a red cross around my neck. I got it when I visited a church called Jesus Army in the UK a couple of years ago. Many people in this church practice community of goods. They eradicate the gap between rich and poor simply through sharing all they have together in community houses called New Creation Christian Community.
This is of course very biblical. We read about the first church in Jerusalem which was led by the apostles themselves: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45). This should not be surprising, they simply obeyed the commands of Jesus. He clearly told all His disciples in Luke 12:33 to sell what they have and give to the poor.
It is thus misleading to think that this command was just given to one certain rich man in Matthew 19:16-22. I have heard countless rich Christians arguing that Jesus told him to sell what he had just because his money was a stumbling block to his relation with God, and thus rich Christians with a good relationship with God can ignore this command and continue to be rich. But the gospels doesn’t say that he had to sell his stuff because they affected his relationship with the Lord, the only reason Jesus gives is that the poor will get money – something they need no matter how our spiritual situation looks like. And again, He did say the same thing to all His disciples, and they all obeyed it.
But were the believers in Jerusalem really obliged to do this, or could the wealthy skip it and keep their money if they like to? Many assume this is what Peter is saying when he tells Ananias, who pretended to give all the money for his sold house although he had hidden parts of it for himself, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). However, this is just a statement concerning Ananias’ responsibility for his action. It doesn’t say that if he had continued to be rich while other were starving, God and the church wouldn’t care.
No, practicing economic equality through the sharing of goods was seen as a natural part of the Christian life in the church of Jerusalem, that everyone participated in. The question then is if the Jerusalem church should be seen as normative for our churches today. The arguments are many: it was the first and original church, all other churches come from it, it was the only church during this time (which implies that when Luke says that “all believers” had everything in common, he really means all believers) and it was led by the apostles, whose teaching and scriptures are the sources of out faith.
Still, surprisingly many are arguing that while we should live and believe like the apostles and the early church in other areas, the economics of Jerusalem is not normative for us. This idea is especially confusing in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, to which I belong, since the Jerusalem church with its experience on Pentecost is traditionally the primary role model church for us.
The main argument against viewing the economic equality in Jerusalem as normative is that the same practice cannot be found in other New Testament churches. However, this is an argument from silence. There are only two New Testament churches we know of that celebrated communion – Jerusalem and Corinth – does that mean that those were the only ones doing it, and that other churches could skip it even though it was commanded by Jesus?
The thing is that Jerusalem is the only church whose structure and practice is described in the whole New Testament. The rest of Acts doesn’t describe how the churches looked like, and the epistles are only touching upon issues that the author finds important in the specific situation – leadership, circumcision, etc. – without doing a systematic description of the recipient church. There are some hints here and there, like in Galatians 6:6, but no clear description of community of goods.
Should we then assume that they didn’t practice equality, in spite of Jesus’ teaching? Of course not. Rather, we should go to the church fathers and read how they interpreted Scripture and how their churches looked like. This we will do in the next part of this series.