From a Lifestyle of Self-Sufficient Individualism to Community
One of the more frequent words translated as “community” or “fellowship” in the New Testament is koinonia. This was a well-used word in the Greek world. In ordinary usage, it referred to having something in common with someone. However, the Bible’s use of koinonia emphasizes active participation—owning a share in something, rather than just being associated with it. When Paul, in particular, uses koinonia, it carries this strong sense of partnership, including the call to financial partnership. A prime example of this is Paul’s commendation of the Corinthians for the “generosity of your sharing [koinonias],” (2 Corinthians 9:13) referring to the money they donated for the relief of poor Christians in Jerusalem. Another example is the distribution of resources among the first “fellowship” (koinonia, Acts 2:42) of Christians. This fellowship was both spiritual and financial, with the result that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-35). God provided for the needs of the individuals, through the resources of community. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45).
Although there is little indication that communal holding of wealth occurred outside this brief period in the New Testament church, it is clear the community in Jerusalem tried to realize God’s vision that provision and wealth are communal, not individual, matters. Of course, how this might be expressed in our various twenty-first century contexts will depend on a variety of factors. History has shown that collective ownership generally works out poorly. Yet some still practice full economic sharing within a highly-trusted community. Other faith communities might seek to pool donations from the wealthy to distribute to the poor. Still others might choose to give individually to specific people or to charitable organizations that provide for needy people. The Bible prescribes not the method, but the attitude. God provides for his people in the plural, even though the resources may be entrusted to individuals as stewards.
In fact, N.T. Wright notes that, “…in Paul’s world it was the normal word for a business partnership, in which all those involved would share in doing the work on the one hand and in the financial responsibilities on the other.” N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 85.