After Peter announces the Spirit’s creation of a new kind of community, Acts traces the rapid growth of such communities in a variety of places. The community summaries in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-38 are the most concentrated descriptions. Indeed, the texts themselves are remarkable in describing the scope of commitment and shared life of the early believers. Because the summaries have many similarities, we will discuss them in tandem.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 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. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as who owned lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds from what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native from Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of Encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37)
While these texts do not describe work directly, they are keenly concerned with the deployment of power and possessions, two realities that are often an outcome of human labor. The first thing to note, in comparison to the surrounding society, is that Christian communities cultivate a very different set of practices with regard to the use of power and possessions. It is clear that the early Christians understood that the power and possessions of the individual were not to be saved for the comfort of the individual, but were to be expended or wisely invested for the good of the Christian community. Stated succinctly, goods are for the good of another. More than anything else, life in the kingdom of God means working for the good of others.
Two things should be stated here. First, these texts ask us to understand our identities primarily as members of the Christian community. The good of the community is the good of each individual member. Second, this is a radical departure from the patronage economy that marked the Roman Empire. In a patronage system, gifts from the rich to the poor create a structure of systematic obligation. Every gift from a benefactor implies a social debt now owed by the beneficiary. This system created a sort of pseudo-generosity in which generous patrons often gave out of self-interest, seeking to accrue honor connected to patronage. In essence, the Roman economy viewed “generosity” as a means to social power and status. These notions of systematic reciprocal obligation are completely absent in the descriptions in Acts 2 and 4. In the Christian community, giving is to be motivated by a genuine concern for the flourishing of the beneficiary, not for the honor of the benefactor. Giving has little to do with the giver and everything to do with the receiver.
This is a completely different socioeconomic system. Like Luke’s Gospel, Acts regularly demonstrates that Christian conversion results in a reoriented approach to possessions and power. Moreover, this insistence that goods are to be used for the sake of the neighbor is patterned explicitly off of Jesus’ life, mission, and—primarily—his self-giving death. (See Luke and Work at www.theologyofwork.org.)
Much has been written about the parallels between the community summaries and groups within Luke’s historical context. Essene/Qumran parallels: Brian J. Capper, “The Interpretation of Acts 5.4,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 6, no. 19 (1983): 117-31; Brian J. Capper, “The Palestinian Cultural Context of Earliest Christian Community of Goods,” in The book of Acts in its Palestinian setting, edited by Richard Bauckham (Grand Rapids/Carlisle: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1995), 323-356; Greco-Roman friendship parallels: Alan C. Mitchell, “The Social Function of Friendship in Acts 2.44-47 and 4.32-37,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 2 (1992): 255-72; Greco-Roman utopian parallels: Gregory E. Sterling, “‘Athletes of Virtue’: An Analysis of the Summaries in Acts (2.41-47; 4.32-35; 5.12-16),” Journal of Biblical Literature 113, no. 4 (1994): 679-96; parallels with Greco-Roman associations: Philip A Harland, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Creating a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003); John S. Kloppenborg, “Collegia and Thiasoi: Issues in Function, Taxonomy and Membership,” in Voluntary associations in the Graeco-Roman world, edited by John S. Kloppenborg and S.G. Wilson, 16-30, (London/New York: Routledge, 1996).
It is not difficult to notice that giving within the Christian community can still function in this way.
There is continuing debate about whether or not these community summaries advocate a certain economic system, with some commentators describing the practice of the community as “proto-communism” and others seeing a mandatory divestiture of goods. The text, however, does not suggest an attempt to change the structures beyond the Christian community. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a small, marginalized, socially powerless group having designs on changing the imperial economic system. It is clear that the community did not fully opt out of the systems of economics within the empire. Likely, fishermen remained members of fishing cartels and artisans continued to do business in the market. Paul, after all, continued making tents to support his missionary travels (Acts 18:3).
Rather, the text suggests something far more demanding. In the earliest church, people of means and power liquidated their goods for the sake of the less powerful “from time to time” (Acts 4:34) as anyone “had need” (Acts 2:45; 4:35). This describes a kind of radical availability as the normal status of each person’s possessions. That is, the resources—material, political, social, or practical—of any member of the community were put at the constant disposal of the Christian community, even while individual members continued to oversee their particular resources. Rather than systematically prescribing the distribution of wealth in such a way as to ensure flat equality, the earliest church accepted the reality of economic disequilibrium, but practiced a radical generosity whereby goods properly existed for the benefit of the whole, not the individual. This form of generosity is, in many ways, more challenging than a rigid system of rules. It calls for ongoing responsiveness, mutual involvement in the lives of community members, and a continual willingness to hold possessions loosely, valuing the relationships within the community more than the (false) security of possessions.
It is highly likely that this system within a system was inspired by the economic ideals expressed in Israel’s law, climaxing with the practice of Jubilee—the once-in-fifty-years redistribution of land and wealth within Israel (Leviticus 25:1-55). Jubilee was designed by God to ensure that all people had access to the means of making a living, an ideal that appears never to have been widely practiced by God’s people. Jesus, however, introduces his ministry with a set of texts from Isaiah 61 and 58 that produce a great many Jubilee themes:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)
Jubilee ethic is further alluded to in Acts 4:34, where Luke tells us “there were no needy persons among them.” This appears to be a direct echo of Deuteronomy 15:4, where the practice of the Sabbath year (a mini-Jubilee occurring once every seven years) is designed to ensure that “there should be no poor among you.”
It is fitting that the Christian community would see this as a model for their economic life. But whereas in ancient Israel, the Sabbath year and the Jubilee were to be practiced only every seven and fifty years, respectively, radical availability marked the resources of the early Christian community. We can imagine it in terms similar to the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said of old, ‘Give back your land to those who are landless once every fifty years,’ but I say to you, ‘Make your power and resources available any time you see the need.’” Radical generosity based on the needs of others becomes the basis of economic practice in the Christian community. We will explore this in depth through the incidents in the book of Acts.
The practices of the early churches challenge contemporary Christians to think imaginatively about models for radical generosity today. How could radical availability stand as a witness to the kingdom of God and form a plausible alternative way of structuring human life in a culture marked by the tenacious pursuit of personal wealth and security?
Philip A Harland, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Creating a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003); John S. Kloppenborg, “Collegia and Thiasoi: Issues in Function, Taxonomy and Membership,” in Voluntary associations in the Graeco-Roman world, edited by John S. Kloppenborg and S.G. Wilson, 16-30, (London/New York: Routledge, 1996).
Christopher M. Hays, Luke’s Wealth Ethics, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.275 (Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2010) explores the ethics of wealth in Luke and Acts in depth.
Two final points are important to note with regard to the use of resources in the early Christian community. First is the necessity of the Holy Spirit to the practice of radical generosity. The descriptions of the community in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-38 follow immediately from the first two major manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Luke could not be clearer in forging a link between the Spirit’s presence and power and the ability of the community to live with Christ-like generosity. We must understand that one of the fundamental works of the Spirit in the life of the early Christians was the cultivation of a community that took a radically different stance toward the deployment of resources. So, while we often get caught up in looking for the more spectacular manifestations of the Spirit (visions, tongues, and so on), we need to reckon with the fact that the simple act of sharing or consistent hospitality might be one of the most magnificent gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Second, lest we begin to think that this word is only for those with financial resources, we see Peter and John demonstrate that all resources are to be used for the sake of others. In Acts 3:1-10, Peter and John encounter a beggar at the gate of the temple. The beggar is looking for money, though Peter and John have none. They do, however, have a witness to the coming of the kingdom through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Hence, Peter replies, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). Here is an example of resource sharing that is not connected to monetary wealth. The use of power and position to build community will occur on several further occasions in Acts.
Perhaps the most moving expression occurs when Barnabas—who, in Acts 4:32-38, is an example of radical generosity of financial resources—also puts his social resources at Paul’s disposal, helping welcome him into the reluctant fellowship of the apostles in Jerusalem (see Acts 9:1-31). Another example is Lydia, who employs her high social standing in the textile industry in Thyatira as a means of entry for Paul into the city of Thyatira (Acts 16:11-15). Social capital is to be deployed, like any other capital, for the good of the kingdom as understood by the Christian community.
When resources are properly deployed in the life of the Christian community—as they are after the selection of the table servers in Acts 6—the community becomes a magnet. The community’s life of justice—marked primarily by the other-centered use of power and possessions—draws people to it and to its head, Jesus. When the community uses its possessions and privileges to give life to those in need, when the resources of the individual are fully committed to benefit others in the community, people flock to join. We have seen already that “the Lord added to their number daily those being saved” (Acts 2:47). It is evident in the aftermath of the Spirit-empowered service in Acts 6 as well. The community-forming, justice-promoting work of the seven deacons results in life for many. “The word of God spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).