9 July 2019Acts 4:32-35
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. (v.32)
Psalm: Psalm 119:145-160
This is the second of a number of passages that summarise life in the early church (2:42-47 is the first) and which are used to separate the stories of specific incidents in the early progress of the church’s mission, be they acts of the apostles or sometimes of other named characters. The focus of this particular short summary is the commitment to common ownership of possessions. The beginning of chapter 5 will show how greed and resulting dishonesty quickly sullied this approach, and the tense Luke uses (the iterative imperfect, which can be rendered “They used to sell …”) suggests the pattern didn’t last. However, the very fact that Luke includes the passage may well suggest he believed it could be rediscovered as a way for Christians to support each other.
“Whole group” (v. 32) translates a word whose vast majority of its New Testament uses (24 out of 31) are in Luke’s writings, and seems to be chosen to emphasise the fact that all were included whatever their social status. But he further describes them as, literally, “those who had become believers”, making clear that the group is exclusive of any who had not yet taken that step of faith.
Other Jewish groups, notably the Essene community who produced the Dead Sea scrolls, practised a community of goods. Similarly from a Greek idealist position, Aristotle claimed that true friends held everything in common, but that would be understood to refer to friends who shared a social class. In the early church, as is spelt out here, the wealthy class provided for the poor, encashing their investments for that purpose. It is worth noting the authority of the apostles – this is the meaning of “laid it at the apostles’ feet” (v. 35) – over the distribution of money; it was not a matter of each person of means choosing a preferred charity case.
Verse 33 sandwiches into this picture of common ownership a reference to the ongoing witness of the apostles to Jesus’s resurrection, and the resulting experience of God’s continuing grace that each one felt.
- It is notable that the subject of the apostles’ testimony in verse 33 is stated to be the resurrection. In your experience is the gospel message as proclaimed by today’s Church centred on resurrection or crucifixion or something else entirely? Does it matter?
- In what ways, if any, could a pattern of common ownership in any sense work for a community of Christians today?
- The passage portrays a church where each member has an equal place and privilege, yet clearly bounded by a common faith. In other words it is both inclusive and exclusive. To what extent is such a definition of Church desirable or possible today?