Acts 4:32-5:16 is a vivid description of the early community of believers in Jerusalem. A text such as this provides a good opportunity ask how the book of Acts relates to contemporary church. Is this community a model for how we should “do church” today? Certainly caring for the needs of others is important, but does this passage demand Christians sell property and give it to the church leaders to distribute? If Christians hold back their wealth, are they in danger of being struck dead?
Sometimes the early Christian community is described as living in a socialist commune since they “live in common” and re-distributed wealth. Even the Wikipedia page on communism cites Acts 4 biblical support. Many early dispensationalists taught the future Kingdom will be some sort of socialist paradise with no private property. “For a little while they had what some people have set before them as a world ideal—a kind of Christian communism” (Ironside, Lectures on the Book of Acts, 78). The early Christian community in Acts 4 as a foretaste of the kingdom and unrelated to the Church (which is apparently capitalist).
Try as I might, I cannot find this elsewhere in scripture nor am I communist who needs to find biblical support for an economic theory. Most scholars find some way to avoid the “living in common” aspect of Acts 4. The book of Acts describes an ideal Christian community as having a generous spirit which cares for the needs of others in the church (Peterson, The Book of Acts PNTC, 203).
There is no call to sell possessions and live “in common” either here or in the rest of the New Testament. But people like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution) would argue (passionately) that the earliest community of believers were putting into practice the ethics of Jesus (including economic ethics) by living as simply as possible. They did not build enormous churches and expensive structures,Instead, they met the needs of people.This is all true, of course, and that early community is important for how we might “do church” in a contemporary context. This earliest community is also very similar to the ideal Christian community Peter outlines in 1 Peter 3:8-12.
Frequently this text is invoked as a model for the church to follow today, with varying degrees of specific application. For example, Allison Trites includes this text in her article on church growth (“Church Growth in the Book of Acts” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 ). The reason the apostolic church grew was because the church cared for the needs of the poor and treated hypocrisy as a serious offense (5:1-11). The point is well made – the growing church cares about the needs of people as well as the preaching of the gospel. But does this point really come from Acts 4:32-35?
There is no question the early church sought to meet the needs of their community and the needs of the larger society as well. Even in the days of Justin Martyr Christians were interested in sharing possessions for the common good: “We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have to a common stock, and communicate to every one in need” (Apology 1.14:2-3).
The big question is therefore: How do we apply the descriptions of the earliest Christian communities to the present Christian church? Should we try to apply these things to our church? Perhaps there is more going on here than Luke giving us a model for all churches at all times. I really am impressed with the recent emphasis on simplicity and the “health and wealth” gospel is certainly a corruption of the gospel. But I am also concerned with drawing appropriate ethical implications from this text.