In Acts 4:32-37 we have a description of the early community of believers in Jerusalem. A text such as this provides a good opportunity to stop and think about how we ought to apply the book of Acts today.
Sometimes this group is described as living as communists since they “live in common” and seem to have re-distributed wealth. Many traditional dispensationalists have therefore concluded that the future Kingdom will be some sort of socialist paradise with no private property, etc. Try as I might, I cannot find this elsewhere in scripture nor am I communist who needs to find biblical support for by economic theory! Virtually everyone who treats this text finds some way to avoid the “living in common” aspect of Acts 4. Is this the right way to approach the text? I think the economic reading of the text might obscure the real point.
There is no question that the early church sought to meet the needs of their community and the needs of the larger society as well. Arnold (Acts, 34) points out that in Judea there was a famine which threatened the Christians who remained in Jerusalem. In Rome some Christians had their property seized, including Aquila and Priscilla. 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). There were Christians in Rome who sold themselves into slavery so that they could provide for the needs of the poor in the church.
The big question is therefore: How do we apply the descriptions of the earliest Christian communities to the present Christian church? Or perhaps, should we even 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. While I really am impressed with the recent emphasis on simplicity, I find the sort of “health and wealth” gospel which infests the American church like a disease a dangerous and idolatrous idea.
The community described in Acts 4:32-37 is a new, idealized Israel. That the eschatological community should be characterized by unity of mind is no surprise, Jer 32:39 describes unity as a distinguishing characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s activity in the New Covenant. It is possible that the unity of “one mind” is a subtle allusion to 1 Chron 12:38-39, a text which describes the beginning of the Davidic kingdom. In this passage the who nation is of “one mind” to make David king, as demonstrated in their eating and drinking together for three days with David. The time is also described as a period of “joy in Israel.” The initial coronation of David as king over all Israel includes Jews from “far away,” celebration through meals, and great joy.
What concerns me here is drawing ethical implications from this text. Luke is not presenting the Jerusalem community as an ideal which must be followed, but rather as a community which was uniquely powered by the Holy Spirit. What would our churches look like if they were characterized by unity such as this? What matters is not a collective community garden or sharing of money with poorer members, but that all members of the community have the same interests and goals; they are wholeheartedly yielded to the Holy Spirit.
That sort of unity would revolutionize the church.