It’s YouTube Friday and the latest entry on the Holy Spirit Activism YouTube channel is this short interview with Huw Lewis, apostolic leader in the Jesus Army, where he explains why the JA practice community of goods. Community of goods means sharing possessions so that nobody is rich and nobody is poor and was being practiced by Jesus and the apostles (Jn 13:29) and in the first church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:44-45). Huw, I and many others think that it is a very good way of living and we encourage all believers to pray about joining a Christian community.
However, there are Christians who think that community of goods isn’t something good but rather, that the apostles were naïvely mistaken when they started to share their possessions. I found an article arguing for this at biblestudytools.com, an article that is used as the official explanation to what community of goods is about and that has received one of the top spots when you search for “community of goods” on Google. It’s horribly bad though so please let me criticise it for you.
All rich people or some?
In Acts 2:44, it is said that, in the infant church at Jerusalem, “all that believed were together, and had all things common,” and (Acts 4:34 f) “as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet.” The inference from this, that there was an absolute disposal of all the property of all the members of the church, and that its proceeds were contributed to a common fund, has been disputed upon the ground that the example of Barnabas in selling “a field” for this purpose (Acts 4:37) would not have been mentioned, if this had been the universal rule. The thought conveyed is that all believers in that church held their property as a trust from the Lord, for the benefit of the entire brotherhood, and, as there was need, did as Barnabas.
The author of this article, H.E. Jacobs, almost immediately begins to argue that the Biblical community of goods was not required for all believers in Jerusalem to participate in. This is indeed a difficult task since Acts 4:34 says that all who had property sold it and gave it to the apostles so that they redistributed the money equally. And all really means all. Now, believers who didn’t own property such as widows probably weren’t obligated to give (instead, their participation in the common purse was by receiving) but Barnabas is rather used as an example of one among all the property owners who sold everything to introduce him to the readers. Likewise, Jesus’mother and brothers are mentioned in Acts 1 to highlight some of who were praying, not to say that the others weren’t praying.
Was it commanded?
No commandment, of which record has been preserved, prescribed any such course. It came from the spontaneous impulse of the sense of brotherhood in Christ, when the band of disciples was still small, making them in a sense one family, and under the external constraint of extreme want and persecution. So much there was, that they realized, under such conditions they had in common, that they were ready to extend this to all things. It was, in a sense, a continuance of the practice of a common purse in the band of immediate followers of our Lord during his ministry.
Though shalt not lie, Mr. Jacobs. To sell what one has and give the money to the poor is a command Jesus gives not just to the rich young man in Mark 10:21, but to all His disciples in Luke 12:33. Furthermore, Jacobs even admits that Jesus and the apostles practiced community of goods (which, again, is evident in John 13:29), in Luke 14:33 He says that anyone who does nor give up everything he has cannot be Jesus’ disciple, and after saying that a rich person cannot enter the Kingdom of God Jesus says in Mark 10 that everyone who gives up everything will have hundreds of sisters and brothers and houses in this world. Jesus’ command and vision is clearly to give up wealth and have everything in common.
Was it a single experience?
This custom did not last long. It was possible only within a limited circle, and under very peculiar circumstances. The New Testament recognizes the right of individual property and makes no effort to remove the differences that exist among believers themselves.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. As I have shown in my God vs Wealth series, community of goods was practised in many churches for over 200 years and continued to be the norm and ideal for many pre-Nicaean church fathers, including Justin, Tertullian and Cyprian. Efforts to remove “differences”, or inequality as it is properly labeled, is exactly what New Testament economic teaching is about! Just look at Luke 3:11, 2 Cor 8:13-15 and Jam 5:1-6!
Did the community of goods cause poverty?
The community of goods which it renders possible is spiritual (1 Corinthians 3:21), and not one of visible and external things. With respect to the latter, it enjoins upon the Christian, as a steward of God, the possession and administration of property for the progress of the kingdom of God, and the highest interests of men. The spirit of Acts 4:34 is always to pervade the association of believers as a true Christian community. Meyer, on the above passage, has suggested that it is not unlikely that the well-known poverty of the church at Jerusalem, and its long dependence upon the alms of other churches, may be connected with this early communistic practice, which, however justifiable and commendable at the time, bore its inevitable fruits in a subsequent season of great scarcity and lack of employment.
H. E. Jacobs
Jacobs ends with the popular theory that the community of goods caused an economic crisis that reveals itself in Paul’s aid mission to the poor in Jerusalem. However, this is impossible to prove since poverty can be caused by many things, such as droughts, persecution or recession. Note though that Jacobs unashamedly calls the apostolic community a “communistic practice” that inevitably will lead to scarcity and unemployment. How rude! It’s the apostles we’re talking about here, you know, the guys who hung around with Jesus for several years and whose texts are so holy that the church calls them the Word of God. How crazy is it not to claim to believe in the teachings if the apostles, that is the Christian faith, and then mock their lifestyle?
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