The Social Life of the First Church at Jerusalem.
The Book of Acts gives, us a beautiful picture of the social life of the believers at Jerusalem after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. It cannot be said with certainty how long this ideal condition lasted but we do read that “the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common”. And further “Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of land or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were cold, and laid them down at the apostle’s feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need”. () This same condition is described more briefly in the second chapter where we read “And all that believed were together, and had all things common”.
In these verses we have a beautiful description of two facts, namely, the communion of saints, and Christian stewardship. These two are related as cause and effect. The very fact that ‘the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul’ was the spiritual cause of their remarkable unselfishness that ‘Not even one said that anything he possessed was his own’. Out of spiritual relationship to Christ came a social relationship to one another. In this so-called ‘community of goods’ we find a genuine Christian socialism as the result of individual unity, a socialism which was the spontaneous expression of the love of God’ in their hearts.
However, these words of Scripture, describing the social life of the saints at Jerusalem, do not teach us, as some have erroneously concluded, that the right of possession of private property was abolished, and that the Christian Church at Jerusalem was a communistic society. Some have even concluded from the fact that ‘as many as were possessors of land or houses sold them’ and that the believers were ‘all accustomed to be together’, that they all dwelt together as one family under one roof, and all shared alike from a common fund. This conception has led some sects to form “Christian” communistic communities or families. Nothing could be further from the truth. They continued to own their houses and maintain their own households, for we read “and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart”. Hence they did not all sell their houses and land, but only whenever there was need then those that had’ in abundance in land or houses would sell them, and lay the price of the things that were sold at the apostle’s feet, If it was the universal rule that all disposed of all their property, then why should Luke especially record the example of Barnabas selling a field for this purpose. Neither do we read of Ananias and Sapphira that they solid their possessions, but that they sold a possession. The very statement “Not one of them said that ought of the things which he possessed was his own;” clearly implies that the right of possession was not abolished, but that the possessor looked upon his property as a trust from God to be used for the welfare of all. They possessed as not possessing, and felt that they were but stewards over the things entrusted unto their care. The common feeling of brotherhood was stronger than the self-centered regard which looks on possessions as to be used for self.
This selling of property and laying the price of the things that were sold at the apostle’s feet was not compulsory, but entirely voluntary, as is evident from the words of the Apostle Peter to Ananias, “While it remained, did it not remain thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thy power?” It must also be noted that the sin of Ananias and his wife lay not in their withholding a certain amount of the money from the community for their private use but in their false testimony concerning this act. They sought to leave the impression that they laid all of the price at the Apostles’ feet, while in reality they kept back part of it. Hence the judgment of God came upon them because of the sin of hypocrisy, and of lying. “Why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Spirit . . .” “Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (). It has been well stated that “Ananias was a pioneer in the founding of Ananias clubs, not of communistic societies.”
It must also be observed that the distribution of these funds was not determined by the rule of equality, but by the ‘need’ of the recipients, as we read in “and distribution wast made unto every man according as he had need”. Hence the result was not at all, as some sects would have us believe, that all had share and shared alike, but rather that, “there was not one among them that lacked”. Hence, the ‘community of goods’ of the first Church was not an equitable sharing of wealth, but it was the exercising of Christian stewardship.
Communism as an economic system seeks the absolute abolition of all private property, and that all the means of producing and distributing of wealth be controlled by the proletariat or working class. It is opposed to the profit system of enterprise, and maintains that all the accumulation of wealth and goods must be shared collectively by all. It means the socialization of land and industry, of trade, transportation and banking, of homes and families, of stores and restaurants, of food and clothing. Communism ascribes all the misery of mankind, it’s jealousies, hatreds, enmity, murder, stealing, war, famine, pestilence, to one cause, and that one cause is the possession of private property. Abolish it, and the Communist believes that poverty would disappear. Then the source of all evil passions and crime would be removed. Jealousy, selfishness, egoism would be meaningless, and whole social and economic world would be unified. The whole of humanity would form one happy family, and there would be only one government, and that by the people.
Hence Communism is thoroughly materialistic. Man’s highest good is the equal enjoyment of this world’s goods and his greatest misery is the possession of private property. It seeks to apply this materialistic philosophy not only to the economic life of man, but to all human institutions and to human nature itself. It penetrates the very institutions of God, marriage, the family, the home, the relation of parents and children, the Church, the school. It is positively Antichristian. It mocks with the very thought of God; its God is its belly. It ridicules the faith and hope of those that seek the things which are above. It regards the Christian faith as an anti-social force, a device of capitalism to subjugate the masses, and therefore as an opiate of the people. Hence it systematically seeks to stamp out all Christianity, and will not tolerate any faith in the God of the Scriptures.
Having abolished all belief in God, communism has no place for the moral law of the Ten Commandments. The sins of mankind and its subsequent misery are not caused by a transgression of the law of God, but by the denial of Communism, and the possession of private property. The sole cause of crime and evil is Capitalism. Hence not the individual criminal is to blame for his crime, but rather the capitalistic environment in which he lives. He that would be a savior of mankind must redeem it from Capitalism, and from the right to possess private property. Hence Communism is not merely an economic system, but it is a world and life view. It is a philosophy of life. It is in itself a religion. The religion of man. Believe in Communism, and humanity will be redeemed.
From the foregoing it must have become evident that there is nothing common between the Communism of today and the social life of the first Church at Jerusalem. Yea, the one is the direct opposite of the other. The one is this worldly, carnal, and materialistic. The other is other-worldly, spiritual, and heavenly. The one is rooted in love to God, and in love to the neighbor, and therefore exercises the communion of saints, and practices Christian stewardship. The other is rooted in enmity against God, and fosters the class struggle. The one inspires the poor with enmity over against the rich, while the other fills the rich with love for the poor. The one is as Esau who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage, while the other is as Moses who would rather suffer the reproach of Christ than to enjoy the treasures of Egypt. The one seeks the city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is Gold, while the other seeks the world and the things of the world. The one seeks salvation by forsaking the world, denial of self, land faith in God, while the other seeks salvation by seeking the world and its lusts.
But even though it is true that “there is nothing of modern Communism in the social life of the first church at Jerusalem, there is, however, a lesson to the Church of today as to the obligations of wealth and the claims of brotherhood, which is all but universally disregarded. The specter of Communism is troubling every nation, and it will become more and more formidable, as the Christian Church loses its sense of stewardship. Not the abolition of private property is the cure for the hideous facts which drive men to shriek “Property is theft”, but a return to the sense of Christian stewardship, as it was practiced in the first Church at Jerusalem.