CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Difficult Bible Passages: Acts 4:32-5:11

Jun 21, 2010

This passage of Scripture is not so much difficult to understand as it is prone to being misunderstood. It is regularly abused and misused, usually by the left – both religious and secular. It has often been used to justify communism, socialism, statism, redistributionism, and the welfare state. The truth is, it can justify none of these.

The passage of course is the famous story of how the early disciples helped out in an emergency situation, in which the voluntary pooling of resources took place to help out the poor in Jerusalem. In this there is the memorable incident of the death of Ananias and Sapphira.

Leftists want to use this passage of Scripture to prove that socialism of some sort was practiced in the early church, and that it must be our model for Christian economic policy. They are wrong on both counts. This practice had nothing to do with more recent forms of communism or socialism.

And this was not a mandatory policy or something commanded of all believers for all times. In short, it was a temporary and voluntary reaction to a crisis, and it was nowhere commanded of Christians, and nowhere held up as some sort of biblical paradigm of economic practice.

Getting a grasp of the historical context is crucial here. We know that many Jews travelled to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost each year. So the city was swollen with visitors. But this was no ordinary Pentecost, with many Jews becoming believers, and staying on for instruction in the faith.

These new believers had to be looked after and tended to. Also, we know that there was a common practice of the early Christians helping each other out during difficult times. Paul in 2 Cor. 8-9 for example speaks about how during times of financial difficulties, other more wealthy congregations should help out their poorer brethren.

And we read about similar practices occurring in Acts 2:44-45. But these verses also speak about the voluntary nature of the generosity, dealing with a particular situation that needed to be addressed. As Ben Witherington says of this passage:

“Taken together, vv. 44-45 do not at all suggest what we would call communism or some sort of system where there was no such thing as private property. Rather, what is described here is that no one was claiming any exclusive right to whatever property he or she had, and when need arose the early Christians readily liquidated what assets they had to take care of fellow believer’s needs.”

That this was no compulsory, all–inclusive socialism wherein all private property was confiscated is seen in the rest of the book of Acts. We still find the early disciples owning their own homes. Indeed, we find just after this text these words: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together” (Acts 2:46). Obviously not all homes were sold.

And in Acts 12:12 we find another counter-example. There we read that Mary the mother of John owned her own home, complete with a servant girl. Peter was there, and he did not chew her out for being an evil capitalist pig!

Once again Witherington, whose commentary examines in detail the social and economic background to the book, warns against a misleading reading of what we find in Acts 4: “Nothing is said here about a transfer of ownership of property or any requirement to surrender it, unlike the case at Qumran; the discussion is about the liquidation of some assets.”

He continues, “Nor is there any evidence of control of ownership of all property by the community; rather, there is control and distribution of the funds given to the community. Notice that Luke calls those who give in this text ‘owners,’ which comports with what he will say in Acts 5. The overall impression left by both this summary and the following examples of Barnabas as well as Ananias and Sapphira is that the giving was voluntary, not required.”

As John Stott reminds us, “neither Jesus nor the apostles forbade private property to all Christians. Even the sixteenth-century Anabaptists in the so-called ‘radical reformation’ … who talked much about Acts 2 and 4 and ‘the community of goods’, recognized that this was not compulsory.”

Consider also the death of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11). Were they killed because they refused to take part in a communistic economic scheme? Not at all. The text makes it quite clear that they were struck dead by God for lying. In Acts 5:3-4 this is clearly laid out:

“Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God’.”

So we again find nothing here to indicate believers must embrace some modern form of socialism. Modern communistic systems denounce all private property as evil, insist on the State-enforced confiscation and distribution of wealth; and do this as a matter of course, not just to deal with emergency situations.

Thus the passage in question lends no support whatsoever for modern ideologies of socialism and redistributionism. John Stott is again right on the money when he says we should not find laid down here “an obligatory model – a kind of primitive Christian ‘communism’ – which God wants all Spirit-filled communities to copy. The fact that the selling and giving were voluntary is enough to dispose of this.”

So what does this passage tell us? “What we should surely do, instead, is to note and seek to imitate the care of the needy and the sacrificial generosity which the Holy Spirit created.” That Christians should be compassionate and generous with their wealth and resources goes without saying.

But to seek to argue that such Christian compassion means we must embrace an enforced collectivism, as in the modern socialist state, is another matter altogether. What may be the most appropriate economic model for Christians to latch on to is a complex and layered debate.

I have tried to deal with that debate elsewhere. Suffice it to say that if you are looking for a biblical warrant for communism, you will not find it by looking at the Book of Acts.

[1076 words]

10 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Acts 4:32-5:11

  • The more I study the Bible the more I find out that there are a lot of cartoon versions of biblical teaching going around. We must be the sheep who hear the voice of Jesus and follow him, and run away from strangers. (John 10)

    The example of Ananias and Sapphira also has a great deal to say against those who do not understand the distinction between the ceremonial law with the moral law in the Old Testament. It seems lying (breaking the 9th of the Ten Commandments) still made God angry enough to kill them – even after Jesus had died (to fulfill the law) and risen from the dead.

    Exodus 20:15, the 8th commandment, ‘You shall not steal’ – which presumably still applies like the 10th – kinda infers private property too!

    Mark Rabich

  • Not only that, Bill, but the believers who did sell up were taking advantage of inside knowledge (gasp! “insider trading,” no less. How capitalisitic!).

    Jesus had warned that at some stage soon the city would be surrounded and they should flee.

    And even before that, the first persecution drove many away from the city (Acts 8).

    It would be much easier to let go if the big-ticket property items were already sold and out of the way, wouldn’t it?

    John Angelico

  • Ive certainly heard some wierd interpretations of this one myself, and to add to the commentary that this is definately not a consideration for collectivism or communism, consider the Apostle Paul in referring to the Christian Church not being burdened:

    1Ti 5:16 If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed.

    Paul states clearly that each man should do all they can to take care of those within their family who are widows rather than encumbering the Church with the responsibility, as it seeks to aid those who have noone if able. Now imagine if those in the first church had of sold their own houses and not those EXTRA lands and houses they owned. There would have been people on the streets everywhere and the Church wouldnt have been blessed at all, as most of their congregation was now homeless! It wasnt their own house, it was their extra lands and houses that they brought forward, and they did so of their own free will’s decision, that is clear through the Apostle Peters rebuke to Annanias and his wife.
    Thus, i doubt Apostle Paul and Peter had a different leading from the Holy Ghost regarding welfare distributions within the Christian Church when applying them to general rules, rather than one time occurances. The Word of God shows no disrespect to those who are rich, rather it teaches them to not have a higher mind above others, and to be large givers. We are blessed to be a blessing!
    Dorian Ballard

  • I bet if we knew our Early Church history as well as we should, we should find that many of the early Fathers, and I think particularly Augustine of Hippo, had written millions of words struggling with the implications of these passages, for private property/communal responsibility. I bet the outcome of all that was the fact that we have to balance those things. Of course we need communal responsibility (look at the reaction from Christians when there is a disaster somewhere in the world), but the idea of not owning is mad and bad, because evil comes out of it in the end (if ordinary people own nothing, the State owns everything, and that is – in reality – the worst situation for ordinary people).
    John Thomas, UK

  • The type of collectivism which socialism espouses only seems to work in an emergency and for a short time.

    In the movie, Defiance, based on a true story, presents a hunted enclave of Jews hiding in the forests from the Nazis in WWII. They adopted a communist system (not surprising as they were previously under Soviet control) and it seems to work. All food, property and work is shared equally between those who had to go out and find it and those who could not. Their very survival and cohesion depended on this equal sharing and the movie presents a dramatic scene where one of the fighters demands a greater share of the food because of the risks he takes to obtain it (thus challenging the leadership). However, what the movie doesn’t bring out was the group relied heavily on supply from local farmers who presumably owned their own farms.

    During WWII even capitalist countries had to suspend democracy, introduce a collective rationing system and systematically organise work in response to a serious external threat. Communism seems to work in an emergency, but people quickly tire of it and it becomes corrupted from the top down just as quickly.

    Like you said, Bill, the passage in Acts actually advocates capitalism, not socialism. They key phrase for this topic was in Peter’s address to Ananias,

    Acts 5:4, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”

    Here Peter affirms that Ananias was free to do with his own property and money as he liked, whether to give it or to withhold it. It was Ananias’ desire to attract the admiration of others, or to hold himself up as an example of godliness, and the deceit with which he did it which caused the problem. Nor does the passage address the problem of greed unlike other passages in the old testament. God judged the motive of Ananias heart, not the percentage of his property he decided to withhold from the Apostles.

    Lennard Caldwell, Clifton QLD

  • One of my favourite chapters by A W Tozer is “the blessedness of possessing nothing”, from his book “The pursuit of God” (see http://www.godsiphone.com/christian_classics/pursuit_of_god/ch/2.html).

    Its not the physical ownership that is the issue, its whether we possess it in our heart or not, and are willing to entrust it to God, whatever His purposes for that may be.

    Peter Baade

  • Yes quite right Peter.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • It seems to me that people do not understand the difference between the nature, the character and the ways of God.
    We have a wonderful King who therefore is the Creator and owner of all. (Nature)
    We have a wonderful Lover of our souls, who makes us the stewardship of all He owns. (Character)
    We have a wonderful giving Father God, who out of His own riches gives to the poor, and heals the sick, and bring release to the prisoners. He certainly does not tax His people to do that, or charge levies and permit fees. Nor does He confiscate his peoples’ property. (Ways)
    Greg Brien

  • I think you assessed Ananias and Sapphira’s sin well Leonard. And nicely put Greg. I am provoked to much thought, and often educated & enriched by the comments on this site.

    What I would add is that while I do agree entirely that the context of communal living in Acts was a matter of crisis more than a church doctrinal position, I look at the selflessness & closeness of the early Christian community represented in Acts and ask myself, “What barriers are there to that in our Church communities today?”. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see the same abandonment to Christ and His ‘Way’ nor do I see the sold-out love for each other that prefers others over ourselves in modern Western church communities – just the opposite. I am reminded of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples (and by extension us) – that we would love each other as Jesus loved God and that they (we) would be known as His disciples by the evidence of that love for one another.

    Garth Penglase

  • Hi Bill,

    I love what you’ve written here on this passage. Acts certainly doesn’t not give us argument for a communist society. For me, working amongst the more impoverished members of our society, I often find myself leaning in favour of systems which help to break down class distinctions, so in theory I like what socialism suggests, however we only have to look at the execution of communism to know that it doesn’t work, and as long as we live in this fallen world, it will probably never work.

    As far as this passage goes though, I think the ‘holding things in common’ is (like John said above) more about social responsibility rather than ownership. As a spiritual family I believe we are to take collective responsibility for individual hardship in times of need, however as you said, nowhere does this passage advocate communism. It should be interpreted in context, and alongside other passages which talk about looking after those in need.

    I also think that what this passage suggests is a shift in the believers mentality whereby property was viewed as ultimately belonging to God anyway as he is the provider. However this is very different to veiwing property as belonging to the church.

    Cadence Williamson

Leave a Reply