I typed “crisis in the church” in Google’s image search, and what do you think most of the images depicted?
The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. It’s an absolute mess. I live in the Harrisburg (PA) Diocese, and it made national news recently when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Before we Protestants get condescending about this, as if church crisis is just a Catholic thing, when we take a hard look at the Protestant and Evangelical church, we’ll find we have our fair share of serious issues too. Narcissistic leaders, especially in recent megachurches, sex scandals, declining memberships, rampant racism and more.
We’ve been studying the early church in the book of Acts, and so far they have been perfect. No crisis whatsoever. As we’ll see this week, that perfect record grinds to a halt.
While we’re going to be studying Acts 5 through Acts 6:1-7 this, we’re not going to read it just yet because it is important that we take some time to see how what we’re about to read in Acts 5:1-11 is connected to what we learned from two other passages that we already studied in previous weeks.
First, look back at Acts 2:42-47, which is the earliest description of how the church organized itself. Jesus had ascended to his father in heaven, and his remaining 120 followers waited in Jerusalem, praying constantly, for the Spirit to arrive, as Jesus promised. 10 days later, the Spirit arrived, filled them, and Peter preached the first ever sermon of the church, and we read that 3000 people joined them to become followers of Jesus. What did they do next? In this passage we read that they were devoted to a number of practices. But I want us to look specifically at verses 44-45, which relate to fellowship and generosity.
Here’s what we read there: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
There are two important phrases here:
- They had everything in common.
- They sold their possessions and goods, giving to anyone as they had need.
The question that sometimes comes up when contemporary Americans read this passage is this: were the first Christians socialists or communists? What the early church was doing sure sounds like socialism or communism, doesn’t it? But what exactly do these terms mean? They’re similar, but have some important differences, as you can see on the picture below.
Communism is more extreme. Socialism is somewhere between capitalism and communism. In both of them, you might be working hard to benefit other people, rather than getting all the fruit of your labors. And other people will be deciding how all or some of the wealth you generate is spent.
So is the early church socialist or communist? No. Neither one. Far from it. Why not? First of all, the early church is not implementing a political theory, and they are not advocating that the government should own everything. Second, even together as a church they did not agree that the church family would own or regulate all property.
Instead we read that everyone in the church had everything in common, and they were willing to sell property to help those in need.
What does that mean? How is that different from communism or socialism? It is very different because they viewed Jesus as the owner of all they had. They loved Jesus, and they were following his teaching to love one another. So when needed they placed their possessions at God’s disposal to benefit the community, because God was the owner anyway. This is a stewardship view of wealth and possessions, and it is very different from socialism. We are stewards of God’s property and money, and we use it wisely for the mission of his Kingdom.
But I do have a question that I wish I could sit down and ask of those early Christians. How did this actually work? Here in Acts 2:44-45 it sounds like it is the most natural thing in the world. But I wondered, did any of the Christians struggle with this? The text doesn’t say. Doesn’t it seem like there would have been at least some of them who think, “Whew…I don’t know about this. I like my vacation house by the Mediterranean Sea. I don’t want to sell it. I want to keep enjoying it.” Or “I like my new cloak. It looks great. I want to be able to wear it. I worked hard for it. Yeah, I know that Silas’ cloak is falling apart, and he doesn’t have the money to buy another one, but do I have to be the one to help him? What about all these other people who are now part of the church? There’s plenty other people that can help too. Simon over there has three coats. He’s really the one who could be helping.” You’d think there would some of that, right? But in Acts 2:42-47, we hear none of that. It doesn’t mean some people weren’t grumbling inwardly, it’s just that the writer doesn’t mention it.
We, too, can follow the early church’s loving actions to care for those in need. If a person has an extra home or car or clothing, they could give it to a family that needs one. If their extra home is far away, they could sell it and use the proceeds to help those in need. The same would go for any extras in our lives that we really don’t need such as hobbies, extras, collections. Those things add flavor to our lives and are not wrong, but we should hold them very loosely. We should remember that the stuff of excess is normal in American life, but very abnormal for many other places around the world. Think about the resources that could be freed up if we sold our excess and made it available to the Kingdom of God?
Some might respond, “But what about wise investing? Wouldn’t it be better to start a church endowment fund in order to earn more money to be more generous the long run?” That’s a wonderful idea. Start one up at your church. My church should start one too.
Others might also say, “Is it wrong to have vacations, hobbies, vacation homes, collections, etc.” No, those things aren’t wrong, as long as we have the same attitude of the early church, seeing everything not as ours to use for our enjoyment, but as God’s to use for his Kingdom.