And all that believed were together, and had all things common;…
What about this so-called communism in the early Church? What was it in nature and extent? The passage describing the community of goods is critical. Social reformers, not always Christian, point to this as the ideal state from which the Church has wandered.
1. The arrangement was purely voluntary. What any man put in was still his. The sin of Ananias was not that he had kept back a portion of his estate by fraud, but that he lied about it. It was still in his power after the sale as before. The community of property flowed out of the new spiritual life. (See Acts 4:32-37.) "In point of fact, their experiment was simply the assertion of the right of every man to do as he chooses with his own; and they chose to live together and help each other. It was a fraternal stock company for mutual aid and protection. No man was bound to come into it unless he wished; but if he did come in, he was bound to act honestly."
2. It was a spiritual result, and not a social experiment. It cannot be explained except on the spiritual basis. It must be studied in its true setting. The Brook Farm, "Utopia," and all kindred institutions, have been social experiments. Bellamy's "Looking Backward" Society is allied with them. They have arisen for lack of the Holy Spirit. This sprung up spontaneously because of Pentecost.
3. The community of goods seems to have been a community of use, not ownership. Nobody said that aught that he possessed was his own. They were of one heart. The circumstances were peculiar. Many of the people were away from home. All had to be cared for. No one should suffer.
4. The plan was local. Jerusalem was the only city where it was tried. No trace of it is to be found in any ether Church. It evidently did not commend itself to other churches as a wise plan. The other churches took up collections just as now when a case of need was presented. (See 1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 9:6, 7.)
5. It was temporary. It lasted while the circumstances in which it arose continued.
6. It did not relieve poverty. It was not devised for that purpose. Many writers insist upon seeing a close connection between this incident and the subsequent poverty in Jerusalem. Thus Meyer: "And this community of goods at Jerusalem helps to explain the great and general poverty of that Church. It is probable that the apostles were prevented by the very experience acquired in Jerusalem from advising or introducing it elsewhere." Thus Gulliver: "Under such sublime inspirations it is easy to see that a communism, impossible to ordinary human nature, might temporarily flourish. But it is as easy to see that it would gradually settle to the level of ordinary motive, and would be subjected to the disturbances of inevitable inequalities in capacity and industry, as well as in piety. The Plymouth Pilgrims were, perhaps, the most single-minded men of modern times. Yet it was not till the community of lands and goods which obtained in the early years of their settlement gave place to farms in severalty, and to private property protected by law, that the annually recurring danger of absolute starvation in their colony disappeared. The lesson of such a history is, therefore, not solely the lesson of Christian consecration. It includes the utility and the sacredness of the personal control of property. It places before us the problem of combining the largest Christian benevolence with the strict maintenance of proprietary rights."
7. It was not modern communism. Says Gerok: "That holy community of goods proceeded from love to the poor; but that which is now proclaimed is the result of a hatred to the rich." And Van Dyke: "Of late years the communistic doctrine has begun to present itself in another shape. It has laid aside the red cap and put on the white cravat. It invites serious and polite inquiry. It quotes Scripture and claims to be the friend, the near relative, of Christianity. So altered is its aspect that preachers of religion are discovering that it has good points, and patting it on the back somewhat timidly, as one might pat a converted wolf who had offered his services as watch-dog." There is a fundamental and absolute difference between the doctrine of the Bible and the doctrine of the communiser. For the Bible tells me that I must deal my bread to the hungry; while the communiser tells the hungry that he may take it for himself, and if he begins with bread there is no reason why he should draw the line at cake. The Bible teaches that envy is a sin; the communiser declares that it is the new virtue which is to regenerate society. The communiser maintains that every man who is born has a right to live; but the Bible says that if a man will not work neither shall he eat; and without eating life is difficult. The communiser holds up equality of condition as the ideal of Christianity; but Christ never mentions it. He tells us that we shall have the poor always with us, and charges us never to forget, despise, or neglect them. Christianity requires two things from every man that believes in it: first, to acquire his property by just and righteous means; and, secondly, to look not only on his own things, but also on the things of others.
(W. F. McDowell.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And all that believed were together, and had all things common;