In the first two articles in this series, we’ve seen that the claims that Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor and the Sabbatical and Jubilee Year laws of the Old Testament did not, contrary to many Progressives’ claims, demand forced redistribution and equalization of wealth as a matter of justice.
Progressives, however, may also try to justify redistribution and equalization by appealing to the so-called “community of goods” practiced by the early Christians in Jerusalem.
Acts 2:44–45 and 4:34–35 tell us believers “had all things in common” and “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” In this Christian community, “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”
One evangelical writer, Arthur G. Gish, in his book Living in Christian Community, goes so far as to say that because of this “private property was an impossibility.” A liberation theologian, José Porfirio Miranda, in his book Communism in the Bible, comments that here Luke insists on “the universality of communism,” adding, “If [people] wanted to be Christians, the condition was communism.”
But these claims ignore some important facts.
First, the giving was always voluntary, as another incident Luke records shows.
When Ananias and Sapphira sold land and laid part of the price at Peter’s feet but alleged that they had given all of it, Peter responded, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:3–4).
Peter rebuked the couple—not for holding back their resources, but for lying.
Second, the selling and giving occurred periodically in response to specific needs, not all at once, as would have been required if redistribution and equalization were the goal. How do we know? Because Luke writes not that the Christians “sold their possessions and distributed the proceeds” but that they “were selling . . . and distributing.” This translates Greek verbs in the imperfect tense, which denotes an action that began in the past and continued.
People sold bits and pieces of their property from time to time, turning over the proceeds as need arose. If they had sold everything at once, they couldn’t have continued selling.
Third, Luke says “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own.” He does not say “everyone said that whatever belonged to anyone belonged to everyone.”
Luke’s point is not about private property, protected by the Eighth Commandment—“Thou shalt not steal”—but about generosity. Rather than abolishing private property, the Christians considered that what belonged to them (note the affirmation of ownership) was entrusted to them by God to serve their fellow Christians.
When a Spanish speaker says, “Mi casa es su casa,” he doesn’t mean to deny title but to welcome you hospitably to his home. This was the Christians’ attitude in Jerusalem—and it should be ours.
In the next, and last, article in this series, we’ll consider whether Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem—the goal of which, he said, was “equality”—justifies demands for wealth redistribution.
E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is Founder and National Spokesman of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, a former Christian college and seminary professor, and the author of the new booklet Social Justice vs. Biblical Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, from which this article is adapted.
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