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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Baptist Magazine, 1858
There is a very general impression, one sanctioned by antiquity, that the early Christians renounced their personal property and established a perfect inter-community of goods—that social inequalities were unknown in the apostolic church—that, as a rule, its members sold their possessions, poured "the price of the things that were sold " into the treasury of the church, and became pensioners on a common fund. This, like all popular beliefs, has some ground on which to go.
One or two passages in the Acts of the Apostles, if taken by themselves, apart from the limitations which the context supplies, justify the belief. Those who do not habitually compare Scripture with Scripture, remembering that God has given us "here a little and there a little" in order that we may bring "the little here" and "the little there" together, are quite naturally led to a wrong conclusion.
If we would avoid their error, we must not be content with noting what a few disciples in one nook of it are doing, and inferring that the whole brotherhood are similarly engaged; nor what the whole assembly does on any one day, and argue that their mode of action, like the Medo-Persic law, changeth not. We must combine the scattered features of the scene, gather into one the separated portions of the apostolic plan, and when the whole is before us, we may hope to form a correct conception of what the church was and should be.
The proof passage advanced by the advocates of "Christian Socialism" or "Christian Communism," is Acts 4:32, 34, 35:
"And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common…Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need."
This, it must be confessed, seems to establish that absolute equality was established among the Christians, and that all private property was disposed of for the benefit of the community. Yet there are some considerations which might make us pause before accepting this as the true interpretation of the passage.
Let us glance at two of them before passing on to the Scripture argument.
1. Such a social arrangement, even if possible, would not have been desirable. For the infant church to start on the understanding that every rich man who entered its fellowship should renounce his wealth, and that every poor man should share it—to place all on one level, and to sustain all out of one common fund, would have been to create innumerable difficulties. It would have been to put another "stone of stumbling," another "rock of offence," in the path of the rich—a path which, as our Lord's mournful words indicate, are only too full of obstacles and impediments.
It would have been a virtual invitation to the selfish and indolent among the poor—like the loaves and garments and gratuitous education with which certain charitable vicars and priests win at least children to attend the services of their church. The broken trader, the lazy fisherman, the impoverished and unscrupulous of every class, would have seen no small attractions in a society whose members, however poor and unworthy, were placed on a level with the laborious and honourable.
So long as the apostles were present to "discern spirits," the worst effects of such a system might have been staved off; but when left in the hands of uninspired men, it must have become an open gateway for the most corrupting influences. Christianity would have suffered fearfully, had she committed herself to this unnatural and perilous communism. The honourable, the diligent, the rich, would have been deterred from her fellowship; the bankrupt, the indolent, the worthless, would have been won to it.
2. But again: such a social arrangement, even had it been desirable, was impossible. There never can be perfect equality among men. One flower, though all are beautiful, has a subtler beauty and diffuses a richer perfume than another. One star, though all are glorious, differs from another star in glory. And just as God's other works range themselves in almost infinite degrees of worth and glory, so with man, his noblest work. Quickness of spirit, force of will, must and will tell. The man who has most of these has a right—and, if any right be divine, has a divine right—to the highest place.
In the primitive church the same diversities of condition prevailed as in the world: there were men of every sort and class. There were soldiers and officers of the Roman army receiving very different rates of pay. There were fishermen and scribes, magistrates and husbandmen, merchants and landowners, even slave-owners and slaves. They were not enjoined, any of them, to leave their callings. They were to "abide" in them. Most of them did continue in the vocations in which they were called. Their ships had no special exemption from the perils of the deep, nor their crops from the contingencies which affect harvests, or the commercial laws which regulate their value.
No miracles were wrought to supply their lack of capital or skill, and both were as needful then as now. They lay open to the operation of the laws which now hold wealth in a perpetual flux, by means of which God enricheth and maketh poor. And therefore it must have been as impossible to establish equality and the "community of goods" among them as it would be among us—as impossible as it was undesirable.
All this, however, may be stigmatised as mere carnal reasoning. There is an instinct in pious hearts which pronounces that what the Bible says meet be true, whatever reason may seem to object; an instinct which thought and experience do but raise into a profound conviction. Impressed by this conviction, let us pass on to the Scripture argument, let us see what the Bible, honestly interpreted, really does say. Two conclusions, we take it, may be inferred from the inspired record: The first that the community of goods did not obtain in the general apostolic church; the second that it had no existence as a system, no extensive or permanent acceptance even in the church at Jerusalem.
As to the general apostolic church, little need be said. Men of wealth were not numerous, yet there were some who joined the Christian fellowship. In no single case were they enjoined to renounce their rank and lay their possessions or the price of them at the apostles' feet. We have no hint that Cornelius the centurion, a scion of one of the noblest Roman families, either sold his commission or renounced his ancestral honours.
Sergius Paulus retained the government of Cyprus, albeit a disciple, receiving as governor honours and emoluments. Erastus remained quæstor of Corinth. Lydia did not give up her business as a trader in the Tyrian purple. Dionysius did not vacate his teat in the Areopagus. Simon Magus, after baptism, offered "money" for miraculous gifts, and must therefore have reserved some of his wealth to his private use. Yet all these were members of the primitive apostolic church; some of them among its brightest ornaments.
Moreover, if communism were the social system of the primitive church, how is it that it is nowhere explained and enforced in the letters of the apostles? How comes it that their epistles almost invariably contain exhortations addressed to the rich and to the poor? It is quite impossible to read these epistles without perceiving that degrees of wealth and distinctions of rank obtained among the early disciples, and were recognised and tacitly approved by the apostles. Take a graphic picture from James:
"My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with respect of persons. For if there come into your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel; and there come in also a poor man, in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say to him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and become judges of evil thoughts?" (James 2:1-4)
Could James have written this description, with its minute graphic touches, or uttered the solemn warnings which follow it, if the community of goods had obtained in the churches to which he wrote. In his warnings against the dangers of wealth, and his instructions as to the relationship which ought to subsist between the rich and poor, he clearly implies that such diversities did exist and were acknowledged. In condemning the abuse of riches in the church, how much to his purpose it would have been to forbid their possession, if such had been the design of the gospel.
Again, the epistles of Paul and Peter constantly imply the possession of private property on the part of individual members. "Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him." (I Cor. 16:2) The rich are charged to be humble, charitable and brotherly; the poor to be honest, contented and industrious. These and innumerable similar passages clearly imply the existence of rich and poor in the churches. Similar is the language of our Lord where he commands the rich to show kindness to their poor and needy brethren, clearly presupposing that "ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good." (Mark 14:7)
The graces of the Christian character, always and everywhere inculcated, demand for their exercise this diversity of rank and position in the household of faith. An absolute uniformity of condition and circumstances in the church would rob it of one of its greatest instrumentalities for promoting growth in grace. Looking at all these circumstances then, we conclude that communism, if it existed at all, was nothing more than a temporary and local expedient to meet an immediate want. Like Paul's counsel to abstain from marriage, it was "good for the present distress," (I Cor. 7:26) but was never designed to be perpetual and universal.
It was never organised into a system, never became matter of command, and from the whole tenor of the New Testament we may infer that it had no existence save in that special case. To deduce from that single isolated fact a general law for the government of the church universal, would be to fall into the same error with the Papal church which, from Paul's advice against marriage under existing circumstances, enjoins celibacy for all time.
But there is no evidence to prove that the community of goods had a general or perpetual existence even in the church at Jerusalem. In Acts 12:12, for instance, we read that Mary, the mother of Mark, had a house of her own. The solemn history of Ananias and Sapphira tends, too, in the same direction. Peter distinctly asserts that Ananias need not have sold his "land," and that even when sold the price of it was at his absolute disposal. "Whiles it remained was it not thine own? and after it was sold was it not in thine own power?" (Acts 5:4) His criminality consisted, not in clinging to his possession, but in making a desperate attempt to seem better than he was, and lying to the Holy Ghost.
If, then, Ananias were free, and Peter says he was, to sell or not to sell his land, to bring or not to bring the price of it to the apostles' feet, it is manifest that they did not enjoin a community of goods even at Jerusalem. Still more decisive is that minute of the Church in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 4:1-6, from which it appears that the poor widows of the Grecians were thought not to be equally favoured with the widows of the Hebrews in the distribution of the church's alms.
Not a word is said about a common stock, in which these poor women had as at a share as others. They are manifestly referred to as comparatively destitute, and seven men are appointed to administer the bounty of the church. One can hardly read this minute without receiving the impression that in the fellowship at Jerusalem there were rich believers who gave, and poor believers who received, the alms of Christian love. The same idea is manifestly carried out by Paul's allusions to and efforts for "certain…poor saints which are at Jerusalem." (Rom. 15:26)
On the whole, therefore, we are justified in detaching all communistic theories from the social system of the primitive church. Taking the oft-quoted passage in Acts 4 as a fragment of the sacred history, interpreting it as we are bound to do within the limits suggested by other fragments of the same history, we may hope to arrive at its true meaning.
When we read, "the multitude of believers were of one heart and of one soul, neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common," (v. 32) we shall find in the record a description of that deep self-sacrificing love which constrained wealthy believers to regard themselves as stewards, to whom much had been given, and their poorer brethren as the friends and representatives of that Lord whose stewards they were. (the universals— "the multitude," "as many of them," "all," &c. —of this passage must not be too rigidly pressed. They are used throughout Scripture, as in our ordinary speech, in a loose general way; if strictly taken they would often produce a false impression, as for instance. Gen. 41: 57, "All countries came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn.")
When it is added, they sold their possessions, “and distribution was made to every man according as he had need," (v. 35) we understand that a common chest was provided, from which the wants of the poorer members of the church were supplied at a time when many had lost their all by professing Christ, and that under the constraints of Christian love many who had houses and lands sacrificed them for the good of their impoverished brethren; that these sacrifices were but a temporary expedient, suggested by an extraordinary crisis, were not made by all the members of the church at Jerusalem, were not binding on any of them; that this expedient was not adopted in the general apostolic church, and was never intended to become a law to the universal church of Christ.
It is, indeed, among the most striking and beautiful adaptations of the gospel, fitting it for universal empire that it fathered no scientific theory, no social system. It had far nobler work to do, and did it. It had to address itself to universal man and his profound spiritual needs. And hence it took men as it found them, striving by all means to quicken in them a new spiritual life, but leaving that life to manifest and unfold its powers through whatever social or political forms obtained among them. It lifted up its voice to all, and left all who listened to it to live out its life in their several callings and conditions.
For, in truth, man, divested of his outward trappings, which are not him, nor any part of him, is much the same everywhere. Think of him as a creature with five senses and what pertains to these, and, judging according to the appearance, you may trace out endless diversities. But think of him as an immortal, incarnate spirit, and what pertains to that, and the diversities for the most part disappear.
Everywhere you find him sinful with some dim consciousness of his sin related to God, and with some distorted apprehension of his divine relationships, anticipating a future life, and not without terrors of what the future may bring. And it is to this universal man, this "hidden man" of every heart, as distinguished from the various "outward men of the flesh," that the gospel appeals.
It brings in equality, not by reshaping the external conditions of men, but by quickening in each a new man after the image of Christ; not by enforcing new social codes, but by teaching us how, in our existent social conditions, however grievous and imperfect, we may glorify God; by teaching us, whatever and wherever we are, we may live a godly life, and "whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord." (Col. 3:23) This is the one only equality brought in by the gospel, that in our several vocations and under whatever social rules or forms, we may equally "serve the Lord Christ," (Col. 3:24) and win "the reward of the inheritance." (Col. 3:24)
It will be well for us, therefore, to put aside murmurings and complainings about the inequalities of our outward lot. Social distinctions will not affect our future "reward." Whatever time may bring us, immortality is open to us all; we may, with God's help, make of it what we will. Social position will not help us in that work, nor need it hinder us. Every position has its perils and its advantages.
The highest prizes are open to the lowliest, and are most likely, perhaps, to be won by them. The roughest road may lead—it often does—to the highest eminence. It is hard to say what station is in itself most favourable. If any have the advantage, it certainly is not that which men deem high, much less the highest. And God, the good Father, has given us each the station we hold. He is not unjust, nor unwise, nor unkind. He has no grudge against any one of us; He is not likely to have made a mistake. Shall we, then, even wish to take our destiny out of His hands, or say to Him, "What doest Thou?" (Ecc. 8:4)
We may, perhaps, prefer other stations, other social arrangements. We may think they would be more favourable to our spiritual growth and culture.
But how do we know? And God, does not he know? Ah! We may be very sure, for it is the simplest inference from His being and character, that our present condition is suited to our present capacity; that its hindrances and aids, its sorrows and joys, have been measured and ordained by His infinite wisdom and love. If we cannot grow in these, it is because we lack the principle and power of growth. If we cannot, with all our striving, outgrow them, it is because these are safer for us, and better than the conditions we desire.