In Acts 4:32-5:16 we have a description of the early community of believers in Jerusalem. A text such as this provides a good opportunity to stop and think about how we ought to apply the book of Acts today.
Sometimes this group is described as living as communists since they “live in common” and seem to have re-distributed wealth. Many traditional dispensationalists have therefore concluded that the future Kingdom will be some sort of socialist paradise with no private property, etc. Try as I might, I cannot find this elsewhere in scripture nor am I communist so that I need to find biblical support for by economic theory! Virtually everyone who treats this text finds some way to avoid the “living in common” aspect of Acts 4.
In Trites article there is no call to sell our possessions and live “in common.” The application is therefore rather general. But people like Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution) would argue (passionately) that the earliest community of believers were putting into practice the ethics of Jesus (including economic ethics) by living as simply as possible. They did not build enormous churches and expensive structures – they simply met the needs of people.
Frequently this text is invoked as a model for the church to follow today, with varying degrees of specific application. For example, Allison A. Trites includes this text in her article on church growth (“Church Growth in the Book of Acts” Bibliotheca Sacra 145 [Apr 88]). The reason the apostolic church grew was because the church cared for the needs of the poor and treated hypocrisy as a serious offense (5:1-11). The point is well made – the growing church cares about the needs of people as well as the preaching of the gospel. But does this point really come from Acts 4:32-35?
There is no question that the early church sought to meet the needs of their community and the needs of the larger society as well. Even in the days of Justin Martyr Christians were interested in sharing possessions for the common good: “We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have to a common stock, and communicate to every one in need” (Apology 1.14:2-3).
The big question is therefore: How do we apply the descriptions of the earliest Christian communities to the present Christian church? Or perhaps, should we try to apply these things to our church? Perhaps there is more going on here than Luke giving us a model for all churches at all times. I really am impressed with the recent emphasis on simplicity and I am by no means interested in any kind of “health and wealth” gospel – but I am also concerned with drawing ethical implications from this text.