Cultural Attitudes in Western Christianity toward the Community of Goods in Acts 2 and 4

By Finger, Reta Halteman | Mennonite Quarterly Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultural Attitudes in Western Christianity toward the Community of Goods in Acts 2 and 4


Finger, Reta Halteman, Mennonite Quarterly Review


Abstract: In Acts 2 and 4, the Lukan author summarizes the nature of the Jerusalem church by describing a community of shared material goods. Because the texts are descriptive, rather than prescriptive, it has not been clear whether they should be considered normative for church life. Through analysis of some of the major Acts commentators, this article comprises a Western history of interpretation of these texts from the Reformation to the present, noting the way in which the social and political locations of the interpreters has shaped their understanding of these passages. The essay argues that a social science analysis is essential for an understanding of the normative socioeconomic system of first-century Palestine. Only by recognizing what is unusual about the communal organization of the early church can we decide how to apply these texts to Christian communal life in our culture today.

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They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 NRSV)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means "son of encouragement"). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 4:32-37 NRSV).

Luke's second volume begins with a narrative account of the origins of the Christian church in Jerusalem. According to Luke, after Pentecost the believers organized into a tightly knit community that shared property, worship and daily meals. But how are such descriptive texts to be interpreted? As a model for the church to follow? As an impossible ideal? As an experiment that quickly proved impractical?

Growing up Mennonite in eastern Pennsylvania, the only sermon I recall from my childhood was one preached on these texts at my grandparents' congregation in the 1950s. Although rural or small-town Mennonites from that time were accustomed to understanding the biblical texts quite literally, in this case the minister made an exception. The texts on communal sharing in Acts, he said, should not be applied literally. In truth, he said, they describe a brief experiment that was impractical and eventually failed.

Now, decades later, I do not recall ever hearing another sermon preached on these texts. Instead, the secular, urban world is far more integrated within contemporary Anabaptist groups today than it was half a century ago. We are immersed in capitalism, no doubt watching the stock market's ebb and flow with as much anxiety as our neighbors. Meanwhile, virtually every Mennonite church agency struggles to adjust to staff layoffs and reduced budgets.

At the same time, various conference and churchwide publications brim with examples of Mennonite-sponsored projects to help poor and underprivileged people in their own communities and around the world. The percentage of our giving is generally higher than that of mainstream churches. …

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