Does Acts 4:32-35 Describe an Early Christian Experiment in Community Ownership?

The book of Acts describes the early church in Jerusalem in the following way: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Does this describe an early experiment in compulsory community ownership of all property? John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, argues that it is not:

Repeated attempts have been made to see this as an early Christian experiment in community ownership. Sometimes a specific pattern has been suggested, such as the common ownership practiced by the Qumran covenanters. There are many reasons to reject such suggestions. Every evidence is that the early Christian practice was wholly voluntary.

First, there was no transfer of ownership, no control of production or income, no requirement to surrender one’s property to the community. The voluntary nature of the Christian practice is evidenced by the consistent use of the iterative imperfect tense throughout vv. 34b–35. This is how they ‘used to’ do it. They ‘would sell’ their property and bring it to the apostles as needs arose.

Second is the example of Barnabas in vv. 36–37. His sale of property would hardly be a sterling example if surrender of property were obligatory.

Third, in the example of Ananias and Sapphira, Peter clarified for Ananias that his sin was in lying about his charity. The land remained his to do with as he pleased; he was under no obligation to give the proceeds to the church (5:4).

Fourth, the picture of the central fund for the widows in 6:1–6 is clearly not an apportioning of each one’s lot from a common fund but a charity fund for the needy.

Finally, there is the example of Mary in 12:12f. She still owned a home and had a maid. The Christians enjoyed the hospitality of her home. This was clearly no experiment in common ownership.

But what of the practice of laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet? The gesture was one of submission to another. At this point the Twelve were the representatives appointed by Christ as the foundation of the true people of God. The submission was not to them but to the one they represented. To lay one’s gift at their feet was to offer it to Christ. The apostles certainly did not consider this an enviable role. They were all too glad to turn the responsibility over to others (cf. 6:2).

Darrell Bock adds, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible),

This sharing of material things was not a required communalism but a voluntary, caring response to need, as the end of verse 45 shows. The verbs for ‘sell’ (epipraskon) and ‘distribute’ (diemerizon) are iterative imperfects. The implication is that this sharing was repetitive. That a community is really functioning with appropriate love and compassion is evident when material needs are being met.

Peter’s rebuke of Ananias in Acts 5:4 makes it clear that donation of material goods and money was not a requirement among early Christians, in contrast to the requirement at Qumran among the Essenes (1QS 1.11– 12; 5.1– 3; 6.2– 3; CD 9.1– 15; 1QS 9.3– 11). That the later church did not keep the communal practice confirms the voluntary nature of the practice witnessed in Acts 2. Possessing all things in common was often seen as an ethical virtue in ancient culture (Philo, Good Person 12 § 86; Hypothetica 11.10– 13; Abraham 40 § 235; Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.5 § 20 [of the Essenes]). The Greeks held that friends share things in common (Plato, Republic 4.424A; 5.449C; Critias 110C– D; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1168B. 31; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 30.168). Later rabbinic Judaism argued against it (m. ’Abot 5.10; Johnson 1992, 9).

The practice of communal living in Acts 2 was not driven by eschatological views. Rather, it was motivated by the intimate presence of God as proven by the ‘many wonders and signs [that] were being performed through the apostles’ (v. 43). The fitting response was that each member of the growing community show concern for needy members (chreian, need; perhaps as Jesus taught in Luke 6: 30– 36 or from the OT and Deut 15: 4– 5; Polhill 1992, 121). Jesus’ teaching about not hoarding material provisions from God also may provide background (Luke 12: 13– 21). The same motivation appears in Acts 4:35, and failure to meet such needs in 6:3 among Hellenist widows leads to a complaint and resolution in the church (20:34 and 28:10 complete the uses of the term ‘need’ in Acts). All of this shows we are not dealing with a command here, but a heartfelt response of deep faith. As such, the passage neither authorizes that such behavior is required, but neither does it preclude it from being done in any era as an expression of meeting community needs.