Recently I was on the aisle seat on a Southwest Airline flight, praying that no one would come sit in the middle seat. Just towards the end of the boarding process, this lady started walking down the aisle. I mean this kindly, but it was very clear to me that she had not yet gotten out of the 60s. She walked down, sat next to me. And as you always do when you sit next a stranger on a plane, she turned to me and said, “So what do you do?”
“I teach ethics at a seminary,” I said. That usually shuts things down conversation-wise. But she wanted to go on.
“What do you teach in particular?” she asked.
“For the past few years, I’ve been working on economics — wealth and poverty issues,” I replied.
“Oh, you’re a Christian, and you teach economics. You’re a communist,” she said.
“Well, no… why would you think so?”
“Well it’s in the Bible,” she answered.
Indeed, your mind is probably racing towards a few passages in Acts 2…
Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need.
– Acts 2:44-45
… and Acts 4.
Now the large group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one said that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. And the apostles were giving testimony with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. For there was not a needy person among them, because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed for each person’s basic needs.
– Acts 4:32-35
As my conversation with my new friend on the airplane unfolded (we had quite a conversation), I came up with five reasons that interpreting the example in the book of Acts as a timeless model for us to follow is wrong.
I’d like to walk through them briefly with you.
1. Contextually, what was going on in Acts was an emergency, aid-based event. In our context, if a hurricane were to come up the Gulf of Mexico and hit New Orleans, we as believers would have great concern. Some of us who have time, ability and resources would go and help, provide aid, give out food, provide housing and serve the people there. It’s a very gospel-centric thing to do.
In the book of Acts, thousands of people had come to faith in Christ after Pentecost. So thousands of people were in Jerusalem who hadn’t planned on spending weeks and months there. Obviously there was great need. So among the Christians, those who had resources provided for those who had need.
It’s one thing to provide aid in a time of need. It’s another to claim this is a timeless principle for us to follow all the time.
2. The communal sharing is a narrative account, not a prescriptive teaching. The Bible is full of prescriptions. It’s also full of narratives, or stories. In these narratives, good things happen, and bad things happen. People flourish, and people sin. But I think we would all agree that it would be wrong to say, “King David committed adultery with Bathsheba. It’s in the Bible. Therefore, you and I should do that.” If we were to say that, we would be confusing narrative with prescription. Narratives are just narratives — things that happened, both good and bad.
But here’s the important question: What does the Bible actually tell us to do? Nowhere in Scripture are we explicitly told that we are to live in some socialistic, communistic economic system. So I think the claim that the Acts example is a normative model is to make the mistake of overlooking and confusing narrative and prescription.
3. The verb tenses in Acts 2 and 4 communicate that the property was not liquidated once and for all. This article is not the best place to have an in-depth lesson on the Greek text. But to make a long story short, the verbs used in Acts 2 and 4 actually don’t imply a permanence or completed action (a once-and-for-all event). They actually imply something in progress, or an uncompleted action. The NIV has a great translation of Acts 4:34:
From time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, and brought money from the sale, and brought it to the apostles’ feet.
So “from time to time,” as there was need, people liquidated what they had and provided for others. The passage doesn’t say that, in order to become a Christian, you must immediately liquidate your resources and automatically share with everyone.
So the verb tenses really are quite important, and the version of Scripture that you’re reading may help inform you on this particular passage.
4. Other biblical teachings differ 180 degrees from the example in Acts. In Christ’s teaching of the parable of the talents, one person gets five talents, one person gets two and one person gets one — and Christ seems to be okay with that. In addition, think of Paul who intensely labored as a tentmaker to pay his bills and meet his own material needs as he served the church. Paul never said, “Wait a minute. We’re all supposed to liquidate and have an equal share of the pie. It’s not fair that I need to work and you’re not working” (or vice versa). Paul was perfectly fine with working.
5. Most importantly, Christians are not called to pursue economic equality. Rather, believers are called to promote economic justice. Here’s what I mean: God’s not really concerned with how much money you have. If you’re rich and you have become rich because you work hard or because in God’s great grace and blessing you’ve received some great inheritance, well then good. But if you’re rich because you have pillaged, stolen, are dishonest and have gained by sin, well then not so good.
If you’re poor because you’ve chosen to live a life of austerity, you’ve chosen to live a life of simplicity because it’s easier to minister that way or you’re just a student in seminary, then good. But if you’re poor because you’ve been marginalized, because others have held back your wages or because you have been stolen from, well then not so good. You see, God is not so concerned about how much you have as he is about how you got it and what you’re doing with it as you possess it.
And, really, the idea that we’re all supposed to have the same share of the pie is based upon a faulty, static, zero-sum balance view of material resources. In reality, that’s not how the world works. If you and I labor, we have the ability to increase, to flourish. It’s not a matter of dividing up one static pie that never grows. Rather, through our labors, our image-bearings, our work in the world as faithful followers of Christ, we can actually increase the size of the pie. Just because I have doesn’t mean that someone else doesn’t have (and vice versa).
So if we read Acts 2 and 4, as my seatmate in the airplane did, as teaching that all Christians need to be socialists or communists, and that we should feel guilty if we have more or less share of the pie than our brother or sister in Christ, we’re misreading the text.
I would encourage us not to focus on promoting some type of economic equality, but try to focus on biblical justice.
Dr. Jones originally delivered this talk at Wisdom Forum 2015.