Church Profile – Pt. 2

I wrote yesterday of  my desire to compare well against the early Church (not other churches today), using the “church profile” found in Acts 4:23-37.  Yesterday we noted that the early Church was marked by passionate prayer.  Today I want to consider the second characteristic profiled in Acts 4,  CHARITABLE COMMUNITY (vv. 32, 34-37)

“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… There was not a needy person among them, for those who owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold  and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

I hate to start with the negative, but this is one of those cases where it seems necessary.  I hear and read so much muddle-headed thought that confuses the moral obligation of a sincere Christian to show compassion toward the poor (which is right) with some perceived obligation to therefore use the force of civil government to provide some form of social welfare (which is wrong).  In fact, one commentary I read captioned this passage as “Christian Communism.”

This movement of the early church is most emphatically NOT communism.  Note:

  • People retained private ownership of their property.  They did not consider their possessions as their own, but as a purely technical matter, they retained ownership.  In fact, this is highlighted in the subsequent account of Ananias and Sapphira, who are asked the rhetorical question, “Wasn’t this property yours to do with as you pleased?” 
  • Their actions were purely voluntary, not compelled by the power of government.

Indeed, when government uses its power to compel one person to give up his possessions for another, unbiblical dynamics occur for both the giver and the recipient. 

For the giver, it ceases to be an act of charity, or love.  It becomes an act of compulsion.  History has taught us that when this takes place, the joy of giving is replaced with the resentment of being compelled to give.  Simply consider the different emotions you feel when writing a check to your church and when writing a check to the IRS. 

On the part of the recipient, an unbiblical dynamic sets up in which one no longer sees that he is being shown love or kindness, receiving something that belonged to another.  He begins to feel instead that he is receiving something to which he is entitled, not from a personal benefactor but from some impersonal and amorphous entity.  Not only is gratitude diminished or eliminated altogether, but over the course of time, the incentive to work is lost, remanding the biblical principle that “If a man will not work, neither shall he eat.”  And there is another loss, as well:  the satisfaction, or what we today would call self-esteem, that comes from earning our bread: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.” Ecc. 2:23-24

Russian_charity_1388397cBut this “Christian communism” nonsense in only one extreme, and there seems to me to be greater danger for the Christian on the other end of the spectrum.  We cannot simply ignore the lifestyle of the early Church.  It was genuine community in every sense of that word.  These were people genuinely more concerned about the well-being of others than about their paltry possessions. 

Does this not have drastic ramifications for the Church in our day?  I know we’re charitable, but does our charity look anything like the early Church?  Is it sacrificial?  Is it astounding to the world around us?  I’ve known untold numbers of churches to invest untold millions in bricks and mortar, when the early church sold their bricks and mortar to invest in people.

I know it’s necessary and even good to have church facilities.  But that’s what they are, “facilities.”  They are given to us to “facilitate” ministry.  How many churches do I know that use all or a significant part of their resources just to maintain their nice buildings?

In this early Christian community, one example is singled out: “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”

Luke may have three motives in recording this particular gift:

  1. To give a positive example before the negative example of Ananias and Sapphira;
  2. Simply to introduce Barnabas because he will have a more significant role later.  This is a common literary tactic for Luke, who mentions briefly that Stephen was one of the men chosen as a deacon before the more extensive story of Stephen’s martyrdom, and even notes that those who stoned Stephen laid their clothes at the feet of a man named Saul of Tarsus.
  3. To tell us about Barnabas’ entry into the community of faith.  If so, this would be an act of repentance and reformation.  Levites were not supposed to own property, but by Jesus’ time, this part of God’s law was routinely ignored.

If the third possibility is correct, maybe it’s time for the 21st Century Church to be as Barnabas, to repent of our materialism, to show our absolute devotion to God by parting with some of our goods to minister to the poor in Jesus’ name.

Father, I don’t want to be the rich young ruler.  I want to say “Yes” to You.  I want to love people, not stuff.  But this is a point at which the entire world wars against my soul.  Please put within me compassion that would stun the world, and the rectitude to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.

gkr1996 posted at 2009-10-8 Category: Theological