If you give it all away, how can you be a generous giver?
Question: Acts 4:32–35 shows Christian brethren holding "all things in common." Does this mean that some form of "spiritual communism" is God's ideal way? Should churches today try to follow this biblical practice?
Answer: We read in the book of Acts: "Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common… Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need" (4:32–35).
What should we make of this? Should Christians sell their belongings, or sign them over to a church or its leader?
Notice that we find no such practice mentioned in the epistles of Paul, Peter or John. We do not find this practice repeated elsewhere in congregations under the apostles' authority. Surely, if the apostles had intended to make this a normal Church practice, they would have continued it at least somewhere else as they evangelized other regions. Rather, we find the opposite: the apostles affirmed the idea of private property, while continuing to encourage generous Christian charity.
The New Testament writers did not condemn personal ownership; rather, they assumed it. That people had a right to their own property simply was not an issue for them. For instance, the commandments against stealing and covetousness confirm personal ownership of property and state that God condemns taking what is not yours (Exodus 20:15, 17). Christ and the apostles affirmed these commandments (i.e. Matthew 5:19; Mark 10:19; John 14:15, 21; 1 John 2:3–4, 22; 3:24; 5:2–3; 2 John 6; Revelation 12:17; 14:12). And there are numerous instances in the New Testament of the ownership of houses (i.e., Acts 10:6; Acts 12:12; 21:8; Romans 16:3–5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). We find examples of property ownership by Church members throughout the New Testament.
While personal ownership was taken for granted, generous charity was encouraged. God is love, and giving is inherent in His character. If we had no personal ownership, how would we learn to give and be generous? "God loves a cheerful giver" (2 Corinthians 9:7). To be cheerful givers, we must have something to give.
A husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some land, but held back some of the proceeds in a hypocritical attempt to get credit for a gift to the Church. "But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, 'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God'" (Acts 5:1–4). Clearly, Peter thought Ananias and Sapphira owned their property and its sale price.
So, why did the brethren in Jerusalem share their possessions shortly after the Church was founded there on Pentecost? Consider that many new brethren had journeyed far to Jerusalem for Pentecost and had stayed after receiving the Holy Spirit. They would have had considerable need, and the generosity of the local members provided for them.
Sadly, some covetous modern-day ministers give Christianity a bad name when they try to use Acts 4:32–35 to take the property of misguided believers. To do so is not biblical! "And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words…" (2 Peter 2:2–3).
God's word teaches us to use what we own responsibly and charitably, to build a giving character—like His. Generous giving is following God's example. God requires a tithe from His servants, but He expects us to exercise our free will when we give offerings.