The worst church growth program ever?

acts-5.jpgA comment on the Yoko Ono post referred to this portion of Acts, and I wanted to clarify a few things.  It relates to how believers treated their possessions in the early church.  It could be called “the worst church growth program ever.” (I’m kidding, of course.  The church grew dramatically even with this not-so-seeker-sensitive approach.)

Acts 4:32-5:11

The Believers Share Their Possessions

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Ananias and Sapphira

5     Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. 2 With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”

5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. 6 Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

7 About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

9 Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

10 At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.

In the midst of the dramatic church growth we read this cautionary tale.  Some people read it as the early Christians being communistic, but that isn’t the point at all.  As always, we must read carefully and in context.

The passage describes the general behavior of believers but it doesn’t say God commanded this (“No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.”). 

Peter didn’t say that Ananias and Sapphira were obligated to donate anything at all: “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”

The sin wasn’t in not giving enough, it was lying to God.   This was a serious thing, especially when the church was forming.  They needed purity and honesty, just like we do today.  Just because we are in the age of grace doesn’t mean that God doesn’t take sin seriously. 

We don’t need deception to spread the Gospel.  We need the truth.

Satan was defeated at the cross in an ultimate sense, but he was and is still active in tempting Christians and non-Christians. 

Despite this event, the church continued to grow.  Consider how lax church discipline is in the U.S. today.  I’m not wishing for judgments like those again Ananias and Sapphira, but the lack of discipline has let all kinds of false teachers in the church and corrupted our witness. 

Again, this passage was not a Biblical command to be property-less.  Saying your possessions aren’t your own doesn’t mean anyone can come take them.  It is recognizing that ultimately they all come from God.  We aren’t giving him anything He didn’t give us in the first place.

Other passages round out the New Testament guidance on giving, notably 2 Corinthians 9:6-7:

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.  Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

13 thoughts on “The worst church growth program ever?”

  1. Wow, that is one heckuva contradiction there! How that can be reconciled in your mind in beyond me.

    Neil said: Perhaps you can be more specific?

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  2. From a plain reading of that, it seems there is only reason to think Sapphira lied, as she is quoted as saying that is all the money she received from the sale of the land. Ananias doesn’t get the chance to say anything. I suppose you’ll argue that there is an implication. I’d argue that there is a implication that the early church expected (or demanded) that all possessions be given.

    Neil said: Please re-read it. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?”

    It is more than an implication. You are just showing your typical fundy literalism and hostility to the text. Fundies work both ways, either misinterpreting texts because they want it to say something in particular, or because they want to be as uncharitable as possible towards it.

    And this text in no way implies that you must give everything. Again, re-read what Peter said. He specifically notes that the land and money was theirs to begin with. They just lied and said they were giving it all.

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  3. You claim that the verse in 2 Corinthians “rounds out the New Testament guidance on giving”. I don’t see that “guidance on giving” in Acts. In fact, that entire chapter in Acts is pretty clear in its denunciation of personal property. Likewise, the chapter in 1 Corinthians is clear in its approval of personal property. I don’t see how these two ideas can be reconciled without some serious mental gymnastics.

    Neil said: I don’t see how this is a denunciation of personal property. Peter noted that they didn’t have to give the land or the money. People gave because they wanted to give.

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  4. Mike,
    I would disagree. Just because the disciples felt led to give away all they had, such as their property, doesn’t mean we are all supposed to. In the same way, just because someone feels led to go to Kenya or some other place doesn’t mean we are all necessarily supposed to.

    Also, I think there may be a distinction between no private property and communal private property. Furthermore, we don’t necessarily know that the people sold all the land they had, and people had to live somewhere.

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  5. As another point to make, not necessarily in opposition to what Mike was saying, is that countries that do not regard property rights have, many times, been hostile to Christianity. For instance, communist countries doing raids in houses to look for Bible ‘contraband.’

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  6. OK, first let’s not confuse what is given here in Acts with modern communism. I don’t think the comparison is very useful. What is described here in Acts is a “gift economy” — not exactly “communal property”. It is, nonetheless, described as an ideal that should be aspired to in Christian communities. That is what makes it difficult to reconcile with the passage in Corinthians. I suppose you could read Corinthians in that we are not compelled to give all we own, but do so willingly. That would make sense of these passages. What does not make sense, however, is the claim that private property is consistently endorsed in the New Testament.

    Neil said: We agree that it isn’t Communism. I’m just noting that some people misinterpret the point of Acts 4-5 as somehow promoting that concept.

    I think you all are being a little too literal. If you gave everything you had then you wouldn’t have anything left to give. So how could you then have anything to give cheerfully? And how could you support your family as the Bible requires? And how could you live if you gave away your primary residence? It would be un-Christian to give everything away so that you would then have to depend on charity yourself. Really, just read the whole thing in context and most things aren’t that complicated.

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  7. Let’s be honest, this is a fairly broad passage that could easily discussed into a fairly large verse-by-verse break down.

    At any rate, It seems to me that in order to get a full view of what is taking place with Joseph. He sells a field and even gains the nickname Barnabas (encourager) from the apostles. It seems to me that Ananias was most likely envious of Barnabas’ generosity, the appreciation that Barnabas received from the apostles, and wished to be seen viewed as an encourager as well.

    Ananias wanted to give to the Church in order to gain something for himself. Barnabas gave because the Spirit lead him to do so and was not concerned with the consequences (or benefits) of his giving.

    Ananias’ sins:
    #1 Pride
    #2 Envy
    #3 Embezzlement (stealing)
    #4 Lying to God

    What I gain from the passage:
    #1 Don’t use God for your own personal gain.
    #2 When you give; give with a heart of generosity expecting nothing in return.

    Be a Barnabas, not an Ananias.

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  8. Exactly! Parsimoniously reviewing Biblical verse or verses, unless it’s because we are searching out a question, is often because we want to find a place to tear it down..for our own purposes.

    In reading the Bible, I’ve found it necessary to view intent and context before drawing conclusions. The entire purpose of the Bible is to teach us its wisdom and leave us its grace. This cannot be without the approach and attitude of a humble, seeking heart.

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  9. While I don’t see these verses as saying anything to promote communism, I also don’t see anything (correct me if I’m wrong – please) that would indicate problems with economic communism.

    Before I create an uproar, let me explain what I mean. Supposed that a group of people lived in what might be called a “commune” (complete with a 60’s VW bus with psychadelic paint and peace signs). They all worked together for the common good and they all benefitted from each other’s actions. I see nothing anti-Christian about this.

    Alas, I don’t think this would work for long, some well meaning person would work extra long and then expect extra “pay” for it. Someone would goof off (by blogging instead of working like me) and not expect to be docked for it.

    Seems like the potential exists for a Christian communists. No?

    P.S. The statement “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” fits here, but gives me cold chills.

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  10. Randy,

    I think it is more than a potential. When reading these texts it seems that the Amish and Quakers (many of whom live communally) are examples of what a “Christian community” should look like.

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  11. Mike, I didn’t say this is what they should look like. More, this is what they could look like.

    Personally, I’d hate to live in this kind of environment.

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  12. Randy,
    I think a couple factors separate what you mention vs. the typical notion of communism.

    1) Your situation mentioned would be voluntary communism, where people willingly give up their stuff, vs. the kind enforced on the people.

    2) Size. 1 small community where people are more accountable vs. an entire country.

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  13. Mike wrote:
    I think you all are being a little too literal. If you gave everything you had then you wouldn’t have anything left to give. So how could you then have anything to give cheerfully? And how could you support your family as the Bible requires? And how could you live if you gave away your primary residence? It would be un-Christian to give everything away so that you would then have to depend on charity yourself. Really, just read the whole thing in context and most things aren’t that complicated.

    Bible says:
    “And why worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? so do not worry saying,’ What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father know that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
    Matthew 6:28-34 NIV

    the simple answer to that is: God will provide. the more you give back to Him, the more he’ll bless you with, then you’ll never run out of things to give up to God.

    an example:
    George Muller (a christian evangelist), read his story…
    he started several orphanages in England, never once did he ask for money, charity, or food. Rather, he prayed that God would provide for him, and God always did.

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