Short version: If God can grow his church while striking two generous but deceptive donors dead, then maybe — just maybe! — He doesn’t need slick, manipulative, man-made “church growth” programs. Just preach the Good News inside and outside the church.
The title is sarcastic, of course. The church grew dramatically even with this not-so-seeker-sensitive approach where God kills Ananias and Sapphira on the spot for lying to the Holy Spirit (and if that wasn’t enough, the next passage is about how the Apostles were arrested and beaten for proclaiming Jesus). It is unfortunate that mainline, “seeker-sensitive” and “emergent” churches didn’t study it more carefully before watering down their doctrine so badly. When leaders feel that they must twist or ignore the word of God to advance the kingdom it is evidence of weak or non-existent faith.
Acts 4:32–5:11 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. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of 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. 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.
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
In the midst of the explosive 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 said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own.”).
Peter didn’t say that Ananias and Sapphira were obligated to donate anything at all: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not 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.
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 never own property. 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.
We don’t need deception to spread the Gospel. We need the truth. We should share it as ambassadors, but we should share it without apology. If you distort the message to appeal to spiritually dead people, then don’t be surprised when your church gets off track.