The Community of Goods

From a television personality saying that the poor are lazy to a megachurch pastor teaching that wealth is a blessing from God, in the West today–especially in the United States–Christianity is often associated with individualism, capitalism, and personal profit. I personally believe that Christians are called to a different standard. Being Christian should mean following Jesus’ example today–it should be missional and based in radical discipleship. This means that we should look to the example of Jesus and try to bring his example into our context today.

The early followers of Jesus were far removed from our American culture of rigid individualism and capitalism. On the one hand, they came from a pre-modern society, and on the other hand, they practiced a radical form of community–one that is described throughout the New Testament and several early church documents, and has been revived many times throughout church history.

Starting with Jesus and his immediate followers, we see Jesus and his disciples practicing a community of goods, with Judas possessing the common purse (John 12:6, 13:29). This form of community also extended beyond his immediate followers to those around them as well. In Luke 8:1-3, for example, we have a group of women who provided for Jesus and his closest disciples “out of their resources” (NRSV). This context then gives Jesus’ teachings on money (Matthew 6:24) and his treatment of the rich man (Mark 10:17-31; Matt. 19:16-30; Luke 18:18-30) new meaning:

When Jesus asked the rich young man to sell his goods and give to the poor, he did not say, “Become destitute and friendless.” Rather, he said, “Come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). In other words, he invited him to join a community of sharing and love, where his security would not be based on individual property holdings, but on openness to the Spirit and on the loving care of new-found brothers and sisters. (Richard K. Taylor, Economics and the Gospel, page 21; retrieved from “Sharing the Wealth: The Church as Biblical Model for Public Policy” by Ronald J. Sider)

Jesus called those around him to a special form of community–one of radical sharing and love that signified his understanding of the Kingdom of God.

It was not just with Jesus that the authors of the New Testament reflected a communal ethic, but according to first century sources, this communal vision for the church continued after Jesus’ death to the church in Jerusalem and other, later Christian communities. In the Acts of the Apostles, there are several examples in which the author recalls the church in Jerusalem practicing massive economic sharing (Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-37, 5:1-11, 6:1-7). Perhaps the most straightforward comes from chapter 2:

44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

While one can question how much of Acts is history and how much is religious instruction, it still reflects that the early Christians had a vision of radical economic sharing. It was also a vision that was shared in other New Testament sources such as the apostle Paul, with his use of the concept of koinonia (more on Paul’s economic vision can be found here). In fact, there are even other, non-biblical first century documents that show the same radical economic hope of the first Christians:

Do not turn away from him who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are partakers in that which is immortal, how much more in things which are mortal? (Didache 4:8)

Thou shalt communicate in all things with thy neighbour; thou shalt not call things thine own; for if ye are partakers in common of things which are incorruptible, how much more [should you be] of those things which are corruptible! (Epistle of Barnabas 19:8)

It is clear that Jesus and his earliest followers had a common desire to practice economic sharing–even to the point of having “all things common.”

What is interesting is that this desire for economic community actually continued for much of the Apostolic Age through the Patristic Period. Consider, for example, Justin Martyr from the early second century:

We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. (Retrieved from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, page 375.)

Tertullian, another early Christian leader, also shared a similar sentiment:

We who share one mind and soul obviously have no misgivings about community in property. (Retrieved from Selected Writings: James Connolly, page 39)

This was the radical economic vision of the early church–community. Throughout history, there have been many movements and revivals that reflected this desire (e.g., Hutterite Anabaptists), and there have also been many terms used to describe it. For the early church, it was called ἅπας κοινός (all things common) as well as κοινωνία (koinonia, fellowship), and the word community was also often used. In fact, the term “community” has a history of reflecting common ownership, such as with monasteries or communes. Today, you might hear the terms “commune” or “intentional community” going around.

To me, it seems that as Christians, we have a responsibility to follow Christ’s example in our lives, and this includes economics. Christianity should not be associated with the seeking of profit and property, but with radical economic community and sharing. This was the economic vision of the earliest Christians, and it should also be for us today as society becomes more consumerist and the gap between rich and poor widens.

This post originally appeared at Koinonia Revolution.

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