Saturday, September 3, 2016

The "Unsustainable" Church of Acts 4?

St Barnabas, who "laid money at the apostles' feet"
At the end of the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, after Peter and John have made their first defense before the Sanhedrin (and probably anticipated that that same fate will befall them that overtook their master) comes a famous description of the living arrangements of the early church.

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.
Socialism! Or, at least, a lot of ink has been spilt trying to prove that it wasn't.  Perhaps this was only a temporary arrangement, while the church was getting itself started, some sort of sign; or (for some writers) perhaps it was actually a sign of financial irresponsibility, a prematurely realized eschatology which ultimately led to the need for St Paul to organize the "collection for the saints at Jerusalem" which so preoccupies him in the later part of Acts and several of his letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians).  But this kind of critique has to be read back into the text; there is nothing in Acts 4 (or in the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) that suggests that Luke is taking some kind of critical distance from the behavior he describes.  This is just the way it was, he seems to say, and maybe the way the true church should be.

But it's worth noticing that "socialism" is hardly a sufficiently radical description for what Luke tells us about the Acts 4 church.  Read on.
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, laying it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to any as each had need. 
 Socialism, to borrow the words of the Labour Party's old Clause IV, is about "securing to the workers the fruits of their the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange."  In this picture there are "means of production" which are held in common by the community and shall not be alienated - in the context of Scripture we might think of agricultural land and the OT provisions of the Jubilee law which forbade the concentration of its ownership (Leviticus 25; compare Isaiah 5:8-10) - and it is the "fruits" of these means of production which are to be shared.  But in Acts 4 the very "means of production" themselves are being cut up and liquidated. This church is not trying to create a "sustainable society" in the sense of fairly sharing out limited production for an indefinite period; it is convinced that the time of abundance, the ultimate Jubilee, has arrived in the person of Jesus, and that therefore there is no need for need.   Or at least, that is how it reads to me.

Now I confess I don't fully know what to make of this.  The time of ultimate material abundance had not arrived in Acts 4 - in this context it does seem relevant to point to Paul's collection, as well as to Jesus' words in Mark 14:7 and parallels.  Nevertheless, if our community is not somehow pointing towards the time when "there shall not be a needy person", it feels as though it has given up too easily.  In the same way, if our ultimate framing of sustainability is not one of being sustained by the endless riches of God, I feel that we have given up too easily.  Yes, we can and must remember that we hold the wealth of the earth on trust, to steward it for who knows how many future generations.   But, that "sustaining" we do only makes sense because we know that we are already "sustained".

Note on publishing frequency: I'm doing a lot of writing at the moment but it is split over several different places; this blog; my research blog; my personal cancer journey on CaringBridge; and the private journal that I've decided to start keeping over these coming months and years.  So you can understand that each one of these blogs is perhaps getting a bit less writing than it used to.  I'm sorry about that... if for some reason you want to hear more of my thoughts just make sure to subscribe to more of the above.  (The CaringBridge site you have to create an account at; the personal journal is private to me.) 

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