Extremely few Protestants live in a community of goods similar to that of the apostolic church in Acts 2 and 4. In fact, many Protestant denominations don’t have a single community connected to them. Just like charismatic, supernatural gifts used to be a rarity within Protestantism due to cessationism, something that has drastically changed over the last century, so is having everything in common. Both miraculous power and community life are biblical practices that many Christians simply don’t want, and both charismatic cessationism and economic cessationism have been defended and strengthened by forms of academic theology which quite frankly use very bad arguments.
Mennonite scholar Reta Halteman Finger wrote an excellent paper back in 2004 called ”Cultural attitudes in western Christianity toward the community of goods in Acts 2 and 4” (Mennonite quarterly review, vol. 78, no. 2). It’s a baffling read. An obvious mistake from Catholic and Orthodox theologians during pre-Reformation times was to equate the apostolic community of goods in Acts with the community of goods in the monastic movement, even though the latter is only available for celibates.
When Luther and Calvin protested in the 16th century, they rejected the monastic movement and thereby community of goods. Both argued that the only lesson we should learn from Acts 2 and 4 is that we should give a little gift sometimes to a poor person, not that we should have everything in common with them. They criticized Anabaptists for wanting to live apostolically; Luther argued that it is impossible to do what the apostles did for modern believers. The Hutterites proved him wrong, having lived in total community for over 400 years.
As liberal theology and the historical-critical method in biblical scholarship sprung up during the 19th and 20th century, Protestant academics such as Eduard Zeller, Ernst Hanchen, Hans Conzelman and Luke T. Johnson questioned the historicity of Luke’s account in Acts 2 and 4. Their main argument for this was that community of goods in their eyes is extreme and difficult, therefore the author of Acts must be making it up. Haenschen for example argued that only celibates can manage to live in community, suggesting that Hutterites don’t exist.
Evangelical scholars such as Henry Alford, Richard Rackham, Shirley Jackson Case, Karl Barth, I. Howard Marshall och F.F. Bruce defended the historicity of Luke’s account while also arguing that community of goods should not be practiced today. All those mentioned actually argued that the community in Jerusalem ”failed” and never spread on to other churches, which is why it’s not normative for churches today.
Alford thought that the distribution to widows in Acts 6 was evidence for community having ceased at that point, rather than that it was a necessary part of community in a society without bank accounts. Case argued that the poverty that Paul sought to relieve in Jerusalem in the 50’s was caused by community of goods even though it is more plausible to think that it was caused by famine or persecution.
Acts commentator G. T. Stokes even argued that the Jerusalem sharing of possessions was evil, a horrible mistake that should never have happened which was caused by a demonic spirit. In contrast, Luke clearly portrays it as a work of God’s Holy Spirit, in line with the commands of Jesus to sell everything and help the poor (Lk 12:33, 14:33, 18:18-23).
Finger sums up her review pointing out that all of these commentators are rich, white men who benefit from the status quo and who are part of a state church tradition which wants to avoid system changes that are uncomfortable for the elite. Many of them also feared the rise of communism and wanted to downplay its similarities with apostolic Christianity even if that meant using horrible exegesis.
Finger also points out that there are hardly any reflections on the perspectives of the poor and how community of goods impact their lives compared with a church that is more individualistic. One gets the impression that these scholars don’t really care about the poor, rather they want to comfort the rich when they are challenged by biblical revelation.
I find the parallell with charismatic gifts striking. The exegetical debate on this has mainly been between liberal theologians and economic cessationists, whereas economic continuationists like myself who believe that community of goods is normative today have not been represented well – probably because most people who live in community aren’t scholars. I hope and pray that we will se a tremendous revival in the 21st century that turns the cessationist tables upside down just like the charismatic revival of the 20th century did. Let’s be a part of that!
Micael Grenholm is editor for Pax Pneuma. Having studied theology as well as peace and development studies in Uppsala, Sweden, Micael Grenholm’s passion is to combine charismatic spirituality with activism for peace and justice. Apart from editing the Pax Pneuma website he vlogs for the YouTube channel Holy Spirit Activism and is active with evangelism and apologetics both locally and online.