In order for the church to flourish it must adapt, not by trying to copy the trends of the society around it, but by re-emphasising certain aspects of its nature that have been lost in recent times, largely because of the demands of that society. With huge pressures to devote more and more time to the workplace and massive opportunities to spend hard-earned money, the meeting of the saints can become just one more chore on a long ‘to-do’ list. To counteract this, the church must remember that it is a community that supports its members, primarily in their relationship towards God but also in their day-to-day living, which itself is a part of their witness.
When the church was brought into being in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, it quickly organised itself into a community. Aside from the spiritual explosion of activity that accompanied the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Acts 2 tells us that, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people” (v44-47). Spiritual renewal prompted communal action.
There is further light shed on these arrangements in Acts 4. Verse 32 says, “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.” Verse 34 & 35 goes on to say, “There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”
A careful reading of these verses suggests that they didn’t sell everything they had, but that they viewed all their possessions as belonging to the whole (“in common”), so that when some members of the church were in need, assets were sold off to provide for them. In an age without social security of any sort, and with a good many people who were very poor, this is a radical solution and may go a long way to explaining why “they enjoyed the favour of all the people”. Their actions had become a practical demonstration of their love for one another and, as Jesus had said not long before, “…all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (John 13: 34, and compare John 17: 23).
Again, it is worth noting that Ananias and Sapphira did not suffer consequences because they failed to sell everything that they had (see Acts 5: 1-11), but because, when they did sell “a piece of property” to contribute to the support fund for the poorer church members, they were not completely honest about the deal. Peter’s questions in Acts 5: 4 even suggest that they didn’t have to contribute the whole amount as long as they had been above board with the transaction. Their sin was “lying to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5: 3) and “agreeing to test the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 5: 9).
Most churches today have managed to retain a part of the communal aspect of their ministries because it is a part of who we are as church, as demonstrated above, but there is always the pressure of using members as assets to be fed into a grinding machine of on-going ministry programmes that cannot be allowed to end. In this way their identity can become much more about what they do rather than who they are. For small, rural churches this can be deadly, as they usually lack the resources to sustain such a programme and the few workers available become tired and disillusioned with a lack of results. I would like to offer some thoughts in a short series of posts about how such churches can rediscover that they are witnesses to the Lord Jesus Christ, not primarily by their busy outreach programmes, but by their love for each other and for Him through the lifestyle that they lead.