OWNERSHIP AND ENTERPRISE
IN THE EARLY CHURCH
--By A. Ralph Johnson
Some have contended that it is contrary to the will of God for Christians to own personal property or to be employed by the world. All property should be owned communally and all funds given to that body. Early Christians disposed of all possessions and formed communes, spending their full time studying and preaching the Gospel.
SECTION I: OWNERSHIP OF PERSONAL PROPERTY
I. Arguments used in favor of communal ownership.
2Cor. 12:14. Parents should lay up for the children. Obviously Jesus did not rule out all savings or ownership of property. The context reveals he is speaking of selfishly amassing worldly wealth without provision for the eternal. Nothing is said of giving it all to a commune.
“Lay not up for yourselves,” indicates they were not taking into consideration the concept of stewardship and its proper use for God. Wealth is not to be just stashed away. It is to be used to care for our earthly and spiritual responsibilities, including care for the needy. What we possess belongs to God and its use will be accountable at the Lord's return (Mat. 25:14-30).
If our wealth is all to be owned by the commune, no individual stewardship is involved. Turning it all over to the church would conflict with one's responsibility for feeding one's self, one's family and the poor (2Cor. 12:14; 2Thes. 3:12; 1Tim. 5:7-8, 16; Mark 7:10-13; Ac. 20:33-35).
ANSWER: He is speaking to those who were to be his disciples. This was dealing with his earthly ministry in Palestine training those who would later go into all the world. When the worldwide ministry began he specifically told them to take a purse, wallet and cloak (Lk. 22:35-36).
It may also be that Jesus was putting the rich man to a test to expose the true selfish nature of his heart. Mark 10:24-27, tells us that the man “trusted in riches.” With men, it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom. By trusting in God it would be possible.
This was no more a literal universal requirement than cutting off a hand or plucking out an eye to escape temptation (Mk. 9:43-45). Also, Jesus said to leave everything and follow him but this did not apply to everyone (Mk. 9:38-40). The concern of Jesus is when people TRUST in riches (cf. 1Tim. 6:17), not their mere possession.
For those who insist that we must abide by the rules required of those who he was training (Mt. 10:9-10; Mk. 6:8; Lk. 10:4), rather than after they were commanded to go into all the world, (Lk. 22:35-36), I suggest that they also apply the other rules to themselves. They were to confine their ministry to the cities of Israel and the people of those cities --not the gentiles (Mt. 10:5-6).
The reason they were to take no purse was that they were to take no money for their services. They were to each day rely on people to feed them for their ministry. Those who claim these rules today DO take purses and receive money. Furthermore, with regard to selling all (Matt. 19:21), they fail to do what it says. It says, “,,,and give to the poor.” Instead, they require that it be given to the commune.
ANSWER: It does not just say they sold all of their possessions. It says they sold their posessions “… as any man had need” (Ac. 2:45; 4:35).” In fact, it does not say the Apostles commanded them to sell everything. It was purely voluntary. “NEED” was the basis.
The Greek word, pipraskō translated "sold" has the imperfect tense which indicates they continually sold their goods as people had needs. If they sold them all it would have been aorist. If they had sold all their goods and gave it to the commune they could not have continued to sell them.
It says nothing about forming a commune. They simply regarded nothing as their own, and voluntarily used it for all as the need arose. It says they broke bread from house to house and ate their food “at home” (Acts 2:46). They had houses.
Thousands of Jews from many nations were assembled in Jerusalem and converted at Pentecost. They continued there for a while, sharing with other Christians (Ac. 2:46). The situation was made especially difficult because persecution would take away their jobs and property. Thus, houses and lands were sold voluntarily but not compulsorily (Ac. 5:4; 2Cor. 8:8; 9:7). We should have the same attitude and the same freedom.
II. Evidence that we are free to possess property and live in our separate homes.
A. From the beginning, God never required the renunciation of all property.
-Isaac's was made wealthy by God. (Gen. 26:12-14)
-Job (Job 42:10-12)
-David (II Sam. 12:7-8)
-Solomon said that wealth is a gift from God (Ecc. 5:18-19).
B. Jesus did not require them to dispose of everything and live communally.
-Mk 7:10-13. Jesus rejected the concept of, “corban” (“devoted to God”) which released people from providing for parents.
-Lk. 17:31. When Jesus comes again, Christians will have houses.
-Jn. 19:27. John had a house.
C. In the times of the apostles Christians owned property and maintained their own homes.
-Ac. 2:46. They continued “breaking bread at home.” They had homes.
-Ac. 5:4. Ananias and Sapphira could have kept their possessions and used them as they wished. Their sin was in lying about what they had given.
-Ac. 8:3. Christians had houses from which Saul dragged them.
-Ac. 10:6. Simon the tanner had a house.
-Ac. 12:12. John Mark's mother had a house in Jerusalem about twenty years after Pentecost. Some members of the church met there. She was related to Barnabas who sold property and gave it to the church (Ac. 4:36-37).
-Ac. 20:20. Paul taught the Ephesian Elders from house to house.
-Ac. 21:8-9. Philip, the evangelist had a house at Caesarea about 28 years after the church began. He had been one of the seven at Jerusalem who were full of the Holy Spirit (Ac. 6:8). He had four virgin daughters who prophesied.
-1Cor. 16:1-2. They were told to lay aside offerings for Jerusalem so that Paul would not have to take up collections when he came. If their money was already being put into a common till, there would have been no need to give such a command.
-1Cor. 14:34-35. Women were to ask their husbands “at home” rather than in the church. (57 A.D.) Sounds like they had homes rather than a commune?
-2Cor. 12:14. If parents are to lay up for the children then it was not all given to the church.
-Col. 4:15. At Colossia, Nymphas had a church in her house.
-I Tim. 5:3-16. People are to provide for their own family and parents. The church is not to be charged. This shows clearly that this was not a communal situation. Only widows with certain qualifications were enrolled to be paid by the church. Those who failed to provide for their own had “denied the faith” and were “worse than an infidel.” It is obvious that “corban” (all given to God) was not a concept of the early church (cf. Mk. 7:7-13).
Note also that in order to qualify as a widow she must have “lodged strangers.” If the church owned everything and lived together in a commune, this would be meaningless.
-I Tim. 5:13. If they had no houses, younger widows could not have gone from house to house as tattlers and busybodies.
-I Tim. 6:17-19. The rich were to be “willing to communicate.” If it was all given to the commune the rich could not have been rich and they would have had nothing with which to communicate.
-2John 10. A Christian lady had a house.
The early Christians worked, ate their own bread at home, had houses, took care of their own, the sick and the poor. This cannot be fairly accounted for on a communal basis.
The idea superficially sounds good but historically, such systems have never worked over the long range. It has been tried many times and few remnants have survived.
The reason is that the indolence of some conflicts with the industry of others. At best, it is difficult to determine what is a fair share and what concessions to illness etc. should be accepted. It encourages a judgmental relationship. This results in strife. The only way the system can be held together is by increasingly authoritarian control. The power to enforce eventually generates abuses of its own which fragments the commune.
Often, the people who advocate it are very people who would be a liability to its success. They have a covetous eye towards the possessions of others. They want to run things, and they often expect others to give to them more than they give to the welfare of the group. They often exploit to their own ends the sincerity of those who are misguided into submitting themselves, making them their servants. Most communes are plagued by strife, which keeps them small. Pride and judgmentalism is common.
On a small scale, communes sometimes work for a while but even then they have some undesirable side-effects. They tend to stifle individual initiative and evangelism and tend to remain small, isolated and ingrown. Some, such as “The Children Of God” become dictatorial and downright wicked.
A good example of the differences in the effect of the communal system versus the free enterprise system may be found in the Amana colony. The commune dried up but since they abandoned the system, the people have prospered.
SECTION II: PARTICIPATION IN SECULAR EMPLOYMENT
I. Arguments against secular employment.
A. Matt. 6:24. “We should not work for the world because no man should serve two masters.”
ANSWER: The passage concerns making money your master, not earning wages working for an employer. We have scriptural authority for working for earthly “masters” (Eph. 6:5-8 -”whether bond or free”; Col. 3:22-25; 1Tim. 6:1-10; I Pet. 2:18-25; Tit. 2:9; Philemon. 10-11). Jesus was warning against having an “evil eye” --greed. He told them not to be “anxious” but to trust God. We may be working for men but we can still do it “unto the [true] Lord” (Col. 3:23; Eph. 6:5).
For those who insist they need not work, I suggest they learn the lesson of the ant (Pr. 6:6; cf. 20:4). If they persist, let them live like the birds and not gather anything. They can pick up whatever they find from day to day. I need to give them nothing (2Thes. 3:10). One cannot argue with such unthinking. As Solomon said, “the sluggard is wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason (Lk. 22:35-36).
C. John 6:27. “We are not to labor for bread that perishes.”
ANSWER: This is not concerned with earning mere bread but with their materialistic motives. They were following Jesus only for physical food (vs. 26). Jesus was not excluding physical bread but trying to get them to understand that spiritual food was of greater importance. However, God clearly commanded that each man eat HIS OWN bread (II Th. 3:6-14; 1Thes. 4:11-12; Eph. 4:28; Ac. 20:33-35; 18:3).
II. Evidence that employment was not confined to communal service or handouts for preaching.
-Gen. 3:17-19. From the beginning it was God's design that men eat bread through hard work.
-Lk. 3:14. Soldiers were to be content with wages.
-2Cor. 12:13-18. Paul and others did not take anything for their service.
-Eph. 4:28. The reformed thief was to labor, working with his hands in order to give to those in need. He was to earn wages and give to the poor. It says nothing of giving it to the commune. (63 A.D.)
-1Thes. 2:9,10. Paul and his companions had labored night and day so no one else would have to pay their way (cf. vs. 6). (52 A.D.)
-1Thes. 4:11-12. Paul commanded them to work with their own hands so that outsiders will find no fault and that they might lack nothing.
-2Thes. 3:6-14. Paul says he set them an EXAMPLE in paying for “their own” bread. He commands that if any will not work, neither let them eat.
-Rom. 12:11. We are not to be slothful in Business. (58 A.D.) Other translations usually render this something like “do not lack in zeal.”
Barnes comments: “This is the same word which in Rom 12:8 is rendered “diligence.” It properly denotes haste, intensity, ardor of mind; and hence, also it denotes industry, labor. The direction means that we should be diligently occupied in our proper employment. It does not refer to any particular occupation, but is used in general sense to denote all the labor which we may have to do; or is a direction to be faithful and industrious in the discharge of all our appropriate duties; compare Ecc. 9:10. The tendency of the Christian religion is to promote industry:” --Barnes' Notes,
Understand that we are not trying to show that men who preach the gospel have no right to live of the gospel. They certainly do. It is proper for anyone who chooses to serve without pay, if he wishes. Our point here, though, is that it is proper, and necessary for most people to work in worldly employment.