Church rules, Stalin drools! (How the first Christians made “communism” work)

The handsome pastor at my church has been preaching through Acts. Last week, we studied how “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… There was much grace upon them all. There were no needy persons among them.” And I got fired up.

2014 is very different from first century Roman-occupied Israel. In that context, very few people owned land. Most were tenant farmers of sort. There were oppressively high taxes, great injustice in the court system toward the poor, and very real poverty, especially for those who were not under the protection of a husband or father. But something unworldly happened among the new Christians. They began to sell their possessions and goods and land and they gave to everyone who had need. Materially, they considered that their “stuff” existed to bless their fellow believer.

What we see in this community is, as far as I can tell, the first and only successful expression of “communism” in history. They had “all things in common” according to Acts 2:44. I remember back in my college political theory classes, some used this verse to support a socialist agenda. True, the product of socialism and the fruits of the early church is similar; the rich were giving to the poor and the poor had their needs met. They had all things in common- even a sort-of communal kitchen for widows. But there is one critical distinction which sets the early believers apart from Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia. One thing that either makes communal living an immeasurable delight, or a politically-imposed hell. In Acts, every occasion of giving was voluntary.

You see, communism is the perfect system if people are selfless. But anyone who is living in the land of the obvious knows that is not the case. Human nature is selfish. We want what we want when we want it. And in today’s America, we are told that we are entitled to it too. Of course all of us have had moments of generosity, but few will choose to give up a luxury (yacht, weekly Frappuccino, the mani/pedi, the second home, new mascara, the powertool) to meet someone else’s need. Well, maybe we’d do it for our child, or parent, or very close friend. But a stranger? Quite unlikely. And let’s be clear, I’m talking about me. Katy. I am “Exhibit A” in self-interest. I struggle with being generous. I feel like I have a right to my stuff, and sometimes it’s hard to let it go.praying2520together

But there was something afoot in that early church that the earth had never before witnessed. A new nature. And not just one person with a new nature, but a group committed to one another who were all given this new nature. People who naturally wanted to sacrifice for others. And it wasn’t just a couple rich people giving, though we have accounts of that happening. “The haves,” those who owned land and homes, still “had” and probably still had more than others. But the “have nots” now had food, shelter and clothing. What the poor no longer had was- need. Not only that, but the poor were giving too. Everyone shared what they had. Everyone gave something, everyone received something. And there was no compulsion. No one was going door-to-door checking off the list of who gives what, how often or how much. It was simply: if you see a need, then you’re part of meeting that need. Later on, the church added some structure to the mix, where collections were taken up for a specific purpose and people were put in charge of allocating resources. But the voluntary aspect of giving remained. The result was what might look like socialism to some outsiders. But internally people were filled with joy.

How do I know this? Because now more than ever, I am living this out with other amazing women. I have been “in the church” for a couple decades. And when I say “in” I mean “in.” When your husband is a pastor you really see it all. You know what’s going on underneath what may look like a shiny exterior. At every church I’ve been to, there have been generous people. Other’s… not so much. But when my man read that verse about all the believers “having one heart and mind and sharing everything they had” I wanted to leap out of my first-lady-of-the-church-front-pew-seat. Because that is what our life is right now. Our church is not perfect, by any stretch. But what we have at this church, especially with our group of moms, is the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to those first-century believers.

Among our group, we have shared food, toys, a vintage desk, cars, clothes, housing, appliances, bikes, luggage, countless meal trains for moms with new babies or after surgery, outfitted one woman’s children for a family wedding with three days’ notice, and so much more. And it’s not just “stuff.” We’ve swapped hundreds of hours of babysitting, cared for one another’s pets, arranged for emergency childcare after an accident, descended upon an extra bedroom and transformed it into a nursery in one day, and set up round-the-clock hospital vigils for sick moms. But wait, there’s more. Because we have instituted radical (and biblical) principles for confidentiality, we are constantly sharing our hearts with one another. I’m not just talking one isolated conversation here and there, but each of us have dozens of women with whom we can share that complete mothering fail, the self-doubts, the heart-cries, the anxiety over school decisions, or vaccines, or struggles with picky eaters. We are learning to share not just our possessions but our very selves. There are even times where there has been a virtual throw-down over who will meet said need, with some of us vying to get the meal to the sick family first. Women (and later their husbands) have been won to our church and to Christ by how loved they are by this group of women who are so unlike one another, but so united in heart and mind. And there is much grace upon us all.

This is my life, people. My very blessed life so I’m just gonna keep on talking and I know this is long so feel free to skip to the bottom for the wrap up but there is much to tell. I could honestly go on all day about this. Because every week there are new examples of selfless giving, wrongs forgiven, and needs met. There have been times where I have actually refrained from mentioning that I am under the weather on social media because I know that a couple women will drop what they are doing to rush to my aid. (Don’t ask me how the early church functioned without Facebook. I certainly do not know.) You can’t even mutter a prayer request without receiving private texts and messages offering food and goods and prayer. And the incredible part is that because we are doing this together, there is enough to go around. I know that I cannot meet every need and I don’t have to. (Talk about taking the pressure off the “Pastor’s Wife.”)  Because there are scores of us who are in on this. And one or nine others will be ready and able to help even if I can’t.

I remember one mom who remarked that she was cautious about everyone giving so much to her because she worried that “the well would run dry” and she would use up those friendships. But after one horrible week when her daughter was in and out of the hospital this friend, who does her own share of generous living, realized that it’s not a well after all. It’s a spring. Springs don’t dry up- there is no bottom.

There are seven in our house including our exchange student. We live on one income. And we have more than enough. We buy food and gas and spend money on our mortgage and utilities. Everything else is shared, borrowed, handed-down, swapped or donated. (And if all else fails, Goodwill has got us covered.) We live well and have everything we need. Those within this community of women have drastically different standards of living. But everyone, as far as I can tell, is giving something. And everyone is receiving something. And if there is a need that is not being met, it’s likely because it’s unspoken.

Two things about giving. First, it draws you near to those who are sharing with you. Sometimes I see that Facebook meme about “How if this is a Christian nation that doesn’t feed the poor then we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are.” Steven Colbert gets credit for that one, I believe. But I often think about when the disciples were telling Jesus to send the hungry crowds away. What did He say? “Tell the government to do it!” Nope, that’s wasn’t it. I believe it was “YOU give them something to eat.” Personal involvement is what Jesus is after because yes, people need food and clothes and a replacement blender. But more than that they and I need to be changed through giving. And sometimes I need to be helped by real people who are giving something up for me. It bonds you, ya know? And if this passage in Acts is to be believed, God is all about His people being united in heart and mind.

Second, there was a saying in the early church: “Everyone who gives, gives to God. Everyone who receives, receives from God.” Our giving and receiving not only brings us closer to one another but closer to Christ too. When you give directly to another, when you put that new pair of running shoes or that ergo-carrier or that flat-screen TV into their hands (or on their porch), gratitude to God and the giver mingles together and you get nearness to both. From the accounts I read of life within the Cultural Revolution or under the Khmer Rouge, joy and nearness wasn’t exactly a hallmark of relationships. And yet that is exactly what these first century Christians, and every church that follows in their footsteps, receives.

Here’s that pithy wrap-up I promised you: The church as it was made to operate is the solution to so many of today’s struggles. For the family who is in between jobs and just needs a little more food on the table- the church. For those who mourn the loss of their child- the church. For the lonely woman- the church. For those rejoicing because the toddler whose speech was so delayed has finally put two words together- the church. For the widower- the church. For the one who still isn’t over the loss of her child even though it’s been years- the church. For the blogger who may seem like she has it together but “Heavens!” that girl has no fashion sense- the church. (People, socialism can’t tell you when it’s okay to wear black and brown in the same outfit. No, it cannot.)

In the land of hundred-mile-long Facebook contacts and bursting storage units, this life of community sharing should be cake. Especially for the Christian. And yet, it can be hard! Embarrassingly hard. Sometimes I jubilantly thrust the new sandals into my friend’s hands- after all, it would be a year or two before my girls will wear them and we don’t have the closet space to store them and her kids need them right now. But sometimes I catch myself thinking “nope” and pretending I didn’t hear the need. (Sinner, right?) Only later do I come to my senses and say to myself “Good heavens girl! You could have done without that extra bag of frozen veggies!” This is where the new nature needs to body-slam the old nature to the ground.  And these days, I am happy to report that the old nature is getting pinned more than ever.

And there is much grace (and casserole, and jeggings, and lattés-delivered) upon us all.

Take that, Stalin.

20 thoughts on “Church rules, Stalin drools! (How the first Christians made “communism” work)

  1. This expresses my hope and dreams for my own church! We have come through a painful transition where we went back to Acts and changed our church to be like that first century church. As always, some folks did not like those changes and left. Others embraced the new spirit of love and obedience and have joined. Since the beginning of the year, we have been doing a verse by verse study of I Corinthians. There are some hard things in there!!! Paul is pretty specific about our responsibilities as Christ followers :-). The most important thing is the gospel. People will never care what you know nor will they listen and grow, until they know that you care. Your group of ladies is living that out. What a blessing! What an example to follow!

    • Hi friend!!! Yes, many commands in scripture are “simple” but they are also difficult. “Share with God’s people who are in need” is one of those. I honed in on our group of ladies because that’s where I see most of the sharing. But there are many generous people at our church. For example, one couple gave us their car when we first moved here. It isn’t glamorous but it gets us from A to B and that’s all we need. As a result, when God called us to adopt soon after that, we had an extra $5-10K in our savings account so that we could get the process started. Without the gift of that car, I might have just thought “We can’t afford to adopt” and left it at that. That car, in all honesty, changed the life of a child. Good for your church for being serious about the Christian calling! I know that you are going to see the domino effect of all that sacrifice.

  2. Pingback: Looting Livingstone and Embracing a Bigot’s Communism | Resting in His Grace

  3. Convincing thoughts that seem to negate the “that was then, this is now” western attitude toward possessions and materialism, doesn’t it? Your words really make me wonder how much of the run-away and spiraling out of control government assistance issue in America is merely the result of our refusal to see and adopt these principles.

    I will also monitor with curiosity whether the crickets take main stage of your post for it seems this is one of those topics we intentionally avoid, no?

    • This certainly goes against the “American Dream” narrative that runs our lives. I earned it, I deserve it. And honestly, I don’t think that’s untrue. We do have a “right” to what we have earned. There is nothing in scripture that would support the dissolving of private property rights (thou shall not steal is predicated on a “right of ownership.”). But it is this higher spiritual law which tells us to “think of others more highly that yourselves” and that leads us to give up something that is rightfully ours. Just as Jesus gave up so many things (heaven, omnipresence, being found innocent, his right to life) that He was entitled to for our sake. This whole exercise really can shape us into more Christ-like people.

      And yes, it is tempting to think “Hey, I give plenty in tax dollars to the poor” and just keep your stuff. Because, well, we DO give billions so that the poor can be helped. But WE are helped when we are knit together through sharing.

      PS- Thanks for the mention on your blog, friend.

  4. I’ve got family that joined an emerging denomination that wanted to base itself on the model of the early church. It didn’t work out so well. Many left, and the church evolved into something more like a modern church. It was a microcosm of the history of the larger church.

    I think the problem was, as you point out regarding giving, this kind of community interplay must be voluntary. When you try to codify it into political or ecclesiastical law it always breaks down. Even while those in the church may share the same, correct worldview they are still imperfect creatures. You cannot legislate altruism or perfection. We need a firewall between us to minimize the damage and to permit people to reach out in genuine charity.

    I also think it makes a difference when these things are handled at a local level. A remote federal agency is in less of a position to assess genuine need, and it’s easy to abuse it when it’s an impersonal entity that “deserves” to be ripped off because of its corruption or because it represents “the man.” It’s both easier to muster compassion and harder to accept it if you don’t need it when the needer and the giver are not strangers.

    I once heard comedian Dennis Miller complain about his tax dollars going to support faceless strangers. He said he’d be fine with it if they’d designate a recipient and require him to knock on his door for the check every week. That way he’d get to see who he’s helping and he suspects that it would make some too sheepish to stay on welfare.

    • Agreed agreed. I wanted to talk about the accountability aspect but needed to cut things off somewhere. Indeed, when there is person to person giving, it’s much less likely that the gift is squandered. And if it were, it’s unlikely that you would give the same thing again. Its a beautiful organic accountability that makes the giver better because he knows the gift is appreciated, and the receiver better because there is personal investment.

      Yes, compulsion is the enemy of joy. And I’m certain that God loves cheerful givers.

      Also, like many Christian disciplines, sometimes we don’t know how to do this until we see it modeled for us. It does take some practice, which sounds very unromantic but it’s true. We watch someone part with a precious thing and think, “Hey! I could let go of some stuff too.” We are all growing in this area, and some of us can relapse into “hold-onto-everything-that-I-ever-might-have-need-of” mode before we right size our thinking back in line with generosity and sacrifice.

  5. Genius, Madam.
    I can’t quite agree with Pruett, though. I think there has to be some sort of codification. In a practical sense, even a bake sale is a codification- and yet still voluntary.
    Can I ask what your specific projects are in this regard at the moment? And how you choose? I have an incredibly hard time deciding what specific cause genuinely deserves my cash- and worse, is it actually going to make a difference or just pay for a director to stay at a 5 star hotel…

    • You’re right that even volunteer organizations can use structure, but that’s a different thing than saying we must participate, or that if we do participate that it must be all-consuming. Unfortunately, the more formal the structure, the more likely it is to have high overhead, e.g., salaries and career administrators.

      • Two thoughts: (1) if a group of people want an all organic church without structure, it will fail due to lack of organization. Likewise, if a church is all about structure and run like a business, the Holy Spirit will be squelched. For a church to truly function as it was meant to you need an organic movement of the Spirit, which will also produce people with the spiritual gift of leadership and administration to put things in order (Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Cor. 12 and Ephesians 4:11-17), which is an attribute of God going back to Creation and Genesis 1; and (2) scripture teaches that preachers and overseers/elders and Missionaries are to be compensated for their ministry of leading, teaching, and preaching (see 1 Tim. 5:19-22 and 1 Cor. 9:1-18).

        When a man does this to get rich (e.g., Bennie Hinn) he is a false teacher to be ignored and rebuked by legit teachers / elders in the church (Titus 1:10-16). So the institution of the church is not bad. An organic movement is not bad. In fact the organic movement falls apart without being institutionalized and the institution of the church will die without being an organic movement. Both are needed and stimulate one another for a local church to become what it was meant to be.

        And in saying all this we need to completely reject consumerism as a model for church, for this is the reason Jesus overturned tables.

      • I think the crux of the matter is cultural. Take France and neighbouring Spain (or Northern Europe vs. Southern Europe). Every small town in France (or Britain or Germany) has a government funded nursing home. In Spain they’re relatively rare. The difference? How families operate. French culture pushes a more individualistic way of life while Spanish culture promotes a concept of more co-dependant families.
        The average Spaniard won’t leave their parent’s home until they get married. The French person leaves at 18 for school or work and is then expected to make their way on their own.
        I was raised in the French model, but I see some significant social advantages in the Spanish social system, and to a certain degree I’ve tried to adopt it.
        When my partner’s mother developed vascular dementia (similar to Alzheimer’s) his brother said:
        “We can’t take her because it would interfere with our life as we have small children to worry about”, and the sister said “I only have two bedrooms, so it wouldn’t be convenient”. They weren’t part of a culture where one is has a moral responsibility/obligation to care for family members. The way this is codified in law is that the same obligations a Spanish citizen has for his minor child he also has for his parents once they aren’t capable of caring for themselves.
        In this case the codification is a contributing factor to the cultural practice. The penalty for abandoning a parent is prison and the only exception to the law is if there was documented abuse/violence.
        That whole long-winded answer was to show that without some degree of structure, it’s very plausible that the ‘good’ won’t get done. Where people don’t feel some sort of obligation, whether moral or legal, to do the right thing, many will choose not to do it- and that’s not fair on society as a whole. Like it or not, we’re all connected. If people in Spain decided caring for the elderly was no longer an individual responsibility everyone’s taxes would go up because the government would have to step in and build nursing homes, then staff them, then run them.

        • Dear Pink, first let me tell you how sorry I am for your loss. I say this before your loved one passes because each day will bring loss. I lost my mom to a deadly combination of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s Disese. I brought her to live with me. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but also the most rewarding. The physical and emotional toll was great. Each day was both joy and loss. By the time her physical body died, I had been grieving for 2 years. The only way we (my husband and I) made it through was our faith in God. Each day I prayed for The Holy Spirit to fill me with His peace, patience, love, joy, kindness, gentleness, self control, and to remain faithful. I am not going to lie, it was hard. Some days I did not know how I was going to make it. I failed miserably sometimes. However, Jesus was always with me to pick me up and forgive my lapses, to wrap his comforting arms around me, and to fill me with his strength. Sadly, I had to put Mom in a nursing home when I could no longer meet her needs. She passed away three moths later.

          Pink, I will be praying for you. Please do not hesitate to ask for help. It is important to connect with others both for support and advice. The Alzheimer’s website has a caregiver message board that was of great help to me. I learned that my situation was worse than some but way better than others. Sympathy is nice but empathy is better! People who are walking the same path, KNOW what you are going through. Again, I will pray for you as you walk this road. Cherish the good days…. Savor the joys…. Give thanks whenever you can. These are the things that will carry you through the difficult times

          • Thanks so much for your kindness. She was with us for a year and a half, then came a huge stroke, her last month had to be in care and that was the end. As these things go she/we were fortunate in that she didn’t suffer too badly.
            I completely understand and can relate to your feelings. Some days I failed terribly. I’d get impatient, then feel horribly guilty for getting impatient.
            Everyone reading out there should know, as you say, that asking for help is necessary. Dementia of any kind takes a huge toll on the family. It changes life in ways people can’t begin to imagine, not least of which, is seeing someone we love lose the ability to do the most basic things. That was the hardest for me. I refused to accept her incoherence and kept insisting she ‘must know’, ‘must understand’ somewhere deep down. Of course that was just me unwilling to accept reality.
            Thanks for the message 😉

    • Hi Pink. Your comments make me happy. (Actually, just seeing you brings be joy.). Do you love how I didn’t just say “Church rules. Stalin drools” but I added the explanatory tag further describing the post? See, I am teachable.

      Our church is involved with the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle. They have the highest (by a huge margin) success rate of getting people off the street and training them for a new life. Also the greatest success in treating addiction. We had a homeless woman and her child live with us for a while ( and I was adamant about her never seeing the inside of a shelter. But after she was with us her life took some twists and turns and we ended up getting her a place at the UGM’s home for women. THERE IS NO PLACE LIKE IT. She grew leaps and bounds. They had pro-bono legal services because many of these women have custody issues and debt and other legal matters that can swallow them whole. Christian therapists donate massage services, they take classes in theology as well as practical life skills. They have regular counseling for the women and children. They are not allowed to be on state assistance because they feel it is the Church’s job, not the state, to provide for this vulnerable population. And when women leave, they are poised for success. The weak link in their system is when the women leave. The “shelter” becomes their community and when they graduate, they need people who are doing life with them wherever they end up next. Especially because of our experience with our friend, we saw this need so clearly. Our church teamed up with six other church in our area and build “Apodments” where women can go after they graduate. Each church adopts one room and the woman who lives there, and commits to her. Everything from extra food to transportation to advice on doctors and schools. But mainly, just friends. Many of these women are so isolated.

      I don’t know how much their directors make, but I’m pretty sure they are no Fat Cats. I think each UGM is separate but we have been involved with ones in Denver, Portland and now Seattle. And they are far and away the most successful of the homeless ministries in those cities.

      Hello Mike!

  6. Thank you for an excellent article.

    Of course, the originators of communism actually meant nothing of the sort in that it was and remains a cleverly concealed method to steal wealth and power, and rule over people with an iron hand. There are certainly aspects of forced compliance in many Christian circles both old and new, and it is not at all a stretch to state that the original Communists learned much from “Christians” who never incorporated the Lord’s original model.

    The fact that the early Community of the Lord was so loving that each would give and share out of the goodness of their hearts was remarkable in that it had never been done before successfully regardless of possible attempts, simply because people had never before had the Spirit of God and His love dwelling in their hearts on an all-encompassing scale.

    One truly wonderful aspect in that community was that if a member was relatively rich and maybe did not share so much no one ever cast any aspersions on him or her whatsoever and such a one was just as accepted and loved and did love as anyone else, proving that loved ruled and true love MUST certainly be voluntary. If one wanted to give and share there was ample opportunity but it was never done out of coercion or guilt.

    Our challenge do the same never begins with attempting to create a community model with rules, but allowing the Lord to create a community of the heart—His community—among us and with us and through us in the perfect way which allows for giving and loving without keeping score.

    But each member must first give EVERYTHING at the beginning to the Lord Jesus, including one’s entire heart and future. This is what makes it work.

    He certainly gave everything to us including His life and He loves us without measure.

    Thank you for this article. It is very encouraging. We are getting there! Be greatly blessed.

  7. The early Christians reflected their society and oppressed position in it; they weren’t socialists, though Pope Francis says we should be these days. His church hasn’t signed on, though, at least for its clergy …And indeed, the early Christians dropped all the ‘sharing’ as fast as they could do so. It’s observably not in hyman nature to be ants.You are right on the money!

  8. What a lovely and well researched post! There is another difference between the voluntary giving of the church and state communism, and that is love. There is no bureaucrat in the world that can reflect Christ’s love and show people how much value and worth they have in His eyes. It’s that poverty of spirit that needs to be healed, almost more than the material need.

    One problem with government programs is that they tend to do the exact opposite, they dehumanize people and make them feel unworthy. You take a paper number, you stand in a long line, you wait for your handout, you get your list of rules and regulations…. There’s not a lot of love there, no lifting up of people, no encouragement. In fact, keeping you in your place kind of becomes the whole goal.

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