Early in the book of Acts, we are given a glimpse of the Jesus movement in the city of Jerusalem in the weeks and months after his execution. Their life together reflected the contours of the ministry Jesus proclaimed among the peasants of Galilee: love one another, care for one another, support one another, and share generously with one another.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at one house after another and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.[1]

Later, we read this similar account:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the possessions belonging to him was his own, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.[2]

It appears from these texts that community members were not required to sell everything and become homeless. They met and ate in one another’s homes, indicating that they still maintained private home ownership and their furnishings, but sold other land and income property beyond what was needed for their own shelter. The message of Jesus was that the accumulation of personal wealth for one’s future was a spiritual problem. It can lead to self-concern and selfishness. Sufficiency for the day was the goal. Everything beyond that was dedicated to a common purse to help clothe, feed, and house the less fortunate in the community and those who fell on hard times.

He invited them to share their resources generously with others, even with strangers, trusting that this generosity would be shown to them in return. The followers of Jesus could do this because they were surrounded by a new family of brothers and sisters who would willingly support them in difficult times. The paradigm of Jesus only works within the context of a caring community.

For several hundred years after the death of Jesus, it was their distinctive behavior—the sharing of goods, the welfare of the destitute, a radical social equality, and a commitment to nonviolence—that set Christian communities apart from mainstream culture. From the first small peasant communities in rural Galilee and urban Jerusalem to the rapidly spreading house-churches of Paul in the trading towns of the Mediterranean and Aegean seas, the early Christian movement consisted of countercultural groups existing on the margins of society. In the beginning, they were composed of marginalized people—tenant farmers, fishermen, day laborers, slaves, and social outcasts—although soon they attracted artisans, merchants, and a few wealthy elites to their ranks. They became communities of radical equality that cut across class differences, economic status, ethnic backgrounds, and gender roles. These communities developed a lifestyle outside of accepted Roman norms that offered their members security in an insecure world without social safety nets. Each tight-knit community of compassion provided its members with food, shelter, and material support when necessary.

Pope Clement I (birth date unknown) served as an early bishop of Rome from 88 CE until his death in 99 CE. He described the motivation of the early Christian movement in this way:

He [the Christian] impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need, especially if he knows he can bear poverty better than his brother. He likewise considers the pain of another as his own pain. And if he suffers any hardship because of having given out of his own poverty, he does not complain.

A very early manual of Christian living, the Didaché (dee-dah-KAY), written sometime in the mid to late first century, stated that a Christian must never claim that anything is their own property, but must share all things communally with their brothers and sisters.

You shall not turn away from him that is in want, but you shall share all things with your brother, and shall not say that they are your own.[3]

These fictive families were simply kindred spirits who were to be as close as or closer than any biological family. The Didaché (Greek for “teaching”) was a brief overview of the lifestyle of the Way—just sixteen concise chapters (really no more than sixteen short paragraphs or lists)—that was most likely used as a catechism for those who sought membership in the fledgling communities. It did not include a set of beliefs, but instead a compilation of behaviors and actions that were the essence of the Jesus movement. Topics included humility, compassion for others, radical generosity, helping the poor, welcoming strangers, loving and praying for one’s enemies, control of anger and jealousy, and nonviolent resistance to oppression. It is reported that the adult catechumens often studied for two years before being admitted to the ritual mysteries of Christianity—baptism and Eucharist—indicating that becoming part of the movement was nothing to be taken lightly and that there would be significant expectations and demands once one entered fully into fellowship. The Way was not about accepting a set of beliefs, but about embracing a radical lifestyle. Completion of catechumenal study led to adult baptism and inclusion in the Eucharistic rite (commonly known as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion).

Justin Martyr (100–165), a second-century apologist (meaning he was a vocal advocate of the faith to Roman authorities), described the Christian lifestyle this way:

We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.

Irenaeus (130–202), a second-century bishop in what is now Lyon, France wrote:

Instead of the tithes which the [Hebrew] law commanded, the Lord [Jesus] said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.

Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (240–320) was a third-century Christian thinker and writer who became an advisor to the Roman emperor Constantine and served as a tutor to his son. He described the Way of Jesus in this manner:

If we all derive our origin from one man [Adam], whom God created, we are plainly all of one family. Therefore it must be considered an abomination to hate another human, no matter how guilty he may be. For this reason, God has decreed that we should hate no one, but that we should eliminate hatred. So we can comfort our enemies by reminding them of our mutual relationship. For if we have all been given life from the same God, what else are we but brothers? . . .  Because we are all brothers, God teaches us to never do evil to one another, but only good—giving aid to those who are oppressed and experiencing hardship, and giving food to the hungry.

Basil of Caesarea (330–379), a fourth-century bishop of Cappadocia in what is now Turkey, spent his family inheritance to benefit the poor of his diocese. He bought grain from wealthy landowners and then organized a soup kitchen, hospital, and shelter, distributing food to the poor during a famine that followed a drought. He wrote passionately that:

The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.

The second-century Christian writer and theologian Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, known as Tertullian (160–220), writing from Carthage in North Africa about 170 years after the death of Jesus, explains that members of early Christian communities contributed to a common fund to aid their work with the poor in their town or city. It is in marked contrast to the radical economic sharing of the Jerusalem community as recounted in Acts a century earlier, yet it still shows a commitment to provide funds for the common good and care for the needy.

On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons . . . One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another.[4]

Throughout the first three centuries of the Jesus movement in its many forms, people were more attracted to the early church communities for how they lived than for what they preached. It was compassionate service to those in need, not a theology of personal salvation leading to a heavenly afterlife, that attracted people to the faith. Tertullian wrote:

What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our loving kindness. “Only look,” they say, “look how they love one another.”[5]

The very earliest communities were communalistic (even communistic in the truest sense), composed of persons who were willing to risk their economic future—income, wealth, and possessions—in a common venture. At first, they did not just make contributions at their comfortable discretion, but radically put everything they had into a pool to maintain the common welfare. That is a risky way of living, relying on the community to respond generously in turn when one’s own needs are on the line.

Throughout history, nearly every society has favored an elite group of individuals and families at the expense of the majority of less-fortunate inhabitants. For thousands of years, economic elites have rigged society in their favor by crafting systems that would benefit their prosperity and ensure their control over the nation’s political and economic affairs. Historically, they have used unjust economic systems to extract wealth from the sweat of slaves, peasants, serfs, laborers, and the working class while contributing little to the common welfare. Social control has been maintained with violence and military might, often supported by religious institutions. These societies have invariably been patriarchies where the authority and desires of men have dominated the lives of women and children. The system has frequently favored one race, tribe, or ethnic group over others.

Biblical scholar Walter Wink (1935–2012) has referred to these societies as manifestations of an enduring domination system that has been part of the human story since the rise of civilization in the ancient Near East. Wink describes the domination system in this way:

It is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all. No matter what shape the dominating system of the moment might take (from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana to feudal Europe to communist state capitalism to modern market capitalism), the basic structure has persisted now for at least five thousand years, since the rise of the great conquest states of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE.[6]

We easily observe the domination system in the structure of kingdoms, empires, and dictatorships. It has been embodied in traditional customs and religious teachings throughout history. But when democratic systems in a largely secular culture are controlled by wealthy and powerful forces, the same results occur. Massive tax cuts for the wealthiest, bloated military budgets, welfare for giant corporations, vast prison systems, and cuts to social services for the poorest Americans are all signs of a domination system.

Walter Wink notes that the teachings of Jesus were a prescriptive remedy to the domination system of his time. The kingdom of God that he described is an antidote to the disease of the domination system. The vision of Jesus stands in direct opposition to the political and economic aims of these pervasively unjust social structures. It is a vision of the domination system turned upside-down. Therefore, every act of resistance to the domination system, every protest of its unjust laws and structures, every effort to transform it for the common good is a sign of the coming kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed.

A radically loving, generous, sharing, and serving kinship became the hallmark of the early Christian communities. For over 300 years, these innovative small groups, based on the teachings of Jesus, remained as distinctive communities of generosity, justice, nonviolence, and hope in an oppressive world. Then, in the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine invited the church to participate in the power of global empire and everything changed.

Today in America, thanks to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, we have minimal government to help the poor, the elderly, and the infirm. But conservative Christians claim that Jesus would not have wanted us to support them this way. They point to the fact that Jesus never called upon the despotic governments of his time to play this role. But this fails to take into account that governments of his day never played a role in helping the poor. Rather, the rich took all the tax money and distributed it among themselves, spending on lavish palaces, public buildings, roads, and armies. The alternative communities of Jesus had no choice but to help themselves.

But things are very different today. We established a government to provide for the common welfare. And ask any Christian social service agency and they will tell you that without government aid, they could not meet the overwhelming needs of suffering people. Christians who think that they can do it on their own are simply dreaming. Christians these days are just not that radically generous anymore. We must all contribute out of our common purse, and that means using our tax dollars to benefit the common good.

We cannot eliminate the dark side of our human condition, but we can summon the better angels of our nature to make us a more humane, kind, and decent people. Even if persistent social selfishness cannot be eliminated, it can be mitigated and minimized by people of good will. The hope of the reign of God is that a transformation of the politics of selfishness is possible through the efforts of transformed individuals who are committed to nonviolent social change and motivated by love and compassion.

 

[1] Acts 2: 43–47

[2] Acts 4:32-37

[3] Didache, Chapter 4.

[4] Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter XXXIX.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wink, Powers That Be, 39–40.