Unlike some of our political leaders and media pundits, the gospel does not make false distinctions between the “makers” and the “takers,” the deserving and the undeserving or the hard-working and the hardly-working. Instead, we are told that the first Christians had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. In other words, no person had too little and no person had too much, whether or not their means were greater or lesser. Applied to our capitalist society, this is a dubious economic philosophy. Applied as a compassionate ethic, it supplies a model of shared sacrifice that Buffett calls for in our taxation system.
A much more reliable guide to understanding why and how the earliest Christians shared their possessions is Jaroslav Pelikan’s commentary on Acts. Pelikan, author of the five-volume work The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, actually does see a distinction between the “makers” and the “takers.” Perhaps a better description of these first Christians would be “givers.” Pelikan points to the very different historical situation that developed for the Church as it grew, including a role for the state in providing “mutual support.” But the Book of Acts was never intended as a template for tax policy, even less so in the 21st Century. (emphasis mine in the following Pelikan quote):
Paul’s words to the Corinthians provide another key to the accounts in Acts of the mutual support of the members of Christ’s family, with their stipulation that in giving “according to their means … and beyond their means” the Macedonians acted “of their own free will.”
On the narrow basis solely of the descriptions earlier in Acts, “all who believed … had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all” (2:44-45), and again, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and the distribution was made to eash as any had need” (4:34-35), it would be difficult to tell whether these were instances of contribution or of confiscation. But a careful review of the longest sustained account of the process, the tragic story of Ananias and Sapphhira (5:1-11) makes it clear that the property and its proceeds remained “at your disposal” (5:4), so that here, too, the support was an act of their own free will. The report in the immediately following chapter, that “the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1) provides at least a glimpse into the practical difficulties attendant on such mutual support.
Significantly, the author of Acts prefaces that glimpse with the explanation that “in these days … the disciples were increasing in number” (6:1). This can be seen as an anticipation of the vast complications that were to follow in the subsequent centuries, when the sheer size and the geographical spread of the Christian movement made such a direct and simple response to famine as is described here difficult to administer, and then when the Christianization of the Roman Empire brought about the reallocation of responsibility for “mutual support among the members of Christ’s family” between the state and the church and the monastic communities.