They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who 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 favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47 (NIV)
I’ve never personally experienced any situation like what the 1st century church experienced. I’ve never been surrounded on one side by a government that could have cared less if our community lived or died and on the other by people that despise us because of our choice to follow a Messiah that they have labeled a madman. I’ve never been forced to live day by day not knowing where the threat might be, who might sell me out, or worrying about whether I’ve joined a community of foolish dreamers. So when the Holy Spirit became real to the community of believers as described in Acts 2, it wasn’t just an astounding miracle. If that were true, then the excitement about it would have passed harmlessly and nothing would have been different. All the fears, doubts, worries, and concerns I raised would have been the order of the day.
But it did change. The author of Acts, before describing the specific behaviors that would become known as the hallmarks of the church at that time, writes a relatively unremarkable sentence: “All the believers were together and had everything in common.”
I want to focus in this brief post on the first part of that sentence; we will get to the second part later. Specifically, I am drawn to the word “together.” This is one of those times when English is useful in its multiple-meaning ambiguities. Many commentaries (and Bible versions) talk about how this means that they were together in physical space – meeting together, living together, working together. There is probably a lot of truth in that. But my psychologist brain can’t stop there.
Humans find themselves physically together with other humans, joined by a common goal or objective, even identifying as members of a group or “team”, all the time. A basketball team is composed of 5 players, but the team is often the level of reference. Everyone knows that there is a basketball team named the Indiana Pacers – considerably fewer people could name the starting lineup. They are “together” in the sense of common identity ascribed by society, but that doesn’t mean that they are “together” in any other way. If they are not “together” beyond just being in the same physical space, they won’t be a very successful team.
The 1st century church wasn’t just in the same space. The word “together” here must mean something more. It must invoke “togetherness” in thought, attitude, motive, and vision. It must describe a group of people that have sacrificed their individuality and adopted the values, beliefs, and ideals of the whole. Why? Otherwise, the second part of the sentence could not have been written.
If we are to believe that the church held “all things common,” then concepts of individual ownership, individual rights, and individual freedoms could not have been the bases of that community. It is a pure description of the collective not just as a “psychological container” holding a bunch of individual persons, but as the basic level of analysis. The collective was everything; it was all things; it was complete. What’s more surprising, this is 100% contrary to the nature of humanity. Why do you think that Paul admonished the Corinthians and the Galatians about factions? Why does the modern church look like a smorgasbord of religious traditions, ideologies, and belief systems that are almost all traceable back to some division in a church somewhere? It’s not a difficult answer – humans segregate. We divide. And we do it because sacrificing the one for the many is swimming against the current of our fleshly natures.
The message of Acts 2:44 is when the Spirit isn’t the center of the church, it fragments. When we forget what a marvelous gift we’ve been given with no regard for any of the ways in which humans like to segregate or create hierarchies, the church suffers.