And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him. Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well.” And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband (Acts 4:32–5:10; NASB95).
The point of this narrative is, as my pastor Chris Gordon recently noted, to illustrate hypocrisy in contrast with true faith. We see evidence of true faith in Acts 4:32–37, in Joseph (or Barnabas), the Cyprian Levite, who, seeing the need among his brothers and sisters, sold some of his property in order to be able to minister to his needs. One of my professors, Derke Bergsma, used to remind us that the Levites had a diaconal ministry among the Jews and we see evidence of that here. Ananias and Sapphira, on the other hand, tried to create the impression that they had done more than they really had. Contra the Marcionite view of redemptive history, which posits a strict Old Testament God in contrast to a New Testament God of pure love, here we see that God has not changed one whit since he caused the ground to open and swallow Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16; 26:10). God is utterly holy and righteous.
As we were meditating on this passage, however, I was struck by a feature of the passage that may be overlooked: private property. It is understandable that we might miss this feature. After all, it is not every day that we see the Holy Spirit in the New Testament ministry, putting to death members of the visible church but there it is. Peter’s indictment, however, rests on the premise that the property Joseph, Ananias, and Sapphira sold belonged to them. There was a moment when it was not the common property of the church. It was private property. It only became the common property of the church after it was sold and donated. Further, that selling and donating was voluntary. The state is nowhere involved in this process. Luke never imagines nor does the narrative say anything about publicly held property administered by the civil magistrate. Thus, when Christians invoke this passage to justify any sort of Socialism, the public ownership of the means of production, or the absence of private property, such an interpretation is irresponsible and utterly groundless. Relative to the civil magistrate, the entire transaction may be said to have been private.
Nevertheless, Luke does distinguish between property held privately by Joseph/Barnabas or by Ananias and Sapphira and property held in common by the visible church for the benefit of the entire congregation. They were pooling their resources in order to alleviate poverty in the congregation. Luke carefully observes that there were those in the congregation who were “owners” (κτήτορες) of property. Not everyone in the congregation owned property. Luke mentions “land or houses (χωρίων ἢ οἰκιῶν). Joseph/Barnabas “sold” (πωλήσας) his land in order to aid the church. Ananias and Sapphira sold their private property but held back some (νοσφίσασθαι) of the proceeds while attempting to create the impression that they were giving sacrificially as Joseph/Barnabas had done. Peter said, in 5:4, that the property was Ananias’ to do with as he will. He was under no compulsion to sell it. He sold it freely. He has “authority” (ἐξουσίᾳ) over the land. It was not state property. Before he sold it and perpetrated his fraud, it was not the property of the church.
This is an unique place in Scripture. Private property is widely assumed in Scripture. Did not our Lord say, in the parable of the talents, “Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest” (Matt 25:27)? Did he not tell the rich young man, “go sell all you have” (Matt 19:21). Jesus’ intent was not institute monasticism but to preach the law to one who thought that he was able to keep the law unto salvation. The parable of the pearl of great price assumes private property (Matt 13:44). The strong man breaks in a plunders property (Mark 3:27). In the parable of the vineyard the property owner says, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15). The parable assumes the righteousness of the land owning and even private enterprise. Our Lord simply assumes as a given the existence of private property. This assumption is worth noting since Socialists and Marxists of various kinds have apparently succeeded in creating the impression in some minds that private property is unbiblical or sub-Christian. That, of course, is not true. This is way it is useful to pay some attention to the details of this narrative.
There are many things for which we ought to criticize the Constantinian settlement but one of the benefits of the legalization of Christianity in 311 and 313 AD was that private property was returned to Christians. During the medieval period Christians were generally forbidden from lending money at interest to other Christians. Jews, however, were allowed to lend money at interest. In the Reformation lending at interest was allowed again but, e.g., in Geneva, Calvin objected strenuously against usury, i.e., unjust interest rates but lending was allowed and private property was protected by the state.
American evangelicals might be forgiven a certain degree of confusion about this since they have been, at least since the early 19th century, under the influence of various strains of Anabaptist theology and piety and it has been the practice of some Anabaptist groups and communities to reject the very notion of private property as contrary to the faith. Thus, in the Belgic Confession (1561), the Reformed churches confess: “…And on this matter we detest the Anabaptists,1 other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.” Thus far I have not found an Anabaptist confession that speaks to the “community of goods” or the “common ownership” of goods but it seems as if the Hutterites practiced the “community of goods” and more than once I have heard erstwhile evangelicals hold out the example of Acts 4 as the norm for the post-Apostolic church. Communism was a feature of the Münster rebellion (1534–36) where it was, as the modern Communists used to say, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” As it was under the Soviets, the party elites (Jan of Leiden and his henchmen) benefited rather more than the “proletariat,” who lived in terror, misery, and finally cannibalism until the Elector re-captured the city.
The notion of private property is not a modern, capitalist, Bourgeois notion. It is a natural, creational truth. It is a basic part of the natural, creational pattern (Luke 17:28). This is why Peter says what he does to Ananias and Sapphira. He was not instituting private property, he was assuming it. It was a given. Christians are free to sell assets in order to help their brothers and sister but that very act assumes private property. Were there no private property, no valuable assets, then there would be nothing to sell to aid those brothers and sisters who are in need. It is not too much to say that Jesus was a capitalist or at least that he assumed the righteousness of investing capital and harvesting interest (Matt 25:27). Some Millenials may not remember but before the Great Recession of 2007–08 lenders routinely paid interest of 4% on a five-year certificate of deposit. In that case, the property owner is making money from money. He is renting his capital (money) to the lender, who is paying him for the privileging of using his money temporarily.
We live in an age where creational basics are no longer basic. The sexes are now “genders,” life is 24/7, up is down and down is up. Consider this essay as brief attempt to recover first the very idea that there are creational patterns and givens in the world and second as a reminder that private property, though subject to abuse like any other part of the creational pattern, is a good and not an evil. The public ownership of the means of production is not a biblical pattern or virtue. Private property and even capitalism is assume in Scripture as a given and so should be assumed by us.
1. This translation follows the Latin text, Anabaptistas…detestemur. The French text reads “nous détestons l’erreur des Anabaptistes.“