Selling all (was Re: [asa] A theology question (imminent return of Christ))

From: Murray Hogg <>
Date: Wed Oct 08 2008 - 19:06:15 EDT

Hi Bernie,

Am I downplaying how "extreme" and "rare" this forsaking of all one's worldly goods was?

Well, not really. What I'm pointing out is that (1) it's not as though these people were left bereft of support following such a decision; and (2) that one has to take into account the fact that the selling of goods took place in a broader context. It wasn't simply about abandoning material possessions or even providing materially for the poor. They were ALSO joining the church. And the church THEN ensured that their material needs were met.

The point of introducing the Roman collegia and Greek eranistai was simply to reinforce the inherently communal nature of first century life. People's security was NOT found primarily in what they possessed BUT in the community to which they belonged.

Sure there were religious motives involved here - that's undeniable. But even this has to be put in context.

First, the Qumran "monastics" were doing the same thing at exactly the same time - communal ownership of property was one of their core practices. And we've seen throughout history people willing to take voluntary vows of poverty. So it's actually not that rare for people to abandon worldly goods on religious grounds. A less extreme instance are the Wesleyan Societies in which regular contributions were made by the members for relief of the poor - this wasn't total renunciation of worldly goods, to be sure. But it did show the idea of membership of a mutually supporting religious group in action - and by "mutually supporting" is to be understood that the members gained a benefit from their financial generosity. There have been, in short, a wide range of examples of ways in which people have treated material possessions on religious grounds and the early church is not on this point entirely unique.

Second, the motives of early Christians shouldn't be reduced to a simplistic formula. Sometimes their motives were not pure - Ananias and Sapphira are an extreme case. But the fact that Jesus warned his followers against "doing alms to be seen of men" (Matt 6:1-4) should alert us that even Jesus' closest followers sometimes (frequently?) needed a warning about impure motives. It also seems to me that there was a deep expectation in the early church that believers ought to act charitably and I'm sure this expectation and observing the generosity of others had a motivating effect. On this point the context of the saying "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35) is significant. It shows us that Paul - one of the most eminent leaders of the church - has been teaching and modeling these values in the community and has the expectation that others will follow suit. I'd suggest that the entire tenor of the early Christian community was such that people were drawn to
acts of self-less generosity out of a complex of reasons. I agree that eschatology was probably one of them, but it seems obvious that it's far from the entire story.

Third, it's simply wrong to read Acts 4 as suggesting that the early believers were taking some sort of vow of poverty and abandoning all worldly possessions. 4:37 makes it very clear that primary concern was not forsaking worldly goods, but equity in their distribution. It's a practical application of Luke 3:11 intended to bring about the outcome of 2 Corinthans 8:13-15.

I suppose the basic point is that one need to take ALL of Acts 4:32-35 AND the rest of the NT message on property ownership AND the historical context into consideration. There was far more going on than simply the selling of everything and giving to the poor. There was ALSO joining a supportive community who would not allow the individual to suffer hardship as a consequence of their generosity. And there was a mixture of motives and expectations arising from cultural, theological, social, and other factors. This is NOTHING like a 21st century Westerner giving everything away and then expecting God to miraculously provide for his/her material needs. For us, the reality is that if we WERE to cash in all our possessions and give everything to our local church then we probably couldn't expect much more than a gleeful "whoopee!" For early Christians it was far different and for every rich person who gave a shekel to the church, there was another poor person who received.

So my basic point is two fold; first, I think it inaccurate to speak of the early believers "selling their retirement and college funds" when they were, in fact, ensuring their future financial security by joining the church (I don't say this was their motive BUT it was the social reality of their situation). Imposing that sort of 20th century American social understanding on the ancient world simply doesn't pass muster nor should we think THEY processed the situation in anything like the same terms. Second, I think it wrong to suggest that nobody else has ever practiced such charity - it may be rare, but it isn't unique.

When you ask, therefore, what would compel me to act as they did, I would say it is a function of the entire "package" - the "trade off" if you like between what one looses and what one gains. I don't think they were so focused on Christ's imminent return that they thought "hey we'd better sell this stuff and give it away." Rather, the entire Greco-Roman world was permeated by the idea that one's family was one's social security blanket. And I'd suggest that the early Christians were simply working with that sort of unconscious understanding. If you had asked them: what are you going to do when you're 90, they MAY have said "Jesus will return way before then!" But then they might also have simply pointed to their brothers and sisters in Christ and affirmed Acts 4:34; "Among us, there is no-one who has lack." So, given what we know about the entirety of their situation, it seems to me that their generosity doesn't requires very much explanation. I certainly don't think it can
 be ascribed _entirely_ to their expectation of Christ's immanent return although I acknowledge this as part of what informed their actions.

Murray Hogg
Pastor, East Camberwell Baptist Church, Victoria, Australia
Post-Grad Student (MTh), Australian College of Theology

Dehler, Bernie wrote:
> Pastor Murray, in Acts, the rich sold what they had for the good of the group. That was way out of the norm. I think the text makes that clear. It was extreme. Why would they do such an extreme thing? You make it sound like you are downplaying how extreme and rare it was. My opinion is that I think if those disciples would have known that we were still waiting for Christ's return today, almost 2,000 years later, they would not have done it (sold everything and shared everything).--

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Received on Wed Oct 8 19:06:57 2008

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