Acts 4:32, 34-35 reads:
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
This passage is sometimes used to argue for socialism or even communism, but I would argue otherwise. I would argue that his passage is speaking of generosity more than an economic system. These two ideas of socialism and generosity can go hand in hand but do not necessarily do so. What tends to happen in socialist societies is that the governing body takes, sometimes unfairly, from one group to give to another. For instance, America has some social policies that are paid for by taxes. Most people have not directly opted for the amount of taxation. Therefore, it becomes a political economic situation. I’m not saying that taxes or these policies are necessarily bad. The difference is that instead of people freely giving to help those in need, it is taken from them by the government and then divided out.
Even if what is described here is socialism, because, to be fair, socialism is hard to define.[i] The common thing in different forms of socialism is the sharing of goods and profits. Which was happening here in some form or manner. But we need to distinguish two types of Biblical passages: descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive passages simply describe what was happening. There are plenty of descriptive passages throughout the scripture that are definitely not prescriptive. We can learn from the descriptive passages, though. We learn what we shouldn’t do and sometimes what we should do. A prescriptive passage teaches or commands us to do something. The Ten Commandments tell us how to love God and love others.
Acts is mostly a descriptive book of the Bible. It details the acts of the apostles. Luke wrote the Gospel of Luke to describe the events and ministry of Jesus Christ to Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4). Acts is a continuation of Luke’s record of Jesus and the apostles for Theophilus (Acts 1:1). Since it does record a few of Jesus’ teachings and the teachings of the apostles, we can find prescriptive passages within Acts. This particular passage is a descriptive passage, though. It is describing what was happening with the early church just after Jesus’ ascension. It is not necessarily teaching us to sell all that we have and allow the church leaders or government to use the proceeds as they see fit. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira sell the property, but they colluded to lie about the profit so they could keep some for themselves. Peter chastises them for lying and God punishes them. It’s not that they kept some for themselves, because I’m sure if they were at least honest about it, then it would have played out differently for them. They lied to the people, the apostles, and most importantly to God (Acts 5:4). Their deception and greed was what caused their downfall.
This passage does not say they were commanded to sell all they had to give to others. Ananias and Sapphira were greedy and this led to their deception and downfall. Likewise, we do not necessarily see that we are commanded to do the same. Instead, we should compare this passage and our lives to Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). In this parable that we are all each other’s neighbors and should love and care for one another no matter race, ethnicity, or social class. The Samaritan was generous to the Jew who needed help. He paid any cost to meet his needs by paying for a room, food, and clothes until the Jew was well again.
This generosity is what I argue that we learn from this passage in Acts 4 by comparing it to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Instead of being selfish, the church in Acts decided to be generous to make sure that all received care and had their needs met. I’m not advocating that we go and sell all that we have. If we see a need and can meet it, then we should. Especially if we have excess income. There’s nothing innately wrong with having nice things, but when we would rather spend money on things we need in spite of helping to provide food and shelter to those in need, then we need to reevaluate our priorities. We should be generous with our time and finances so that others do not starve or die from living on the streets.
I know I can be cynical at times. I’ve experienced and heard stories of people taking advantage of people and the system instead of working for themselves. We cannot turn a blind eye to the many in need because of a few bad apples, though. Just because a few lie and deceive does not mean that many others don’t actually need help. Instead of legislating for social needs, we should be aware of our neighbors’ (i.e., literal neighbor, fellow Americans, and people of the world) needs and do all that we can to provide for them.
[i] If you want to know more, then I suggest Wikipedia. It’s a good source for basic and quick information on topics. If you want to dig deeper in your knowledge and understanding, then I recommend following the footnotes on the Wikipedia article to find books and peer reviewed articles. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism