THE JERUSALEM "EXPERIMENT"
We have already mentioned that the Holy Spirit will work within the local congregation to raise up the very same kind of life that Jesus had with His disciples and that the Holy Spirit raised up in the Church after Pentecost (Acts 2:44-46, 4:32-37). No one is required, and not all are prepared, to live this life, but every congregation should be able to offer it to its members.
In this section we will address the frequently made assertion that the common life of the early Church was restricted to Jerusalem -- and even there for only a few years (supposedly, until the persecutions scattered the community). Now, it is in fact true that there are no unambiguously clear statements about the common life in any of the epistles. This has long been known, and the early mention of the common life in Acts 2 and 4 is therefore often referred to as the "Jerusalem experiment," an attempt at trying to "bring heaven to earth," which began in the enthusiasm common to new movements, but which proved too unrealistic to succeed as a permanent way of life. However, this conclusion reflects more often its adherents distaste for common life than it does the actual facts. The "Jerusalem experiment" shows no signs of having been an experiment of human initiative at all; nor does it show any evidence of having failed. Why should the persecution which scattered almost all of the Jerusalem believers (Acts 8:2f) kill the idea and desire for close community any more than it might have extinguished belief in Jesus (which it, of course, did not do)? Those who have let the Spirit speak to them about this matter know by their own desire that these disciples wanted to be with each other in this way, and that they would seek to duplicate the conditions they had known as soon as they could. Because there is no more unambiguously clear evidence for the common life in Scripture after Acts 4 does not at all signify that such life ceased to be. As a matter of fact, we shall soon see that there is evidence of its continuation to be seen here and there all during the post-apostolic period. We must remember, however, that the common life of the Christian brotherhood is not reducible to only one kind of life style (e.g., living under one roof or all having a common treasury). The Church's common life can be lived out in varying depths and varying ways; therefore no one particular life style is held up as the Christian norm either in the Scriptures or in the post-apostolic literature. Let us listen to the testimony of some of our early brethren.
Thou shalt communicate in all things with thy neighbor; thou shalt not call things thine own; for if ye are partakers in common of things which are incorruptible, how much more [should you be] of those things which are corruptible.
"The Didache" (c. 100 A.D.) was a very widely read manual of Church discipline and instruction. Listen to the depth of responsibility for one another that is reflected in the following simple statement:
But let everyone that comes in the name of the Lord be received... But if he wishes to settle with you, being a craftsman, let him work for and eat his bread. But if he has no craft, according to your wisdom provide how he shall live as a Christian among you, but not in idleness.
Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 A.D.) was a well educated, well traveled apologist for the Christian faith. It is known that he spent much time in Samaria (the place of his birth), Ephesus, and Rome (where he ministered and was martyred). Around 150 A.D. he could say this:
And thus do we also, since our persuasion by the Word, stand aloof from them [i.e., the demons], and follow the only unbegotten God through His Son... We who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to every one in need, we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not use the same hearth or fire with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them...
Tertullian (c. 145-220 A.D.) was from Carthage in North Africa, and apparently lived for some time in Rome. Around A.D. 200 he had this to say about the congregational society.
We do not think of goods as private. While in your case your inherited wealth makes all brotherhood impossible, in our case it is by our inherited wealth that we become brothers... We who are in communion in heart and spirit do not hold anything back from the communion of goods. Everything among us is in common, except marriage.
"The Sentences of Sextus," the work of an unknown Christian, were written about this same time. He says, "Those who have in common God as their Father, but do not have possessions in common, are impious."
In his survey of the evidence from the Scriptures and from the early Church, Max Delespesse concluded:
The teaching and practice of a community of goods is so closely linked to the ordinary Christian life that when the texts don't mention it, it is because the matter is so evident and well known. We seldom bother to write down everyday things...
These texts prove to us that the primitive Church lived in an authentic community of goods. This is irrefutable. Some gave everything they owned to the Church, but this was not obligatory. However, it is clear that the sum of each one's goods (whether it be inheritance, profit or salary) was considered as belonging to Christ."
We may conclude that the Jerusalem church was unique only in that all of its members were living in a very mature degree of common life -- this being made possible because of the unique constituency of that congregation at that period. Later on, the typical congregation had a far greater diversity of levels of spirituality (being increasingly Gentile in make-up), and therefore the degree of radicalness in the common life among the new converts would likely be less than the Jerusalem norm.
"Common life" is simply an alternate translation of the Greek word "koinonia," usually translated "fellowship" or "communion." <back>
See the discussion in Schaff's History of the Christian Church, Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1910), p. 671-678. <back>
Ch. xix, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 148. <back>
Chapter 12, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 128. This passage presumes that Christians are to provide job training for each other, and to assume responsibility for the total well-being of each other. <back>
"The First Apology," ch. xiv. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p.167. In this and in other quotations from the early writers, the language admittedly is frequently capable of a range of interpretations. Does "common stock" mean a common purse such as was obviously the case with Jesus and His closest followers, and as is practiced by the Hutterites and monastic groups, or is it a phrase that could also be used legitimately to describe the typical contemporary congregation's Sunday offering? Does the phrase "live familiarly with them" indicate living together with a common purse, or merely meeting several times a week together? We should here again, as with the many other texts we have been examining, listen to the natural sense of the words: can you naturally and easily describe your congregation's Sunday offering as a "bringing what we have into a common stock?" I think not.
Likewise, would you naturally and easily describe the act of meeting together several times a week as an act of "living together with" each other. No -- in either case you can readily feel that you would be stretching Justin's language to an uncomfortable degree to make it describe what is going on in the typical congregation. <back>
"The Apology," 39.10; quoted by Max Delespesse, The Church Community: Leaven and Life-style (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1973), p. 64. This is a very significant bit of evidence, if you stop to think of the way of life that would have had to exist in order for Tertullian to describe it in these terms. <back>
"Sentences of Sextus," no. 278; quoted by Martin Hengel, Property and Riches in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), p. 9. <back>
Delespesse, p. 63, 65. I recommend this book, although with some reservations. It reflects much of the modern unbiblical Roman Catholic optimism about the value of unregenerate man's works, and the possibilities for world order and world peace. <back>
See chapter 9. <back>