Sunday, October 22, 2006

Property Issues

Here's the thing. I don't see how you can read Acts 4:32-36, and the follow-up cautionary tale about Ananias and Saphira in chapter 5 and come away with the idea that, "We have the right to do anything we want with our property," is a gospel value.

Now the community of believers were of one heart and soul. No one said that anything he had was his own, but they held all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and great grace was upon them all. There was no one in need among them for anyone who had lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds and laid them at the apostles feet; so distribution was made unto eveyone according as any had need.

In fact, this passage seems to draw a direct correlation between "holding all things in common" and "a powerful witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

I think our big problem is that practically the only time the "common ownership" principle is invoked in our common life is in the midst of acrimonious property disputes that flair up when a congregation want to leave the denomination. We don't actually teach and practice this principle with any depth in other areas of our common lives or our personal lives. We all own our own houses, cars, lawn-mowers, TVs, washers and dryers, boats, campers, stereo systems, etc. If I suggested to a member of my church that she should sell her vacation home on the beach so we could help some of our young families buy their first homes in this wildly expensive market, I'd be strung up on one of our fancy banner hangers. If I asked one of our elders to sell some stock so we could pay for the prescription meds that some of our elderly members can't afford, it wouldn't go over so well, would it?

But since we don't practice "common ownership" in any intentional way, it seems coersive and arbitrary to say that as a Church we are all co-owners of each others' buildings, property and other real assets. It is arbitrary because it is not the logical extension of practices that are occuring regularly at the local level.

Another thing I notice about this passage is that it mentions that the community of believers were of one heart and soul but it doesn't mention that they were of one mind. Maybe they'd already figured out--even in those early days--that THAT wasn't going to happen with any regularity, so their unity would have to be grounded in something else.

9 comments:

Quotidian Grace said...

That's a very insightful observation--we don't practice communal ownership in any other way so it's hard to accept the idea that churches hold their property in trust for the denomination. Plus, of course, that we don't seem to be of one mind about a lot of things. Little wonder there is discord...

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your turning to Scripture to address this issue, but then you take a turn toward what WE, as a part of culture, don't do. I don't follow your logic as the church is called to live counterculturally.

Purechristianithink said...

Anonymous,
I'm NOT talking about what we as a culture don't do. I'm talking about what we in the church don't do--namely consider that we hold all property in common and live that way at the congregational level. That's why I gave examples of one congregation member who owns two homes selling one so that a member with no home might have one, or a congregation member with a large stock portfolio selling some so that the person next to him in the pew who is taking his heart medicine every other day instead of every day has can afford adequate health care. I think it is because we don't practice "common ownership" to any great extent at the congregational level that the idea of common ownership at any other level seems strange and offensive.

juniper68 said...

thanks for this food for thought. I often wonder what it would be like if we in the mainstream took the Bible a little more seriously. I think in order not to be fundamentalist, we've listed a little far in the "so let's not bother with any of it" direciton - at least in my denonimation.

I'm a frequent reader, although I rarely comment here, but wanted to thank you for your blog - it's really enjoyable and thought provoking.

`tim said...

Ironic (providential?, coincidental?, etc?)... I preached yesterday on Acts 2:44-45 (essentially the same passage as you just mentioned). It's part of a longer series I've been doing on "what the church is" and "what the church does."

The communal aspect of Christianity is at the core of both of those issues.

I want to push back on your issue of comnunal ownership, though. When the Bible talks about them holding everything in common, I'm not convinced it means a true "communal ownership." Holding everything "in common" seems to have ment that they retained private ownership but that such private ownership assumed and worked within a context of a communal society.

What I mean by that is that, although they "held everything in common" they still "sold their possessions and goods" for those in need. In otherwords, they seem to have maintained a certain amount of private ownership but did so under the assumption that those private resources were available for the needs of the community.

This seems the case with Ananias and Saphira too. They sold a piece of property and held some back. Holding it back doesn't seem to have been the sin, the fatal sin (literally!) was lying about it and misrepresenting their generosity.

I think the issue at hand isn't so much who owns what, but rather, what kinds of sacrifices are we willing to make for the wellbeing of others. (I.e. Are we willing to sacrifice our own "goods and property" to care for those in need?)

All of which is a long way to say that, I think your thesis is correct: We don't have the right to do anything we want with our property. Our individualistic, materialistic (and however many other "istics" we can think of!) society (and practices WITHIN the church) prevent us from honestly caring for those in need both within and outside of "the body."

Love your blog.

Grace and Peace,
`tim

Anonymous said...

Hey. :)

Mary Ann again-- current pastor and former professional academic economist. (No, you don't lose the economic perspective-- it's a conversion.)

Every single property rights system is arbitrary. This is something that seems peculiarly hard for people who have grown up under one basic system to "get." (That includes professional economists, BTW.) No property rights system-- set of what assets and rights over the use of each asset type can and cannot be held by individuals and by societies-- is ordained by nature. Or by God, so far as I can tell.

Now, I do think that Scripture-- all of it-- clearly says that our economic priority is taking care of those who have the least wealth and the least power.

But it doesn't really indicate anything about whether rights to, say, clean air should be held by individuals or societies, should be saleable, or anything like that.

In the U.S. culture as a whole, we are currently peculiarly averse to redistribution. We forget that any property rights assignation is an arbitrary and legal decision, and cry "Sacrilege!" at changes.

And we import this attitude into the church as well.

Not one of the pleasanter forms of syncretism, if you ask me. :(

Mary Ann

St. Casserole said...

I like your thinking here. Thanks

St. Casserole said...

I didn't read the earlier comments when I left the one above. I like your post. Don't know what's going on with anonymous.

Quartus said...

Maybe you should read the 'cautionary tale about Ananais and Saphira in chapter 5' again. Note the words of the apostle Peter to Ananias "Act 5:4 Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? " seems to point to the right to do with your personal property as you deem fit. There are other principles that would inter into a persons decision that might effect how much love the person has. But it doesn't change the fact that he has the right to do with as he chooses.

Quartus