“All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
Private property is one of the most fundamental aspects of any market-based system of economics. Why does private property matter and what are Christians to do with Acts 2?
The economic concept of “the tragedy of the commons” is a good place to begin. Imagine a shared resource with no clear owner, like say, the men’s bathroom in a college dorm. This critical resource is used by every member of the community on a daily basis (except for that one guy). Without the bathroom, the men in the dorm would be forced to find other places to bathe, brush their teeth, and flex in the nude – or risk becoming like that one guy. The college uses a portion of the money it collects from room and board fees to pay a cleaning crew to regularly clean the space. Now, ask yourself why. With so many able-bodied men sharing such an important resource, couldn’t the college save money by simply expecting the men to clean the bathroom themselves?
The answer is – of course not! Human beings have proven over and over that without being provided an incentive to do otherwise, they will simply ravage a resource and then move on. The settlers of the West nearly exterminated the American Buffalo and the humans would have strip-mined Pandora if Sigourney Weaver hadn’t stopped them. Thankfully there is a powerful incentive against this disgusting, sinful behavior: private property rights. When a resource is owned, when it has economic value to an individual, it is cared for. A group of guys will let a bathroom in their dorm rot, but the minute they get their own place, put down a security deposit, and have ownership it becomes a different story.
The same principle applies in larger communities. Without ownership, there is simply no incentive to care for necessary resources. However, when individuals own resources, steward them, and provide them to others through trade, communities thrive! And here we see the basics of a market economy.
What about Acts 2? These verses make it pretty clear that the early Christians were living in a community of shared resources. Shouldn’t we emulate their model? Yes and no.
If humans were never intended to own stuff, the command “Thou shall not steal” seems hardly necessary. God’s prohibition against theft proves that property rights are a fundamental tenet of the created order. At least, fundamental enough to be included in the Ten Commandments.
Scriptures throughout both Old and New Testament also affirm the importance of private property. Inheritances, from Jacob to the Prodigal Son, presume the right to pass property on to heirs. When Zacchaeus meets Jesus and proclaims that he will give half of his possessions to the poor, Jesus doesn’t say “Actually, Zacchaeus, Christians give everything to the poor.” No, he proclaims salvation for Zacchaeus.
It’s quite possible that God will call you to give away everything you own to serve him, just as he did with the disciples and the wealthy ruler. If that’s the case, you should do it. But it’s important to distinguish between the free choice to relinquish certain rights and a mandate for each believer to do so. The wonderful history of Christian faith includes both poor (John the Baptist, Mother Theresa) and wealthy (Cornelius, Augustine).
Clearly, not all Christians are called to lives of communal poverty. What is clear is that some are, and that all believers are called to give generously out of whatever they own.