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The 8th Commandment, Property, and the Early Church


In Tom Chantry’s “Ten Commandments” series, the section on the 8th commandment looks at the overall issue, the precept behind the wording “do not steal,” of ownership and property.  A study of this topic in both the Old and New Testaments affirms God’s purpose that people own individual property.  The fact that we are commanded to not steal, means that some items must belong to another person and that those items do not belong to you.

As pointed out in this lesson, Genesis 1:26 gives the dominion mandate to the human race

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Implied in this command is the reality that this could not be done by Adam alone:  Adam is a finite individual with limited resources.  Genesis 2 follows up with the specific situation for Adam: he as an individual, along with Eve, would have responsibility for one specific location, the garden – a particular location.  He was made the proprietor of a particular piece of land with defined boundaries.  The overall mandate of Genesis 1 could only be fulfilled through the mechanism of property ownership, of giving particular pieces of land to specific individuals.

Then, with the only country that truly could be called “God’s Country” – the Old Testament nation of Israel – we again see God’s concern and interest in individual property.  Leviticus 25 in particular tells us that the land belongs to God (“the land is mine,” verse 23) – and God’s ownership of the land was the basis on which the Israelites would own the land, and very specific laws were setup concerning the buying and selling of their property, within the context of the year of Jubilee.  The people of Israel were to live as the people of God, living out the commands, the moral precepts, of God.  Their living out these commands required that they have dominion over something, in order to use it for God and to bring glory to God.  As also brought out in scripture, the Israelites had to be free men – freeholders; they were not to be slaves, as slaves cannot fulfill this purpose of possessing something in order to use it for God.

To own something is not to grasp at something.  There is no practicality, and no virtue, in giving away all right and title to what is ours.  This brings the study to the issue of what was going on in the early church in Acts – a case which some have cited to claim support for communism and communal living.  After all, so the claim goes, the text says that the believers “had all things in common.”

But a close look at the texts – Acts 2:44, then Acts 4:32-33, and the first part of Acts 5 – clears away two common errors:  1) an assumption that the Acts texts are providing a legal definition of property, and 2) the idea that this situation was normative.  The first idea – a legal definition of property – ignores the use of language.  For instance, when someone visits us in our home, and we say “my house is your house” or “make yourself at home,” such expressions do not mean that we are relinquishing ownership – but rather a show of hospitality.  Peter’s words to Ananias in Acts 5 make it clear that Ananias’ sin was of lying, and not anything pertaining to the property itself.  The land, while unsold, belonged to Ananias, to do with as he pleased – it was his own, at his disposal; and when Ananias sold it, he then owned some money, which also was at his own disposal.  Thus, scripture itself proves that the early church was not a commune and was not some type of cult in which everyone gave up ownership to the “common pool.”

The early church in Acts was also a unique and unusual situation – and an opportunity for those who were wealthy to be generous and give of what they owned in order to help others.  At this point the church consisted of Jewish converts: people who had been part of the Jewish system and belonged to synagogues, yet now experienced persecution– which included excommunication from Judaism and possibly having their means of livelihood taken from them.  Thus the need to care for many poor people, including many only recently impoverished.  The situation opened a ministry need, which Barnabas (in Acts 4) and likely others as well, stepped into with their generosity.

Chantry also observes another aspect I had not considered, that perhaps is true; the early church had received the prophecy, the words from Jesus, that Jerusalem would be judged and destroyed at some point in the relatively near future.  Thus, the people who sold land had knowledge that the place would be destroyed, and that now was a good time to sell their property while it was still worth something.  Certainly if the land they sold was in or around Jerusalem, this well may have been the case.  Study through commentaries and historical research would better answer this question, of whether the people in Jerusalem were actually selling land that existed in that area or if they were engaging in sales of property that existed outside of that area.

Even aside from the question of the impending judgment upon Jerusalem, though, this lesson is a good study on the biblical issue of individual ownership and support for this point throughout the Bible: from earliest creation for all mankind, in Israel’s own government and civil laws, and the same teaching for us in the New Testament era.

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