“Does the New Testament indicate that the early Christians were forced to equally distribute their possessions among one another?”
No, rather Luke testifies to the voluntary, loving, and selfless disposition of Christians in Jerusalem:
“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. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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” (Acts 4:32-35, ESV).
The fruit of the Spirit was manifested in the lives of the early saints. From this, some have concluded that Christianity demands some kind of social and economic equality among its members. It is alleged that Christ taught a religious socialism, or communism, where “all things common” means the mandated redistribution of possessions. This is not a biblical concept. It does not represent the facts recorded by Luke, and it does not conform to the sum of God’s Word pertaining to these matters.
Luke observed the gracious disposition of these early disciples. This vast multitude was of one heart and soul. Their common interest in the gospel overshadowed their diversity. The Lord’s resurrection convicted them to act with loving concern for their brethren (v. 33).
The selling of property was not obligatory. The examples of Barnabas and Ananias demonstrate the voluntary nature of this method of benevolence. Peter told Ananias, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). It is apparent that not all Christians were dispossessed of their property, for the disciples were later meeting in the house of Mary, Mark’s mother, in Acts 12:12.
Not everyone received a distribution of what was laid at the apostles’ feet. “It was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:35). J.W. McGarvey observed, “The fact that distribution was made to each as he had need, shows that it was only the needy who received any thing, and that there was no equalization of property” (Original Commentary on Acts, Bowling Green: Guardian of Truth, N.d., p. 67).
Richard N. Longenecker points out the historical context of the early church in Jerusalem: “With the economic situation in Palestine steadily deteriorating because of famine and political unrest (cf. Jeremias, Jerusalem, pp. 121-22), employment was limited – not only for Galileans and others who had left their fishing and farming for living in the city, but also for the regular residents of Jerusalem who now faced economic and social sanctions because of their new messianic faith” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981, p. 310).
The needy had a legitimate lack of necessities. The apostles would not have subsidized indigents who could work, yet refused to work. Those who can work, but do not, sin (not those who can not, like some disabled, sick, elderly, etc.). As Jack Cottrell correctly notes, “A deliberate refusal to work is a refusal to carry one’s share of the total load. Such a person is a parasite, a burden” (Tough Questions – Biblical Answers: Part One, Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001, p. 64).
Paul admonished that the unmotivated should go without, if they will not work (2 Thess. 3:10). Thus, a man’s industry corresponds to his welfare, and God may bless men with prosperity as they work hard and seek for spiritual wisdom. Likewise, the Bible teaches that a family has a greater moral obligation to their own (1 Tim. 5:3-8). If families would take care of their own needy, the church, Paul says, would not be burdened unnecessarily (1 Tim. 5:16). But supporting the sluggard only encourages him to continue in sin.
The church is not a communal society. Gareth Reese concludes appropriately, “Now both communism and fellowship (koinonia) have a root idea of ‘common.’ But after that, the two ideas go their separate ways. Communism says, ‘What is yours is mine, and I’ll take it!’ Fellowship says, ‘What is mine is yours; I’ll share it!’ The one forcibly invades the right of private property; the other voluntarily relinquishes the right of private property where it sees a need” (New Testament History: Acts, Joplin: College Press, 1976, p. 193).
Christians should be especially concerned with the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). Genuine faith and the love of God motivate them to assist their brethren with the world’s goods (Jas. 2:15-17; 1 Jn. 3:17). But the goal is not to bring out “economic justice.” This would contradict the law of sowing and reaping. Indiscriminate redistribution would put resources into the hands of the wasteful. It would reflect on God, who providentially blesses the industrious, wise, and generous Christian.
The goal of the church is not physical, although physical concerns are not to be neglected. The objective is heavenly and eternal, not earthly and temporary. Biblical authority and sound judgment must dictate the balanced use of its resources.