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The Economy of the Early Church

Why the Christians Abandoned Private Property

Eberhard Arnold


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    What a tragedy it has been that those who call themselves Christian have given up this way of life.

Jesus brought a fresh, new message to the world. It is a message that heralds both judgment and rebirth. It announces a totally different social order: the coming reign of God, which will bring to an end the present age ruled by man (Mark 1:14-15). Without God we sink down into hollowness and coldness of heart, into stubbornness and self-delusion. In Jesus the Father revealed his love to us, a love that wants to conquer and rule everything that once belonged to it. Jesus calls, urging a divided humankind to sit together at one table, God’s table, where there is room for all. He invites all people to a meal of fellowship and fetches his guests from the roadsides and skid rows (Luke 14:15-24). The future age comes as God’s banquet, God’s wedding-feast, God’s reign of unity. God will be Lord over his creation again, consummating the victory of his spirit of unity and love. . . .(Rev. 19:1-10)

The new future puts an end to all powers, legal systems, and property laws now in force. The coming kingdom reveals itself even now wherever God’s all-powerful love unites people in a life of surrendered brotherhood. Jesus proclaimed and brought nothing but God, nothing but his coming rule and order. He founded neither churches nor sects. His life belonged to greater things. Pointing toward the ultimate goal, he gave the direction (John 14:6). He brought us God’s compass, which determines the way by taking its bearings from the pole of the future.

Jesus called people to a practical way of loving brotherhood. This is the only way in keeping with our expectation of that which is coming. It alone leads us to others, it alone breaks down the barriers erected by the covetous will to possess, because it is determined to give itself to all. The Sermon on the Mount depicts the liberating power of God’s love wherever it rules supreme (Matt. 5-7). When Jesus sent out his disciples and ambassadors, he gave them their work assignment, without which no one can live as he did (Matt. 10): in word and deed we are to proclaim the imminence of the kingdom. He gives authority to overcome diseases and demonic powers. To oppose the order of the present world epoch and focus on the task at hand we must abandon all possessions and take to the road. The hallmark of his mission is readiness to become a target for people’s hatred in the fierce battle of spirits, and finally, to be killed in action.

After Jesus was killed the small band of his disciples in Jerusalem proclaimed that though their leader had been shamefully executed, he was indeed still alive and remained their hope and faith as the bringer of the kingdom. The present age, they said, was nearing its end. Humankind was now faced with the greatest turning point ever in its history, and Jesus would appear a second time in glory and authority. God’s rule over the whole earth would be ensured.

The powers of this future kingdom could already be seen at work in the early church. People were transformed and made new. The strength to die inherent in Jesus’ sacrifice led them to heroically accept the way of martyrdom (Acts 6:8-7:60),and more, it assured them of victory over demonic powers of wickedness and disease (Acts 8:4-8). He who rose to life through the Spirit had a strength that exploded in an utterly new attitude to life: love to one’s brother and love to one’s enemy, the divine justice of the coming kingdom. Through this new spirit, property was abolished in the early church. Material possessions were handed over to the ambassadors for the poor of the church (Acts 11:27-30). Through the presence and power of the Spirit and through faith in the Messiah, this band of followers became a brotherhood.

This was their immense task: to challenge the people of Israel in the face of imminent catastrophe, and more, to shake the whole of humankind from its sleep in the face of certain destruction, so that all might prepare for the coming of the kingdom. The poorest people suddenly knew that their new faith was the determining factor, the decisive moment in the history of humankind. For this tremendous certainty, the early church gained strength in daily reading of the Jewish Law and Prophets; in baptism, the symbol of faith given by the prophet John and Jesus himself to represent submitting to death in a watery grave in order to be reborn; in communal meals celebrated to proclaim the death of Jesus; and in collective prayer to God and Christ. The words and stories of Jesus and all that they demanded were told over and over again. Thus the original sources for the Gospels and New Testament are to be found in the early church (1 Cor. 15:1-8).

“Lord, come!” was their age-old cry of faith and infinite longing, preserved in the original Aramaic from this early time of first love (1 Cor. 16:22). He who was executed and buried was not dead. He drew near as the sovereign living one. The Messiah Jesus rose from the dead and his kingdom will break in at his second coming! That was the message of his first followers, such as Peter, who led the church at Jerusalem at its founding.

The spirit of Christ translates love of God into divine service of love to others. Whoever serves the poor, the destitute, the downtrodden, serves Christ himself, for God is near to them (Matt. 25:40).To be loved by God means to love God and one’s neighbor: community with God becomes community with one another (1 John 4:19-21).So out of the expectation of the coming kingdom, life and service in the church take shape. Faith in that which is coming unites the believers in one common will and brings about brotherhood. This bond of unity in common dedication is the positive result of opposition to the present age.

Such uniting in the Spirit needs no set forms. In the first period, the elders and deacons needed for each community retained the tasks allotted to them, but also accepted the gifts of grace given by the Spirit. Although the tireless travels of the apostles and prophets helped to strengthen the unity between the communities, the consciousness of being one was created solely by the one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one faith, one baptism, one body and soul given to all (Eph. 4:3-6).

Through the Spirit, this oneness resulted in an equality that had its roots in God alone. Just as alienation from God is common to all, so the Spirit bestows his divine gift equally and totally on all. Those gripped by God see all inequality as a powerful incentive to become brothers and sisters in perfect love.1 The early Christians, united in purpose through the one Spirit, were “brothers” and “sisters” because they were all “consecrated ones,” “saints,” “the elect,” and “believers.” The same neediness, guilt, and smallness made them all “poor,” a name frequently used for them in the earliest times because their belief in God and their attitude to temporal goods was regarded as poverty.2

The freedom to work voluntarily and the possibility of putting one’s capabilities to use were the basis for all acts of love and charity. Self-determination in their work gave an entirely voluntary character to all social work done by the early Christians. Hermas gives another indication of the spirit ruling in the church. He writes that the wealthy could be fitted into the building of the church only after they had stripped themselves of their wealth for the sake of their poorer brothers and sisters.3 Wealth was regarded as deadly to the owner and had to be made serviceable to the public by being given away. The early Christians taught that just as in nature – the origin and destiny of creation – the light, air, and soil belong to all, so too material goods should be the common property of all.

The practice of surrendering everything in love was the hallmark of the Christians. When this declined, it was seen as a loss of the spirit of Christ (John 13:5). Urged by this love, many even sold themselves into slavery or went to debtors’ prison for the sake of others. Nothing was too costly for the Christians when the common interest of their brotherhood was at stake; they developed an incredible activity in the works of love.4

In fact, everything the church owned at that time belonged to the poor. The affairs of the poor were the affairs of the church; every gathering served to support bereft women and children, the sick, and the destitute.5 The basic feature of the movement, a spirit of boundless voluntary giving, was more essential than the resulting communal life and the rejection of private property (2 Cor. 8:1-15). In the early church the spontaneity of genuine love merged private property into a communism of love. This same urge of love later made Christian women of rank give away their property and become beggars. The pagans deplored the fact that instead of commanding respect by means of their wealth, these women became truly pitiful creatures, knocking at doors of houses much less respected than their own had been.6 To help others, the Christians took the hardest privations upon themselves. Nor did they limit their works of love to fellow believers.7 Even Emperor Julian had to admit that “the godless Galileans feed our poor in addition to their own.8

According to Christians, the private ownership of property sprang from the primordial sin of man: it was the result of covetous sin (1 Tim. 6:6-10). However necessary property might be for life in the present demonic epoch, the Christian could not cling to it. The private larder or storeroom had to be put at the disposal of guests and wanderers just as much as the common treasury.9 Nor could anybody evade the obligation to extend hospitality. In this way each congregation reached out far beyond its own community.

But in other ways too the communities helped their brothers and sisters in different places. In very early times the church at Rome enjoyed high esteem in all Christian circles because it “presided in works of love.”10 The rich capital city was able to send help in all directions, whereas the poorer Jerusalem had to accept support from other churches in order to meet the needs of the crowds of pilgrims that thronged its streets. Within its own city, the relatively small church at Rome gave regular support to fifteen hundred distressed persons in the year A.D. 250.11

Even in the smallest church community, the overseer had to be a friend of the poor,12 and there was at least one widow responsible to see to it, day and night, that no sick or needy person was neglected.13 The deacon was responsible to find and help the poor and to impress on the rich the need to do their utmost. Deacons also served at table. There was no excuse for anyone because he had not learned or was unable to do this service.14 Everybody was expected to go street by street, looking for the poorest dwellings of strangers. As a result, Christians spent more money in the streets than the followers of other religions spent in their temples.15 Working for the destitute was a distinguishing mark of the first Christians.

Everyone was equally respected, equally judged, and equally called. The result was equality and fellowship in everything: the same rights, the same obligation to work, and the same opportunities. All this led to a preference for a simple standard of living. Even the spirit-bearers and leaders who were cared for by the church could not expect any more than the simplest fare of the poor. The mutual respect among these early Christians bore fruit in a “socialistic” solidarity rooted in a love that sprang from the belief that all people are born equal.

The rank afforded by property and profession is incompatible with such fellowship and simplicity, and repugnant to it (James 2:1-13). For that reason alone, the early Christians had an aversion to any high judicial position or commission in the army.16 They found it impossible to take responsibility for any penalty or imprisonment, any disfranchisement, any judgment over life or death, or the execution of any death sentence pronounced by martial or criminal courts. Other trades and professions were out of the question because they were connected with idolatry or immorality. Christians therefore had to be prepared to give up their occupations. The resulting unemployment and threat of hunger would be no more frightening than violent death by martyrdom.17

Underpinning these practical consequences was unity of word and deed (James 1:26-27). A pattern of daily life emerged that was consistent with the message that the Christians proclaimed. Most astounding to the outside observer was the extent to which poverty was overcome in the vicinity of the communities, through voluntary works of love. It had nothing to do with the more or less compulsory social welfare of the state.

Chastity before marriage, absolute faithfulness in marriage, and strict monogamy were equally tangible changes (Heb. 13:4). In the beginning this was expressed most clearly in the demand that brothers in responsible positions should have only one wife (1 Tim. 3:2). The foundation for Christian marriage was purely religious: marriage was seen as a symbol of the relationship of the one God with his one people, the one Christ with his one church (Eph. 5:22-33).

From then on, a completely different humanity was in the making (Eph. 2:15-16). This shows itself most clearly in the religious foundation of the family, which is the starting point of every society and fellowship, and in the movement toward a communism of love, which is the predominant tendency of all creation. The new people, called out and set apart by God, are deeply linked to the coming revolution and renewal of the whole moral and social order. It is a question of the most powerful affirmation of the earth and humankind. Through their Creator and his miraculous power, the believers expect the perfection of social and moral conditions. This is the most positive attitude imaginable: they expect God’s perfect love to become manifest for all people, comprehensively and universally, answering their physical needs as well as the need of their souls.

From Plough Quarterly No.2. The complete essay appears in The Early Christians.


1. According to the Didache (ca. 60–110 AD): “You shall not turn away from someone in need, but shall share everything with your brother or sister, and do not claim that anything is your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more so in perishable things! . . . ‘Let your gift sweat in your hands until you know to whom to give it.’” Didache 4.8, 1.5–6, trans. Michael W. Holmes in The Apostolic Fathers (Baker, 2007).

2. See Adolf von Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, vol. 1, trans. James Moffat (Harper, 1962), 401 ff.

3. The Shepherd of Hermas 6.5–7.

4. The pagan Lucian describes the help Christians gave to prisoners in Peregrinus 13.

5. Justin Martyr, First Apology 67.

6. Macarius Magnes, Apocriticus III.5; Porphyry Fragment No. 58 in Harnack’s edition, 82. See Harnack, Mission and Expansion, vol. 2, 74–75.

7.. Didascalia Apostolorum xv.

8. Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, v.17; see also Harnack, op. cit, vol. 1, 162.

9. Tertullian, To His Wife ii.4.

10. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, preamble.

11. Bishop Cornelius, quoted in Eusebius, Church History vi.43.11.

12. Tertullian, loc. cit.

13. Harnack, Texte und Untersuchungen ii (Harnack and Gebhardt, 1886), 24.

14. See Cyprian, Letters, especially Letter 62, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, ed. A. C. Coxe (Eerdmans, 1952), 355–356.

15. Tertullian, loc. cit.

16. According to Tertullian, one could agree to a Christian’s right to hold a high office in which he was empowered to adjudicate over the civic rights of a person only if he did not condemn or penalize anyone, or cause anyone to be put into chains, thrown into prison, or tortured (On Idolatry 17).

17. Tertullian, On Idolatry 12: “Faith does not fear hunger.” See Harnack, Texte und Unter­suchungen, vol. 42, 2 and 4, p. 117.

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Eberhard Arnold was a theologian, educator, publisher, and community leader.

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