The Christian sect known as “The Twelve Tribes” teach that communal living is required of all Christians. How can I show that this is not biblical?
There is a group of people called ”The Twelve Tribes” who believe that in order to become a true disciple you have to sell all you have and live together in a community. They quote Acts 2:41-47 that all those who believed sold all they had and shared everything in common, neither rich or poor. When I ask them where else the Bible shows such community life is commanded they use 1 Thessalonians 2:14 “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus…” They claim that this is a command to follow the example of what was going on in Acts 2. They also believe that God is coming only for a group of people who live in such communities. They use Rev. 19:7/21:1-2 “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come,and his Bride has made herself ready.” They think the rest of the churches don’t follow this example and we’re all divided, and this is why the Lord cannot return if His church isn’t one. My question is: How would you go about refuting that idea, that we must sell all we have in live together in a community? Are there any documents of the early churches that show this?
There is a tradition in the history of Christianity of taking the example of Acts 2:41-47 as a commandment that all disciple of Jesus should live what is essentially a communal life and should have no personal possessions. I suppose that if a particular group of Christians chooses this lifestyle, it is acceptable and a Christian certainly has the freedom to choose such a lifestyle.
However, to treat Acts 2:41-47 as a commandment is rather bad hermeneutics in my opinion. This scripture does NOT say that all disciples of Jesus should sell everything and live a communal life. This passage is an example, not a commandment. Just look at the grammar of the passage. In fact, not only does this passage not command this behavior, it does not even imply that this is what the church in Jerusalem did. It said that they “had everything in common” and “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Apparently they acted as if what they had was not theirs in regard to meeting the needs of others. But when they “sold property and possessions,” this means that they still had property and possessions! In other words, those who did this when they saw a need, apparently, had not sold all that they had! So much for this person’s interpretation. Besides, we know from Acts 5:1-2 that Ananias and Sapphira still owned a piece of property. Apparently, they had not sold all that they had. This act, problematic as it was, proves that in Jerusalem, people still had property, but they often were willing to sell it in order to help others out. This proves, beyond a doubt, that they did not do what your friend says they did. Another example is in Acts 6:1-4. Again, we see some who had need and others who had possessions which could be used to help others in need. The Greek Christians definitely did not live in a communal situation with the Hebrew Christians.
So, your friend’s (or rather his church’s) doctrine is not supported for two reasons, both of which prove conclusively that it is not correct.
1. Acts 2:41-47 is a description of what the early church in Jerusalem did, but the grammar of the passage is not in the form of a commandment. Even if they were literally selling everything and living a fully communal life (which they were not), then this passage simply is NOT a command, and should not be treated as a commandment. An example is not a commandment.
2. A simple and straightforward reading of Acts 2:41-47, as well as Acts 5:1-2 and Acts 6:1-4 and others as well prove that the Jerusalem church did not practice selling of everything by all members.
Let me add two more reasons this doctrine is not supported in the New Testament. First, there is no evidence whatsoever that this was taught or practiced outside of Jerusalem. Paul taught in 1 Cor 9 that those who preach the gospel should be paid for preaching. Paul is giving a commandment which could not be obeyed in a communistic church. He also taught in Romans that disciples should pay their taxes, which would not be possible for a person who has no possessions. Second, church history provides no evidence that communal living was present in the church before the third century. Ascetics living in communal situations became a practice in the church only in the fourth century, after Anthony began to practice communal living of monks.
The belief of this group is even more poorly supported by 1 Thessalonians 2:14, Revelation 19:7 and Revelation 21:1-2. These are clear examples of eisegesis (reading something into the text, rather than out of it). In the case of 1 Thessalonians, to imply that it implied all should sell everything they have and live in communes is to assume the answer before asking the question. It is circular reasoning. He is trying prove that this implied that they lived communally, by assuming that they were living communally. This is a logical fallacy. Similarly, the Revelation passages do not even mention or even remotely imply anything like communism in the Church. If you read Revelation 19:7, how can anyone see communal living here? This is rather blatantly reading into the text something that literally is not there at all.
I suggest you approach this topic with humility and without judgment of your friend. Please do what your friend does not appear to be doing, which is try to find middle ground. Let him know that you understand this this form of living is part of the Christian tradition and that for a disciple to sell all he or she has is a legitimate expression of Christian living, but, in humility, show him that this interpretation is in absolutely no way supported by the scriptures he or his Christian group use.
This group implies that if the Christian Church is not united, then Jesus cannot come back. I do not agree with this claim, but let us for a moment accept this premise. If they are right, then those who legalistically require all believers to accept this practice would be preventing, not helping, to bring unity among all Christians and to bring Jesus back. To demand all Christians accept this practice is to be divisive. It is to impose a particular interpretation of scripture when there is absolutely no possible way all believers will ever accept this is a biblical requirement. Unless this group can prove that selling everything is a requirement in order to be saved, then their demand all must agree with them is to add a requirement to salvation. This is one of the most egregious errors a Christian group can make (Galatians 1:8-9) and it is divisive. Please humbly and gently help your friend understand that his church is not bringing about Christian unity but division, which is something Jesus most strongly taught against (John 17:20-23).