And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them.
And with great power the apostles were giving witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, and lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each, as any had need. And Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means, Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. – Acts 4:32-37 NAS
Business leadership, both today and in the past, has placed an emphasis on maintaining unity within the company. This concept of unity carries over beyond corporate leadership into politics, military, social organizations, families, and the church. There are at least two specific purposes for this unity. The external purpose is to show their clients and potential clients a unified front. This communicates that the team is greater than the sum of its members. It also communicates that dealing with one member of the team is the same as dealing with the whole team. The internal purpose for unity is to promote greater efficiency and productivity for the company as the whole. The idea is that if every worker puts the interests of the company above their own personal interest, the whole company will prosper more (including themselves ideally) than if every person works just for themselves. This is the lens through which we often view unity.
The Roman Empire enforced this sense of unity by point of sword or spear. You either put the goals of Rome first they put you down. The Jews also held a similar sense of unity (albeit to a lesser degree) and this was (at least in part) why they appreciated Jesus’ (and the apostle’s) miracles, but would not tolerate His teachings. He claimed to be a Jew, yet He would not fall in line with them for the sake of the team, and so to maintain unity, they expelled Him from their community, publicly discredited Him, and ended His life in the hopes of permanently silencing Him. Unity was important to both of these teams, the Romans and the Jews.
With so much of this emphasis on unity it is hard not to read this passage about the early church as these early Christians putting forth their own attempt to be a successful organization out there in the world, trying to compete with all the other religions out there for the hearts and souls of the largest amount of people… or at the very least, enough to maintain, enough to be legitimate, enough to matter. It is hard not to view them as simply giving all they have, 110% for the team… putting aside their own ambitions and hopes and dreams for the sake of the greater good of the group. We can view the growing persecutions as examples where Christians were willing to “take one for the team”.
However, this concept of unity is not entirely in line with God’s purpose for us as the Church. Business leadership says if one or two sheep wander off, you stay and take care of the 99 for it is better to lose one sheep than to lose the whole herd. That was precisely the logic the Jews used in sending Christ to the cross. However, Jesus taught that God’s heart looks out specifically for the least, the last and the lost, that He, as our shepherd will always leave the 99 and seek the one that has strayed away. Business leadership says that you need to cut out parts (people) from the organization whose productivity, or at least potential productivity does not exceed the amount of resources invested in them. In contrast, Paul writes to the church at Corinth that the Church is like a body and that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you”, nor the ear to the foot “you are just not necessary”. He explains that some parts of the body are stronger and that an important part of their purpose is to protect and honor the weaker or less dignified parts of the body. Business leadership says, we need to be investing in clients (people) who have enough resources to help the organizations ‘get ahead’. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit (not buy mind you, but be given by the real owner) the earth.”
So how then, do we understand this unity here in the birth of the Church? We can view it in two ways. The External purpose of this unity, which Paul would elaborate on later in his letters to several churches was not to show the world the shining face of a group that could compete, but rather that in every individual, Christ would be seen. Even hundreds of years later, when official statements of belief were written down, the express purpose of this external unity was not to impress the world with how well the church “works”, but that in them, in us, all those on the outside looking in, would see Christ and that they would turn to Him, and He would transform their lives. How is this different from ‘worldly’ unity? It means we do not find our identity in who we are as a group, but in Who Christ is, and in faith, we understand that He holds all of our differences together and makes it all work. We do not do things just because everyone else is convinced it is the best thing to do for the group… we all take our direction from Christ, the head that holds us all together. We respect the authority figures that God puts in our lives, and listen and obey it diligently – unless it comes into conflict with Christ (and yes this does happen from time to time even in the Church).
Secondly, the Internal purpose of unity in the church is to help us all mature in Christ, to be drawn closer to Him and discover and become the people God has always intended us to be. Oddly enough, this does not always look like “productivity”. Some of us find that the maturing process does not always make us look, act, or feel bigger or stronger over time. In fact, it is often just the opposite that happens. The longer and closer we walk with God, the more we lose that childhood sensation of personal invincibility and the more often we find ourselves weak and helpless against the evil, brokenness, and desperation in the world. Helpless… but not Hopeless, for as we grow with God, we also see that for Him, nothing is impossible, and that His love motivates Him to do all things for our benefit. Not just for the benefit of His team as a whole, but for each and every single person – whether they play for His team or not. It is only through loving Christ first, before ourselves, before the Church, that we can truly pour out ourselves as an offering to Him, knowing full well that our blessing may pass on into the very hands of our enemies – just as Christ taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them. Worldly wisdom tells us that the Church is only shooting itself in the foot by blessing its enemies, yet that is precisely what Christ did throughout his ministry and the whole reason we have salvation at all. He took their “better that one should die than the whole group perish” notion and turned it on its head by willingly going through it (much to the chagrin of his followers), not because it was His desire to die, but because He trusted that His Heavenly Father could take His life, poured out in front of His enemies, and bless the entire world through His loss. But even more than that, He did it because His Heavenly Father asked Him to… and God asked Him to because He thought you and I were worth it. He thought that however many people would accept salvation, whether it be a large number or only a few, would be worth it. God gets no big return on His investment, for we have nothing to give that He does not already own. The only way that we, as the Church can truly be the Body of Christ and live and give that selflessly, is if we find our strength, our wisdom, ourselves in Christ and in Christ alone.