The ideals of Pentecost failed in the early Church


Scripture, Trinity Sunday, Part 1: Acts 4: 32-37 Nigel Bunce

Ideals of Pentecost — and their failure

This Scripture reading upholds the ideals of Pentecost that we found last week in Chapter 2.  The earliest Christians shared everything and gave cheerfully to any members who needed help. For example, Barnabas sold some property and gave the proceeds to the general kitty. 

A similar vision inspired the development of communist societies in the 20th century. And like those modern societies, the early Christians failed to keep to the ideals of Pentecost.  As early as the very next chapter, we find that Ananias and his wife Sapphira also sold property, but they kept back some of the proceeds. Peter rebuked Ananias when he discovered they had lied about how much they got for their property. They could have done what they liked with the money, Peter said.  But they had lied to God.

Leadership among the Apostles

The Temple authorities got annoyed at the believers for proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. So they told Peter and John to explain themselves [Acts 4: 1-22]. Shortly afterwards, some members felt that they should not have to wait on tables.  That led to the formation of a formal leadership group [Acts 6: 1-6]. 

To me, these incidents symbolize the origin of the Church.  It is a human institution.  However, it is not the idealism of Pentecost. The Church is an organization. Organizations have leadership teams.  They develop bureaucracies and rules. In Churches, some of the rules are called doctrines, which everyone is supposed to believe.

Why the ideals of communism and equality fail in practice

After leadership emerges, the leaders get or take privileges.  They often abuse their power. Think about Communist leaders like Josef Stalin in the USSR, the Kim family in North Korea, Xi Jinping in China.  The French Revolution promoted liberty, equality and fraternity, but a reign of terror followed. The American Declaration of Independence declared that, “all [men] are created equal”  However, the recent riots over the death of George Floyd give the lie to that statement.

Animal Farm, book cover

George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm (1945) is a parable and a satire on communism. Farm animals rebel against their human farmer. They hope to create a society where all animals are equal, free, and happy. But the pigs become the leaders. They start to lord it over the other animals. Near the end of the story, the pigs write the slogan, “All animals are equal”. But an unknown hand adds, “But some are more equal than others.”  

Leadership in the Church

Animal Farm reminds me that the spokesperson for the Anglican Church of Canada is called the Primate, which means, “First among equals” (!)  In contrast, outright corruption was rife in the medieval Church. Popes lived like kings. As priests, they were supposed to be celibate, yet Popes had children. Again  like kings, some of their children even inherited the papacy from their fathers. Even today, cardinals call themselves “Princes of the Church”. Clericalism is the name of a problem that results when clergy expect special treatment from their parishioners. Please stop me if you see signs of clericalism in me.

True equality seems to be possible only in very small groups. As far as we can tell, hunter-gatherer groups had 50 members or fewer. Hutterite communities must split when their number reaches 100. St. Paul taught that there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor male and female’ [Galatians 3:28].  That ideal was probably achievable because the Christian community in Galatia was small.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to maintain that ideal as a community grows. I hope and pray that we can continue to uphold the ideals of Pentecost at St George’s Lowville.  Maybe it’s not such a disadvantage to be small.