Let’s take a bit of a different angle on our recent topics of leadership and authority by going to a very familiar story of Ananias and Sapphira from Acts chapter 5. A unique story of death in church. This story has been referenced by some to support the concept of apostolic authority and the serious implications of rebellion against it. Careful reading of the passage reveals something much different.
To set up the story, the setting is in the early church (or “ecclesia”) in the first century, shortly after the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was moving powerfully. Signs and wonders were commonplace and the unity of the believers in Jerusalem was so strong that there “were no needy among them” and “from time to time those who owned houses and lands sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” Acts 4:32 – 35. It is important to note a few things about this exciting time:
- The unity was a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit and was not the result of a teaching series on unity of the brethren.
- The sharing of possessions, selling of houses and lands and distribution of proceeds was not based on a giving campaign by the apostles but were spontaneous acts by those who owned them.
- There is no indication that people sold all of their possessions to share the proceeds with others. In fact the example of Barnabas (v 36) states that he sold a field that he owned, not the field that he owned. Tradition indicates that Barnabas was a very wealthy man and likely bankrolled the early movement in Antioch as well as he and Paul’s early missionary journeys (another blog for another day).
So let’s now look a little closer at Ananias and Sapphira:
“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such of thing? You have not lied to human beings but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died and great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” Acts 5:1 – 11
At Back to Eden Group, our core values are summarized as Relationship, Stewardship and Dominion. We believe that we will have healthy relationships with God, other people and those in authority when we steward what we have been entrusted with in life and exercise dominion over circumstances, creation and everything we touch. This is what it looks like when we “become mature” and “attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”. Eph 4:13 All three of these values require intentional and persistent focus and commitment. This story is a great example of the worst possible outcome when that does not occur.
Notice two key questions from the Apostle Peter “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold?” and “after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”. These are dominion and stewardship statements. Peter is often cited as the most senior apostle (along with James) in the early church in Jerusalem yet he did not make any claim for either the land or the proceeds from the sale. He did not remind Ananias about any previous pledge to the church or that they were in rebellion to his authority or a church organization. He affirmed that the land and money was entirely theirs and affirmed their dominion over it and the decision regarding giving the proceeds of the sale. Ultimately, Peter did not see the deception as a challenge to his “apostolic authority” but rather as a lie directly to God. In that Holy Spirit charged environment of powerful unity and signs and wonders, this blatant lie resulted in the death of both Ananias and Sapphira. The end of their earthly relationship with each other and other believers.
We have heard well known leaders teach that Peter actually made a “mistake” and “didn’t realize the power of his words” in this situation and therefore this is not an example of God’s judgement of sin. Interesting that Ananias died after hearing Peter state that he had lied to God. Peter did not proclaim his death or pronounce anything like a verdict. He just stated the fact of what Ananias had done. Peter had nothing to do with the death. In the case of Sapphira, once Peter had observed the death of her husband and had confirmed that she was in on the lie, he simply stated that people were waiting to carry her out. Again, no death sentence. This was God judging sin at a critical time in the early days of the “ecclesia”. The “called out ones” were to behave differently than what they had been called out from. (Note: There is every indication in this story that Ananias and Sapphira were believers who had sinned, resulting in judgement – post cross. Interesting thought in light of today’s widespread teaching on the “finished work” and that God does not judge post cross. Maybe another future blog?)
How does this story impact our recent focus on leadership and authority? As we stated in our recent blog “Leadership Redefined?“, a true leader sacrifices for his/her followers and is willing to die for them (and sometimes does). This healthy leader will always affirm, support and look to develop the sense of dominion and stewardship of others and exhort them to maturity and away from dependence on their leadership while increasing their focus on the person’s own relationship with God. Even in this story of death in the church, Peter followed these principles. At Back to Eden Group, we aspire to do the same.
May we all become mature and attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.