What was the early church really doing in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37? Were they experimenting with some early form of communism? Was this a failed experiment that led to the poverty of the church in Jerusalem? These are very important questions that need to be answered in order that we can better understand these passages and apply them to our lives.
First, to the question of communism the answer is a resounding no. The early church was not compelled by force to give their possessions. There was no mandatory redistribution of wealth. This is made clear in Acts5:3-5. Ananias’ sin was not that he desired to keep some of the proceeds from the land he sold, but that he lied to God. Peter said that the land was Ananias’ to do with as he pleased, as were the proceeds from the sale. So, clearly accepting Christ did not mean the immediate relinquishing of personal property.
Second, to the question of this being a failed experiment the answer also is no. In both sections Luke very clearly presents this behavior in a positive light, and nowhere in scripture is it ever presented differently. Luke goes out of his way to include both of these sections because they were commendable practices. Luke also equates these practices with the church having God given favor among all people.
Further, there is ample reasons to account for the poverty in the Jerusalem church without blaming their willingness to sacrificially share their resources with the needy among them. In general the majority of the population was poor. By professing Christ they likely severed themselves from the traditional Jewish forms of charity. The church was persecuted (Acts 8:1). There was a famine in all the land and it affected the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:28-30).
What we see in these passages is simply the church living out the commands of scripture and the teachings of Christ. It is interesting that Luke points out that there were no needy people left among the early church (Acts 4:34-36). This is exactly what the community of God’s people should look like. In Dt 15 Moses told God’s people that if they would obey the law, specifically the canceling of debts in the Sabbath year, there would be no poor among them (Dt. 15:4-5) Although it was never realized in the nation of Israel (because they did not observe the Sabbath Year) it was realized in the early church.
The Lord Jesus taught on this topic in many places. One significant teaching found in Luke 12 is that seeking the Kingdom of God means selling your possessions and investing in the kingdom. For more on this see The Father Desires to Give You the Kingdom. While other biblical writers are dated after Acts 2 and 4 we see that their teachings do not contradict this practice either. See 2 Cor 8:1-15 and 1 John 3:16-18 for two good examples.
So, how is the church to apply these passages today? They do not indicate a method that we must legalistically duplicate. However, we are called to live in obedience to the very same teachings that led the early church to this practice. These passages teach us that as believers we are to live simple lives set apart for the glory of Christ and the advancement of his kingdom. When we do this God gives us great grace and favor among the lost world around us. What that simple life looks like is between you and the Holy Spirit, but to be sure it does not look like the American dream.