It is common today to hear that Acts 2 shows that Christians were in to communism. Is this true? Jay Richards has a helpful article on this:
Part of that impression came from biblical passages that seem to suggest as much: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32–35 ESV).
Many who have read this passage have wondered if the early church was communist and the Christian ideal is communism. After all, this was the first church in Jerusalem. They were “filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:31 NIV). If they didn’t get it right, who did?
On the surface, this looks like communism, but that’s a misreading. The details and context here are everything.
First of all, modern communism is based on Marx’s theory of class warfare, in which the workers revolt against the capitalists—the owners of the means of production—and forcibly take control of private property. After a while, Marx predicted, the socialist state would wither away and you’d get a communist utopia in which everyone lived in peace, harmony, and preternatural freedom. There’s none of this class warfare stuff in the early church in Jerusalem, nor is private property treated as immoral. These Christians are selling their possessions and sharing freely and spontaneously.
Second, the state is nowhere in sight. No Roman centurions are showing up with soldiers. No government is confiscating property and collectivizing industry. No one is being coerced. The church in Jerusalem was just that—the church, not the state. The church doesn’t act like the modern communist state. As Ron Sider notes, “Sharing was voluntary, not compulsory.”1 In fact, sharing by definition is voluntary.
It’s easy to lose sight of this later in the text, though, when Peter condemns Ananias and Sapphira for keeping back some of the money they got from selling their land. If you don’t read it carefully, you might get the impression that he condemns them for failing to give everything to the collective: “Ananias.…why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the lands? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to men but to God!” (Acts 5:3–4 ESV). But look closely at the text; Peter condemns them not for keeping part of the proceeds of the sale, but for lying about it. In fact, he takes for granted that the property was rightfully theirs, even after it was sold. So Peter isn’t condemning private property.
Third, the communal life of the early church in Jerusalem is never made the norm for all Christians everywhere. In fact, it’s not even described as the norm for the Jerusalem church. What Acts is describing is an unusual moment in the life of the early church, when the church was still very small. Remember, this is the beginning of the church in Jerusalem. Thousands of new Christians probably had come from a long distance to worship in Jerusalem at Pentecost. They would have had to return home soon after their conversion if not for the extreme measures taken by the newborn church to allow these Christians to stay and be properly discipled. Given the alternatives, a mutual sharing of possessions seemed to be the best course of action.
Compared to modern nation states, the Jerusalem church was a small community banding together against an otherwise hostile culture. The circumstances were peculiar. For all we know, this communal stage lasted six months before the church got too large. It’s unlikely that all these new Christians, many denizens of the far-flung Jewish Diaspora, stayed in Jerusalem for the rest of their lives. Many probably returned home at some point, and brought their new faith with them.
We know from the New Testament that other churches in other cities had quite different arrangements. For instance, Paul sternly warned the Thessalonian Christians, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” and told them to “earn the bread they eat” (2 Thess. 3: 10, 12 NIV). Apparently some new Christians had begun to take advantage of the generosity of their new brothers in the faith. That’s not an especially surprising scenario, given the effects of the Fall. So it’s no surprise that the early communal life in Jerusalem was never held up as a model for how the entire church should order its life, let alone used to justify the state confiscating private property.
Communal living (read the rest here)
Think Christianly with Jonathan Morrow
Labels: Bible, Economics, Morality, politics