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Monday, August 27, 2012

The Early Communists

Perhaps you've heard this before. "The early church was a communist society. The Bible supports communism over capitalism as evidenced by the church in Acts." And on what would this assertion be based?
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. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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 4:32-35ff).
That's communism, right? I mean, look, "no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common." Communism. "There was not a needy person among them." Communism. And, look at the result. "Great grace was upon them all." Now surely that's a biblical affirmation of communism over, say, capitalism, right?

Let's take a look. First, what is communism? Well, first there is Communism (capital "C"), that particular system from the Soviet Union in particular and others like them. That is "a system of social organization in which all economic and social activity is controlled by a totalitarian state dominated by a single and self-perpetuating political party." Now, I think it must be incredibly clear that Soviet-style Communism is not in view in the passage in Acts. There is no "totalitarian state". There is no "single political party". It is not true that they controlled "all economic and social activity". Not even close. So if you see (or hear it suggested) the passage in Acts as an endorsement of Communism, throw out that idea. It's just not there.

So what about communism (lowercase "c")? The dictionary's definition looks like this: "A theory or system of social organization based on the holding of all property in common, actual ownership being ascribed to the community as a whole or to the state." That does sound closer to the biblical example. But contained in the concept is another idea: "Advocacy of a classless society in which private ownership has been abolished and the means of production and subsistence belong to the community." While at first blush that may sound the same, note that the concept of "private ownership" is abolished. That's a fundamental component of communism. It isn't capitalism. It eliminates capitalism. The two are competing -- not friendly -- economic systems. Is that what was going on in the early church?

Note, first, the example of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). This couple was taking part in this early church community. They "sold a piece of property", knowingly withheld some of the proceeds, and lied about giving the rest to the church. The outcome was their immediate deaths. But notice what Peter said: "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?" (Act 5:4). Note, then, that private property remained private property. There was no system, no coercion, no "social organization". There was no call to share all things in common. They did it because they wanted to. When they did it for other reasons, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, it was worse than commendable; it was fatal. Indeed, if "private ownership" was abolished and capitalism was eliminated, the concept of selling property would also be eliminated since they couldn't own it and they couldn't sell it.

The key difference, then, between communism and the early church is that communism is a system while the early church's behavior was a purely voluntary, spontaneous response to the Gospel. It was an uncoerced response to the needs of the brethren, an act of love. It could be called communalism, but not communism. There was no "government" in mind here, no "organization". Indeed, the Bible affirms existing governments (e.g., Matt 22:21; Rom 13:1-2; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14), not the creation of a new system.

The key differences, then, between communism and what the early church practiced were two-fold. First, it was a voluntary activity intended to meet the needs of those present and never under coercion. Second, private property remained private property. Some chose to sell property to help others, but there was never common ownership. And, of course, it isn't Communism either. There is no state control, no government, no "totalitarian state."

One other consideration. There is no indication that the early church remained in this condition. There is no mention at all beyond Acts 4:32 through Acts 5:11 of any such thing. There is no reference of any of the communities where Paul ministered going to this type of arrangement. It seems very likely, then, that this was a short term, very limited condition primarily brought about by the beginning of the Church. Remember, there was a bunch of people there from other places who just came to Christ for the first time and needed training. How better to accomplish this than to put them up for a few months while they learned from the Apostles? Beyond this supposition (based on the absence of text), there is the explicit teaching of Scripture. Paul told the Thessalonians, "If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat" (2 Thess 3:10). That runs directly counter to a communistic approach in which everyone takes care of everyone. "Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living" (2 Thess 3:12). Even the phrases "do their work" and "earn their own living" require "own" and function as part of private property and capitalism rather than communism. In communism you "do the community's work" and "earn a community's living".

What are we to conclude then? Biblically, giving to the needs of others is a good thing, a commendable thing, an excellent thing ... a given. Loving your neighbor in general and brothers and sisters in Christ in particular is commanded. Communism, either as a system of government or as an economic and social system, on the other hand, is not biblical. Meeting the needs of those who cannot is good. Forcing it is not. Charity is good. Requiring it is not. The Bible doesn't teach it. The early church didn't practice it. And those who suggest it aren't paying attention to the text.


Marshall Art said...

Very nicely done. There's another blogger who likes to do pieces on the Bible and economics who never comes close to the logic and reasoned interpretation of this piece. This Acts story is often brought up to support leftist economic proposals, but must make assumptions that your post clearly shows are baseless.

Dan said...

It's interesting that many who lean on this scripture for their own ends are willing to entrust their (or rather other's) possessions to a state that is outwardly and openly hostile to Jesus Christ. That seems a little cognitively dissonant to me... but what do I know?

Stan said...

It's also interesting that those who are willing to lean on this to promote their "communist" agenda are willing to do it with more coercion than Peter was. "While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?" "No! No indeed! Whether or not it remained unsold, we ought to be able to determine who gets it, not you."