Does the Jerusalem Church Teach Socialism?
32 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 . . . 34 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 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Acts 4:32, 34-35 (ESV)
Quoting this passage, the British Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) declares that “the common ownership of the sources and distribution of wealth” is conducive to “abundant life” and “the growth of personality.”1 The CSM thus advocates a mixture of state socialism for large industries and local cooperatives for smaller endeavors. But the leap from description of the first-century Jerusalem church to prescription for twenty-first-century national economic policy is enormous and unwarranted.
Unlike contemporary society, the Jerusalem church was motivated by brotherly love and zeal for the gospel, inspired by a dramatic encounter with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13). Unlike the majority of people today, they were persecuted by those who wished to erase their religion (cf., Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-18; 6:8-14). Lacking all political possibilities and threatened with loss of economic livelihood, they could only turn to each other. Furthermore, they believed the Second Coming was imminent (cf. Luke 21), so long-term savings and investment seemed pointless.
There is scant evidence that other early churches adopted the same practice. But one thing is clear: The practice of the Jerusalem church was entirely voluntary. Although Jesus’ commandment to love others as ourselves may well necessitate costly giving, He never overturned the Mosaic norm of private property. In Acts 5:1-4, when Peter confronted Ananias for lying about the extent of his offering, he asked rhetorically, “While [your land] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was [the money] not at your disposal?” Paul’s rebuke presupposed the legitimacy of personal ownership.
Although communal living is not a biblical norm for most Christians,2 throughout Church history some have voluntarily chosen this lifestyle or felt called by God to do so3 (e.g., the Roman Catholic mendicant orders, those of the Anabaptist/Mennonite movement,4 particularly the Hutterites,5 and more recently, groups connected with the 1960s/70s charismatic renewal6). Few of these communities last long;7 it is a difficult way of living. If, then, it is challenging for Christians to voluntarily share their property in love, how much harder must it be for those who have few shared values or objectives and who do not give voluntarily. In practice the common ownership of property always involves some stifling of individual freedom by the state, varying in severity to the degree that the economy is collectivized. Thus rather than allowing the growth of personality, as the CSM suggests, common ownership of property does precisely the opposite.8
A closing word of caution is important: Just as this passage must not be pressed to prescribe state socialism, it should not be used to excuse indifference to the poor in society at large. And in stressing the particularity of the first-century Jerusalem church, one must recognize still that the principle of mutual care among the saints persists. A Christian heart is generous toward both believer and unbeliever. But it is one thing to be generous with your own goods at your own expense, quite another to be generous with the goods of others, at their expense.
1 The Christian Socialist Movement is a lobbying group historically affiliated with the Labour Party. “[N]o social organisation can oblige any individual to make good use of the opportunities provided for him. But it can make easier or harder the way to abundant life by determining whether the environment which it helps to create is favourable or unfavourable to the growth of personality. We believe that only a society which is based generally on the common ownership of the sources and distribution of wealth can offer this opportunity.” See Percy Belcher, “Papers from the Lamb,” Christian Socialist Website, n.d., http://www.christiansocialist.org.uk/magsbookscomment/lamb.html#COMMON.
2 For a survey of the position of the early church on private ownership see Charles Aiken, “The Doctrine of the Fathers of the Church on the Right of Private Property,” Catholic World, XCV (May, 112) 197-211.
3 See Jeanne Hinton, “Radical Communities: The Modern Community Movement,” Christian History 9, 1986, www.ctlibrary.com/4558.
4 For a full discussion of the Anabaptist/Mennonite position on Christian communism see “Community of Goods,” Canadian Mennonite Encyclopaedia Online, updated January 3, 2005, http://www.mhsc.ca/encyclopedia/contents/c6593me.html.
5 The Hutterites have been preaching full community of goods since 1528. There are about 40,000 Hutterites in North America, mostly in Canada.
6 Best known are the communities at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Houston, Texas under the leadership of the Rev. Graham Pulkingham described in Michael Harper, A New Way of Living (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1973) and the communities connected with St. Cuthbert’s church in York, under the leadership of the Rev. David Watson described in David Watson, Discipleship (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981).
7 Virtually all the communities founded in the 1960s and 1970s connected with the charismatic renewal have now folded. Of the newer communities, one of the very few still existing is Reba Place Fellowship with members in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois. See Reba Place Fellowship Website, http://rebaplacefellowship.org/.
8 For a full discussion of this point see John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press World Classics, 1991), 125-128.
Adopted from Kairos Journal
First Baptist Church of Perryville