This article first appeared in the This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL, volume 33, number 04 (2010). For further information or to subscribe to the CHRISTIAN RESEARCH JOURNAL go to: http://www.equip.org/christian-research-journal/
When I graduated from college in 1989, it looked like socialism was dead. The Soviet Union—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—was in its death throes. In comparison, the American economy was booming, and countries around the world were beginning to liberalize their markets. After a sophomoric flirtation with socialism, I had concluded that capitalism was probably the most workable economic model. I had not resolved my lingering suspicions, however, that capitalism was immoral and that socialism was still the Christian ideal.
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 does have its place. Nuclear families live more or less communally. In functional families, however, someone is in charge, namely, the parents. So it’s not really a commune.
Many monasteries and religious orders are more or less communal to this day. These are highly disciplined, voluntary communities that are self-consciously separate from the ordinary life of family and commerce. Many of them survive for centuries—and in fact, the productivity of some early monasteries helped give rise to capitalism in medieval Europe.2
There have been other voluntary, nonmonastic groups that have tried to live communally. The American Amish and the Jesus People USA live in communal or semi-communal groups today. And there were lots of examples of Christian communes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The ones that survived very long were small, voluntary, and intensely disciplined.3
The Pilgrims and Communism. In fact, even most private, voluntary communal experiments fail. American children hear the story of William Bradford at Thanksgiving. Bradford was the architect of the Mayflower Compact and the leader of a small band of separatists who founded the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts in 1620. Most young students learn that the colony lost half its population during its first, harsh winter, but few know about the colony’s brief and tragic experiment with collective ownership. Because of an ill-conceived deal made with the investors who funded the expedition, the Pilgrims held their farmland communally rather than as private plots. They divided their food, work, and provisions evenly. This may sound nice, and the Pilgrims may have thought they were replicating the model of the early church in Jerusalem; but before long, conflicts arose among the colonists. Bradford reports in his journal what economists and common sense predict. In large groups, such an arrangement leads to perverse incentives, in which the lazier members “free ride,” taking advantage of the harder working. The other members grow more and more frustrated, and less and less productive. That’s just what happened in the early years of Plymouth Bay Colony.
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To solve the problem, Bradford soon decided to divide the plots up to the individual families. Suddenly people had strong incentives to produce, and they did. Over the years, more and more of the land was privatized, and the colony eventually became a prosperous part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.4 If Bradford had not had the guts to divide the commune into private lots, our school children would not be making little cutouts of turkeys and Mayflowers every November, since there probably would have been few if any survivors.
The Early Christians Weren’t Communists—and We Shouldn’t Be, Either. The take-home lesson should be clear: neither the book of Acts nor historical experience commends communism. In fact, full-bodied communism is alien to the Christian worldview and had little to do with the arrangement of early Christians in Jerusalem. While there have been and still are small, atypical groups that manage to pull off some form of communal living, at least for a while, there’s no reason to think that communal living—let alone communism—ever has been the Christian ideal. —Jay W. Richards
Jay W. Richards is the author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem (Harper-One, 2009).
- Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 1997), 78.
- See Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005).
- For a detailed history of communism/socialism, see Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2003).
- Tom Bethell, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 37–45.