Now that we’ve gotten that anwer out of the way, let me offer an important caveat. In arguing that the first Christians were not socialist (or communist for that matter), I am not supposing that they championed an early version of Hayek’s economic views and would have formed the first Cato Institute if given the chance. We should not make the Bible say more than it means to say, and that means that if we want to argue for the rightness of free-market capitalism we’ll have to do so based on something other than direct scriptural obligation.
It also means that we should not make the book of Acts into a precursor to the Communist Manifesto.
Here are the two passages most often used to suggest that the early church was socialist or communist.
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
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, 34-35)
Let’s set aside that socialism and communism are not identical, socialism being for Lenin a distinct stage between capitalism and communism. In broad terms, we could say that socialism implies social ownership of the means of production, while communism also insists upon an equitable and shared consumption of that production. In popular parlance (in America at least) communism still sounds bad to most people, but socialism is increasingly celebrated and defended. What contemporary proponents of socialism usually have in mind is not the ideas of Charles Fourier or Eugene V. Debs, but rather a rhetorical nod in the direction of strong government intervention into the economy and a redistribution of wealth that ensures no one has too little (and no one has too much).
Toward that end, you’ll often hear people point to the book of Acts as an example—to quote a recent tweet from a Member of the Scottish Parliament–of “outright socialistic redistribution amongst the first followers [of Jesus].”
At first glance it can look like the first-century church modeled an early form of socialism. After all, “they had everything in common.” Maybe Marx was just reading his Bible when he argued, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” Isn’t that what’s going on in the early church? Later in Acts 11:29 we read, “So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.” That sounds a lot like a big social safety net and redistribution along socialist lines.
Despite the initial plausibility of a socialist reading of Acts, there are at least two realities that make the sharing in the early church different from socialism and especially communism.
First, there is no evidence that the first Christians shared in the means of production and no record that they abolished private property. We see nothing like a workers collective, let alone state-run enterprises in the book of Acts. The Christians were generous, but they did not disavow personal ownership of their possessions. To be sure, we see Christians selling their land and houses in order to provide for the needy (Acts 4:34, 37). And yet, as Acts 5:4 makes clear, these assets remained in possession of private owners and could be used as the owners saw fit. Even after properties were sold, the proceeds belonged to the individual or family, not to the state, nor to a collective, nor even to the church. This is confirmed in the history of the early church as we see congregations meeting in private homes and persons still in possession of private property (Acts 16:15).
Second, the distribution of possessions in Acts was not by force or coercion, but chosen freely and voluntarily. To say the church had a wonderful communal spirit is far different from saying they practiced anything remotely like state-enforced communism. The expression “everything in common” was used to describe radical generosity in the early church. Sharing in the church was and is a clear sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom (1 John 3:16-17). But nowhere in the New Testament do we see the church embody or support a practice that forces wealth redistribution at penalty of church-run discipline or penalty of the state-run sword. “Everything in common” spoke to the love of the Christians, not to a law among the Christians.
One last thought in closing: When it comes to political prescriptions—from the left or from the right—we must insist as Christians on closer inspection of actual biblical texts. This doesn’t mean natural law has no place in our discussion or that we can’t argue from principles to practice. But it does mean that where we are talking about issues of economics or justice or race or whatever, we cannot settle for soft slogans and big themes. We have to get into the text and make our case from Scripture. And if we can’t make our case directly from Scripture—and often we won’t—let us be honest enough to make clear that we are basing our arguments, at least in part, on prudential considerations, history, social science, or other factors.