The Socialistic Church and The Sharing of All Things
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Lately, the idea that the Bible advocates a socialistic society has been brought up to me several times. Having a presidential candidate who does not deny being a Socialist seems to have set many ideologues looking to the Bible for support, especially the young. What they find there is the newly-created Church enacting a socialist brotherhood.
44 And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. – Acts 2:44-45
34 For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. – Acts 4:34-35
Was the Early Church a Socialist Community?
Reading those verses, it’s easy to see that many might think the Early Church was Socialistic. The Bible seems to be clear that those who had property sold it and gave away the money.
However, a closer reading reveals that no one was required or expected to do this. The Bible celebrates Barnabas as an example of someone who sold a field and gave the proceeds to the Apostles (Acts 4:36-37). However, the account of Ananias and Sapphira gives us a better example of what was actually expected.
Like Barnabas, Ananias and Sapphira also sold a piece of property. But they kept back some of the price. When Ananias gives the portion of the proceeds to the Apostles, Peter confronts him and asks why he lied about the donation.
4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? – Acts 5:4a
Notice the rules. Ananias did not have to sell his property. It was his to keep. Once it was sold, he did not have to give all the proceeds, it was still under his own control. Ananias’ arrogance caused him to lie to the Holy Spirit in order to have a greater standing in the community. His sin was not the holding back of the money; it was pride and it caused his and his wife’s death.
In the next chapter, we learn more about the community:
Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food. – Acts 6:1
If the Church was indeed a perfect Socialistic community, then why were there widows without food?
29 So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. – Acts 11:29-30
The church in Jerusalem was struggling due to a famine (Acts 11:28). So the church in Antioch was asked to contribute to help. Notice what the expectation was: no one was forced to give away their wealth. People were asked to give what they could according to their abilities.
12 And when he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John who was also called Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. – Acts 12:12
One last example: John Mark’s mother still owned her house. The Church was meeting in it. Apparently, they didn’t have a problem with her not selling it to help the widows (from chapter 6) or those affected by the famine (from chapter 11).
If indeed, the Church was Socialistic at its beginning, it did not last long. Nor was it successful. The church in Jerusalem began the experiment and that same Church was broke a decade later. The famine was worldwide, but the brethren in Judea were the ones who needed help.
What’s the Reality?
The Church never forced anyone to give their property to the Apostles for distribution. It was done voluntarily as we’ve seen with Barnabas, Ananias and the Church in Antioch. To this day, the Church continues to live this way. People give according to their ability. Those who give sacrificially are given great honor. Those who do not give are not penalized.
God desires people give cheerfully but nowhere does the Church oblige people to give at all, let alone all they own. This is why we debate the Tithe today. The Old Testament required it. The New Testament appreciates it but does not demand it. Generosity is held up as a virtue, not a law.
At most, we might say the Church experimented with a Socialistic community. If so, we might assume this was because they expected Jesus to return and therefore had no need for all their property. They gave sacrificially because they were storing up treasure in Heaven. However, when Christ did not return as quickly as they expected, the experiment was over.
What we cannot say is that the Bible requires or even recommends that people should give away their wealth and property. It does say to be charitable and generous. But there is a huge difference between charitable giving and Socialism.
Do you think the early church was Socialistic? If so, why? Why do you think many Christians are going against the historical teaching of the Bible in order to back Socialism? What might the Bible be teaching us about how to deal with the growing gap between rich and poor? Let me know in the comments below.
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