Was the Early Church Communist?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the most recent edition of the Christian Research Journal, Jay W. Richards addressed this topic.  The verses that have led some to make the claim that the early church was communist are Acts 4:32-35.  But is that the correct interpretation of these verses?  If so, is communism the ideal for the church?

Richards argues against this view, giving several reasons.  First, Richards notes that modern communism, based on the writings of Marx, is about class warfare and the evil of private property.  According to Richards, “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, communism is associated with state control of resources, but the state is not involved in the early church.  “No Roman centurions are showing up with soldiers.  No government is confiscating property and collectivizing industry.  No one is being coerced.”  Again, the early church was sharing their property voluntarily, with no state involvement at all.

Third, the communal life described in Acts 4:32-35 is never prescribed for all churches everywhere.  Richards explains, “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.”  In addition, we know that other early churches had different arrangements.  Take, for example, the Thessalonians.  Paul addresses the situation in their local church when he warns them, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”  Paul’s words hardly exemplify the ideals of communism.

Richards concludes, “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.”

To read the complete article, you need to be a subscriber to the Christian Research Journal, which happens to be one of my favorite magazines.  If you are interested at all in Christian apologetics, it is a must-read.

9 thoughts on “Was the Early Church Communist?”

  1. 1+2) I don’t believe communism and state socialism are the same thing. No, the early church didn’t implement any kind of enforcement for the redistribution of goods and equal distribution was never the goal of the early church, but those are aspects of state socialism. The goal of the church was to meet everyone’s needs by sharing their possessions to such a degree that it can be called communism. Again, the emphasis was on meeting needs, not equal distribution.
    3) How can you (or Jay Richards) say that communists agree to feed people who won’t work. They would certainly make exceptions for the injured, feeble, or disabled members of their society. The difference between early church communism and modern communism is that modern communism (state socialism, rather) forces its subjects to do specific jobs chosen by the government. Early Church communism operated within a free market economy, so believers were free to keep the same jobs they had before. They were only communist because they sharied the profits; they were not communist in deciding which jobs people would work.
    Also, Acts 2:44-45 says something similar to 4:32-35, so it’s not like the argument for a communist church is based on just 4 verses.
    4) The communist church, if that is what it was, would have been able to achieve the ideal which communism attempts much more easily than state socialism could. In state socialism, workers lack the motivation to work hard, since there is only negative reinforcement (the threat of starvation). In capitalism, the motivation is supplied by greed. Only in the church is there sufficient motivation (although the workers would, doubtless, need reminding at times) to work hard; they work for the glory of God and out of love for their brothers.

  2. The early church was certainly far removed from the communism of Karl Marx, both in the lack of State control and in the “maturing” into communism via class warfare.
    However, there are similarities with a primitive communalism through holding all things in common, and releasing private ownership via “laying them at the Apostles’ feet.”
    I think the largest, and most critical variance is in the direction of intent:
    The result is the same, but there is a huge difference between “What’s mine is yours” and “What’s yours is mine”

    I lived for some years in the ‘70s in a Christian Community which was trying to purposefully follow their example, and it had many benefits. But it also had flaws.
    For instance, it seems likely that the community in Thessalonica may have been doing the same. After problems developed, St. Paul admonished them to abandon that system.
    I understand that the Puritan community in Plymouth came to the same decision.

    I don’t think the post intends to get into the merits or flaws of such a system, though, other than this one – “is it Biblical?” and that gets to a very interesting point of how we should read the Bible, and how it may differ from some other sacred texts.

    As to the system described in Acts, I read the Bible as describing what they did. I do not read any particular commendation that they did well thereby. I believe the individual motivations were commended, lying in context of that system was condemned, but the economic system itself was left as a bare fact, not as a recommendation –certainly not a command to do likewise. And that brings us to the difference.

    I am not well versed in “comparative religion” so I may be mistaken, but it seems that traditions that hold to a sacred text being simply presented to a person (e.g. Joseph Smith, or Mohammed) seem to be able to take any verse as God speaking to us. I see God doing that at some places in the Bible (The Ten Commandments, for example) but most of the time God is telling a story, and the words of the story belong in context. Often, the context can be safely extended to us, but sometimes even the words of Jesus, or of the Holy Spirit through the Prophets, must be read in there proper place in the story to get there true meaning for us. The Bible is not so much an instruction book, or “Manual of the Faith,” as it is a record of God’s interaction with humanity with a particular focus on that relationship –what it was, how it was broken, what are the consequences, how it is restored. It is told as story, not delivered from on high dogma.

    Please understand that I am by no means allowing a loophole for ignoring what we might wish to ignore through explaining it away. I absolutely affirm the Divine origin for the text. But it, as a whole, is not primarily ‘rule book’ where we are held up every Godly person as an example of exactly what we should do. It is an instructive record of what they actually did.

  3. Matt,
    I wanted to pick up on one point you made. You said that greed is the motivation in capitalism, but I don’t think that is true for most people. Human beings are naturally creative and capitalism allows that creativity to be rewarded, thus reinforcing it. In any system where a person is not rewarded for their creative output, the creative impulse becomes stunted and eventually dies (communal living usually fails because of the conflict between those who work and those who don’t). I think it’s too simplistic to say that greed is what drives everyone in a capitalist economy. I know that’s not the case with me, and in fact I know very few people, if any, that are purely driven by greed.

  4. Eric,
    Jay Richards points out a few examples of communal living in his article, including the Puritan experiment. He concludes that communal living is extremely difficult to pull off, and those who do succeed are “highly disciplined, voluntary communities that are self-consciously separate from the ordinary life of family and commerce.” They are also highly disciplined.

  5. Mr. Pratt,
    I apologize. Greed is not the right word. It seems that something about work appeals to our nature and different economic systems emphasize different drives. Work is enjoyable in and of itself because we bear, in the image of our creator, the drive to create. Capitalism also emphasizes the drive to sustain oneself and to make one’s own decisions such as career path and purchases. Communism emphasizes the joy of giving [and because believers understand giving better than anyone (as recipients of the ultimate gift) and have a spiritual nature given to them, they are the best candidates for communism. Socialism is a response to the capitalist problem (in the industrial age) that the poor become trapped in their poverty for several generations.
    The only real objection to communism is that it doesn’t work because there is insufficient motivation to labor. Early church communism, however, can work. Believers would be motivated by the joy of giving to their brothers who are pressing toward a common goal, the glory of God. If this system was implemented within a free market system (such as the Roman Empire), then all the aforementioned benefits of capitalism are retained: the believers are all still free to keep their previous occupation or choose another as he is with capitalism, the creative drive is preserved because his occupation is preserved. In fact, the reason these isolated communist communities like Plymout failed is that they were isolated, so the community attempted to take away the creative drive.
    If you’re having difficulty imagining this in a modern church, it would be like if John Doe owns a truck, and Billy Bob Jones needs one to use every now and then, Billy Bob doesn’t sit there debating whether he needs a truck, but John volunteers to let him borrow his truck when he needs one (he holdsthe truck as common property among members of his church). Or if John loses his job, then Billy Bob and other believers help support him until he can find another. If he becomes a sluggard, Paul says we may go as far as to kick him out of the fellowship to discipline him.
    “But we already do that and we’re not communist.” you might say. We can still do more to help in these situations. The name,”communism,” has also become perverted to mean Totalitarian Socialism, rather than,” they held everything in common and gave to each as he had need.”

  6. Some might have lived communally but it is clear that some were wealthy and had homes to meet in. They gave money to help support the apostles and/or preachers. They may or may not have had little or no personal possessions. Who really dud back then? They did not subscribe to a ninteenth century sociopolitical movement that aims for a stateless and classless society structured upon common ownership of the means if production, free access to articles if consumption, the end of wage labor and private property in the means of production and real estate. They expected Jesus’ return AT ANY MOMENT. When the kingdom of god is established it wl not be done by human hands. There is no specific outline of what it will be like. All we can do is to allow ourselves to be open and receptive to the indwelling Christ to create it THRU us.

  7. I would ask whether a system is communistic if everyone chooses to share. If I join a group where I am required to share, the dynamics will be different than if I join a group where all the members share voluntarily. I believe the church is a group that shares voluntarily, which is quite rewarding for the members, but has challenges. There is no prescribed minimum or typical sharing that I must do, so everyone is going to share differently. Nobody monitors the sharing of the group, so I must trust that others are sharing, and I know that there are probably members of the group who do not share, with or without good reason. Succeeding in a group like this requires the right outlook to remain joyful and not become bitter, and the Bible does give lots of advice on how to have the proper attitude.

    My quick thoughts (shared freely with the community). Very interesting question and discussion.

  8. “neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common”

    Communism aims for abolition of the state and the need/desires for private property. The reference here is to people who do this voluntarily – the absence of coercion doesn’t equate to non-communism it makes it more so.

  9. It’s funny how uncomfortable churchies get when the subject turns to the collectivism of the early church. Rather than debate the merits of communal living, renunciation of material security and living simply in dependence upon God, they instantly change the subject to Soviet Marxism.

    Your hard hearts refuse to believe that God offers a better way than Babylon. You hoard the fruits of empire along with what you have stolen from the poor. Like James said, “Your
    gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness
    against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped
    treasure together for the last days” (3:5).

    May God have mercy on your souls.

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