Updated: Sep 17, 2020
The claim is so frequent these days, and for some who have been around a while, it may come about as something shocking. What claim? Something like this: The Bible teaches that Socialism is what we should be practicing, and the early Church was actually Socialist. This seems incredible to many who grew up in a time when the USSR (modern Russia and her surrounding nations for those who do not now know) and the threat of Communism was heavy. They had allies around the world and these Communist/Socialist nations were heavily atheistic and persecutors of Christians. For many of us who remember, to hear that this is what the Bible teaches is just incredible! The charge is still put forth that the early Church was Socialist and even the godless (who seem quick to flock to Socialist banner) are quick to point this out as a “fact.” As if Christians and their Scriptures suddenly had validity to them! Of course they don’t hold either in high regard, nonetheless, they seek to lure many to their cause by any means they can use. Since this is a common claim being presented to Christians, to include a sudden influx of suddenly savvy ministers from the inside, I want to rebut this claim also as a minister in the Church.
First, there is the great difficulty that the simple word “socialism” causes in typical discussions about it. The term can deal with economic activity, issues of identity, and/or societal managing of equity amongst all (not necessarily in an economic sense). Then, there are a variety of versions claiming to be “socialism” that look different from each other with various objectives in mind that are equally different. There are many approaches on how this is to be achieved and often advocates of “socialism” seems to contradict each other in how the system is to be worked out. On one hand you have top down bureaucrats dictating state planned economies on what is produced and how much is distributed. On the other hand there is a constant tug between getting the goods that a capitalist based economy can produce (without admitting it) and yet somehow maintaining the image of socialism where everything is commonly shared and produced. To best simplify for the sake of this article, “socialism” shall be seen as the social control of property and its production to form equity among people as the final goal, whether by committees and state managers or by other measures of social control.
"If the attempt is to lecture Christians that they must support Socialism because we are against greed, then we must reject Socialism even more so on the same basis."
The claim that the early Church was Socialist, and thus by default we should be too, is usually laid out in two angles. The first is the emphasis on the greed they see in a capitalist system, something that many Christians will agree is sinful. The early Church naturally spoke against greed, as She should today. The problem with this presentation is that it is based upon a false premise. What is this false premise? That only a capitalist society is full of greed. This is plainly false! Greed is equally present in Socialist systems and well as inequality regarding some people having and some not. Changing to a new system does not remove the propensity for human greed. It only changes the system by which greedy people attempt to procure things. If anything, the claim of greed could be laid more on the feet of Socialism because it exasperates another issue tied to greed: covetousness, in other words, envy. In a Socialist mindset, there is an obsessive preoccupation with who has what. If someone appears to have more, envy is stroked and justified and the cry of “no fair” is brought up. Why? Because someone wants what someone else has! How is it greedy to want to keep what you have and it not being greedy to desire to take what someone else has? If the attempt is to lecture Christians that they must support Socialism because we are against greed, then we must reject Socialism even more so on the same basis.
"There was no top down control of their property nor any social control of their property within the Church, thus NO Socialism."
The second emphasis is on the example of Church living as especially found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. The favored verse is, “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They sold their property and goods and distributed them to all, according to their need” (Acts 2:45 MEV). Upon this is the claim that is made that the early Church was Socialist. If this is all that was said it would a persuasive argument. However, there are other verses and other examples that challenge the notion that this means the early Church was Socialist. Later in Acts we read, “Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, why had Satan filled you heart to deceive the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds of the land?’” (Acts 5:3 MEV). So far this seems to support the idea of Socialism. But, the next verse states, “While it remained unsold, was it not your own? And when it was sold, was it not under your authority? Why have your conceived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to men, but to God” (Acts 5:4 MEV). Did you notice the one aspect in verse four that rips the notion of Socialism from under the claim? The notion of private property! The land was theirs, not the Church’s. The money from the sale was theirs, not the Church’s. There was no top down control of their property nor any social control of their property within the Church, thus NO Socialism. Also, the church in Corinth took offerings as a donation for the suffering believers in Jerusalem, and this was not compulsory but by gifts alone. This means everyone maintained their own wealth, not the Church (see 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, 2 Corinthians 8 & 9). How do we explain how the Church operated then? They were generous givers from their personal property, as the Church should be. This general operational practice is still operated by this same concept within the church today, and I would hardly call it Socialism.
Here is the breakdown as to why the early Church was not Socialist and thus NOT a mandate for Christians to support it today. Private property is defended throughout Scripture and the notion that no one had any and that it all belonged to the group simply was not there. Offerings are given from what one earns and produces and this is in turn is used for the work of the ministry. There was no state run economy led by the early Church. There was no socially directed economy led by the early Church either. With these missing elements, there is no real case to make such a grand claim that Socialism is the natural system Christians must embrace. Here is the matter quite honestly. This is simply not true! Further, Socialism has a well-documented track record of failing to meeting human needs, suppressing free speech to protect the system, inflicting mass human atrocities and suffering, and blatantly attacking the Christian religion. In the end, I simply will pass on having it.
Philip Sharp is a US Army Infantry Veteran of 20 years with 3 combat deployments, author of "Not in the Wind, Earthquake, or Fire," and host of the podcast “Rage of the Age: Politics, Religion, Economics & History With a Conservative Bend.” You can follow Philip Sharp on Twitter @RageoftheAgeNow