Does the Example of the Early Church teach Communism?

Title: Does the Example of the Early Church teach Communism?


Text: Acts 2:44-45

Time: June 1st, 2008

As we make our way through the accounts of the early Christian church in the Book of Acts we come to a two-verse passage that may leave us scratching our head and thinking, “This looks a little like Communism,” is it? Acts 2:44-45, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” Now from that one section of the New Testament one might conclude that the early Christians were practicing a form of Communism – or at least some kind of Socialism – but that would be a false reading of the historical record. As we go verse-by-verse through the Book of Acts and its record of the first century church, we’ll stumble upon parts that on the surface seem to say something different than we’ve come to understand about Christianity. Sometimes we’ll have to modify our present views to fit the reality of the early church, but other times we’ll have to dig deeper in order to really understand what the account is actually saying instead of relying upon a surface reading of the text. This is an example of that. On the surface, with a superficial reading of this passage in the Book of Acts, one might think that early Christians were practicing a form of Communism or Socialism, but that is entirely false. Yes, there are similarities that the early church exhibited with what we understand today as Communism or Socialism, but these similarities amount to only superficial similarities, not essential similarities. In other words, while the early Christians “held all things in common,” that is a far cry from the state requiring that all its citizens hand over all their possessions as is the case with Communism, or even requiring that all citizens hand over most or much of their earthly possessions and finances as is the case with Socialism. The original Christians shared their possessions with each other voluntarily out of love for one another, not because they were forced to by a coercive state government. That is the biggest difference. But there are other differences that I’d like to look at in more detail today. What the passage does teach, while not teaching us to reorganize ourselves along the lines of Communism or Socialism, it does teach us the importance of sharing and generosity. And we need such a teaching because today we live in a very individualistic and selfish age. We also live in a very materialistic time as well. Individualism, selfishness, and materialism – they all work together against the kind of love, sharing, generosity and community we see among the first Christians in the Book of Acts. We can learn a lot about true Christian community by rethinking what it means to live together with others based on the New Testament model. Although not advocating Communism or Socialism, there are some very important things early Christianity teaches us. Let’s see.

First, they shared a common life together. Acts 2:44, “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” There were different reasons why they were all together. One reason was the gospel brought them together. They had a common faith and so that naturally translated into a common life together living out the meaning of the gospel. If you remember the original disciples lived together with Jesus as he went about his ministry for three years. During that time of traveling with Jesus they all lived together and held all things in common. They all shared from a common purse, and we all know who was treasurer – Judas. But they lived together by sharing with each other food, finances, housing, clothes, etc. So with that example, it makes sense that the early church would continue on in that same tradition of sharing a common life with one another. But there was another reason why they all gathered together – persecution. We must remember that Jesus has been rejected by the Jews and handed over for death by the Jewish leaders. It was still the official position of the Jewish authorities that Jesus was a false messiah and that Christianity was an outlawed sect. When a person converted to Christianity he was probably asked to leave the local synagogue eventually. There was probably tension within the famous Temple of Jerusalem when Christians gathered there to worship and pray in the name of Jesus alongside traditional orthodox Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah. Eventually, Christian Jews were banned from the Temple as well. Sometimes Jewish families would reject family members who converted to Christianity. Sometimes there was outright discrimination and persecution of Christians in the towns and cities of Israel, even within Jerusalem. Later in the Book of Acts we read about an organized effort by Jewish leaders to persecute and jail Christians led by a young man named Saul who would later become Paul. This persecution led to Stephen’s death. So there were practical reasons as well why early Christians got together and shared not only a common faith but also a common economic purse; sheer survival was at stake. If Christian Jewish converts faced discrimination and were denied jobs and black-listed by the traditional orthodox Jewish community, what was left than to band together and share and share alike in order to survive? What is interesting is that Christianity became like a family to these early believers, based not on ethnic or racial or blood lines but on a common faith in Jesus Christ. It reminds us that our unity in the church should come first and foremost from our common identity in Christ not on our family background or ethnic status or any other human common bond. Our new core identity must be Christian not nationality, not ethnicity, not family heritage, not social class, not economic status. Early Christians unified primarily around faith in Jesus Christ; so should we.

Second, they voluntarily sold their goods and possessions. Acts 2:45, “Selling their possessions and goods. . . .” Now here’s the difference between the early church situation and Communism – it’s the difference between doing something voluntarily and being forced to do it. Under Communism you aren’t asked to give up your possessions, you are ordered to do it – at the point of a gun. I remember a while back when I was attending Wheaton College I took a class on Communism where we would debate about the pluses and minuses of such a system of government. Under Communism you are not free to be generous with your possessions, you are forced to give up your possessions to the state for redistribution. If you owned land or a house, the state would send notice to you that “the people” – they always phrased it like that – “the people” need your land and your house, so you were obligated to surrender your goods and possessions to the local authorities. In other words, they took it away from you. Now as we all now, that goes against human nature, and it goes against even generosity, because a key part of being generous is being able to freely choose to give something away to someone in need. Communism doesn’t give you the choice to be generous, because before you are able to choose, it tells you to give up what you have, effectively taking away your choice. The early Christians were not operating under a system of forced giving, they were free to give generously, and they did. We know this is how it was because later in the Book of Acts we have an example of how early Christians were free to decide whether to give or not to give to the common purse. Acts 5, the story of Ananias and his wife Sapphira. We’ll cover this account in detail in the weeks ahead, but for the sake of illustration today, I’ll just mention some specific details of the account that relate to our lesson. Acts 5:3-4, “Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.’” The point is that the land was owned by Ananias and Sapphira. They didn’t have to sell it, but they freely chose to do so. Peter says, “Didn’t it (the land) belong to you before it was sold?” The answer is obviously “Yes.” In other words, they didn’t have to sell their land. They didn’t have to cash out of their possession. Under Communism people are forced to give up their land, but under early Christianity nobody was forced to give up their houses or land or possessions. That’s why the Bible can’t be used to support Communism because even though on the surface there might possibly be similarities, when we scratch deeper we see that it isn’t the same thing.

Third, they voluntarily gave away their possessions to anyone who had need. Acts 2:45, “They gave to anyone as he had need.” These early Christians were so generous with their earthly goods that they not only sold their possessions but they gave away the proceeds to others in need. Again, if we go back to the account of Ananias and Sapphira we see that early believers were both free to dispose of their property and possessions as they pleased, and they were also free to do whatever they pleased with the proceeds. Acts 5:4, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” Peter makes it clear that Ananias and Saphhira were perfectly free to sell or keep any of their own possessions, and then after they freely chose to sell their property they were perfectly free to keep or give away the money they earned. Communism doesn’t permit such freedom. In fact, if you remember Soviet Communism, almost everything was owned by the state. Whole families lived in these tall public housing apartments all crammed together. Farmers couldn’t own the land they farmed, business owners couldn’t own the factories or equipment used to run their businesses. Nearly everything was owned by the state. That’s still the way it is in North Korea, Cuba, and to some extent China – although after the fall of Soviet Communism lots of changes have come about in the remaining Communist countries. The system doesn’t work because it goes against human nature. It ruins personal responsibility and personal initiative. If I don’t own something, why should I take care of it? If I can’t take personal ownership of something, then I don’t feel as much a sense of responsibility for it. Let the owner take care of it. But in Communism, supposedly “the people” own everything. But if everybody owns everything, then nobody owns anything. Things wear out and break down and nobody takes care to maintain these things because it’s always “somebody else’s’ job” – there are no clear lines of responsibility or accountability. That’s one of the main reasons why Communism as a system breaks down, and why it fell in Russia and the other countries of Eastern Europe. Socialism, a cross between Capitalism and Communism, suffers also from the same problem although not as great a problem. It too blurs the lines of personal responsibility and accountability; it too cuts personal initiative as well. But Socialism survives today in Europe, for example, in countries like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, etc. because it rides the fine line between the benefits it gives to citizens and the personal ownership it takes away from them. Even so, we cannot read back into the New Testament Socialism either, just as we can’t read into the early church Capitalism.

Fourth, we are called to be generous and share what we have with others. Acts 2:45, “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” The New Testament doesn’t teach Communism, it doesn’t teach Socialism, it doesn’t even teach Capitalism. So what does it teach? It teaches us to be generous and share with those who are truly needy. It teaches us against being greedy. It teaches us against being materialistic in our outlook. It teaches us against being selfish. It teaches us to be sensitive to the needs of others and not just think about ourselves and what we need. It teaches us to think about the needs of people outside of ourselves, outside of our family, outside of our own relatives, to other people, anyone in need. Now our own sinful, human nature tempts us to be selfish and take care of ourselves and neglect the needs of others. The first question we usually ask is, “What do I need now?” not “What do they need now?” We usually ask, “How can I get my needs met?” not “What are the needs of others? How can I meet them?” But in the early church among the original Christians we see supernatural love and generosity taking place that permitted them to rise above their own selfish, sinful human nature. It wasn’t, “Every man for himself, ” it was rather like the Three Musketeers, “All for one and one for all.” The early church learned how to defeat the sinful temptations of individualism, greed, and materialism. They learned to live the teachings of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So then to begin to live like the early church in order to follow their godly example, we need to start by thinking of others and not just ourselves. Don’t just think, “Am I taken care of this month?” Think also, “Who isn’t taken care of this month?” We need to start thinking of others beside ourselves. Then next, we need to ask the question, “How can I help someone who needs help?” So there are two questions so far, “Who needs help?” and then, “How can I help the one who needs help?” And we need to start asking those questions first within our own families and then within our church family and other Christians, and then extending out to others. How can we break the slavery of greed? Only through the supernatural power of God. How can we break out of the individualism of our age that keeps us “looking out for #1?” Only through learning and living out God’s Word in respect to loving others as we love ourselves. How can we break free from materialism, the love of things and accumulation of more and more material possessions and the love of money? Only through the power of God operating within us through the Holy Spirit. We may not be able to break free from these powerful temptations overnight but at least we should put them on our agenda for elimination. Just being aware of them is the first step in eliminating them from our lives.


%d bloggers like this: