It really oughtn’t be an line of argument, but every now and again this question pops up: “Was the Early Church communist?” First off, this is an instance of our bad habit of reading history anachronistically. While we must affirm what good ol’ Solomon taught, “there ain’t nuthin’ new under the sun (my paraphrase)”, we should be careful about taking an economic/political system that arose “yesterday” and pasting it into the first century church’s statement of faith: “Thou musteth share thy private property for the common good.” Even if we grant that the Early Church was “communalistic” (more on that in a second), there wouldn’t have been anything subversive about that; various First Century sects were already practicing a communal living. The Roman Empire contained a wide swath of cultures, and would tolerate just about anything, so long as it didn’t get in the way of Caesar’s tax income. So in that sense, there’s nothing remarkable or revolutionary about what the Early Church did, they were also doing what the OT told the people of God to do for sojourners.
Seeing What’s Not There
But the reason people are led to speculate that the Early Church were proto-communists is built primarily on two passages in the early portion of Acts. This is where the speculation begins:
And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.Acts 2:44-45
Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.Acts 4:34-35
Some wonder whether this “liquidation of private property” was a sort of “repentance” from the greed which private property perpetuated. In other words, they perceive a renunciation of capitalism here, and an embrace of communalism.
However, it takes some mental gymnastics to frame the profitable sale of private property as a repentance for profiting off of private property. “Jael, my love, let’s sell our property at a market determined price to repent of the damning nature of private property.” As an aside, this has a recent counterpart, the Bernie in Mittens meme was turned into a sweatshirt (by Bernie’s campaign site) and the proceeds were given to a charity. Is his making use of the capitalist system in order to give money to some folks in need a repentance of the greed of private property? It ’tain’t, as West Virginians know.
What Was Going On?
What we must do in regards to these text is strive to understand the moment which is described in the early days of the church. Pentecost was a festival where Jews from far and wide (the diaspora) returned to Jerusalem. The Spirit, however, had other plans. As a result of the outpouring of the Spirit, thousands (probably close to 10,000 people) were rapidly added to the number of Christians. They had a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of folks needing a warm place to sleep, a lot of logistical issues. This logjam of various needs explains the development of the diaconate (Acts 6).
But while the early church was experiencing this amazing growth to their ranks, we should not skim over what is plain in the text, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship (Act 2:42).” In other words, they were being taught Christ’s teachings by the mouth of the apostles. Included, and perhaps prominent in their teaching, was Christ’s pronouncement of the destruction looming over Jerusalem (Cf. Mt. 24). The Apostles knew there was a hammer of judgement hanging of Jerusalem, and the day was soon approaching when getting out of dodge would be advisable. Pray that your flight be not in winter, ’cause the wagon doesn’t have snow tires. So, shrewd Christians knew that in the light of the inevitably of Jerusalem’s destruction, they’d need to liquidate their assets to flee Jerusalem.
This leads to an important point that can’t be stressed enough. Pointing to these passages and arguing that this was proto-communism or communalism is tenuous at best. First of all, the so-called “communist nature” of the early church was not a government run program. It was cheerful giving, free and clear, by each household to care for the needs of this influx of fellow believers who were effectively homeless for the time being. It was not the state taking their money to help their neighbor (which is theft); rather they were cheerful givers.
We should also look to see if this “communism” lasted, and became a permanent feature of the Early Church. The obvious answer is, it wasn’t communism to begin with, and no this arrangement didn’t continue. Of course the church continued to care for the poor, especially the impoverished saints in Jerusalem (look at Paul’s fundraising efforts in 1 Cor. 16:1, for instance).
Two Problems for Those Who Flirt with Communism
If these Acts passages demonstrate early Christinans repenting of private property, we run into two problems very quickly.
The first problem is that as the saints dispersed from Jerusalem, and spread out through the world, they continued to meet in houses (i.e. profitable private property) of wealthy believers (because they had the space for large groups of people). These private properties most certainly had slaves, and various other means of economic production. Why was this sinful owning of private property never addressed in the New Testament? Or, was Paul sinning by going “house to house” in Acts 21 and not rebuking the saints in Ephesus for owning houses?
The second problem is that as the church flourished in caring for the poor, the Apostles also rebuked those who didn’t work (2 Thes. 3:10). In other words, the presence of abundant (and free) generosity of individual saints was not to be an excuse for laziness. Welfare programs were decisively rebuked in essence by the admonitions to labor and care for one’s own household.
Bringing it in for Landing
Now a few things for final thought. The Israelite nation at its prime likely had three tithes rotated every year. It rotated through going to either the Levites & the Temple, funding the feasts & necessary pilgrimages, or to the poor. However, those tithes were on the increase. Meaning that only capital or profits were subject to the tax/tithe. This principle is clearly continued in the culture of the Early Church, by caring for the widows and paying ministers (Cf. 1 Tim. 5).
In summary, no the Early Church was not communist. There was absolutely NO compulsion. All their gifts which are recorded in these early chapters were freely given. Of note, the gifts were given to the church not the state. I’m not political theory expert, but Marx wouldn’t be too pleased with that arrangement. Das Kapital, mensch. After all, Ananias and Saphira didn’t die because they didn’t pay their fair share to the Taxman; rather, it was because they lied about what they gave. Peter tells them that their land was theirs to do with as they pleased. They didn’t have to give any of it, but if they were going to give they needed to be honest about it.
When we’re told that the Early Christians had all things in common, we should see free generosity, not constrained taxation. They were brimful with joy over the Good News of Christ’s redeeming work, that they cheerfully gave of their own needs to support the poor and the needy in their midst. This community was the result of Gospel joy, not the dictate of the Bureau of Human Flourishing. One final thing must be insisted upon, the prohibition against theft in the eighth commandment PRESUMES private property. So, always remember kids, Communists are at odds with the Ten Commandments. Not a good look.