The first change of hue appeared in the sky–a deep purple color–as I sat in my cubicle, reading my Bible before I started my workday. I loosened my tie a bit as I came across an unsettling passage. I read and re-read the verse that sounded like a Communist manifesto:
“They were selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds as people had need” (Acts 2:45).
I fidgeted more in my office chair as I compared this language with the language of many socialists:
“Only conscious organization of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal.” – Friedrich Engels
Does the passage in Acts prove the early New Testament church was a socialistic society? Should Christians become socialists?
Were the Early Christians Socialists?
Socialism can be defined as an economic system where production, distribution, and exchange is owned and regulated by the community. In the early New Testament church, we see an economic system where the distribution and exchange was clearly owned and regulated by the community.
So, you might say, it is obvious then: the early Christians were socialists!
But do not be too hasty in your conclusions. There is one very important difference between the economic system of socialism and the early Christians in Acts, namely, who had authority over the system.
For socialists, authority lies with an elected official (or team of officials). He is the responsible leader who has won the favor of the community and oversees the distribution process.
For the early Christians, the person with authority was Jesus Christ. Although Jesus’ physical body had suffered death, He resurrected and gave specific instructions to His followers. Jesus said, “I have all authority” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Jesus declared His authority and said Christians are to do everything in His name. Although Jesus will delegate His authority to various people of the church, He alone is the source of that authority.
But without Jesus as the source of authority, we have a problem.
It is often assumed that if everyone rallies together under a banner of love then the leaders and their followers will transform into selfless people.
This is not true.
And while a love rally might cause you to change your behavior for a time–opening up a door for a person or giving your spare change to a homeless man–relying on happy feelings to motivate you to be selfless is only temporary. Everyone, no matter how happy he or she is at the moment, will eventually succumb to the old ways of “me, myself, and I.” (Remember Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5?)
No matter how benevolent the elected leader of the community, the community will suffer because most people will eventually stop sharing, and you cannot force people to share. The moment “sharing” is made into a law, sharing becomes a tax.
The reason we cannot sustainably become selfless people is because we are sinful people. The Bible is very clear about this. Without Christ, we are unable to look past our own needs and truly consider our neighbor’s needs.
According to Romans 3:10-12, no one is righteous. No one!
Socialism is problematic because it assumes people will selflessly share with others given the right earthly leadership. On the hand other, capitalism is theoretically a better solution than socialism because it actually assumes people are self-interested.
Capitalism: The Better Choice?
Capitalism is an economic system where production, distribution, and exchange is owned and regulated by the free markets.
The free markets are a place where people trade in order to try and make a profit that is free from any forced redistribution from the government. As people freely trade, goods and innovation are being created for the sake of profit. The vast majority of great inventions were created under the banner of seeking a profit without forced redistribution (e.g. electricity, phone, computer, Internet).
It is unlikely that this kind of innovation would be possible under an economic system where most of the profit is immediately seized and redistributed by the government. People want profit. And this is not a destructive desire to society.
Adam Smith once famously said, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Assuming the government is able to keep the free markets “free” (no monopolies), profit serves to attenuate the self-interest of people since it only can be created in the event that a useful product or service is being sold. So while the reality of human existence is sinful self-interest, encouraging the free markets actually helps to redirect human self-interest into something that is beneficial to society.
Capitalism, however, can be just as flawed as socialism. Why? Sin! Sinful people mess up any good economic system. While socialism is often flawed with people who feel entitled and the government’s waste of resources, capitalism is often flawed with materialistic people who lord their wealth over the poor.
Only Christ can change both capitalistic and socialistic sinful, self-interested hearts from constantly thinking about “me” alone to being able to share with others joyfully.
The Leadership of Christ
When the early Christians formed a community, the sharing was a spontaneous response to the leadership of Christ. Christ is the perfect leader because He modeled what we are supposed to do and He gives us the ability to do it.
The early Christians felt rich in Christ so it was easy for them to freely choose to share with others (2 Corinthians 8:9-10). No earthly community leader, no matter how benevolent, will ever both perfectly model selfless behavior and change our hearts so we can imitate him. But Christ, our wonderful leader, shows us how to live and changes our hearts so we can live like Him. Because of Christ’s radical sacrifice, I am now free to go beyond profit as my hope (capitalism) and beyond a false hope in the government’s ability to save me (socialism).
This community of early Christians was beyond any earthly economic system–it was the body of Christ! I am now a member of that same body and Christ has given me a new heart that is now able to share and love in the same way as those joyful early Christians who “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Here are some other ways the Christian activity in Acts 2:44-45 differed from socialism:
- This activity involved believers in Christ, not the unbelievers in society around them.
- The beneficiaries of the sharing were fellow believers, not the unbelievers.
- The believers freely chose to share what they had. No one imposed the sharing upon others. Indeed, the free choice to share was one of the traits that made it so striking to the unbelievers around them.
- This sharing lasted for a limited time, and seems to have been how the church responded to the particular needs of that moment.
- It was based on complete dependence upon God, freeing the givers to give, and allowing the recipients to receive with humility and thanksgiving. Political redistribution regimes typically portray themselves (rather than God) as the benefactors of mankind, which is nothing short of idolatry.
Shane Enete is an adjunct finance professor at Biola University. He is also the author of Practical Generosity, which is available for purchase through WinePress publishing.