Does the Bible Teach Communism?

by Joe Plemon on August 20, 2010

I recently read a column on Biblical Communism by Austin Cline, a Regional Director for the Council for Secular Humanism. Admittedly, Cline seems to make a good case that the early Christians practiced communism, but a deeper look at his claim will unearth some holes in it.

Cline sites two passages from the Book of Acts as evidence for his assertion:

“All that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
(Acts 2:44-45)
“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement"). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
(Acts 4:34-37)

Were these early believers practicing communism?

At first glance, maybe. They had all things in common, sharing their possessions to the point that there was not a needy person among them. But were they practicing communism? Not by a long shot.

Here is why:

  • Unusual circumstances

These passages took place during or soon after the Feast of Pentecost, one of three Jewish festivals in which all Jewish males were required to attend. According to some scholars, as many as 100,000 people migrated to Jerusalem for this event. Acts 2:5 tells us that there were “devout Jews from every nation" in attendance and Acts 2:9-11 lists delegates from fifteen different nations. We know that 3,000 of them became Christians in one day (Acts 2:41) and that many of them stayed in Jerusalem for some time to be a part of this early church. Clearly, this huge gathering was not the norm and required huge sacrifices by all in order to meet the basic needs of those present.

  • This is a narrative, not a teaching.

The book of Acts is a narrative, not a doctrinal book. Acts simply tells us what happened to a certain person or persons in a certain place at a certain time, but does not instruct us to make these happenings normative for all the church for all time. The fact that these specific believers in Jerusalem at this particular point in time shared all things in common is not a case for requiring all believers in all places for all times to do likewise. Furthermore, if communism was a required biblical practice, the bible would surely give instructions on the hows and whys. Interestingly, the New Testament is void of such directives.

  • Biblical giving was voluntary, not forced.

This is the strongest argument against “biblical communism" : these believers chose to share. No one was forced to do so. In Communist societies, people give because a system of government forces them to give. No one has a choice in the matter. The biblical teaching about giving is that “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver." 2 Corinthians 9:7

  • Biblical giving requires love; forced giving promotes resentment and entitlement.

1 Corinthians 13:3 puts it this way, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing." Biblical giving, because it is voluntary, is an act of love. The giver does so because he wants to and the recipient feels loved because he knows someone has sacrificed for his well being. Communistic giving (forced giving), on the other hand, is the antithesis to love because the giver feels hijacked while the receiver feels entitled.

Conclusion

While the bible does tell of times when the church lived communally, the bible does not teach communism – the distinction being that of voluntary giving versus extracted collections. This being said, the church today should be challenged by how the early church selflessly shared to ensure that no one had any need.

Here’s a thought: wouldn’t it be incredible if today’s church did such a superb job of meeting needs that skeptics accused us of being communistic?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin@InvestItWisely August 20, 2010 at 9:36 am

It really comes down to whether someone is giving out of the willingness of their heart, or not.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving out of the freedom of your heart. It is not communism in that case; it is voluntarism. When someone gives out of a desire to truly help the other person, and the other person accepts, both are better off for it.

Encouraging a culture of forced redistribution, on the other hand, just promotes entitlement and resentment all around. Since in our current society, this doesn’t just exist from the rich to the poor, but also from the poor to the rich, there is resentment and entitlement all around. This is reflected in the behavior and attitude of the people as well as of the politicians.

Economic reality is going to necessitate a cutback of at least some of these entitlements, so now’s a good time as any for us to rediscover voluntarism and rediscover that feeling of helping others, not because we have to or we “should”, but because we *want* to.

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joeplemon August 20, 2010 at 11:13 am

Kevin,
You say that “Economic reality is going to necessitate a cutback of at least some of these entitlements …” I agree! The trouble with any government program is that once it starts it is nearly impossible to stop. The politicians don’t want to lose votes and the public, while realizing our nation is deeply in debt, doesn’t want to give up a single benefit that they personally receive. (entitlement thinking?)

One example is FEMA. Most of us can’t imagine life without FEMA, but before it existed, we (USA) had a highly organized network of volunteers throughout the nation who stepped up when emergencies anywhere happened. Today, many still volunteer when emergencies happen, but if FEMA no longer existed, my hunch is that many more would do so. We pay for it anyway out of extracted taxes; why not pay for it by volunteering?

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Roshawn @ Watson Inc August 20, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I’m compelled to echo Kevin’s point. Volunteerism is more an outpouring of the heart than a government-mandated decree. I do believe that resentment ensues when one is forced to do things, even if those things are for a common good. Just because you feel like something is a good idea doesn’t mean I will want to implement your idea or execute your idea in the way you are proposing, hence resentment.

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Khaleef @ KNS Financial August 20, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Great explanation of this concept. I get tired of people using a couple of verses in Acts to try to teach crazy doctrine, or to justify other ideologies! As you said, it was all voluntary and done from the heart!

I would love to see all of the money we are forced to “give” to our government for entitlement programs, given back to us. Then the void would be filled by volunteers who desire to sacrifice to help others. There would be less resentment and waste!

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joeplemon August 20, 2010 at 3:34 pm

@Roshawn,
Yes, resentment is unavoidable when one doesn’t have a say in the matter…even if it is done for the common good.

@Khaleef,
You say that if the money from government entitlement programs was given back to the tax payers, volunteers would step up and fill that void. I agree in theory, but I also wonder if that many volunteers would magically show up. I would hope that volunteerism would meet the needs of the truly needy (another great advantage of volunteerism: people receive aid because a volunteer sees a real need, not because they fall within the guidelines of a government program). One thing is certain: if entitlement aid stopped, the truly needy would be the first order of receiving volunteer aid while those who are capable of being self sufficient would be forced to do so.

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Kevin@InvestItWisely August 20, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Joe, I believe that where volunteers would not step in, entrepreneurs would. Although entrepreneurs are out to make a profit, they still perform mutually beneficial exchanges. Entrepreneurs only survive when they are able to leave the customer better off than how they found them. Customers will only do business with entrepreneurs when they also believe that they are better off.

Although we are resentful and feel entitled, we are also dependent. Like weaning off a drug user from the drug, the changes needs to be gradual enough as to not kill the patient or make the rehab a failure. Were we to gradually wean ourselves off of our big government dependencies, I am more than sure that entrepreneurialism and volunteerism would be able to fill in the gap. I believe it would do plenty more than that, as well. It would be the bedrock of a foundation to a more sustainable and moral society at large.

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joeplemon August 20, 2010 at 5:40 pm

Kevin,
Great point. I had been so focused on volunteerism that I totally overlooked the obvious: entrepreneurialism. You are exactly right: entrepreneurs only survive by providing a valuable service. Wouldn’t it be great if volunteers and a free market could indeed wean us off of our government dependency?

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