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.”
“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.”
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:
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.
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?