by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr.
A common defense that modern supporters of socialism use is to claim that it is the model practiced by the early church in the book of Act, and thus it is the model we should seek to follow. Acts 4:32 states,
Now all the believers were one in heart and soul, and nobody called any of his possessions his own. Instead, they shared everything they owned. (ISV)
While at first blush socialism seem to be a reasonable inference of this passage, there are a few problems with this view. First off, there is the question of whether this passage is prescriptive or descriptive. Is this something we are commanded to follow, or is this just describing what they did? That it is descriptive is supported by the fact that this certainly did not last very long, and we do not see other churches being told to follow this practice.
Nor does it seem to have worked out very well, for what we do see is other churches being asked to contribute funds to support the church in Jerusalem. It should be noted here that had sharing everything in common been a universal teaching of the early church, there would have been no need to make the plea for support. Also Paul makes it clear that “each of you should set aside and save something from your surplus” (1 Cor 16:2) showing that funds were not held in common.
So it would seem that the socialism of the early church in Jerusalem was not a universal teaching, and did not end up very well. Nor is it really hard to see why. Acts 4:34 goes on to describe that,
none of them needed anything, because everyone who had land or houses would sell them and bring the money received for the things sold
This is all well and good, but accumulating the money needed to buy land or a house takes considerable time. Selling such an assets can generate a lot of money, such that it is not surprising that at first “none of them needed anything.” But as is pretty clear to most, it is easier and takes less time to spend money than earn it. If the people were earning enough money to keep up with the need there would have been no reason to sell property in the first place.
Since they did sell it, it means the need exceeded their incomes. Selling the property, and the resulting inflow of cash, fixed the short term issue, but it did not address the long term one, and thus it was only a matter of time until the money ran out again. Yet this time, the property was already sold. With nothing else to sell, now they were all in poverty, and thus the appeals to the other churches for support. This is an inherent problem of socialism. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, “The trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.” It can produce short term gain by tapping into accumulated wealth but the gains are short lived. In the end, as Winston Churchill pointed out, “The inherent blessing of socialism is the equal sharing of misery.”
But even if one takes the early Jerusalem Church as a model to follow, there is still a very big and significant difference between the socialism of the early church in Jerusalem, and modern socialism. While the socialism of the early Jerusalem church “shared everything” the sharing was voluntary. This can be seen in Acts 5 and the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira. While they also sold some of their property and gave the money to the church, they secretly held back some of the money they received. The key point here is that they were not punished for holding back some of the money, but for lying about it. Note Peter’s response in Acts 5:3-4,
“Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you should lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back some of the money you got for the land? As long as it remained unsold, wasn’t it your own? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? So how could you have thought of doing what you did? You didn’t lie only to men, but also to God!”
According to Peter, Ananias and Sapphira owned this property and could do with it as they saw fit. There was no obligation to give this money to the apostles. Their sin was to lie and say they gave all when they did not.
Peter’s words are words the modern socialist cannot say. While those in the Jerusalem church would say, ‘what is mine is yours’, the modern socialist says ‘what is yours, is mine.’ The former is a statement of generosity, the latter is coveting. It may be disguised as concern for some need, but at its core it is seeing what someone else has, and wanting it for their own purposes.
It is important to note that in the 10th commandment, there is no exception clause. It does not say do not covet unless you have a good reason. Where Peter could say “wasn’t it your own” the modern socialist say “give it to us or else.” The later just does not strike me as a very Christian message.