Were the Early Christians Socialists?

The earliest biblical accounts of Christian believers after the ascension of Jesus describe a generous and compassionate community. Some argue that it also describes a proto-socialist economic system.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. . . . There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (Acts 4:32-35).

There are a number of problems with interpreting this passage to justify socialism as a political economy for 21st-century nation-states.

First, this passage is not a good description of socialism as it is understood today. Most contemporary theories of socialism include state-managed means of production, mandated redistribution of goods, and limits on private ownership. None of these is evident in the passage cited above.

Second, the passage does not describe a state policy. This was a voluntary association of like-minded believers who willingly shared their goods. It is difficult to apply this descriptive practice of a small community to prescriptive policies for a governmental structure.

Third, other scripture passages describe other Christian communities and practices, indicating that this was not a pan-Christian practice but only the localized experience of the community in Jerusalem. Christians are instructed to work or not eat, to earn their own living (2 Thess. 3:10-12); Christians own homes (Acts 10:5-6; Rom. 16:3-5); Christians have freedom to do with their money as they wish (Acts 5:4); Christians are invited to give generously, but not commanded to hand over money (2 Cor. 8:1-8); Christians are instructed to care for their own families rather than turn to the church for help (1 Tim. 5:8, 16); Christians are warned against idleness and urged to take care of themselves (1 Thess. 5:6-13).

Fourth, the passage may describe a temporary arrangement in the Jerusalem community. There is no indication in later scripture passages or other early Church writings that this practice continued, or that it was replicated in other Christian communities.

On the other hand, early Christians were certainly urged to give generously and even sacrificially (2 Cor. 8:3-15); care for the poor and provide for their needs (Acts 6:1-2; Gal. 2:10); pay the taxes that the government demands (Acts 13:1-7); avoid idleness (1 Thess. 5:14); care for orphans and widows (Jas. 1:27); feed the hungry (Mt. 25:31-46; Jas. 2:14-17); operate their businesses within the understanding of the will of God (Jas. 4:13-15); and stay away from unjustly gained wealth and living in luxury and self-indulgence (Jas. 5:1-5).

Insofar as commentators on either the political Left or Right make direct economic applications from scripture for governmental policies, they operate under the implicit assumption that the U.S. government should be adopting Christian practices. This creates tension, both within Christian communities who interpret the passages differently, and in Christian/non-Christian political discourse. Embracing Christian values and translating them into legislation require a contemporary political posture, which is indeterminate from biblical accounts and must address issues not raised in first-century settings.

Related Reading

"It's Not 'Class Warfare': It's Christianity" (Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Washington Post's On Faith)

"Liberal Capitalism and Catholic Economic Theory" (The American Catholic editors)

"Should Christians Be Socialists?" (Jay Richards, Washington Post)

"From Jesus' Socialism to Capitalistic Christianity" (Gregory Paul, Washington Post's On Faith)

"Biblical Social Justice and Glenn Beck" (Jim Wallis, Huffington Post)

Select Bibliography

Rebecca Blank and William McGurn, Is the Market Moral?: a Dialogue on Religion, Economics & Justice (Brookings Institution Press, 2004)