Were the Early Churches Communist?
Debunking the Myth of That the Bible Teaches Marxism

As strange as this may seem to conservative American Christians who are used to thinking of Christianity in terms of patriotism, mother, apple-pie and the free market capitalist system, there are many people out there who try to argue that the "true" position of the early churches was communism. The crux for this argument comes out the twisting and misunderstanding of Acts 4:32-5:11, which is taken by believers in "Christian Communism" to imply a Soviet-style policy of wealth redistribution and economic levelling. This idea is most often forwarded by liberal "Christian" organisations who seek to use this pseudo-biblical approach to bolster their own proponency of various Social Gospel programmes or of political attempts at wealth redistribution1. This excuse is even used to justify efforts at financing and materially supporting (i.e. guns) international revolutionary movements!2

Often, this argument will be pointed to as a means of "discrediting" Christianity, through the claim that Christians either are supportive of violent revolutionaries themselves, or else are inconsistent for NOT doing so. Thus, it's a lose-lose situation for Christians in the eyes of those who accept or acknowledge as legitimately Christian the false paradigm of this style of "liberation theology". The particular impetus for this article actually comes from a reader who reported on a Muslim who tried to make the "Christian communism" argument, for the purpose of drawing away attention from Islam's problem with violence, through means of a false attempt to implicate Christianity as supportive of "violent overthrow" as well.

What we must understand is that the arguments made by those who carry the "Christian communist" mantle are both anachronistic and display a lack of comprehension about what the Bible itself says were the conditions in the early church. These radicals attempt to apply 19th-20th century ideas of communism back onto the 1st century churches which lived in a completely different culture and had a completely different economic organisation and ways of interpreting the world around them. To assume, when these early Christians shared their possessions in common and gave of themselves to aid their less fortunate brethren, that this implies a conscious desire to institute or carry out a Marxist system of organised wealth redistribution, is an anachronism that does not hold.

Let us look at what modern-day Communism really is all about, and see if this is what is really depicted in the book of Acts. Political science authorities have defined Communism as:

"An ideology that calls for the elimination of capitalist institutions and the establishment of the collectivist society in which land and capital are socially owned and in which class conflict and the coercive power of the state no longer exist.....According to communist doctrine, these [editor's note: the "internal contradictions" of the capitalist system] will produce intensifying class warfare and imperial and colonial rivalry culminating in the overthrow of the bourgeoisie by a proletarian revolution. A socialist program carried out under a "dictatorship of the proletariat" will then end class warfare, eliminate the need for the state, and move society into the final, classless, stateless stage of pure communism."3

Now, is this what we see depicted in Acts? Let's examine the major tenets.

Did the early church call for the elimination of capitalist institutions? This is somewhat inapplicable, as "capitalist institutions" as we know them and as the liberation theologists envision them, were nascent at best, and most did not even exist in the Roman Empire of the 1st century AD (or indeed, anywhere else until after the 17th century). There were very few large factories, with most manufacturing being carried out on a small scale and with little of the specialisation of labour which characterises the modern industrial scheme4. Further, most workers were either highly-skilled and highly-compensated slaves (whose lives were actually often better than small landowning freemen), members of the family which owned the workshops, or occasional day-labourers who sought hire to overcome difficult financial circumstances. There was very little in the way of day-to-day, year-to-year factory labour. The idea of overthrowing these or of changing this economic order is completely unsupported by any statement in the New Testament, in Acts or otherwise. In fact, Paul and other early Christians such as Aquila and Priscilla themselves participated in this sort of economic system, in this case as tentmakers likely involved in this sort of small workshop scale production.

Did the early Christians seek to the "establishment of the collectivist society in which land and capital are socially owned and in which class conflict and the coercive power of the state no longer exist"? Again, this idea is completely unsupported from the statements found in Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament. The testimony of Acts states that while the early Christians in Jerusalem did hold all things in common (4:32), this was a communalism based upon collective need (as a small, despised minority surrounded by a richer and more powerful religious establishment) rather than upon a sense of replacing the established social and economic orders. Further, even though these early Christians were choosing to consider their property as belonging to all, they were yet free to dispose of it entirely as they saw fit, and were still legally and even morally in control of their individual private property. The communalism of their fellowship was one based upon potential need, and was therefore predicated on potential distribution as the need arose. Thus, when they said that "ought of the things which he possessed was his own" (4:32), this was a statement of unselfish heart attitude, ready to give to those in need, but was not a statement of the present actual holding of all things in a common pot. We see this demonstrated in Peter's words to Ananias, when he lied to God and kept back part of the price of the land he had sold,

"But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God." (Acts 5:3-4)

Peter clearly ackonwledges Ananias' right to have kept his land privately, or to have kept the money made from selling the land. Ananias' sin was not holding back part of the price of the land, but was in his attempt to bolster his own reputation through deceit, pretending to be giving the full price when he really was not, thus appearing to be more self-sacrificing than was true. This is completely contrary to the idea that the early Christians were in practice pooling everything and redistributing the wealth equally among all the members, especially in the coercive top-down sense in which Communism seeks to carry out this end.

Further, the early churches and their leaders certainly were not seeking to overthrow the government and establish a system where the power of the state was eliminated. This ought to be sufficiently shown below:

"...Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:21)

"Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation." (Romans 13:1-2)

"Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work." (Titus 3:1)

"Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well." (I Peter 2:13-14)

It certainly was not a Christian teaching at any point in the apostolic period to seek the elimination of the government and the establishment of a classless, stateless society.

Did the early Christian church institute or encourage class warfare, for any reason? Again, the answer is no. The example given in Acts is that those who had much voluntarily gave of their largesse to aid those who had little. The element of force or coercion, the idea that the "proletariat" was appropriating the property of the rich, is completely foreign to the text here, as well as anywhere else in the New Testament. While the idea of the poor rising up against the rich is hardly a new idea invented by Communist theory5, it was an idea which was eschewed by the early Christians. In fact, the New Testament teaches for people of whatever station they are in to be content with their station, which obviously runs contrary to the revolutionary notions of Communism. This is because the emphasis of the New Testament in this general arena is ultimate reliance upon God, not upon government or a revolutionary group or anything else, to provide for our daily wants and needs (cf. Matthew 6:25-34, I Timothy 6:6-10, etc.). In fact, the doctrine of the New Testament teaches for servants and slaves to be content in their positions (cf. Ephesians 6:5-8, etc.)6. An argument can be rightly made, I believe, that Paul in the book of Philemon presents manumission of slaves as desirable among Christians for the ministry's sake (cf. vv. 13,16), yet this is hardly a call for wholesale overturning of any social order in which Christians may find themselves, whether it be a slaveholding society such as ancient Rome or modern Saudi Arabia, or a society with "wage-slaves" such as our modern capitalist societies.

So, seeing that the principles of modern Communism (as espoused often by "religious" radicals in so-called Christian denominations) is completely foreign to the early church and how it was depicted in Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament, what are the lessons taught by the voluntary communalism of the early church in Jerusalem? Far from a coercive, governmental Communist system, or a system of oppressive taxation for the purpose of involuntary wealth redistribution, we see that the purpose of provision from the largesse of the rich was motivated by true Christian love for the brethren. Distribution among the brethren was made volitionally, and was motivated by charitable love, not government intervention. And indeed, God does value a heart in Christians which is open and willing to give to the brethren in need (see I Timothy 6:17-18, James 2:15-17, I John 3:17-18, etc.). Further, it is incumbent upon the Christian to seek, when we have the opportunity, to do good unto all men (cf. Galatians 6:10, also Luke 10:25-37). In truth, the mercenary style of capitalism which does so often prevail, which does seek profit above all else and which tightens the bowels of mercy, is as unbiblical as Communism. While the Bible nowhere condemns having wealth (some of the most godly men in the Bible - Abraham, Job, David, etc. - were also some of the wealthiest), and teaches that a man should work to earn his own living and to be prosperous (cf. II Thessalonians 3:10), the Bible also on numerous occasions condemns wealth gotten through deceitfulness and greed. Covetousness is idolatry, Paul says (Colossians 3:5), and the Bible warns that those who lust after wealth and spend their lives seeking it, will only draw shame and harm to themselves for their placing of that pursuit over the pursuit of a right relationship with God (cf. I Timothy 6:9-10).

On a final note, however, we must again emphasise that this doing good unto all men is not to take the place of plainly and forcefully preaching the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ to the lost world around us. While enjoining charitable love for the brethren and all men, the "Social Gospel", this notion which has infected Evangelicalism, is unbiblical and a blight upon the true work of God's churches. The jobs of the churches are to keep God's words, to edify the saints, and to preach salvation to the lost. Notice the activity that was going on in the midst of all this sharing and caring,

"And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all." (Acts 4:33)

They were preaching the Gospel! They were spreading the word of the resurrected Saviour of mankind! The job of the churches is not to run soup kitchens or second-hand stores. Giving physical necessities to those in need is not a replacement for giving them the Words of life (cf. Mark 8:36). Charitable giving throughout the Bible is depicted as an activity done by churches or individual Christians to those in need, not as some sort of replacement for the true Gospel. The focus of Christians should be in meeting the spiritual necessities first, then the physical necessities after all else is said and done.

End Notes

(1) - This belief has widely infected most of the apostate "world church" organisations, as well as the heads of most of the apostate denominations, since the early-to-middle part of the 20th century. A typical example of this sort of mistaken "theology" would be seen in the case of E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary to India in the 1940s. Jones openly acknowledged his own conversion to Gandhian "pacifism" and expressed his desire to see a world religious body established, and to see Soviet-style wealth redistribution instituted as a means of pursuing the "example" of the early Christians, as he argues in The Choice Before Us. He also stated in one of his works, "I had to go outside my native land to make a discovery of the kingdom of God. I found it....in Russia." (E.S. Jones, Song of Accounts, pp. 148-149)
(2) - The United Methodist denomination has actually used the tithes of its members to purchase guns to arm revolutionary groups in Latin America and Africa.
(3) - The International Relations Dictionary, eds. J.C. Plano and R. Olton, "Communism", pp. 45-46
(4) - R.M. Haywood, Ancient Rome, pp. 396-399
(5) - Class conflict has broken out openly on numerous times throughout history. An informed 1st century reader in the Roman Empire would have been familiar with the Spartacan slave uprising of 73 BC, and with the stasis conflicts which plagued so many Greek poleis in the centuries before Rome conquered Greece.
(6) - Though, we should note, it does not support slavery as a beneficial or desirable institution, as some falsely accuse. Rather the New Testament testimony is one of simply accepting that slavery existed in the society in which the early churches existed.