Does Acts 2-5 Teach Socialism?
Art Lindsley, Ph.D.
Two articles on The Washington Post “On Faith” blog explicitly state that Christianity is socialist and anti-capitalist. The central argument given by both authors is that the description of the early Christian community in Acts 2-5 having “all things in common” mandates socialism (or communism). Is this true? What can be said to such a claim?
Some scholars offer an alternative argument: that the Bible’s central principles are consistent with a market economy (commonly called capitalism) and contradict a centrally-planned economy (commonly called socialism). To begin, let us define capitalism and socialism. Both are economic systems, both claim that they are best poised to advance human flourishing, but they make different claims over how resources should and can be rationed.
Capitalism is an economic system which largely allows markets to allocate scarce resources through prices, property rights and profit/loss signals. Socialism is a system under which the government owns the means of production and through coercive taxation and wealth redistribution allocates resources and makes decisions over property, prices and production. Incidentally, communism, a progression from socialism, is both a political and economic system which would abolish private property and give to individuals based on need.
But what about this claim that Acts 2-5 teaches socialism (or communism)? First of all, what do the passages say? Acts 2:44-45 says that immediately following Pentecost “44all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as any might have need.” In Acts 4:32-35, it says of the early congregation that “not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them [....] 34For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, 35lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each as any had need.” It sounds like some of the language of socialism is here, so how could anyone argue otherwise? However, such a superficial reading may miss that which a closer look at the text reveals.
1. The early believers did not sell all their possessions. Even though it may seem that the phrases “had all things in common” or “selling their property” or “all things were common property” means that the early believers sold everything and had a common pot, the context immediately qualifies these general statements. The believers continued to live and meet in their own homes. Craig Blomberg says in his study Neither Poverty nor Riches1:
Verses 43-47 are dominated by highly marked imperfect tense verbs, whereas one normally expects aorists [once-for-all actions] in historical narrative. There is no once-for-all divestiture of property in view here, but periodic acts of charity as needs arose
This is even clearer in Acts 4-5. In the NIV translation of Acts 4:34b-35, it says: “From time to time, those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35and put it at the apostles’ feet ….” Blomberg comments:
Again we have a rash of imperfect verbs here, this time explicitly reflected in the NIV’s ‘from time to time.’ The periodic selling of property confirms our interpretation of Acts 2:44 above. This was not a one-time divesture of all one’s possessions. The theme ‘according to need,’ reappears, too. Interestingly, what does not appear in this paragraph is any statement of complete equality among believers. Presumably, there was quite a spectrum, ranging from those who still held property which they had not sold … all the way to those who were still living at a very basic level.
Note the positive example of Barnabus (Acts 4) and the negative one of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). Barnabus “owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” It does not say that this giving comprised all his possessions or that it was the only tract of land he owned. It provides a positive example of what was going on in Acts 2-4. When Barnabus saw that there were needs he could meet, he was generous with what he owned. Perhaps, some have speculated, he was the first person of substantial wealth to donate to the cause.
Then we have the negative example of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Ananias sold “a piece of property,” (Acts 5:1) (similar to Barnabus) and, with his wife’s knowledge, kept part of the proceeds for himself. The problem with this (as we shall see) was not that they had not sold all their possessions or that they needed to give all of the proceeds of their land to the apostles, but that they lied about it. They pretended to be more generous than they were. Ananias, then later Sapphira, comes before Peter and dies (presumably as a divine judgment). Peter explicitly says that “when it was unsold it was your own” and after it was sold, it was “under your control” (vs. 4). The problem, as Peter points out, was that Ananias had “lied to the Holy Spirit” (vs. 3). He had “lied to God” and not “to men” (vs. 5).
So there is good reason to believe that the early believers did not sell all they had, but were generous and, as occasion demonstrated, they sold part of their possessions and gave the proceeds to the apostles for distribution. But even if we, for the sake of argument, grant that all believers sold all their possessions and redistributed them among the community, does that prove socialism or communism is Biblical? No, there would have to be state-coerced taking of property and forced distribution of it. But the state is not the one here selling (or giving) property to those that had need.