Economics 101 & Public Square

Crossing the Divide: the Early Church and Socialism

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Ed. Note: This post has been adapted from its original form. Read the full paper here.

We’ve been looking at whether or not the early church in Acts 2-5 presents a model of socialism that all believers should follow.

So far we’ve discovered three things that argue against this interpretation:

  1. The early believers did not sell all their possessions. In other words, private property rights still existed.
  2. The sharing that takes place in Acts 2-5 is voluntary.
  3. This generosity was a temporary measure taken to meet a specific need.

There is a fourth point to be made, one that also touches on how we interpret Scripture as a whole:

If you believe Acts 2-5 teaches and encourages socialism, you have to show that the historical precedent set in this passage is a mandatory prescription for all later Christians.

Can you get the imperative (all Christians should do this) from the indicative (some early Christians did this)? You can try with all your might, but you will never cross that divide.

The fact that some Christians shared all things (with some qualifications) does not constitute a command that all Christians should follow their example.

The one way you could cross the divide is by showing that other Biblical passages command socialism. Wise teachers have maintained that it is not good to base an important doctrine on a single passage of Scripture. You can’t make a universal command from something that was practiced in the first century unless that command is taught in other clear passages of Scripture.

For instance, Jesus wore a seamless robe. This fact does not mean that all future believers must do likewise, unless it is commanded elsewhere. Does the fact that Jesus had “nowhere to lay his head” – no home – mean that all believers thereafter must be homeless? Only if there is clear teaching that makes mandatory a historical precedent in Jesus’ life or the early church. Otherwise, it is not binding on later believers.

Thus, even if the events of Acts 2-5 were socialist, which they were not, they would hold nothing other than historical interest to later believers. They would have no binding power on the later church.

What do you think? Are there other passages of Scripture that bolster the claim that Acts 2-5 was socialism, and that would make socialism mandatory for believers? Leave your comments here.

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