Economics 101 & Public Square

Does Acts 2-5 Teach Socialism?

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

Here at IFWE, we’re working to help people integrate their faith with their work and economic thinking. Part of our mission includes exploring the implications of our faith for how we participate in our economic systems. We desire a system that promotes human creativity, purpose, and freedom.

There has been recent buzz about what appears to some to be the more socialistic aspects of Christianity. The Huffington Post and the Washington Post’s On Faith blog have both published op-eds touting progressive sounding Scriptures.

In one recent op-ed, Gregory Paul claims Jesus was a socialist, citing Acts 2-5 as evidence. Paul is not the first commentator to argue Acts 2-5 teaches socialism.

Acts 2-5 presents a beautiful picture of Christian community. But does it mandate socialism for believers? What can be said to such a claim?

There is an alternative argument to such statements. This alternative argues that the Bible’s central principles are consistent with a market economy, commonly called capitalism. Furthermore, the Bible’s central principles also contradict a centrally-planned economy, often referred to as socialism.

Let’s begin by defining capitalism and socialism. Both are economic systems. They make different claims over how resources should and can be rationed. More importantly, both claim they are best poised to promote human flourishing.

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. The government uses coercive taxation and wealth distribution to allocate resources. The government also makes decisions over property, prices, and production.

Incidentally, communism is a progression from socialism. It is both a political and economic system which would abolish private property and give to individuals based on need.

So what about this claim that Acts 2-5 teaches socialism or communism? First, let’s look at what the passages say.

Acts 2:44-45 says that immediately following Pentecost,

All those who believed were together and had all things in common; and 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…For there was not one needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each as any had need.

It sounds like 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.

In the coming days we’ll explore some key points of these texts:

  • The early believers did not sell all their possessions.
  • The early Christians’ sharing was totally voluntary.
  • This was not a permanent practice, but a temporary measure.
  • It cannot be shown that the practices in Acts 2-5 are a mandatory prescription for later Christians.
What do you think? Does Acts 2-5 teach socialism? Leave your comments here
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