Economics 101 & Public Square

The Early Church: In Poverty or Riches?

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

We’re exploring the claim that Acts 2-5 mandates socialism for Christians. The early believers exhibited extraordinary generosity. However, they did not sell all their posessions.

It may seem that the following phrases mean that the community in Acts 2-5 sold everything and had a common pot of resources:

  • “All the believers were together and had everything in common” (Acts 2:44).
  • “They sold property and possessions…” (Acts 2:45).
  • “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4:32).

However, the context of these verses 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 Riches,

Verses 34-47 are dominated by highly marked imperfect tense verbs, where as 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, and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Blomberg comments:

The periodic selling of property confirms our interpretation of Acts 2:44 above. This was not a one-time divestiture of all one’s posessions. 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 Barnabas in Acts 4. Barnabas “owned a tract of land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37).

The text does not say that this giving comprised all his posessions, or that it was the only tract of land he owned. It provides a positive example of what was going on in Acts 2-5. When Barnabas saw there were needs he could meet, he was generous with what he owned. Some have speculated that 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, similar to Barnabas. With his wife’s knowledge, he kept part of the proceeds for himself.

The problem with this was not that he had not sold all their possessions. Nor was it that he did not give all the proceeds to the apostles. The problem was that Ananias lied about his actions.

Ananias and Sapphira pretended to be more generous than they were. The problem, as Peter points out, was that Ananias had “lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3).

So there is good reason to believe that the early believers did not sell all they owned. They were generous. 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 posessions and redistributed them among the community, does that prove socialism or communism is Biblical?

No. There would have been state-coerced taking of property and forced distribution of it. In Acts 2-5, the state is not the one selling or giving property to those who had need.

Tomorrow we’ll look into whether or not the early Christians’ acts of sharing were totally voluntary.

What do you think? Do you think the early believers really did sell all they owned? Does this prove socialism is Biblical? Leave your comments here.  

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