In this installment of our series, we want to consider a passage in Acts 2 that is often brought into the discussion of a biblical view of social justice: Acts 2:42-47.
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
This passage has been used by scholars and lay folks alike to justify socialism, communism, or some sort of politically utopian society that has the veneer of socialism or communism. It isn’t difficult to undermine such hermeneutical conclusions. All it takes is looking at other items recorded in the book of Acts and, of course, certain statements of Jesus. I’ll sketch out the flaws of such thinking as we proceed. I’m guessing readers will be surprised the passage is used at all to justify a political worldview or the use of the Bible to tell the state how to conduct its business.
Communism and socialism are related economic-political theories. They can be defined fairly easily. Here are two I like for their succinctness and clarity:
Socialism: “Socialism is an economic concept that advocates public ownership of all resources. The production and distribution of resources with a society are then controlled by members of that society collectively or by the government that represents that society. Goods are produced and distributed based on need rather than on market forces such as profitability, price and consumers’ purchasing power. In a socialist economy, workers contribute to society based on their ability and receive according to their needs, rather than being paid wages and using that money to purchase what they want. Private possessions are limited to personal-use items such as clothes, and there is no need or ability for individuals to accumulate wealth, so there is equality among the people.”1
Communism: “Socialism that abolishes private ownership and seeks to create a classless society.”2 Note the wording. Communism (at least as we know it in practice in the 20th-21st centuries) seeks the abolition of private property. The idea of a classless society, of course, is nonsense, both in theory and practice, since you need leadership to enforce the rules or ideas (since this abstract will need coercion and enforcement). As soon as people who mutually agreed (again in theory) to have a classless society do or say something perceived as violating the ideal, they must be dealt with.
Some Preliminary Observations
Does Acts 2:42-47 teach either of these economic-political theories? Making the equation reflect shallow thinking about the biblical material. In fact, arguing the equation is coherent requires a surface-level approach to the relevant texts and a sloppy hermeneutic.
The sentiment behind socialism and communism in pure form (“from each, according to his ability, to each according to his need”) is reflected in Acts 2:42-47 and other passages (Acts 11:29). However, none of these passages empower the state to coerce individuals into such actions, nor do they call for the state to mime the Church. To do so would contradict the teaching of Jesus. Socialism and communism therefore take an idea consistent with individual mercy and righteousness and use it to hold political power over people and nurture economic dependence on the power-holding State. It was Jesus who called for the separation of the Church and State, who spoke of the kingdom of heaven as distinct from the State (Matt 22:21). The part does not equate to the whole.
Put another way, if the apostles were transported to the 20th century and asked to read books on socialist theory, or socialist laws, or the Communist Manifesto would they see themselves? I would submit the answer is no.3 Why?
Let’s start with what we already know from our excursions into a biblical theology of social justice. Without rehearsing all the details, here are the basics:
1. The Bible neither forbids nor condemns private property.
2. The Bible neither forbids nor condemns private possessions.
3. The Bible neither forbids nor condemns running a private business (entrepreneurship). Consequently, profit is neither forbidden nor condemned.
4. Lending and borrowing (with interest, depending on Jewish or Gentile status) were also not forbidden or condemned in principle. Excess in these respects is condemned, and borrowing receives attention in wisdom literature to prompt wise choices in that regard (such as ability to repay and the consequences of failure in that regard).
5. While Scripture does condemn the economic abuse of the poor, there is no expectation in the Bible that the state is responsible for providing a citizen’s livelihood.
6. Old Testament laws for the care of the poor are aimed at the individual, not the state. That is, the expectation is that Israelites would care for the poor by obeying God’s laws. There was no police force or Israelite IRS to enforce these laws. When abuses happened, Israelite elders or officials (after the monarchy) could punish individuals and call for restitution. But this is not socialism or communism for the reasons that follow.
7. The Bible contains no laws that call for a classless society. In fact, biblical law presumes social classes. The same can be said of the teachings of Jesus. Jesus presumes social classes and never calls for their abolition. What he calls for is righteousness among members of social classes (i.e., righteous relationships). The words of the apostles in the epistolary literature is entirely consistent with this. Paul and others benefit from the benevolence of wealthy individuals (e.g., Luke 23:50; Acts 17:12) and business owners (e.g., Acts 16:14) and never link their conversion or walk with God to surrender of all their possessions or their business. The very idea of giving to the poor according to one’s ability (Acts 11:29) requires differing financial statuses.
8. The New Testament does not include the erection of a new theocracy as part of the mission of the Church. There is no call for the Church to be the State, or the State to be the Church. They are separate entities in the teaching of Jesus. (And history has yet to provide a good outcome when two are married).
Acts 2:42-47 in Context
Acts 2:45 plainly says the members of the fledgling apostolic church in Jerusalem “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all.” The same thought is expressed in Acts 4:32-37:
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Do these passages teach us that the rejection of private property was part of apostolic teaching? Is their message telegraphing an implicit desire that a political state authority should control economic activity to make sure everyone was at the same economic level and that there were no socio-economic classes (socialism and communism)?
In a word, no — at least if we care to take a look at the very next chapter, Acts 5.
Acts 5 gives us a window into the activity of selling property for the “economic redistribution” mentioned in Acts 2 and 4. Acts 5 chronicles the infamous episode involving Ananias and Sapphira:
1 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
The same fate that befell Ananias came upon his wife Sapphira shortly afterward (Acts 5:7-11).
What can we learn from this passage with regard to the issue under discussion? Peter’s words in Acts 5:4 are noteworthy: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” Peter did not rebuke Ananias for owning property. Once the property was sold, Ananias was under no obligation to give it all to the church — and Peter’s words could be read to the effect that he wasn’t under any obligation to give any of it to the church. The giving of wealth was voluntary, not under coercion of either apostolic authority or an overlord State. The evil in the passage was not private ownership, selling (presumably at a profit to boot), what the market could bear (a capitalist principle), or retaining personal wealth. Rather, the evil was lying about what was done with the money for the purpose of pride and spiritual grandstanding.
The context of the early church in general is informative as well. Here are some observations:
1. The activity described in the Acts of “having all things in common” is mentioned only in Acts 2 and 4. The phrase never occurs of any other NT church founded by Paul or any other apostle. This suggests that there was something unique about the situation in the original Jerusalem church that (presumably) wasn’t transmitted as binding custom to other NT churches. This omission is strange if the example of Acts was binding for all churches (much less the political State).
2. Many NT scholars who discuss the phrase suggest that it very likely refers to the familiar Hellenistic / Greco-Roman notion that “friends share what friends have.” Well-known NT scholar C. K. Barrett puts it this way:
“[Luke may] have thought it likely that the Christians would adopt one of the most admired practices of antiquity, and have observed it more fully and on a wider scale than their gentile contemporaries and predecessors. That friends share all things is one of the most widely quoted maxims in ancient literature. It is impossible to cite all the passages available. . . .”4
3. According to the rest of the NT, the “shared wealth” of the Jerusalem church did not elevate its economic condition. While we can safely assume those believers in extreme poverty were helped, this church was notoriously poor. Its poverty was the reason that Paul took to collecting money on his missionary trips from the start-up churches birthed through his ministry. The joy of the Jerusalem church wasn’t in the fact that they were all at the same (very low) economic level, but in each other and in Christ. That is, the goal of the giving was unity and community; it was not to make an economic or political statement.
5. The fact that the NT accounts of this situation focus on *believers* and not all people (read Acts 2 and 4 again) should inform us clearly that what’s going on is not meant to be transferred to the political State or statecraft. If that were the case, then the State would have to insist everyone was a “believer.” that is, there would have to be a State religion to which everyone who sought or obtained economic assistance was a member. It might just be me, but I think we all know how such things turned out in the history of western civilization.
6. While the rest of the NT (and earliest church tradition and history) is filled with accounts of the apostles founding churches in response to the Great Commission, there is no record that they formed a political entity, spread an economic theory, or founded a political party.
The conclusion I draw from this admittedly cursory set of observations is that the notion that Acts 2 justifies a modern political theory like socialism or communism is utterly bogus and hermeneutically flawed. The accounts of the early Church are devoid of theoretical politics or any eye to State formation or the exercise of State power. The kingdom of God was simply conceived as not being of this world.
- See What is Socialism. ↩
- See What is Communism. ↩
- This is not to say they’d see themselves in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, either. ↩
- Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, 168. And for all you copy editors out there, yes, I know this is not a correct or complete bibliographic citation of this ICC volume. It’s just that I have the dumbest WordPress plugin for footnotes on the planet, as it cannot abide things like parentheses in citations. I’ll be looking for another plug in as soon as I publish this post. ↩