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Was the early Church socialist?
Posted By Eric Sammons On April 13, 2010 @ 9:10 am In Scripture,The Church | Comments Disabled
In today’s first reading, Luke tells us about the unique community that the first Christians formed:
The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the Apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the Apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:32-35)
This is not exactly a passage that we capitalistic Americans like to promote; it appears to come dangerously close to promoting socialism or communism. Many people over the ages have in fact made exactly that claim. So does the practice of the first Christians promote a socialistic economic plan?
I think there are a few things we need to recognize as we read this passage and try to apply it to government economical plans.
1) The Christians’ sharing of all property was voluntary. There is no indication that the first Christians were forced to share all their belongings with the Church; they did so on a voluntary basis. This is obviously much different from a government forcing “sharing” upon its people.
2) This setup was short-lived. There is no historical evidence that this type of communal living lasted very long, and attempts to replicate it over the centuries have all ended in failure. The closest any group has come to replicating it has been monastic communities, but there is a big difference between a group of celibates living together and families living separately but with a common fund.
3) All involved contributed to the best of their ability. In St. Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds the Christians there that “we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In other words, if someone tried to get taken care of by the community without pitching in himself, he should not be included in the distribution of food. Clearly this is different from a socialistic system where everyone receives from the government regardless of their own contribution to society.
4) The early Church was a small and closed community. There is no indication that Luke is advocating that entire nations or empires should emulate the early Church in this regard. In fact, the point of this passage is to show the unique and powerful way the Holy Spirit was working in the early Church. It is not a “normal” way of living.
So this passage is not advocating a socialistic or communist governmental system. But I should also hasten to add that neither does it promote capitalism either. In fact, the Bible is pretty agnostic when it comes to advocating economic models for governments. The truth is that no model is perfect and all will be practiced by people afflicted by Original Sin and therefore all will be unjust. Some might be better than others but none are perfect. In fact, I would argue that if we were all without sin, just about any economic model – capitalism, socialism, etc. – would work fine because we would all be putting others first in our lives.
And that is the other lesson we need to take away from this passage: we are obligated as Christians to care for others. For “conservative” Christians living in America, it is sometimes too easy to focus on the obligation of everyone to work to the best of their ability and “pull their own weight”. But as followers of Christ we need to be more focused on our own obligations to care for those less fortunate than ourselves, as Christ makes abundantly clear in the parable of the sheep and the goats. It would be better to help someone who we felt was “lazy” than to not help someone who was deserving of assistance.
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