Were early Christians communists?
That’s what some Christians conclude when the read about the early Christian converts in the book of Acts who practiced a type of voluntary communal sharing. Acts 2:44–45 reads,
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Additional details are recorded in Acts 4:32–35:
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. … 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 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
Some contemporary believers have suggested that this instance of communal sharing in the early church presents a model for all Christians to follow. Christians should be communists, they say.
Indeed, the communal sharing in Acts reflects the biblical ideal of provision for believers (see Psalm 37:25–26) and embodies the principle of lending to those in need (see Deuteronomy 15:7–8; Luke 6:34). Yet the example of communal sharing in the early church is not a viable model for contemporary Christians. Here are a few reasons.
1. Consider the context.
When you examine the context of communal sharing in the book of Acts, you see that it was an emergency aid effort sparked by the large number of foreign converts in Jerusalem when the church first began. Luke records that on the day of Pentecost, “There were added that day about three thousand souls. … And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:41, 47). In all likelihood, many of these new converts had not planned to lodge in Jerusalem longer than the few days of the Jewish feast. Consequently, there were many material needs among those in the early church who wanted to stay in Jerusalem to be taught by the apostles.
While the early church didn’t promote economic equality, it did pursue economic justice.
2. Consider the genre.
Note that the events in the book of Acts are narrative accounts, not prescriptive teachings. Although we can often learn from the stories and examples in the Bible, we must be careful about reaching doctrinal and moral conclusions from narratives, especially if such examples are unique, are not endorsed or repeated elsewhere in Scripture, or are contradicted by other examples or prescriptive teachings in the Bible. Indeed, there are many narratives in Scripture that even describe sinful events. We know this by evaluating narratives in light of the prescriptive teachings of Scripture.
We must evaluate the communal sharing narrative in Acts by this same methodology before we can reach conclusions about its applicability for today.
3. Consider the verb tense.
Bible scholars have noted that the tense of the Greek verbs used in the Acts narrative does not communicate permanent or completed actions. Rather, it indicates actions that are in progress or uncompleted. The New International Version of the Bible clearly communicates this truth in its translation of Acts 4:34–35, which reads,
From time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet.
In other words, the early Christians did not all immediately liquidate their material resources and pool their money. Rather, as is often done now, when needs arose within the early church, those with material resources met the needs “from time to time.”
Christians don’t have to be communists, but they should be generous.
4. Consider the rest of Scripture.
Remember that the Bible offers other teachings and economic examples that differ from this narrative. For example, in his parable of the Talents, Jesus assigns a different number of talents to each individual (Matt 25:14–30). Paul freely labored among the churches to meet his own material needs rather than accept support from fellow believers (2 Thessalonians 3:7–9), and he instructed the church to give freely to the poor, which would be nonsensical if all believers’ assets were liquidated and held in common (see also 2 Corinthians 9:7). In his confrontation of Ananias about his land and money, Peter plainly taught that there was no burden on Christians to sell their assets (Acts 5:4).
So, in sum, the communal sharing example in Acts is not a mandate for you to liquidate your material possessions and pursue complete economic equality. Acts 4:32 says, “No one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own.” It does not say, “Everyone said that whatever belonged to anyone belonged to everyone.”
Indeed, the notion that Christians are to be economically equal rests on a faulty, static, zero-sum balance view of material resources—that is, the idea that economies cannot grow—which ignores the duty to and productivity of labor (I address this topic in my new book, Every Good Thing). We ought to expect a variation in material possessions in a world where God creates individuals with various gifts, talents and abilities.
So while the early church didn’t promote economic equality, it did pursue economic justice to meet the needs of the poor, as these narratives reveal. Christians don’t have to be communists, but they should be generous.