After Pentecost, was the Church Communist?

The Pentecost icon from the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery, circa 1497.

By Jay Richards Published on June 5, 2017

You’ve heard this question. Since I write a lot about Christianity and economics, I’ve been asked it dozens of times. Was the early Church communist?

It’s not a crazy query. In the book of Acts, just after Pentecost, members of the new Church sold their belongings and shared their wealth. That sounds like communism to some folks. And if Christians are to live up to their origins, the argument goes, then they should be communists too.

Makes perfect sense, as long as you misread the text, ignore the details, and forget the meaning of words.

Still, lots of people have that impression. So let’s look at what the text says:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32–35 RSV)

Now, this was the very first church in Jerusalem. These believers were still buzzing from the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The author (probably Luke) says “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:31 RSV) If they didn’t get it right, who did?

Fair question. As usual, though, the details and context are everything.

Define Terms

First, let’s define communism. Communism is based on Marx’s theory of class warfare. Under capitalism, Marx predicted, the workers are exploited and at some point, revolt against the capitalists — the owners of the means of production. The workers take control of private property by force and then the state owns it on behalf of the people. Then, after a while, Marx claimed, the socialist state would wither away and you’d get a communist utopia in which everyone lived in peace, harmony and preternatural freedom.

These new Christians freely sold their possessions and shared. This is pretty much the opposite of real-world communism.

There’s none of this class warfare stuff in the early church in Jerusalem. No talk of the “means of production.” No denouncing of private property. No violent revolution.

These new Christians freely sold their possessions and shared. This is pretty much the opposite of real-world communism.

Second, the state was nowhere in sight. No Roman centurions were kicking down doors, confiscating property and collectivizing farms. No one was forced to do anything. The church in Jerusalem was just that — a church, not a state. The church didn’t act like a modern communist state. As left-leaning evangelical Ron Sider notes, “Sharing was voluntary, not compulsory.”Pentecost Logo Generic Ad Large - 400

Read Carefully

It’s easy to lose sight of this later in the text, though, when Peter condemns Ananias and Sapphira. They’re the couple whose claim-to-fame is that they kept back some of the money they got from selling their land. They were struck dead as a result.

If you just glance at the text, you might think Peter condemns them for failing to give everything to the collective. But read it carefully. He asks, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:3–4 RSV)

So, Peter condemns the couple not for keeping part of the proceeds of the sale, but for lying about it. In fact, he takes for granted that the property was theirs, even after it was sold. Peter says nothing about private property per se.

Not the Norm

Third, the communal life of the early church in Jerusalem was never made the norm for all Christians everywhere. In fact, Luke doesn’t treat it as the norm even for the Jerusalem church.

The emergency communal life in Jerusalem was never held up as a model for how the entire church should order its life, let alone used to justify the state confiscating private property.

In Acts, Luke is describing a unique moment in the life of the early Church. Thousands of Jews had come from around the Roman world to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem at Pentecost. They were away from their homes, their jobs and their belongings. Then thousands of them became Christians — all at once. What to do? They would have had to return home right away, alone and untaught, if not for the extreme measures taken by the local Christians. The locals chose to sell their possessions and share with their new brothers and sisters. Given the situation, that makes perfect sense.

For all we know, this selling-and-sharing stage lasted six months. It’s unlikely that all these new Christians, many denizens of the far-flung Jewish Diaspora, stayed in Jerusalem for the rest of their lives. Many surely returned home at some point, and brought their new faith with them.

We know from the New Testament that other churches in other cities had different arrangements. For instance, Paul sternly warned the Thessalonian Christians, “If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” (2 Thess. 3: 10b-11, RSV)

Some new Christians had begun to take advantage of the generosity of their new brothers in the faith. That may be why the emergency communal life in Jerusalem was never held up as a model for how the entire church should order its life, let alone used to justify the state confiscating private property.

Communal living does have its place. Nuclear families sort of live communally. In functional families, however, the parents are in charge. So, it’s not really a commune.

Many monasteries and religious orders live communally. These are highly disciplined, voluntary communities that are self-consciously separate from the ordinary life of family and commerce. Many of them survive for centuries — and in fact, the productivity of some early monasteries helped give rise to capitalism in medieval Europe.

There have been other Christian groups that have tried to live communally. There were lots of Christian communes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And the American Amish and the Jesus People USA live in semi-communal groups today. The ones that survive are small, voluntary and intensely disciplined.

Don’t Be a Communist. Be Generous.

The take-home lesson is clear: The book of Acts doesn’t describe an early communist experiment in Jerusalem, or set a precedent for how all Christians should live.

Still, there’s a strong lesson in the example of these first Christians. In a pinch, we should all be willing to go to great lengths, even to sell all we have, to care for needy believers and to see the Gospel spread to ends of the earth.

Print Friendly
Comments ()
The Stream encourages comments, whether in agreement with the article or not. However, comments that violate our commenting rules or terms of use will be removed. Any commenter who repeatedly violates these rules and terms of use will be blocked from commenting. Comments on The Stream are hosted by Disqus, with logins available through Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or G+ accounts. You must log in to comment. Please flag any comments you see breaking the rules. More detail is available here.
  • Thank you, Jay. I’ve forwarded this article to my News and Views team for comment, hoping they will address it on air (I’m the Producer).

  • ncsugrant

    Well said. It is very easy to take scripture out of context, and twist it to support the various assaults being waged by the left. We all need to gain a better understanding of the text in order to recognize the falsehoods being spread by clever politicians.
    Just yesterday, I saw where Al Gore was trying to the silly Paris climate agreement to the book of Revelation. This is likely the only time the mainstream media will mention Revelations. Any believer who references Revelation in proper context is branded a kook to be ridiculed and discredited.

  • Master Samwise

    The take-home lesson is clear: The book of Acts doesn’t…set a precedent for how all Christians should live.” Are you serious? Like, that is all kinds of heretical. This is a protestant argument for why Jesus didn’t institute the Eucharist at the Last Supper.

    • Jay W. Richards

      I don’t think you read my article very carefully. I conclude that it sets a precedent that Christians should be willing share with each other even to the point of selling their goods, at least in emergency situations, but not that all churches are expected to *live communally*–let alone be *communist.* And that is the conclusion that the Church Herself has come to throughout history–that’s why She doesn’t mandate communal living for individual congregations. It’s certainly odd to call my conclusion heretical. The only view related to this discussion that has officially been declared heretical was the view of the Fraticelli Spiritual Franciscans, who denounced the Church’s property, and denounced private property in general.

      • stan schmunk

        You might want to take a look at 2 Corinthians 8, especially 13-15. Notice the OT reference and the word equality.

    • itsnotaboutme

      Way to misrepresent the article!
      We know from your other comment that you also misrepresent the Bible, so that’s no surprise.

  • Master Samwise

    Also, your argument that this was not the norm is absolutly false, not to mention heretical.

    “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” 1 John 3:17.

    “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Luke 12:33-34

    “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” 1 Timothy 6:17-19

    “Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor? Is it, perhaps, in order that you may receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship, and in order that he may be honored with great prizes for his endurance? But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose you do no wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a man of greed? Someone who does not rest content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes away what belongs to others. And are you not a man of greed? are you not a cheater? taking those things which you received for the sake of stewardship, and making them your very own? Now, someone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but when someone fails to clothe the naked, while he is able to do this, is such a man deserving of any other appellation? The bread which you hold back belongs to the hungry; the coat, which you guard in your locked storage-chests, belongs to the naked; the footwear mouldering in your closet belongs to those without shoes. The silver that you keep hidden in a safe place belongs to the one in need. Thus, however many are those whom you could have provided for, so many are those whom you wrong.” St. Basil’s Sermon to the Rich

    “If a poor man comes to you asking for bread, there is no end of complaints and reproaches and charges of idleness; you upbraid him, insult him, jeer at him. You fail to realize that you too are idle and yet God grants you gifts.

    Now don’t tell me that you actually work hard. If you call earning money, making business deals, and caring for your possessions “work”, I say, “No, that is not work. But alms, prayers, the protection of the injured and the like – these are genuine work.” You charge the poor with idleness; I charge you with corrupt behavior.

    Don’t you realize that, as the poor man withdraws silently, sighing and in tears, you actually thrust a sword into yourself, that it is you who received the more serious wound?

    Let us learn that as often as we have not given alms, we shall be punished like those who have plundered. For what we possess is not personal property; it belongs to all.

    God generously gives all things that are much more necessary than money, such as air, water, fire, the sun – all such things. All these things are to be distributed equally to all.

    “Mine” and “thine” – these chilling words which introduce innumerable wars into the world – should be eliminated from the church. Then the poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.” St. John Chrysostom

    “The superfluities of the rich are the necessities of the poor. When you possess superfluity, you possess what belongs to others. God gives the world to the poor as well as to the rich.

    Redouble your charity. For, on account of the things which each one of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders. Why? Do we fight over the things we possess in common? We inhale this air in common with others, we all see the sun in common.

    Blessed therefore are those who make room for the Lord, so as not to take pleasure in private property. Let us therefore abstain from the possessions of private property – or from the love of it, if we cannot abstain from possession – and let us make room for the Lord.” St. Augustine

    • itsnotaboutme

      First you quote a few Bible passages that teach generosity.
      Then you quote a few so-called saints* who have varying _lesser_ degrees of credibility, since none of those quotes are in the Bible.
      So your “heretical” charge is an epic fail.
      That’s good, because you might have been tempted to burn him at the stake, like other Roman Inquisitors.

      *ALL Christ-followers are saints, & it’s embarrassing that 500 years after the public finally gained access to the Bible (after being forbidden by Rome for over a millennium), people are still saying “Saint So-and-so.”

      • Mike17

        After being forbidden by Rome….
        And your evidence for that is?
        Why would all those monks have gone to the trouble of copying the Bible by hand (when the vast majority of people were illiterate) if reading the Bible was forbidden?

      • RufusChoate

        The Bible was translated into the vernacular for all of the history of the Church no matter how primitive the technique used. Saint Boniface translated scripture and religious works for Germany in the 7th. The first German language Bible was printed by Gutenberg was Catholic. Catholic missionaries literally created the Slavic, German and the majority of European languages and alphabets because most of Northern Europe was illiterate.

        German Translations of the Bible: “The earliest known and partly still available Germanic version of the Bible was the fourth century Gothic translation of Wulfila (c. 311–80). This version, translated primarily from the Greek, established much of the Germanic Christian vocabulary that is still in use today. Later Charlemagne promoted Frankish biblical translations in the 9th century. ”

        What you believe is quixotic since you effectively believe that Jesus, who never word but created a church, lied when he told his Apostles (frequently called Saints) that he would be with his church until the end of days because he promptly deserted them for 1500 years of persecution, heresies, barbarian invasions, Islamic destruction of ~70% of Christendom, the collapse of civilizations and assorted catastrophes.

        In your worldview, these fifteen centuries passed for an unfaithful Monk (Luther), a power crazed French Lawyer and Theocrat (Calvin) and a lecherous Welsh Usurper (Henry Tudor) rediscovered the truth and all of the 15 centuries of Catholic and Orthodox Theology and liturgy was false and manmade. Does that even appear plausible?

      • Master Samwise

        Found the Prot.

        • AndRebecca

          Hi, here’s another Prot. The Puritans were active in the capitalistic system, no matter what the Mayflower people did or didn’t do. Many people credit John Calvin for bringing capitalism into the world and that is because the followers of Calvin in Europe were very much ahead in wealth compared to their Lutheran and RCC neighbors. It is believed the Thirty Years War was more about stealing the wealth of the Calvinists than religion. Whatever it was about, that war wrecked parts of Europe. William Perkins as well as many other Protestant ministers wrote about how men should deal with God’s money. An edited version of ” A Treatise of the Vocations,” can be found and read on the net. Western Europe, and so Modern Civilization, was founded on this Protestant version of the scriptures. Men are supposed to make enough money to support themselves and their families and also have enough money left over to give to the needy. The needy would start with those in your family or living close to you. It would include things like taking in orphans of your kin. During the Protestant Reformation, one of the most aggravating things about the RCC were the mendicant monks. Not only did they go around telling perfectly able adult males they didn’t have to work or contribute to the society, but the mendicants were also in charge of the Inquisition which had turned against Protestants. Christians should think about becoming right with God and then how to live as He commanded. He did not tell people it is O.K. to live off your brethren, and He did not say it is O.K. to treat able bodied men like they are incapable of taking care of themselves and so have to live off the dole or steal property from others. Everyone was poor by western standards in biblical days and it would have been more tempting to steal and horde than to share. Communism is about stealing, and that is according to what Communists have written. It is an appeal to the barbaric, unchristian nature in all of us. And to attach it to Jesus is just plain wrong. We have time in the world today to sit on our duffs and discuss these topics only because of the wealth brought about by our Protestant work ethic ancestors and certainly not any communist social justice warriors.

      • Howard

        I might find your argument compelling, except it is not in the Bible, hence it is an epic fail.

    • RufusChoate

      Christian charity and Communism have nothing in common. Communism as an Atheistic 19th Century political philosophy has always required the use of force for involuntary expropriation of the goods of one person for a stranger.

      All your point may well be valid in Christianity but never for Communism.

      • Master Samwise

        I never said it was. I said that the OP’s argument about the fundamentals of Christianity are absolutely false and heretical.

        • RufusChoate

          Noted… nice job.

        • Bryan

          I think I agree with Mr. Richards more than I agree with you Master Samwise. You’ve taken the quote The book of Acts doesn’t…set a precedent for how all Christians should live.” out of context of the post. The book of Acts, along with the rest of the Bible, is an instruction manual for how to live. Mr. Richards is not questioning that. Nor, I think, would he have any problem with some of what you said about generosity to those within (and without) the Church. The context of the quote, however, is that the text in Acts 4:32-35 is not to be a precedent for how all people, everywhere are to live at all times. Nor should it be an argument for Communism, Fascism, Socialism, or any other -ism. It is how the church loved one another for a specific time and in a specific need. If such a time or need arose again, the church should respond the same way. But it cannot be a form of human government unless all of the humans are perfect.

          • Master Samwise

            “The context of the quote, however, is that the text in Acts 4:32-35 is not to be a precedent for how all people, everywhere are to live at all times.” Should we also ignore similar moral imperatives from the scriptures? Are there times we can commit adultery too?

          • Bryan

            Seriously?! You can quote scripture better than I can and this is your argument? Either you’re choosing not to read for comprehension or you’re deliberately being quarrelsome.
            No one, no I nor Mr. Richards has said anything remotely like ignore a moral imperative. He and I both said do make an argument for Communism, etc. out of this particular passage of scripture. It’s not there. If you want an argument for Communism, read Marx or Lennin.
            Tell me: in the spirit of not ignoring other moral imperatives, should you stone the next homosexual you meet or adulterer? Wait, those were Lecitical commands of the Old Testament, not mere moral imperatives.
            How about plucking out your own eye if you lust after a women as Jesus said? That’s more of a moral imperative.
            The command Jesus gave us was to love God and to love one another. If being generous to the point of having nothing left is your way of honoring God and what God has called you to do, do it with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. But don’t try to condemn someone else for saying that the passage on generosity of the early church is a argument for the spread of Communism as a form of government. Or, as you’ve tried to back off the Communist part, that the person is trying to pervert scripture somehow. Remember, Jesus said treat your own log before you treat someone else’s speck.

  • RufusChoate

    The short answer is much simpler. Communism is a 19th Century atheistic political philosophy created in response to the explosive growth of the Age of Industrialization where the educated classes of Germany and England desired access to the wealth created by the Industrial Revolution without the effort of working for it to redistribute it themselves and disaffected interest groups.

    It was a direct outgrowth of the Protestant and French Revolutions levelling inclination. Marx and Engels were both raised in fundamentalist Lutheran and Evangelical Protestants homes but became Atheists in their worship of the Communist State.

    Communism has no applicably to either the 1st Century or the 21st Century.

    • Howard

      Right. Likewise, Capitalism grew out of Mercantilism with the spread of Colonialism and above all the Industrial Revolution, and it was made possible by the willingness of people to re-examine the definition of usury or, more often, to simply ignore altogether the prohibition of usury. Private property seems to be as old as Cain and Abel, but private property is only a part of Capitalism. This was all conveniently swept under the rug during the Cold War, because American politics loves nothing so much as a false dichotomy. (That is an important part of why we have a two-party system.)

  • Evil Conservative

    Thanks for the article. That particular passage was confusing to me.

  • davidrev17

    Thank you Jay…that was some excellent insight, as usual, and greatly needed; regarding this rather basic biblical (or Christian) principle of living an “other-centered” life, as followers of Yeshua/Jesus.

    Curiously however, such a biblically-basic “entry-level” topic of which you’re addressing, has seemingly become an almost scandalous “bridge-too-far” notion for we self-obsessed, modern-day I-ME-MY “Christians” filling church-pews on a regular basis; while struggling mightily here in post-Christian America, with trying to incorporate some semblance of biblical Christianity into their dogged pursuit of the “this-worldly” American Dream? Hmmm… (Remember the old adage about oil & water, or Jesus’ sage advice re: “no one can serve two masters”?)

    Anyway, what seems to be lost in this insightful discussion, was that these wholehearted, zealous 1st-century Jewish-ONLY believers of whom represented the very foundation of the New Covenant “ekklesia” (i.e., Matthew 16:13-19) – whose “mystery” concealed upon the pages of the Old Testament, was later “revealed” by the Holy Spirit in passages such as Ephesians 2:11-22 (esp. vv. 20-22), or even (Eph. 3:1-12) – were filled with the awe and wonder of the Holy Spirit’s inscrutably powerful manifestations during those days.

    Now here’s what appears to represent the “stumbling-stone” for so many: these simple folk, “on fire for Jesus,” had NO other authoritatively recognized Scriptures available to them, from which to learn and receive their “Christian” discipleship training – other than the completed Hebrew Bible from roughly four-centuries earlier…perhaps even the “Septuagint”? (BTW: This means the very same Old Covenant Scriptures we still find today, in our Judeo-Christian Bible’s.) There was simply NO New Testament whatsoever, during the “Church’s” formative years spoken of in the Book of Acts; whose historical details spanned some 30-32years, according to sound scholarship.

    So I emphasize all of this, wondering if these wholeheartedly devoted “disciples” of Yeshua/Jesus – who’d been later accused of “turning the [known] world upside-down” – were just zealously practicing what our Lord Jesus had called the “Second Great Commandment.” (e.g., see Leviticus 19:18 & Matthew 22:34-40…aka “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments [i.e., GOD “1st,” OTHERS “2nd”] hang all the Law and the Prophets.”)

    Clearly the Lord was describing the Hebrew Scriptures; the very same writings to which the New Testament cites abundantly, every time we see the word “Scriptures” utilized. (e.g., 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Galatians 3:5-9; 2 Peter 3:14-16)

  • Char B

    Jay, love your stuff. Your book Money Greed and God is wonderful on this topic. My favorite book lately has been your book The Hobbit Party which addresses related topics like private property and business contracts – as found in Tolkien’s fiction. I read it for pleasure as much as instruction.

  • benevolus

    I might also point out that the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 tried to organize their new settlement according to Acts 4. They nearly starved to death by holding all things in common. Then the leaders adopted English-style notions of property and divided the land severally to the various households. After that, the community began to be economically healthy. Nowhere in the New Testament is the Church, much less the civil government, commanded or even encouraged to follow the model of Acts 4 in organizing a community. That was a unique manifestation of the Holy Spirit that caused the Acts 4 phenomenon. We are commanded to generosity and charity, but not necessarily in that way, just as many of us speak in tongues and interpret in our Pentecostal churches, but I have never heard the manifestation of people of all different nationalities hearing those tongues as their native languages, as happened on the first Pentecost.

  • benevolus

    Class distinctions, inequality of wealth, and even slavery existed in the early Church, but none were condemned. What was condemned was covetousness, greed, the love of money, and the love of the things of the world. So we see Christians who had an abundance of this world’s goods admonished not to be high-minded (snobby, stuck-up, self-superior), but to be generous and kind to all the believers. They were not told to give all their money to the church leaders, for example, so that that the leaders could redistribute it equally. We also see that people who STRIVE to be rich (after the manner of the world rather than by faith) err from the faith and are pierced through with many sorrows. An when the scripture warns rich men to howl for their sorrows, it immediately goes on to state they have obtained their wealth through unjust gain (not paying their workers their proper wages). Even the rich young ruler who went away from Jesus sorrowful when told to sell and give to the poor is not a command for socialism. Jesus was testing whether he loved God more than mammon, and notably, after asking the man to sell and give, He said to come and follow him. The only time He ever used those words was when he was offering apostleship to someone. This man wanted eternal life, but wanted earthly money more, even when given the chance to be an apostle. And when Jesus said, “how hardly shall those with riches enter the kingdom of heaven,” the other apostles were astonished and asked “who then [including us!] can even be saved?” This is not a question poor men would have asked.

  • username_daniel

    Couldn’t the fact that Christians live under a Monarch also prove problematic?

  • Matt W Ruff

    I agree it’s NEVER Communism, it was a short lived socialism but just like in the first American colony in North America, it will not work in a fallen world. And just like John Zmirack wrote liberal/progressive socialism is a denial of the fallen world and try to remake a utopia that will never happen, or as he said sneak back into Eden. That said the pure idea to treat the body of Christ equal to your own family is very biblical.

  • if you define communism in the way that anthropologists define it, i.e. the technical way (society organized in the form of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need), then it certainly was communist, it wasn’t short lived we have evidence well into the second century that it continued and was all over the Roman Empire in christian communities.

The Christians I Knew Liked Rules Too Much
David Mills
More from The Stream
Connect with Us