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No, the First Christians Were Not Socialists

We are called to be generous, not to abandon private property

Trent Horn

Some critics say not only that Catholics can be socialists, but that they should be socialists because that was how the first Christians lived. They cite Acts 2:45, which says, “all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” But when we examine the biblical and historical evidence a different picture emerges: the first Christians lived in communities that practiced voluntary charity rather than mandatory communism or socialism.

Classic socialism (which in many contexts is interchangeable with the term “communism”) rejects the natural right to own private property. Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of the popular socialist magazine Jacobin writes, “Radically changing things would mean taking away the source of capitalists’ power: the private ownership of property.” This is why Pope Leo XIII said, “the main tenet of socialism, [the] community of goods, must be utterly rejected.”

Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a prohibition against owning private property. We do find the practice of believers placing goods at the apostles’ feet for communal distribution (Acts 4:34-35), but even this generosity is not mandated for all Christians.

Given the persecution of the early Church, it made sense for Christians to share communal property and meet in private homes for worship (1 Cor. 16:19), but those practices are not proof that all Christians are obliged to live this way. If socialism was morally required of Christians we would expect the New Testament to say this or at least mandate a tithe, but as New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg points out, while tithing was commanded of God’s people in the Old Testament, “no New Testament text ever mandates a tithe but rather commands generous and sacrificial giving instead.”

Further, Acts 2:45 does not unambiguously say first century Christians completely renounced private property. The verse literally says of the faithful and their possessions, “they were selling and were dividing them to all” (Gr. hyparxeis epipraskon kai diemerizon auta) rather than “they had sold and distributed them to all.”  Luke’s use of imperfect verbs in this verse seems to describe a continuing process of selling extra property and goods in order to support the poor. But in order to do that Christians would have had to retain some private property even after becoming believers.

Some critics contend that the story of Ananias and Sapphira shows that renouncing property and giving it to the apostles was mandatory. Acts 5 describes how this couple, “kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” But a careful reading of the passage shows the couple’s sin was not their mere withholding of property from the collection. Peter says the property was theirs before they sold it. Rather, it was their lie to the Apostles, who represented God’s authority that incurred this fatal judgment (Acts 5:3-4).

After the apostolic age, pagan critics like Lucian and Christian apologists like Justin Martyr describe Christians sharing goods in common with one another, a practice which isn’t surprising given that by the second century Jews who worshipped Jesus had been expelled from the synagogues and the Romans persecuted those who openly admitted to being Christian. Deprived of traditional social structures, Christians relied on each other for survival and were so generous that the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate noted how they “support not only their own poor but ours as well; all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

However, the Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart in his article, “Are Christians Supposed to Be Communists?” claims Christians repudiated wealth even after they were longer persecuted, saying, as an example: “The great John Chrysostom frequently issued pronouncements on wealth and poverty that make Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin sound like timid conservatives.” But believers were required not to renounce their wealth, but to be generous with the poor. Chrysostom said as much with words that would outrage Karl Marx:

A rich man is one thing, a rapacious man is another: an affluent man is one thing, a covetous man is another. Make clear distinctions, and do not confuse things which are diverse. Are you a rich man? I forbid you not. Are you a rapacious man? I denounce you. Have you property of your own? Enjoy it. Do you take the property of others? I will not hold my peace.

In short, the early Church challenges us to be generous with whatever blessings God has given us. It does not teach that Christians are required to give up private property in favor of socialism, much less that they endorse socialism. This can be seen in St. Paul’s petition to the Corinthians that they give to a collection for poor believers in Judea. He never commanded them to do this, but instead he hoped, “it may be ready not as an exaction but as a willing gift . . . Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:5,7).

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