Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Acts 2: This Church Is Communist

In my last two posts, I dealt with the still-raging debate over Glenn Beck's suggestion that his viewers leave churches that advocate "social justice." For Beck, the term is code for Communism (and to a lesser extent, I hope, Nazism). And Beck--true patriot that he is--hates those damn Reds.

However, the kerfuffle over "social justice" obscures a basic fact about the early church: it was a communist entity.

I'm not trying to be inflammatory here. I'm not suggesting that first-century Christian mission work was organized by a bunch of aspiring Lenin's, walking around Palestine with the Mark gospel in one hand and Mao's Little Red Book in the other. Nor am I suggesting that enemies of the early church were sent to Syrian gulags. I am suggesting, however, that early church leaders encourage shared ownership of property--the most basic tenet of communist economics.

Two chapters in Acts explain; first, "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need" (2:44-46).

This trend is likely inspired by Jesus's repeated request that some new followers sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds to the poor (see Luke 18:22; Matthew 19:21). Further, the second half of this passage prefigures Marx's famous dictum from "The Critique of the Gotha Program," "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

A second section of Acts reiterates and strengthens the initial call: "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common" (4:32).

From this passage, it seems as if early believers come very near the abolition of private property. Goods are owned by the group, not by individual members of the group. The rationale is simple: the men and women of the early church consider themselves "one heart and soul"; to acknowledge individual ownership is to break that sense of unity, and the group spirit is paramount.

Of course, group ownership demands fair distribution of goods. Soviet Communism did not fail because its basic principle was wrong: it failed--as do most experiments with communism--because those in charge of fair distribution exploited their power.

The early church faces similar challenges. Acts 6 opens with tension in the new commune: "Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [Greek speakers] complained against the Hebrews [Aramaic speakers] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food" (6:1).

Thus, the church's communist experiment seems ready to run aground. However, the twelve disciples save the day by doing what Moses does in Exodus and Jesus does in the gospels: they delegate. They select seven "men of good standing" (v. 3) to oversee the equitable distribution of property to those in need. One of these men in Stephen, a righteous man who is also the fledgling movement's first martyr (after Jesus, of course). For later Christians, Stephen and his cohorts are "deacons"--from the Greek diakonos (cf. 1 Timothy 8:13)--lay leaders assigned to do the church's administrative work; many modern churches still appoint deacons to fill similar roles.

The early church's experiment with communism doesn't really extend past the opening chapters of Acts, and early believers' decision to give up private property seems both voluntary and confined to the community around Jerusalem.

That being said, the church begins with a utopian economics, inspired by Jesus himself, that envisions a community without ravening greed or financial competition--a community of "one heart and soul." And what's so bad about that?

2 comments:

  1. There is a difference between people individually or as a group giving up what they have to help others, and a government who demands you give up what you have and gives it to others as they see fit. You point out that it was the early church, and it was voluntary. Massive difference when government is forcing it. You also say that it failed in the church, I contend that it has not failed and is alive and well in the Tithing and offerings given at my church and others around the world every Sunday, myself included.

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  2. True on all points ... but I don't want to suggest that the practice "fails" in the early church--Acts does not comment on whether or how it ends. Further, in these passages of Acts, shared property is not merely distributed to the poor; it is shared among ALL community members. Hence, the tithing analogy is ineffective--unless of course you receive a percentage of the tithe you give to your church. :) Finally, there is a distinction between communist politics and communist economics--my argument only really concerns the latter. I do not argue that early Christians "demand you give up what you have and give it to others."

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