Does Book of Acts Teach Modern Communism or Socialism?

Some say yes. What are the historical and social context of three key passages?

For the purpose of this post, modern communism says that the government controls the private sector. In socialism the government allows a little more freedom for the private sector, but not by much. On the other hand, some say the two ideologies are identical.

But whether modern communism or socialism are the same or slightly different, do three passages in Acts promote those two economic and political ideologies on a national, governmental scale?

Let’s find out by taking the three passages in their original context. As the old saying goes: a text without a context can become a pretext.

The earliest community of disciples huddled together in Jerusalem and never took over the government. Whatever decision they took for the community, it was done on a small scale.

Here is my tentative translation of the first passage. Peter had just been filled with the Spirit and spoke in his prayer language. He delivered a magnificent speech-sermon and gathered together thousands of converts. The key verses are 44-46.

41 And so those receiving his argument were baptized, and on that day about three thousand souls were being added. 42 They were persistently and continually devoted to the teaching of the apostles and to fellowship and the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 In each mind there was great awe. Many wonders and signs were happening through the apostles. 44 And all the believers were gathering together and were sharing everything in common. 45 They were selling their property and possessions and were distributing them all, as each one was having need. 46 Each day they were persistently devoted together in singleness of heart and mind in the temple precincts, breaking bread by household, taking their meals with gladness and generous hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And each day the Lord was adding to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47, my tentative translation)

Verse 44 says: “Sharing everything in common.” This was done in a small, voluntary society. (See Acts 5:4 for its voluntary nature.) It was not a top-down government imposition, like communism or socialism. If a small society wishes to join together freely and share everything freely, then that is their decision. (The old hippies from the 1970s used to do that up in Oregon; they were called “communes.” Even Christian communes emerged around the country.)  But don’t expand this passage to encompass an entire nation and a massive government for everyone, one size fits all.

In the next passage, Peter had just preached powerfully to the Sanhedrin, the highest court and council in Judaism, headquartered in Jerusalem. John the apostle was with him. After they boldly proclaimed Christ, they went back to the Jewish-Christian community, who prayed for more boldness. Then Luke records how united the early Jesus community was.

32 The believing community was in one heart and soul, and not one said what possessions belonged to him was his own, but everything was in common for them. 33 In great power the apostles were giving forth their witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was upon all of them. 34 No one among them was poor, for as many as owned land or possessed houses, sold them, brought the money from the sales, 35 and placed it at the feet of the apostles; it was distributed to each one according to his need36 Joseph, surnamed Barnabas by the apostles (which means “son of encouragement”), was a Levite, a Cyprian by birth. 37 Owning real estate, he sold it, and brought and placed the money at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-36, my tentative translation)

This is a voluntary small community that gave to others because the Spirit moved them. No one imposed this common sharing on them from the top down. One must be careful about forming a government that forces common sharing on everyone else (except for the enforcers at the top who get rich). The bureaucrats who run it do not know enough to manage a one-size-fits-all national economy. Communism and socialism always falls apart. But if individuals freely sign up for total sharing of their possessions in a small society, then let them.

The people placed the resources and proceeds at the feet of the apostles, indicating they took charge, but here they delegate the whole business and practical job to the seven servant-deacons (Acts 6:1-6).

1 In those days, while the disciples were multiplying their numbers, grumbling of the Greek-speaking Messianic Jews against the Hebrew-speaking Messianic Jews took place, for their widows were overlooked in the daily serving. 2 The twelve summoned the community of disciples and said, “It is not best that we leave behind the Word of God to serve the finances. 3 Therefore, brothers and sisters, select seven men who are well attested and full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint for this office. 4 For we will devote ourselves persistently and continually to prayer and serving the Word.” 5 This reasonable proposal was satisfactory to the entire community. And they selected Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas, the proselyte from Antioch. 6 They stood in front of the apostles, who prayed and laid hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6, my tentative translation)

In those verses, the earliest church shows us how they distributed the resources in a small community. They did not take over the Jerusalem government and demand taxes in a government-mandated Grand Revenue Redistribution Program. The redistribution was done on a small-scale, and they gave voluntarily, not by government coercion through taxes. That was Rome’s job. The Christian community’s mission was to ensure that people did not go hungry.

Therefore the book of Acts does not teach modern communism or socialism on a national, governmental scale. It just teaches voluntary mutual charity in a small community. Let’s not draw far-reaching conclusions by taking verses out of their historical and social context.

How does post help me grow in my knowledge of Christ and the Scriptures?

Scripture in balance, one passage interacting with another, is the best way to understand the will and wisdom of God.

Let’s quote a passage in a writing that reflects life outside Jerusalem at a later time. The church has moved on to the provinces where rich people converted. Here’s what Paul wrote to Timothy about them:

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our  enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.  (1 Tim. 6:17-19, NIV)

Thus Paul does not command any rich person to give up everything. Instead, he had said in v. 10: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” It’s not money as such that’s the problem. It’s the love of money. Don’t seek it greedily as if you are in love with it.

Therefore don’t impose those three passages in Acts on your church, unless they voluntarily wish to join a Christian commune and share everything in common. But the verses in 1 Timothy show there are other paths for the church.

And certainly do not impose those three passages in Acts on the entire nation, which may not want to share everything in common, because in their wisdom they see how destructive a government-run economy has been around the globe. No thanks!

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