The Early Church on Property, Riches, and Poverty
Frequently, Christians inclined toward economic egalitarianism point to the communal economic practices in the book of Acts as a clear precedent of economic egalitarianism and perhaps a primitive form of socialism. However, frequently defenders of contemporary laissez-faire economic arrangements point out that the communal property of the Jerusalem Christians was voluntary, not coerced by the government, and thus cannot be used in contemporary arguments about political economy. There are a number of issues with this objection: for one, this does not mean it is impossible to draw any contemporary political implications (namely, that the Christian ideal is for economic equality), but only that political implications are not required by the text.
The major problem with this objection, however, is that it smuggles in the idea that the earliest Christians believed private property morally belonged to whoever held legal right to it. While the texts of the New Testament do not have strong, explicit claims about private property, the witness of Christian leaders writing in the few hundred years following the first generation of the apostles is incredibly clear: God has a different idea of what belongs to whom than modern Americans do.
The first premise for the early Christians with regard to property was the common biblical idea that all things belong ultimately to God. Most Christians of any economic ideology agree with this. The further claim made by the early Christians, however, was that the creation was given in common to humanity. As Clement of Alexandria wrote,
Private property is the fruit of iniquity. I know that God has given us the use of goods, but only as far as is necessary; and he has determined that the use shall be common. The use of all things that are found in this world ought to be common to all men. Only the most manifest iniquity makes one say to another, ‘This belongs to me, that to you.’ Hence the origin of contention among men.
Likewise, St. Ambrose of Milan:
Private property is not a matter of justice, for it is not according to nature, which has brought forth all good things for all in common. God has created everything in such a way that all things are to be possessed in common. Nature therefore is the mother of common right, usurpation the mother of private right.
The idea that private property was a source of human conflict was fairly commonplace among the early Christians, as St. Augustine makes clear:
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.
God’s ideal for the created world was that we would recognize it as a common, unmerited gift: none of us deserve the vastness or beauty of God’s creation, but we all receive it. That some take a portion of it for themselves is a perversion brought about by sinful human nature, as St. Basil the Great argued:
“I am wronging no one,” you say, “I am merely holding on to what is mine.” What is yours? Who gave it to you so that you could bring it into life with you? Why, you are like a man who pinches a seat at the theater at the expense of latecomers, claiming ownership of what was for common use. That’s what the rich are like; having seized what belongs to all they claim it as their own on the basis of having got there first. Whereas if everyone took for himself enough to meet his immediate needs and released the rest for those in need of it, there would be no rich and no poor.
The consequence of this foundational belief—that God ultimately has given all creation as a gift—was that the early Christians did not believe something was your property simply because you had legal claim to it. If there was inequality, the rich were said to have stolen from the poor, regardless of how they made their wealth. St. John Chrysostom claimed this very thing: “The rich are in possession of the goods of the poor, even if they have acquired them honestly or inherited them legally.” In other words, whether something belonged to you was not a question of procedural justice but of distributive justice.
The earliest Christians did not buy the story that those who had wealth were the ones who worked and the poor were simply lazy. St. John Chrysostom issued this stinging indictment:
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.
Sts. John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, Basil the Great, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Augustine all share in this conception of property to a remarkable degree in their writings. What do we make of this, then? It’s certainly the case that not everything these early Christians agreed upon was good—many of the figures quoted above believed women to be inferior to men, for example. However, we can see within this perspective an interpretation consistent with the Bible’s account of property that emphasizes economic egalitarianism as a far greater value than private ownership. Regardless of how some may object, it cannot be denied that economic egalitarianism is solidly anchored within the orthodox Christian tradition.