The Early Church was (Small-C) Communist
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47, NIV)
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32–37, NIV)
Kevin DeYoung and Art Lindsley both published articles in 2019 arguing more or less the same thing: the first Christians did not practice “socialism,” and what is described in the biblical passages quoted above is not “socialism.” Since I have previously argued that the first Christians practiced “communism” in my book All Things in Common: The Economic Practices of the Early Christians, these articles are of interest to me. The arguments found in these articles, however, are severely lacking.
Before addressing the arguments, a word about definitions. I agree that the first Christians were not “socialists,” socialism being understood as a political reaction to capitalism which developed in the modern period. In my book, however, I use the term “communism” in a very specific way—not as a political movement or form of government, or even an economic “system”—but as a moral foundation for social relationships which functions on the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” This definition of communism ought not to be controversial. It was the definition that Marx assumed, and is the traditional and classical definition (outside cold war propaganda, and political polemics). Small-C “communism” can apply to the way tribal societies or monasteries are organized; it is the principle behind social security programs, and even the way many families organize their households today.
Now that we have a definition, let us look at the arguments. Lindsley argues that the imperfect verbal tense used in the Acts passages implies not a “once-for-all divestiture of property,” but a sporadic and occasional selling. He argues that this selling was fully voluntary, and he contrasts that with socialism which he says, “implies coercion by the state.” Lastly, he makes the point that this was merely a historical narrative and is thus non-normative.
DeYoung defines socialism as “social ownership of the means of production” and communism as “equitable and shared consumption of that production.” Where he got these definitions he does not say (needless to say his definition of “communism” is off-base). He then argues that there is no evidence that the first Christians started workers collectives or state-run enterprises, nor did they disavow personal property. Like Lindsley, he points out that the practices were voluntary, and not state coerced (or something equivalent to state coerced).
The use of the imperfect verb form in the text does not actually imply sporadic occasional action, but rather open-ended action (past action with an undetermined terminus). Of course, it is true that the first Christians did not literally sell all of their property and hand the proceeds over for redistribution. There is an abundance of evidence that individual Christians had homes, clothes, money, and so on. But does that mean that what we see in the book of Acts is just sporadic private charity that fits neatly within a liberal economic ideology?
No. The principle is still that they would “sell” and distribute according to the need. The economic driver of the community was not individual consumer choices (including the consumer choice of “charity”), nor individual self-interest, nor economic efficiency (return on investment), but the needs of those in the community. There is evidence from Acts, the Pauline epistles, early Church Fathers, and other early Christian literature that this “need” being serviced included regular, even daily feeding and care for a large number of those in need. In fact, this was done at such a scale that some people felt it worth their time to pretend to be Christians in order to get some of that aid. This was no sporadic charity. It was more akin to an organized welfare program.
This communism was not restricted to the redistribution of goods, but was a moral framework that ordered mutual obligations. Acts 4:32 says that the Christians did not claim private ownership of any possessions. Even if they were not literally redistributing everything, their relationship to their possessions was not one of private property, but rather one where the goods in their possession were at the disposal of their brothers and sisters (thus having all things in common). This framework was taken so seriously that Tertullian felt the need to distinguish the kind of sharing Christians did with wife sharing: “they hold all things in common but their wives.” The anti-Christian poet Lucian defined the Christian doctrine as “holding all things in common.”
Was this purely voluntary? It is true that the first Christian communities were not state organizations with armed enforcement. This is not surprising, since Christians had no power at all over civil society, and in fact were an illicit sect. But is that what is meant by voluntary? Justin Martyr lists holding things in common with refraining from fornication and idolatry. Was refraining from fornication and idolatry “voluntary” for those Christians? No, it was part what it meant to be a Christian. Refraining from fornication and idolatry were commandments, as was adhering to the Christian economic moral framework.
In my book Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Plain, I demonstrate how Jesus’s commandments in Luke 6:20–49—such as those of lending without expecting a return, giving to all who ask, and so on—were meant to be taken literally. These commandments were derived from aspects of the Jewish tradition such as the Sabbatical Year law of Deuteronomy 15, and the prophetic ideals of Isaiah and others, which contributed to Jesus’s conception of the Kingdom of God. These commandments, when taken literally and seriously, would lead to the exact kind of communism we find in Acts and other places in Christian literature. These commandments are repeated in apostolic literature such as the Johannine epistles, the epistle of James, Hebrews Pauline epistles, as well as the Didache and others. These were commandments, not suggestions.
I would not argue that the early Christians supported any political program, other than the Kingdom of God over and above all the kingdoms of the world. But did the first Christians practice small-C communism? Absolutely. They organized their communities such that the goods were at the disposal of the community, and the needs of the poor among them took priority over any other economic considerations. This was firmly rooted in the teachings of Jesus, the Prophets, and the Torah, especially Deuteronomy 15.
Modern capitalist ideologies presume that human beings have no inherent obligations toward one another; in fact, they presume that humans are naturally hostile to one another, maximizing their own utility and entering into contractual exchange relationships to do so. Capitalism, they claim—the ordering and enabling of commodification and endless accumulation—is therefore the only way to order social life. This assumption is not only false, it completely contradicts the foundation and commandments of Christian ethics. As John the Baptist said, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11, NRSV). Or, as John Chrysostom put it, “God wishes those things to be thine which are entrusted to thee for thy brethren, and they will be thine if thou has dispensed with them for others. But if thou has spent richly upon thyself, what things are thine, they are now become another’s.”
If it is the case that Christ is King, and his Kingdom is the kingdom spoken of by the prophets, one that would bring down the rich and raise up the poor, and if he commanded, drawing on Deuteronomy 15, that one should lend without hoping for anything in return, without calculating the debt, and if the apostles taught that we have obligations towards each other, then what other economic ethic could there be than the one found in the book of Acts: “small C” communism. If we have God-given obligations to our neighbors and if we are created to image God, then any ideology that begins with the individual maximizing self-interest, that assumes that people’s cooperation is necessarily and correctly exploitative (attempting to maximize utility from that relationship), and any ideology that begins with the idea that one’s property is absolutely one’s own with no obligation to others is wrong, morally and factually. Yet that ideology is exactly the ideology of the capitalism which rules the world. The first Christians understood that the reality of the risen Christ impacted every aspect of their lives, including the economic, which is why they organized themselves communistically.
1. My formulation of "communism" is largely derived from David Graeber, Debt: The first 5000 years. Graeber’s definition of communism is that of a kind of social relationship, and he contrasts communism with hierarchy (top down relationships) and exchange (quid pro quo relationships).
2. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1.3.
3. 1 Timothy 5:8–9; Acts 6:1–6; Tertullian, Apology, 39, Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67
4. 2 Thessalonians 3:3–15; Didache 12: 2–5, 13; 1 Timothy 5:9, Lucian, Passing of Peregrinus, 11–13.
5. Tertullian, Apology, 39.
6 Lucian, Passing of Peregrinus, 13.
7. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 14
8. James 1:27; 2:1–9, 14–17, 1 John 1: 5–7; 3: 16–17; Hebrews 13:16, 1 Timothy 6:18; 2 Corinthians 8:1–16; Didache 1:5–6; 4: 7–8; Barnabas 19:8.
9. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, 3.1,218.