31 Aug 2008

Were the Early Christians Socialists?

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Explanatory note: On this blog, I will focus on economic and financial matters, ranging from the household to a global scale. As the blog’s subtitle suggests, my worldview is informed by my belief in Jesus and individual liberty, meaning I am a harsh critic of coercive government policies. I assume that most readers of this blog will identify with the latter mindset, though not necessarily the former. For that reason, I will restrict my explicitly “religious” posts to Sundays…


There is an undeniable tension between economics and religion (hence the title of my speech [video, audio] at the Mises Institute a few years ago), and more specifically between laissez-faire capitalism and Christianity. In the lecture linked above, I go through the reconciliation more methodically; in the present post I just want to focus on a particularly troubling Biblical passage for the libertarian Christian.

In Acts 4:32 – 5:11 we read:

32 Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. 34 Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.
36 And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, 37 having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

Acts 5
Lying to the Holy Spirit

1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. 2 And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? 4 While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.”
5 Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. 6 And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.
7 Now it was about three hours later when his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter answered her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much?”
She said, “Yes, for so much.”
9 Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Then immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. And the young men came in and found her dead, and carrying her out, buried her by her husband. 11 So great fear came upon all the church and upon all who heard these things.

Now in light of a story like that, it’s understandable how many Christians could think that their doctrine literally implies socialism, and in fact communism, by which I mean the violent imposition of collective ownership of all property. After all, upon a quick reading, it seems that the apostles (this is after Jesus left, btw) demanded that everyone throw their possessions into a common pot, and if anybody selfishly held back, he or she was executed. Not exactly Adam Smith material, eh?

However, I think that’s an oversimplification. There are two crucial facts about the above story, which demonstrate that a modern-day communist revolution cannot be justified by reference to the early Christian communities:

(1) The apostles did not compel membership. Now I’m not claiming that Ananias and Sapphira signed a document saying, “We agree to turn over all of our property to the apostles for distribution, and we agree to be put to death if we are caught violating this pledge.” But clearly the early Christians were not a roving band of thieves, seizing random people’s property under threat of execution. So that right there jettisons any modern attempt to violently overthrow private property in a misguided attempt to recreate the early Christian lifestyle.

(2) Strictly speaking, Peter did not kill Ananias and Sapphira. Rather, God did (perhaps acting through the guilt of Ananias and Sapphira). I grant you that the distinction is tricky, especially in the case of Sapphira; e.g. is it correct to say that Peter healed the lame? Yes and no.

However, my point is that clearly Peter did not use physical force against them. And so if a modern-day Christian socialist wants to be true to this story, he shouldn’t authorize men with guns to override bourgeois prerogatives. Rather, he should say, “Bill Gates, give all of your money to Henry Paulson, or else God will strike you dead.” And then we could wait and see if God agreed with this.

One Response to “Were the Early Christians Socialists?”

  1. Damon says:

    Grasp at straws much? That was weak.