by Matthew W. Bassford
Much to my surprise, for the first time that I can remember since the Cold War, there is a flurry of national interest in socialism. As someone who is a student of history, this concerns me. As someone who is politically unaligned, I’m not sure what to do about it.
I have seen, though, a small minority of brethren with left-leaning political views justify their embrace of socialism by pointing to the communal practices of the first-century church. They cite texts such as Acts 4:32, which reads, “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.” Ergo, the argument goes, adopting a democratic-socialist form of government is Biblically acceptable, if not outright Biblically justified.
From my perspective, though, the argument appears to suffer from the usual problems with basing public policy on the Bible. New-Testament Christianity is concerned with the conduct of individuals and small groups, not nations. It assumes that those individuals and groups will be motivated to obey by love. The less true those things are, the less applicable the code of the Bible becomes.
Take, for instance, Acts 4:32. It certainly describes a communal moment in the history of the early church. However, we see plainly in the text that everyone who was involved in sharing their possessions did so willingly. If a group of people chooses to pool their possessions, whether Christians or not, I don’t have a problem with that.
However, socialism is never 100 percent voluntary. No political system is. It invariably involves coercion. Somebody who is a citizen of a socialistic country but doesn’t want to have his possessions redistributed will have those possessions redistributed forcefully.
I think that generosity among brethren is beautiful. I think that forced redistribution is hideous. It is provoked by greed, not love. Historically speaking, lots of people have died in the course of state redistribution of property.
Second, Acts 4 captures a particular moment in time. It comes on the heels of the establishment of the church on the day of Pentecost, during which thousands of Jews from all over the world who were in Jerusalem for the festival obeyed the gospel. Most of those converts didn’t own property in Jerusalem. They didn’t have employment there.
As a result, if they wanted to remain in Jerusalem and be taught, they had to rely for their needs on others. The native Christians were driven to sell their property to meet the need. This took place only for a limited time, and if the situation had continued indefinitely, it would have been unsustainable. There’s a sense in which the persecution of Saul did the Jerusalem church a favor by forcing it to scatter.
Political socialism, by contrast, does not advocate state assumption of assets as a limited-term response to a crisis. Instead, to at least some degree, it contemplates the permanent collectivization of property. This too is unsustainable. People who are not motivated by the prospect of reward will not work.
In summary, there is a facial resemblance between the economics of the Jerusalem church and socialism, but the parallel doesn’t stand up under scrutiny. What a church might do when many of its members are in need has little to do with how a nation should organize itself. As always, we are on solid ground when we seek to apply the word of God to ourselves and our churches. The more we stray from the intent of the Holy Spirit, the more fraught the exercise becomes.