There is much talk these days around the subject of socialism vs. capitalism, both as an indication of who we are as a nation, and where Christians should stand on the subject, as voting members of our republic.
Many offer the observation that the early church, presented in the book of Acts, promoted a socialistic view of Christian behavior. They feel our country has drifted toward capitalism over its long history and blame Christians as one group that has been a catalyst for that negative direction.
To begin, let’s define terms, then look at the book of Acts in context, and finally offer some perspective on where we, as a nation, are today.
Socialism – Webster – “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”
Capitalism – Webster – “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”
Republic – Webster – “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law”
Acts – 1st Century Christianity
By this point in the Bible, Jesus has been crucified, and the apostles have come out of hiding and are preaching Christ’s gospel message throughout the known world. Home church groups are forming for fellowship, accountability, and teaching. This time of growth and excitement over these revolutionary ideas point to what appears to be a form of socialistic Christianity:
Note from the verses above that there existed a sense of unity and the spreading of assets to the needy which likely was not limited to believers. There was an implied rejection of material wealth over spiritual enrichment with “generous hearts” for “all the people”. Finally, notice how the Lord “added to their number”, likely due, at least in part, to their faithfulness in helping all who “had need”.
To add further strength to what would seem to be a socialistic Christian mindset, one can juxtapose this openness and willingness to share with others against the experience of Ananias and Sapphira, later in Acts 5. Even though they sold one of their properties in order to give proceeds to the church, because they lied about the full value of that transaction, God stuck them both dead.
So, from all outward appearances, Christian socialism would seem to be a Biblical mandate. In many other places in Scripture, and especially in the New Testament, Christ and His followers seem to be teaching the foundational importance of loving one’s neighbor and actively caring for his/her needs. Many naturally view this as proof-text for the redistribution of wealth, from those who have to those who have not.
Returning to the definition of “socialism”, note Webster’s use of the terms “collective or governmental ownership”. Further, note that this ownership extends beyond wealth, including ownership of both the “production and distribution of goods”. That is another way of saying the collective or government owns and “administrates” not only wealth, but the underlying source of that wealth in the form of property, investments, and, manufacturing.
Three Clarifying Questions
In the first century church, did the new believers give up the source of what produced their wealth, or did they just distribute “the proceeds to all, as any had need”?
Further, does the Bible suggest there was an intermediary to these distributions, a collective or a government that took all the wealth and then made the decisions on who should get what, and how much?
Or were these individual Christians, giving from their excess as they, individually, saw needs in their local community? Not to make everyone equal in monetary wealth, or even opportunity, but instead, wasn’t it a calling to new believers to give from their excess to those who needed a helping hand?
I would suggest that as Christians we need to offer assistance wherever and however we can, to those in need. We unquestionably have a stewardship responsibility to care for our fellow man. God calls us to love our neighbor (Luke 10:27) as one of the two greatest commandments.
However, being forced by a collective or government into a forced redistribution of wealth is not what God presented in His Word. As the widow did in Mark 12:41-44, we need to give in a way that is private and honoring to the Lord, not forced by taxes and government regulations. Further, the underlying source of our wealth, our property, our work, our investments, our small businesses, etc. are not to be owned by a collective, government or otherwise (i.e. socialism). The Bible is full of references to the rich doing good deeds, such as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), as well as the negative consequences of the love of money being the “root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Having money or wealth is not the problem. How one decides, voluntarily, to use those funds is what’s important. That was true in the Bible and is true today. Finally, as noted by a nameless Good Samaritan and the widow’s mite, I believe God honors those who offer their support in private, rather than a public display for all to see.
The US is the most giving country, per capita, of any nation in the world (Statista). I submit that we are able to offer that care because we, as a Republic, are one of the wealthiest countries in the world (Global Finance). Finally, I believe that wealth comes from a capitalistic work ethic rather than a socialistic ideology.