Does the Bible teach that Christians should be communists, or socialists?
One of the hallmarks of the Radical Reformation, in the 16th century, was a desire to return back to following the pattern of the early church, who held “all things in common,” as taught in the Book of Acts. But what does it mean to hold “all things in common,” and does that apply to the church today? Is “communism” taught in the Bible? A look back to the 16th century controversy might give us some perspective in answering these questions.
Most Protestant Christians today trace their heritage back to what is called the magisterial Reformation of the 16th century. Early Reformers, such as Ulrich Zwingli of Switzerland, and Martin Luther of Germany, sought to work with the governing authorities, the magistrate, to implement the reforms of their associated movements. Both Zwingli and Luther believed that the medieval church had drifted away from its Scriptural moorings, over the years, and so they wanted to get people back to the Bible. But they wanted to do so in an orderly manner, which required the government’s assistance, as the contemporary values of religious freedom, or what some call “the separation of church and state,” did not exist back then.
However, in Ulrich Zwingli’s Switzerland, some people wanted to go further than where Zwingli was prepared to go. The controversy was partly based on two passages in the Book of Acts, when the message of the Gospel began to spread rapidly after Christ’s Resurrection, in the 1st century A.D.:
- 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:44-46 ESV).
- 32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32-37 ESV).
The key phrase here is that they “had everything in common.” Some of Zwingli’s followers in Switzerland took this quite literally, believing that all true followers of Christ should renounce all private property, and simply share together in a “community of goods.” That sounds sort of like a Christian version of “socialism” today… or even, “communism.”
The Radical Reformation and the Community of Goods
Zwingli, on the other hand, believed that this kind of Christian communalism, as we may call it, was carrying things way too far. Sharing out of one’s abundance was one thing, and this was good. But having private property was an integral principle of political life in 16th century Europe. Therefore, abolishing private property was viewed as an assault upon the state, or the magistrate. Reformers, like Zwingli, began to view those who advocated a community of goods as overly enthusiastic radicals, hence this movement was eventually labeled the “Radical Reformation.”
Along with other beliefs, such as the doctrine that adult believers in Christ could and should be baptized as adults, despite having been baptized as infants, these “re-baptized” or “Anabaptists” were determined to follow the pattern of the early church as close as possible. In fairness, not all Anabaptists embraced the exact principle of a “community of goods,” that abolished private property. Some tried this form of communalism, only to abandon the practice later.
In one village, Zillikon, near Zwingli’s church in Zurich, Switzerland, an observer wrote:
- “Now because most of Zillikon was rebaptized and held that they were the true Christian church, they also undertook, like the early Christians, to practice community of temporal goods (as can be read in the Acts of the Apostles), broke the locks off their doors, chests, and cellars, and ate food and drink in good fellowship without discrimination. But as in the time of the apostles, it did not last long.”1
Were these Anabaptists truly following the literal sense of the Bible? Take a look again at the passages in Acts above. If you re-read them more closely, you will notice that nowhere does the text say that these Christians in the early church sold all of their personal property. Yes, the early Christians did share of their possessions, and sold property, but apparently, many still had their private homes, in which they lived (Acts 2:46). So, it is reasonable to say that those who could, sold what belonged out of their surplus, in order to provide for fellow believers, who had little or nothing. It was an expression of love, not obligation.
Even if it could be argued that they did sell the bulk, if not all of their possessions, nevertheless, they did so voluntarily, without the compulsory power of the state, forcing them to give up their personal goods. This is unlike modern economic systems, like communism, or its watered-down variation, socialism.
Viewing the New Testament as a whole, Christians continued to embrace the principle of private property, but they coupled it with the desire to mutually aid their brothers and sisters in Christ, who lived in poverty. As the Spirit of God moved among the hearts of those transformed by the Gospel, as in the early church, these believers were moved to give generously towards those fellow believers who lacked.
In this sense, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, to varying degrees, took this principle seriously. A lot of churches today, across a broader spectrum, have similar types of communal sharing efforts that believers contribute towards, sometimes called an “Agape Fund.”
Unfortunately, for the less radical Anabaptists, the reputation of the more radical “community of goods” Anabaptists stuck, and remained associated with the entire movement. Some critics of the movement suggested that this communalism extended beyond mere economics. In a letter to the Catholic humanist, Erasmus, a fellow humanist, Johann Cochlaeus charged that:
- “They make everything in common, wives, virgins, temporal goods.”2
Most Anabaptists never went to that extreme. But the bad reputation was difficult to shake off. Because of the real and perceived threat to the established order, the Anabaptists and their leaders were eventually hunted down by both Roman Catholics and magisterial Protestants alike. Many were either exiled from their territories, or even executed, or otherwise killed.
The survivors of this once popular movement wandered from place to place, looking for religious freedom to practice their beliefs. Many of these communities have made their way to the United States and Canada. The Hutterites, following their Moravian 16th century leader, Jakob Hutter, still practice holding “all things in common,” through a “community of goods.” Other, less radical Anabaptists, who still embrace some form of private ownership of goods, coupled with mutual aid for those in need, include many of the Mennonites and the Amish.
Materialistic Ideal vs. Biblical Generosity
I have struggled with the whole notion of holding “all things in common,” as an expression of a Christian ideal. It is a tragedy that more Christians today do not strive to be as generous as those believers were in the early church. We have much to learn from those early Christians, and from modern communities like the Hutterites.
But I have seen cases of extremism that make me wary. Years ago, I once had a friend of mine who came to believe that Jesus would never drive an automobile, so he would only walk to places, just as Jesus did. At one point, my friend tried to tell me that I should give up my car, if I really wanted to be like Jesus. Part of me was guilt-ridden by his brand of literalism (Jesus never owned anything like a car, while on this earth. Was my friend right?) . But within a few years, my friend had walked away from the Christian faith, demonstrating to me that such hyper-literalism of the Bible is impossible to live out consistently, which can lead to a disillusionment with Christian faith.
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive?
Part of the difficulty in knowing how to handle these difficult passages in the Book of Acts, comes down to how we are to interpret the type of historical genre we find in Acts. Is the text essentially descriptive, telling us what happened in history? Or is it primarily prescriptive, giving us a specific pattern for how believers in Christ are to live today?
The Book of Acts is primarily narrative in literary structure, instead of systematically listing out a set of doctrines. The 20th century British Bible teacher, John R. W. Stott, put it like this:
- “..this revelation of the purpose of God in Scripture should be sought primarily in its didactic rather that its descriptive parts. More precisely, we should look for it in the teaching of Jesus, and in the sermons and writings of the apostles, rather than in the purely narrative portions of the Acts…I am not saying that the descriptive passages of the Bible are valueless… Some of the biblical narratives which describe events are self-interpreting because they include an explanatory comment, whereas others cannot be interpreted in isolation but only by the light of doctrinal or ethical teaching which is given elsewhere.”3
It might be better to think of Acts as not being merely descriptive, nor totally prescriptive in all of the details. Rather, what we need to look for in Acts are the underlying principles that we are to learn from the text, as we examine the Holy Scriptures as a whole, and then consider how those principles might be applied in our current context.
So, when we consider what it meant for the early church to hold “all things in common,” we can understand this as embodying a principle of voluntary generosity towards those in need, as the Holy Spirit leads and guides us. As we continue to seek the Lord, with a desire to experience the fullness of the Spirit in our lives, we can freely share the bounty of what the Lord has given us, towards those who are in need.
1. The research for this blog post is indebted to James M. Stayer, The German Peasants’s War and Anabaptist Community of Goods. Quote from pp. 95-96↩
2. Stayer, p. 96.↩
3. John R. W. Stott, Baptism and Fullness: the Work of the Holy Spirit Today, 1975 edition, p. 15.↩
What do you think?