To the chagrin of many Christians today, it may be surprising to learn that some scholars and laypersons have, throughout history, used to the Bible to justify belief in systems of socialism and even communism. See here, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_socialism
History has proven such ideologies to lead to serious issues such as the destruction of individual property rights, absolute power to given to the government, the loss of individual freedoms and identity, and in many cases, extreme violence and harsh treatment.
Understandably, for a Christian to hear that such ideas are found in the Bible would be shocking and heartbreaking. Nevertheless, there are some passages of Scripture that seem to justify such thinking, at least a face value.
As critical thinkers and students of the Bible, though, we understand that there is often more to the case than meets the eye. Because we are separated by time, tradition, and translation from the original authors, we must do more than look at the plain reading of any text and use today’s concepts and definitions to interpret its meaning.
The Bible is a collection of ancient texts, and those ancient texts have an ancient context as well.
I am happy to report that a closer examination of the Scriptures used to tout these ideas will reveal something very, very different from what has been claimed. In fact, these passages are a wonderful testament to the foundational ideas Jesus taught about the real nature of humanity.
There are two ways to approach such a study. The first would involve looking at various categories of Scripture passages which are often used to prop up this thinking. Likely, we will be exploring from that angle in a later post.
The second way—and the way we will approach the present study—is by examining one particular passage of Scripture that is central to this argument. We will look at its context and seek to exegete the text according to a grammatical-historical hermeneutic, rather than anachronistic justification.The “semantic anachronism fallacy” occurs when we read the later meaning of a word into an earlier occurrence.
The text we will examine is Acts 2:41-47:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.
This passage comes on the heels of a wonderful sermon brought by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost.
In case you are not familiar, Pentecost is “an annual harvest festival that occurs seven weeks after Passover. It became an important Christian holiday after God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the Jerusalem church on the first Pentecost after Christ’s resurrection.” LBD
Indeed, this was a significant day. And though it is debated, many believe this event to be the very formation of the local New Testament church.
Remember, just before this in Acts 1 we have recalled the ascension of Jesus. The very same Jesus who had been crucified by Jewish and Roman authorities. Jesus promised his followers, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also” (John 15:18-20).
The point: To become a Christian was, in no uncertain terms, a death sentence. We don’t often think in these terms because of how comfortable we are in the West. Although I would argue we may be headed down a very dangerous path, we are still quite a long way from experiencing the true cost of becoming a Christian.
And as a side note, it is tremendously ignorant to suppose that such dangers do not exist today. They do. Our brothers and sisters give their lives daily for the cause of Christ. I wonder if we would be so willing?
But place yourself in the shoes of those first Christians. Their Lord had gone away. Many eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrected body remained to tell the story. The Book of Acts records their faithfulness to the gospel despite horrid cultural circumstances.
This sermon is often regarded as one of the best to ever be preached. I mean, look at the results! Over 3,000 souls were added to the church! The success of this event was no mere accident, though. It was a very intentional and miraculous move of God riddled with Jewish meaning and theology. They could not help but to have their eyes opened. The text says they were “pierced to the heart.”
They gave their lives to Christ, and even in the midst of persecution, became his passionate followers.
The Persecuted Christian Community
So here’s an important question: What is the proper response to persecution?
Thanks be to God, many of us have never had to reflect long on that question. However, our self-reliance is not a good thing. While none of us wants persecution for our faith, we have also never experienced the potential joys.
And lest you believe there are no joys to experience, have you ever considered why persecuted Christians keep fighting for what they believe in? Sure, they love the Lord. But there is something very important to them that we only have the slightest idea about: community.
The answer to persecution is community, and this is precisely what we see at the very genesis of the church.
The text gives us four important descriptors about the daily life of the newly born Christian community: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers”(v. 42).
1: They Continued in the Apostles Doctrine
That which the apostles taught, they continued in and followed. These were biblical Christians. Now of course, as Christians today, we have a completed Canon of Scripture that includes the very book recording this instance. So, what was their Bible?
Simply put, it was the Septuagint—a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which we know as the Christian Old Testament. But Peter and the other apostles had a personal relationship with Jesus, who was the bodily fulfillment of what they had been reading. When the Jewish Scriptures spoke of the Messiah, they now had the proper understanding and context for who he was and his real mission.
This is an important point with respect to our overall subject matter. These Christians were not in the business of inventing new God-ordained social structures. Nothing of the sort was going on. They were in community together, learning more about who Jesus was and what it looked like to serve him. Anything and everything that happened in the community was done voluntarily, and for the support of their fellow brethren. The concern was to live out a biblical worldview.
2: They Continued in Fellowship
In the New Testament, from the very inception of the church, there is a focus on fellowship and community. In fact, the scholarly word to describe what Jesus started and what was continued in the church is a “cult.”
Now, this was not a cult in way we think about the term. In today’s terms, it has a very negative connotation. But used in this technical sense, it simply describes a unified group of people, living in community, committed to a particular person or idea.
The Christian’s focus was on their fellow community members. After all, they had nothing else. Think practically: Jesus was hated by the Jewish establishment!
Although we may skim over this quickly when reading the New Testament, each of these brand new converts had a story. They had a background—a history. They were gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost to do Jewish things, and gave their lives to Christ while they were there.
What did these people do when they left Jerusalem? They went home! Undoubtedly, some remained, and perhaps some others went home and came back, etc. But it is not as though these people immediately forsake their entire families. And when these Jews went back to their respective families, they would have to tell them some uncomfortable news: They had become followers of Jesus.
According to Rabbi Louis Jacobs, “In its very earliest days, Christianity was seen by the Jewish teachers as a Jewish heresy; its adherents were Jews who believed in the divinity of Christ and considered Christianity a Jewish sect.”https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/jewish-views-on-christianity/
Thus, converted Jews were literally heretics. In all likelihood, most of them had no one else except each other. They continued in fellowship with each other rejoicing in the goodness of God, even in the face of hatred and persecution.
3: The Breaking of Bread
New Testament scholar Grant Osbourne has a helpful and practical lesson regarding this practice:
Both the breaking of bread and then prayers are the result of teaching and aspects of the fellowship of the church. It is common to think of this as eucharistic worship, but it is likely broader than that, referring to table fellowship of all kinds, including fellowship at the Lord’s table. Meals were viewed as sharing, first with God (they prayed at both the beginning and end of meals) and then with one another. An amazing number of scenes in the Gospel of Luke were over meals, and this continued in the early church. Meals provided the core of the theme of fellowship, then spreading to include every area of life. We should be having a lot more people over to our homes than many of us do. Osborne, G. R. (2019). Acts: Verse by Verse (p. 61). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
In his book Evangelism for the Rest of Us, author Mike Bechtle makes a compelling case that evangelism in the 21st century probably looks a lot different than in days gone by. I remarked about a few of the items in his book here. Needless to say, I think this model of having meals and breaking bread together is good not only within the Christian community, but for making meaningful inroads to those who need the gospel as well.
Prayer is another area that is so often neglected in the life of the average Christian. And I’m preaching to the choir here, for certain.
I’ve often remarked publicly that the weakest area of my personal Christian walk is that of prayer, and yet it is the one thing that arguably has more tangible, transformative impact than almost anything else I could do!
For these earliest of Christians, it was central. What a wonderful conclusion to this fourfold model of community: Doctrine, fellowship, bread-breaking, and prayer. However, the life experience of the Christian community went even further. More specifically, there were two further aspects of Christian life that led to the flourishing of the early church: Signs and wonders, and interpersonal care.
Signs and Wonders
Although one could spend plenty of time on this point, it is admittedly tertiary to this study, so I’ll address it only briefly in order to help us situate ourselves in the text.
Verse 43 relays to us the following: “And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.”
The word “fear” should be understood in terms of “awe.” Many signs and wonders were occurring in these days, confirming the validity of the Christian message to those already in the community—and, as we’ll be told in vs. 47, those outside of the community as well.
I will say that the signs and wonders we see in this Christian community are unlike that which we see in many other Christian communities, which may help to underscore an important point. This community was unique. Although surely we’d want to say that so much of what we see happening in this community would be good to model even today (support for our Christian brothers and sisters, etc.), it suggests that we should think of this passage descriptively rather than prescriptively.
In other words, the passage does not serve as a commandment: “Thou shalt follow this exact model in every local assembly.” Instead, it is Dr. Luke’s historical report concerning the life and growth of the first Christian community. Therefore, even if we conceded the point that this group was practicing socialism or communism, it would not suggest that we ought to follow such a model today.
No—this was a unique time in history. The Christian message was spreading, more people were being assimilated into the Christian world and life view, and special circumstances were needed to provide the authentication needed to get the job done (1 Corinthians 1:22).
Verse 44-45 is really where the controversy lies. It says of the community, “Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Now if you know anything about the history of communism or socialism, you know immediately where this trajectory is headed. Modern proponents of such systems will point to this language and see the sort of social structure they desire. One where wealth and property are distributed, everyone is on an equal playing field, the rich are forced to give to the poor, etc. While I have not engaged with the primary sources myself, it appears that even some independent historians take this line of argument and point to this passage as an early example of communism. See here, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_socialism#Biblical_age
There are a quite of number of problems with this line of thinking though.
1. The Absence of a Governing Body
What proponents of so-called “Christian Socialism” seem to be missing is that the Christians in this passage are not being told by a governing authority that they must engage in wealth distribution. This is an important point!
Modern socialistic and communistic systems are, ironically, systems of government which pine for a sort of utopian, classless society. The irony lies in the fact that any society with a governing body will, by its very nature, produce a society in which there is a governing class. In my opinion, this is an apologetic for the Christian worldview. Although the world’s systems resist God’s way of ordering reality, they often “bump into reality” when denying it. Thanks to Greg Koukl for the analogy.
As a similar example, moral relativists think it is morally wrong to impose your morality upon another person. See the contradiction? The same thinking applies here. Socialists and communists desire a society in which no classes exist, and yet by the very nature of those systems, a ruling class must exist.
Another problem, then, is the very nature of the Christian church. While the structure of Christian leadership will be made quite clear in the letters of the Apostle Paul, even this community was being led by Peter and the other apostles! And yet, even though there was a clear hierarchy of leadership, the text not seem to teach that any official programs were instituted or redistribution of wealth was being forced.
2. Everyone Gave as Others Had Need
To underscore the point made above, I think it should be clearly noted that those who had personal possessions and property of their own sold and distributed such property according to those who had need.
In close community, enduring persecution, these Christians leaned on each other to provide for even their most basic needs. Even today, most local church congregations are made up of members from across the socio-economic spectrum. Imagine we were living in a time of intense persecution, where people with nothing were joining the local church. I would like to think that we would see something similar happening. Buying a selling of land and possessions to take care of those who had no one—and nothing—else.
Let’s use another analogy. I have often heard preacher’s say that what matters when it comes to giving is not equal amounts, but equal sacrifice. This a modern aphoristic way of teaching the same principle Jesus taught when a poor widow dropped a tiny bit of money in comparison to the other wealthy donors. Not everyone was doing this. There was not a particular economic level above which you were required to sell your property and/or possessions.
No—as is the pattern of giving in the rest of the New Testament, they gave out of their kindness of their hearts.
3. What About the Other Churches?
In a podcast episode surrounding this very passage, Dr. Michael Heiser makes two key observations that cast doubt on those wanting to claim that this was some sort of pattern among the early church writ large.
First, Heiser points out that the “all things in common” phraseology is mentioned only twice in Scripture, and both times describing the specific actions of the Jerusalem church. In other words, there is no indication that this was a practice that had spread to any of the other churches we see being established throughout the entire New Testament.
Second, the picture of the Jerusalem church’s economic condition throughout the NT documents is not one of elevation due to this practice. In fact, it appears that if anything, this practice represented those who were once wealthy stooping down to the economic levels of the less-fortunate, rather than causing a leveling of the playing field. You’ll recall that Paul was collecting an offering for the Jerusalem church from the other churches that he had helped established.
Thus, if this were indicating a sort of biblically endorsed economic model, we would have to admit that it was not very fiscally effective. It was a wonderful show of love and community among brothers and sisters in the Lord, but that is about it.
4. The Kingdom of God
Another very important point (for which I also owe the credit to Dr. Heiser) is the very nature of the kingdom of God. Jesus says in no uncertain terms, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). The context of this statement is the questioning of Jesus by Pilate.
Jesus is saying, “Look, if my kingdom WAS of this world, I’d be fighting you right now!” But since it is not, Jesus was not in the business of establishing earthly socio-political structures. Instead, he was about his father’s business—bringing others into the kingdom of God—the heavenly kingdom.
Part of living in this “new humanity” the early church was experiencing was this very sense of community and brotherhood. There was a need for togetherness and oneness of spirit; and as the text seems to indicate, their oneness of purpose led many to give voluntarily of their own possessions so that others would be taken care of.
Dr. Osbourne makes an important application:
These voluntary acts of love were never demanded by the apostles, which makes their behavior all the more awe-inspiring as a result. They believed that all property and goods are given to us by God and that he truly owns them. Therefore, they should be shared by all alike as he directed. Still, the giving was completely voluntary. The communal spirit is normative, but the actual giving is not. Nowhere does it say it is wrong to be wealthy, and that everyone should live menial lives. People gave as they felt led by the Spirit. Still, even land and houses were sold, with Barnabas a conspicuous positive example (4:34–37), and Ananias and Sapphira a negative contrast to Barnabas (5:1–11). Luke expresses the goal in 4:34: “there were no needy persons among them,” which we see again in 6:1–7 with the Jewish and Hellenistic widows. That should be the motto of every congregational care program in every church.Osbourne, 62-63
Four Practical Takeaways
As a result of this study, there are many takeaways I think that could be brought to light. For the sake of brevity, we’ll limit our observations to only four.
1. Context Always Constrains Meaning
When we see claims about what the Bible is teaching—particularly when those claims are used to justify modern ideas or practices—we must always take a close look at the context. Even if what we think the Scriptures are saying is a good thing, even it is NOT what they are saying, it is not good that we teach it that way!
Here is another example. This very passage is often used by pastors to support the idea of going door-to-door soul winning, since they went “from house to house” in vs. 46. There is nothing wrong, in my view, with door-to-door soulwinning (although I think it has been objectively shown to be less effective than other methods of evangelism for the modern age).
My issue is with using this passage to justify the teaching that all faithful Christians should be engaging in this practice. What they did from house-to-house was not go on soulwinning and evangelism outings; they broke bread. In other words, they shared meals together! Whether we like it or not, an examination of the context of a passage will always constrain its meaning in ways that might be uncomfortable to us.
When that happens, we’d do well to remember that Yahweh himself inspired the Scriptures, and our own recourse must be submission to what the text actually says.
2. God Owns Everything
Perhaps above all else we observe in this passage is the fundamental belief that a man’s possessions are not really his own; rather, they are God’s. Stewardship is an essential teaching of the Bible.
That which we are given, we are giving not to own, but to manage. In God’s economy, if we show ourselves to be faithful stewards, we will be rewarded with more to manage (Matthew 25:14-30). Of course, the rewards are not always financial in nature. What a tragedy if we think the only way in which God can bless us is with material wealth!
I like expensive things just as much as the next guy, but the blessings I am most thankful for, are truly those which money could not buy. On the same taken, fiscal responsibility will always lead to more physical wealth. Here is the key: God owns it all. We are to be faithful managers of what he has given us.
Of Stewardship, Paul Chappell writes:
God has entrusted many gifts to our stewardship, and most of them are intangible. Our health, time, thoughts, relationships—these can be stewarded, but they are difficult to measure, and our gauges are sometimes subjective. Finances, however, are different. God’s gift of financial provision is our opportunity to steward a tangible asset for Him. This is a resource that physically passes through our fingers—either in cash or in ledgers. It can be objectively measured in concrete amounts. As such, it is a physical gauge of our heart. As Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).Chappell, Paul. Stewarding Life: One Lifetime, Limited Resources, Eternal Priorities (p. 133). Striving Together Publications. Kindle Edition.
For the church in Jerusalem, no one was on a forced wealth redistribution plan. Instead, they were on God’s plan for managing their resources and living in community together.
3. Believers Ought to be Willingly Giving
The fact is, the New Testament standard for giving is a much harder one to live by than is the Old Testament’s. Now, at first, that may sound silly. After all, there were pretty clearly defined laws around giving in the Old Testament, since Israel was a theocratic nation. Just as we have taxes to support our government, the people gave to support theirs according to God’s commandment.
Jesus demands much more, though. None of us like to pay our taxes, but at least with taxes we have come fairly clear lines of demarcation and rules to follow. Though things do change often, in my personal business, I know that as long as I set aside around 25% of each dollar that comes in for taxes, by the end of the year, I will be more than covered and perhaps even owed some money back.
Instead, Jesus demands that we giving of a willing and generous spirit! We find out just how greedy and impure we are when asked to give generously to others who have need. Although I am ashamed, I will be the first to raise my hand and admit that I struggle with this. I work hard for my money, and the fact of giving it to someone else out of the kindness of my heart is a legitimate struggle for me.
God is working on my heart in this area though. I have experienced the joy of giving sacrificially and recognize my need to do it more. The more we give, with a cheerful spirit, the more our hearts will be softened towards giving! It’s a virtuous cycle.
4. Believers Ought to be Caring for Their Own
I think it has been rightly observed by Osbourne and others, with regard to this passage, that there is a real lesson for believers, even if the circumstances do not immediately translate to your particular local context.
A shameful irony is that one needn’t spent very long on Twitter or inside of a Facebook group to learn that many times, believers are very harsh, unloving, and uncaring toward others. What should be simple disagreements between brothers about tertiary issues sometimes turn into ugly brawls.
Brothers and sisters will choose to separate from other believers on the basis of spurious doctrines, and sometimes even conspiracy theories. If the wiles of the devil have succeeded in any area, it in regard to the fractioning of the church. Sometimes the danger is not petty, but real.
In the case of so-called “Progressive Christianity,” many of the same doctrines that we have discussed in this study are espoused (mistakenly, of course) by Christians who claim to love Jesus and highly regard the Scriptures. Don’t get me wrong—these Christians tend, in my experience, to have a pure heart and good motives. They are just seriously mistaken and have bought into ideas that are antithetical to the gospel.
Despite these fractures—we must be able to make clear distinctions between who is our brother, and who is not, and treat others accordingly. And if we’re to use Jesus as our example, that care and compassion should extend even beyond the Christian community. What if we could think of “apologetics” are more than just the defense of Christianity from a rational point of view, and begin to think in terms of a “lifestyle.” What if our lives were an apologetic for the gospel?
That should be what each of us strives for, and each of us strives to teach and model before our families.
In summary, a closer examination of the Scriptures reveals that it is an abuse of the context of Scripture to claim that passages such as Acts 2:41-47 and Acts 4:32 teach any form of socialism or communism. Any potential similarities to such systems are vastly outweighed by the observable differences.
This matters greatly because (1) all Christians should care about the proper interpretation of Scripture and (2) there is a ton of baggage filled with unpleasant implications that would arise if, in fact, Scripture was teaching a version of these modern dangerous doctrines.
What can be done? Simply, we can carefully study the Scriptures in their proper context, and make sure we orienting our hearts toward God and others in the way the New Testament commands. By doing so, we can reach others with true compassion and the hope, love, justice, and care that is offered by the gospel.
|↑1||See here, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_socialism|
|↑2||The “semantic anachronism fallacy” occurs when we read the later meaning of a word into an earlier occurrence.|
|↑5||Osborne, G. R. (2019). Acts: Verse by Verse (p. 61). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.|
|↑6||See here, for example: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_socialism#Biblical_age|
|↑7||Thanks to Greg Koukl for the analogy.|
|↑9||Chappell, Paul. Stewarding Life: One Lifetime, Limited Resources, Eternal Priorities (p. 133). Striving Together Publications. Kindle Edition.|