Were the Early Christians Socialists?

By Lee Enochs 

The political system known as socialism is gaining popularity in America. Even some progressive Christians argue that authentic Christian belief and practice includes a socialist concept of anti-individualist property rights and obligatory revenue sharing.

However, is it ok to own personal property? Or should we forfeit all claims to personal property ownership and give up our possessions to live in a communal and socialistic utopian society where no one owns anything individually and everyone shares goods, food, property and monetary resources with the societal collective?

Socialists and communists historically have argued against individual property rights for state ownership of all property and possessions.

Some Christians believe such a socialistic living situation is normative and mandated by God.

However, such  a concept of individual property rights is a sacrosanct idea for many Americans reared on the idea of individualized liberty embedded in the U.S.Constitution and with those who agree with the British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) who argued famously for personal property  as a natural right. 

John Locke wrote;

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions… (and) when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another” (Locke, “Two Treatises of Government” 1689).

However, did the early practice socialism and if so, is socialism mandated for every subsequent Christian after 

Acts 4:32 says,

“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.”

I think such a communal and socialistic arrangement amongst the early early church clearly occurred as Acts 2:44 and Acts 4:32-37 clearly shows.

However, such an arrangement was clearly voluntary and not compulsory as most socialistic political societies are.

Remember in Acts 5, Peter said to Ananias and Sapphira;

 “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

God punished Ananias and Sapphira not because they had their own money (Acts 5:1), but because they lied about giving up all their possessions but in all actuality, “...kept back part of the price of the land.”

It appears that Ananias and Sapphira sought to be honored and have the preeminence amongst the early disciples by maintaining a false image of self-sacrifice and altruism not because they maintained property. Remember, Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38-42). 

Also, remember in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 Paul encouraged the rich to share with those who had need but did not command the rich to stop being rich and give up all their monetary resources and property. Paul said,

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

In the socialist and communistic state envisioned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles  in “The Communist Manifesto” (1848), there is no such thing as personal property rights.

In Chapter 2 of Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” he vigorously attacks the notion of individual property rights saying:

“In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.

We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence.”

See chapter two of “Marx, Karl, 1818-1883. The Communist Manifesto.” London ; Chicago, Ill. :Pluto Press, 1996.

The socialistic and altruistic arrangement of the early church in Jerusalem was explicitly voluntary in nature as opposed to the compulsory forfeiture of personal property to the state in the communist and socialist political societies of the last 100 years.

I personally do not believe it is obligatory for every Christian to be a socialist and forfeit his or her personal property and monetary resources for the collective group. While the early church voluntarily decided at one point to live in a communal and socialist type environment, such a lifestyle was not mandated by God for all subsequent Christian ad infinitum.

Lee Enochs is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and studied political philosophy at Princeton Seminary. He writes regularly on politics and theology.