Note to the Reader – I encourage you to invest additional time reading the Book of Acts in conjunction with this article.
Socialism in the Assembly?
In our world there are many different economic ideological thoughts, some of which are capitalism, communism, laissez-faire and socialism. In many ways, economic philosophy seems implicitly conjoined with government ideological applications. While nations have debated, and at times have gone to war over these ideas, it seems needful for the disciple and the church to consider two short passages found in the book of Acts. As we enter into this article, as a writer, my goal is not to address the pros and cons of governmental instituted and/or promoted economic systems nor is this article intended as an ideological debate regarding economics. My goal is simple. If twenty-first century believers are supposed to be learning lessons from the early church, what are the implications of these two passages from Acts?
Reality and Economics
No matter the country in which one lives, one has to provide for family. While some cultures vary, many provide for their families by earning some kind of income. This article is not intended as a discussion of the various monetary identifications, exchange rates and such, yet stated simply each person needs food, clothing, shelter, and perhaps transportation – the necessities of life, if you will. But, it is appropriate to acknowledge that not all nations provide equal economic opportunity. In every nation, there are truly desperate and destitute people, but the nations seem to have various quantities of these people.
Each nation, in some way, through its government addresses the concerns of life’s necessities or it does not. While much time could be spent agreeing and/or disagreeing about the manner in which government institutions should respond regarding their citizens’ need for the necessities of life, this cannot be the focus of this study. Instead, the focus is for disciples, and by proxy, the church: Does the Bible declare that it is the assembly’s responsibility to assist with life’s necessities, beyond the incidental compassionate action?
The Church and Economics
It seems proper to begin with the fact that the Bible instructs disciples to work. It appears that Paul’s Thessalonian epistle not only commands disciples to work, but also states that without working one should not eat.1 Interestingly enough, Paul goes on to call some of the non-working – disorderly2 because they were busybodies. While the command stands as truth, disciples should be working and being productive as such, there are some ethical dilemmas that disciples must also address.
As disciples, it is proper for us to consider this ethical possibility: how can one work, if employment opportunities are limited or non-existent? Or perhaps another ethical probability: how can one work if they have no skills, or have limited abilities? These questions are asked because at some point, the disciple and the church have to involve wisdom in addressing needs, all of which brings us to our two passages from Acts.
All Things in Common
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.3
Not a Needy Person
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. … 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 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.4
For a moment, let us forget about our country’s economic system (capitalism) and governmental disposition (democratic republic). These verses from Acts may challenge us to address the needs among the assembly in a different manner. Currently in our country, the needy are able to receive assistance from many sources: government (whether state and/or federal), churches, and other charitable organizations. The question is: do these verses apply to us as a church in the United States? And if so, how, when, and to what degree, do we implement such action?
Reflection and the Church
From the book of James we are told that part of undefiled pure religion is, as the Complete Jewish Bible states, “to care for orphans and widows in their distress”.5 Even Israel of old was instructed not to oppress the stranger or the widows or the orphans6 under the threat of receiving wrath from Jehovah, the God of Mercy to Israel. Yet, various passages instruct God’s people to leave a portion of the harvests and the vineyards so that the poor, the strangers, the widows and the orphans have a source of food and drink.7
In a country that leaves nothing of the harvest and vineyard for the poor, where should they go? To the government and welfare? To the church and charity? When the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor went to the fields to gather, they could – at least – have dignity in that they fended for themselves.
The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus stating that there will always be poor8 and even challenged one disciple-to-be to sell all that he had and give it to the poor.9 Jehovah has always expressed to his people his concern for the poor. He has always desired the poor be taken care of. The question for us is: how does this apply to the verses from Acts? It is reasonable to see that, at least, some of the disciples were poor because others sold their property in order to help the whole. Is it proper to conclude that this portion of Acts reveals that one of the things the church is to do is to provide for interests of each disciple? If so, how do these verses become an increasing part of the church? May the Lord bless us as we seek to do His will.
1. “Work to Eat.” II Thessalonians 3.10; NASB.
2. “Disorderly.” II Thessalonians 3.11; NASB.
3. “All Things in Common.” Acts 2.44-45, ESV.
4. “Not a Needy Person.” Acts 4.32, 34-35, ESV.
5. “Care for the Widows and Orphans.” James 1.27; NASB.
6. “Not to Oppress the Stranger.” Exodus 22.21-24, cf. Leviticus 19.33-34; NASB.
7. “Leave Part of the Harvest.” Leviticus 19.9-10; Deuteronomy 24.19-22; NASB.
8. “There Will Always Be Poor.” Matthew 26.11; NASB.
9. “Challenged a Disciple-To-Be.” Matthew 19.16-22; NASB.