People use the Bible to support just about anything you can think of. Activists of all stripes find their own pet causes and beliefs in it, and that even includes communists. No, that is not a typo. Some people really do argue that the Bible teaches communism. Granted, they don’t think it teaches every detail of it, but they claim that the core ideas are there. And to demonstrate this, they often appeal to some texts from Acts about the life of the nascent Church:
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
“Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32, 34-35)
At first glance, this argument might seem convincing. The first Christians lived like communists, so we should as well. However, as usual with these kinds of controversial issues, things aren’t nearly as clear-cut as they seem. There are actually some key differences between the life of the early Church and anything we can legitimately call communism, so the faithful do not need to embrace Karl Marx’s political ideology.
For starters, this communal living was something the early Christians did voluntarily. An essential tenet of communism is that the government should forcibly do away with private ownership, but the nascent Church didn’t force this on its members. In fact, an important text says the exact opposite.
Right after the second passage I quoted above, we read about a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira. They sold their land and gave the money to the Apostles to redistribute as needed, but they secretly kept some of it for themselves. As a result, God killed them both on the spot (Acts 5:1-11). At first glance, this seems to mean that the Church did in fact force communism on its members, but a closer look reveals that is not actually the case. When Ananias gave the money to the Apostles, St. Peter said:
“Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4)
Ananias and Sapphira’s sin wasn’t keeping some of the money for themselves. No, as Peter said, the land was their own before they sold it, and even after they sold it, it was still “at [their] disposal.” Their sin was simply that they lied about it. So we can see that this practice of communal living was voluntary, and the people weren’t required to do it, which right off the bat makes the nascent Church very different from communism.
But that is not the only difference. Elsewhere, the New Testament also tells us pretty clearly that many early Christians did in fact keep at least some of their property and money. For example, St. Paul took a collection from the church in Corinth to help needy Christians in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-3), but you can’t collect money from people who don’t have any. If the early Christians put all their money and possessions into a communal fund, Paul would have been able to just take from that fund rather than ask the people to donate money individually.
Likewise, Acts tells us about a devout woman named Tabitha, who “was full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). In Greek, the word translated as “acts of charity” literally refers to almsgiving, so the verse means that she performed many good works and gave alms generously. Again, you can’t give alms if you don’t have any money, so like Paul’s collection for the church in Jerusalem, Tabitha also shows that not everyone in the nascent Church put all their possessions and money into a communal fund.
The New Testament Does Not Support Communism
From these two points, it is clear that the Bible does not support communism. Yes, some of the first Christians lived in a communist-like way, but that was very different from what we know today as communism. For one, they did it voluntarily, and they didn’t believe people should be forced to live like they did. Secondly, not every Christian in New Testament times lived that way, and there is no record that those who didn’t were ever considered less Christian or less devout than those who did. These communist-type communities are simply one way to live out Jesus’ command to use our possessions to help the poor, but the New Testament is clear that there are other, equally legitimate ways to fulfill that teaching as well.