With the next year having a presidential election there’s much buzz concerning various approaches of government and how to address the fiscal challenges of our era. One of the words being tossed out there is Socialism and its focus on the redistribution of wealth. Is this best or even right? Does it improve culture or is it an inhibitor of growth, development and initiative? Does the teaching of Jesus endorse this? And is this what we see in the early church in the Book of Acts? Was Jesus a Socialist? Would He have us to be Socialists? On and on the questions go.
Typically, in the context of Christianity, the talking points seem to center upon Jesus and the early church. Clearly, Jesus was in favor of our helping the poor. But does such suggest that Jesus encouraged or embraced Socialism? M R.C. Sproul Jr. weighs in on this question with a hypothetical syllogism: “Jesus wants us to care for the poor. Socialism cares for the poor. Therefore Jesus wants socialism.” While at first glance such may appear sound, however, the syllogism, as I’m sure you’re aware, is terribly flawed. Consider the parallel offered by another writer, “Jesus wants criminals to be punished. Vigilantism punishes criminals. Therefore, Jesus wants vigilantism.” It’s not a question of whether or not the poor are to be cared for or that criminals are to be punished. The question has more to do with the means by which such is to be accomplished.
Socialism is a system of organizing a society in which property and industries are owned and controlled by the government rather than by individuals and companies. The website Dictionary.com suggests it’s “1) a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole, 2) procedure or practice in accordance with this theory, 3) (in Marxist theory) the stage following capitalism in the transition of a society to communism, characterized by the imperfect implementation of collectivist principles.” As a capitalist and someone who fundamentally believes in free enterprise, such is alarming, especially in how such is deemed a “transition” step to communism. That being said, what does Scripture say concerning such?
Naturally, the discussion takes us to a well-known text concerning the early church, “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.” (Acts 2:44-45) Later on, we read, “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. And with great power, the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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.” (Acts 4:32-35) At an initial glance, one may ask, “Isn’t this socialism?” In light of that question, here are several things you may want to consider:
Stating the obvious here, first and fundamentally, there is a need for God’s people to look at things through the lens of compassion. How can I help others with what I have? needs to be a question that resurfaces frequently in our lives. John wrote, “But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 Jn. 3:17) We can equivocate and raise questions concerning “who my brother is” and argue that they “should have made better choices” and so on, but, as the old farmer says, “The horse is out of the barn.” We must, as God’s people, deal with what we have in front of us now. And we must “now” look at people through the lens of love and compassion.
Second, the believers in the early church volunteered (keyword) to give away their property to help others. That’s vastly different from a governmental dictate. The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher commented in a television interview on This Week concerning such. She acutely states, “I would much prefer to bring them [socialists] down as soon as possible. I think they’ve made the biggest financial mess that any government’s ever made in this country for a very long time, and Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite a characteristic of them.” (Emphasis added) If you take your goods and give such to help the poor – that’s generosity. If you take someone else’s goods and give it to help the poor – that’s stealing. Big difference!
Third, there is the question of whether or not the example in Acts is intended to be a historical precedent for all generations to come. Is what they did in the midst of that unique occasion a mandatory prescription for every generation thereafter?
(By the way, this writer isn’t convinced that such was even the will of God. I believe what they did was right and that it was necessary; however, it was a Plan B. God had previously given the Plan A. His will was for the Gospel to be taken “into all the world” (Mk. 16:15) and for them to be witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) It’s pretty hard to keep that command “to go” when you are tarrying in Jerusalem. Not being hyper-critical here. We probably all would have done the same thing – to witness those signs, to see God’s power, to hear God’s message, to be discipled – who would have done otherwise? Still, had they obeyed God’s command there would not have been this need for communal living. Interestingly, it was persecution that served as the catalyst for them to move beyond Jerusalem.)
But, let’s just say for the sake of argument that what we see early on in the Book of Acts was God’s will. Still, there is the question of whether that example is binding upon us today. Concerning such, Dr. Art Lindsley points out, “You can’t get the imperative out of the indicative. Can you get the imperative (all Christians should do this) from the indicative (some early Christians did this)? You can try with all your might, but you will never cross the divide. The fact that some Christians ‘shared all things’ (with some qualifications) does not constitute a command that all Christians should follow their example.” It was a unique and desperate time and such times often necessitate extreme and immediate responses.
Finally, if Jesus promoted Socialism and the redistribution of wealth you’d expect to see a consistent endorsement of such in His teaching. In the Parable of the Talents, for instance (Mt. 25:14-30), Jesus praises the two servants who had initiative, who worked the hardest and made the wisest investments for their master. Not only that, He gives them more by taking from the guy who was the lowest-paid! Why? Because the man who received the least had no initiative; rather than working, he chose to squander his gift. That doesn’t necessarily fit the “fairness” and “social justice” mantra we’re hearing today.
So what’s the point? Is Jesus in favor of the redistribution of wealth? Absolutely! He is clearly an advocate of such. Buyer beware, however; it is to be accomplished voluntarily through hearts that are driven by compassion, not by a secular governmental system that takes – not only our goods, but also our initiative, drive and dreams. No, Jesus was not a socialist. And the Bible does not promote socialism. It does, however, promote charity and service. And when we do such – by the way – it is God who gets the glory, not the government!