All Things in Common
by Bryan Matthew Dockens
It has been argued that socialism is a divinely approved economic system exemplified in scripture. Proponents point to two passages as evidence of their claim:
“Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2:44-45).
“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common” (Acts 4:32).
Whereas socialism is a system of wealth redistribution and equalization mandated by the government, what is recorded in scripture is none of that.
Those who “had all things in common” were “all who believed” or “the multitude of those who believed.” The setting was the church, not the state. Government had nothing to do with this.
They voluntarily “sold their possessions and goods.” The system was not confiscatory in nature. The full weight of government was not bearing down on citizens, requiring them, under penalty of arrest, to surrender their hard earned capital to strangers. Rather, those who shared faith gladly shared property to tend to one another’s needs.
The beauty of church supplied assistance, in contradistinction to that of the government, is the difference between loving generosity and grudging obligation; it’s the difference between giving and taking. The government has power to prosecute those who evade their taxes, but the church can only encourage its members to give from a sense of caring. God does not want those to give who, themselves, do not want to give (Acts 20:35; II Corinthians 9:6-7).
This system did not disregard private property rights, but recognized that liberty. When Ananias and Sapphira lied to God and their brethren about the portion of proceeds they had donated, Peter reasoned with them, “While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?” (Acts 5:4). They were not required to surrender the entirety of their personal treasure, but they were obligated to be honest about their giving (Proverbs 25:14).
God appointed governing authorities, not for the redistribution of private property, but to uphold good and to punish evil (Romans 13:1-7; I Peter 2:13-14). Having stated this, the apostle Paul explained, “For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing” (Romans 13:6). Taxes are not paid to equalize each citizen’s financial standing, but to enable rulers to praise the doing of good and execute wrath on those practicing evil.
Distribution was according to “need”, not entitlement. Those able to provide for themselves did not line up for a handout. The problem with state-run socialism is that it discourages hard work. It is written, “The person who labors, labors for himself, for his hungry mouth drives him on” (Proverbs 16:26). Hunger, the fulfillment of personal need, is an excellent motivation to work. Socialism, however, has the opposite effect. The laborer does not gain the full reward of his labor, but is made to surrender that reward to authorities who will, in turn, dispense it to those who did not do the work. Meanwhile, the hungry man will not be motivated to labor for himself, but will settle into laziness, knowing he can depend on the welfare state to provide for him. Again, it is written, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (II Thessalonians 3:10).
In the church, when we give, we know who we’re giving to, why we’re giving to them, and whether they really need it. Bureaucracy affords no such assurances.