Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Christian Communism?

There was certainly a large-scale redistribution of wealth that took place in early Church in Jerusalem.

We could certainly lift our game! What an exciting way to live.

But I don't see it as a mandate for the LEGISLATED redistribution of wealth, like what takes place under Communism and Socialism. Neither do I see it as a mandate for Christian communalism.

I see the giving in Jerusalem more as voluntary, generous, necessary, extraordinary, limited, and unique.

In my mind, Acts 5:4 eliminates that possibility:


It was voluntary. And the means of production remained privately owned.

It wasn't demanded. It wasn't taught. It wasn't repeated elsewhere in the Book of Acts.

But no doubt there are circumstances in which that kind of extravagent giving will again be temporarily called-for in response to some immediate emergency.

Not sure how much the topic interests you, but I might explain my reasoning a bit more...

Ananias and Sapphira were rebuked because they had agreed together to lie to the Holy Spirit - they were never under any compulsion to give. From start to finish, their giving was voluntary. The means of production always remained privately-owned.

The Apostles hadn't demanded it nor did they later make a doctrine out of it. It wasn't repeated by other Churches elsewhere. This didn't become the expected lifestyle for all believers of all times in all places in all circumstances. This wasn't the charter of a new economic system. And there was no taxation involved.

So I guess I don't mind anyone repeating that program of redistribution, so long as they also follow the same example of private ownership and free-will! (Anyone should be allowed to opt-out.) But that's not usually the case under Communism and Socialism is it.

Here is a quote from the People's New Testament Commentary:

"It does not describe a community of goods, but a miraculous benevolence: (1) the goods were not a common fund, but each one had goods that he possessed; (2) he did not say that his goods were his own; (3) they used all as if it belonged to all; (4) there were none that lacked, for (5) those that had houses and lands sold them and brought the proceeds to the apostles. It was a time when a great liberality was called for. Thousands of Jews from abroad had become Christians and must remain at Jerusalem until instructed in the gospel. It was a great emergency, and the church was equal to it, for they brought money, goods, and the proceeds of houses and lands to sustain those who lacked. This continued until God was ready to send them forth, and when the persecution arose about Stephen they went everywhere preaching the word (Ac 8:4)."

Another reason why I'm personally reluctant to take it as a basis for LEGISLATED redistributionism (as an economic strategy or model) is that I don't think DOCTRINE should be founded on historical and poetical books of the Bible alone: I think doctrines ought to be able to be substantiated by clear statements made in the teaching books of the Bible - especially for something as major as a new economic system!

This was an isolated incident in a historical, not doctrinal, book of the Bible, the Book of Acts. Furthermore, even the story itself tells us that this was not compulsory. It wasn't the introduction of a new set of economic rules. It was pure generosity.

The redistribution that took place in Jerusalem was never demanded, taught, repeated, nor mentioned again, not in practice nor in precept.

None of the Gentile churches were mentioned in the Book of Acts as having ever adopted the practice. The Apostles in Jerusalem hadn't demanded it - so neither was it taught in the Epistles to any of the Gentile churches.

Other activities which happened at Jerusalem (such as their habit of continuing in the apostles' teaching; and fellowship; and breaking of bread; and prayers) were later formalized into doctrine by the Episltes and were always repeated by the Churches universally.

But the level of liquidation and sharing of property that took place in Jerusalem did not find an ongoing place in Apostolic doctrine or practice.

This was an extraordinary response to a unique need. Jerusalem was a politically and economically disadvantaged outpost of the Roman Empire.

(It was so poor that even many years after when churches became established among the Gentiles, it was still necessary that the Gentile churches continued the practice of financially supporting the poor in Judaea.)

And to make the need even greater, thousand of visitors from all over the world had just been added to the Church. None of them owned anything in Jerusalem and all of them needed to be housed and fed.

And everyone could sense persecution was brewing. A short time later all the believers except the Apostles fled the city, leaving everything behind.

And then a few decades later, the entire city of Jerusalem was destroyed by Rome. Jesus had forewarned them that this event would take place within their generation.

Liquidating, therefore, was a good strategy. In fact it was their only option.

I know of a time when this happend in Sri Lanka. Believers started feeling led to sell their houses and live in extended-family groups and share their resources. Two years later, the war intensified, people had to flee their lands - and everyone who hadn't sold their houses lost them anyway.

But not everyone in Jerusalem sold everything - or else none of them would have had houses in which to meet. It says they "met daily from house to house".

Phillip was one of those who was present in the early Church at Jerusalem, but later in the Book of Acts we are told that the apostles stayed in Phillip's house where he lived with his four daughters. Evidently then Phillip the Evangelist didn't think Peter had instituted Christian Communism!

Paul didn't instruct the Gentile churches to do as the Jerusalem Church had done. Instead he encouraged them to take advantage of their economic freedom, to "work" with their own hands (something the believers in Jerusalem had little opportunity to do) so they would "have" (i.e., own) so they could then "give" (i.e. voluntarily give) to others.

While he was in Rome he rented his own house. Notice he didn't instruct the church-members that they should be communally sharing all their accommodation with him. He rented his own place - for two full years.

Christian communes usually fizzle out. The Holy Spirit has historically led believers to form temporary communes during emergencies - but not as a blueprint forever.

Wherever Christians have tried to stay in communes beyond their use-by date, problems arose. I think it breaks with Biblical principle - except during emergencies.

For example, after an earthquake and a tsunami, it may be necessary for temporary tent-cities to be set-up and for wealth to be voluntarily redistributed. But that doesn't mean the victims should stay living together and dependant on others for the rest of their lives!

A good example of the problems that can arise was the Plymouth Colony in North America. They tried to base their new society on shared farming-land, on shared produce. That may have been okay during the first season of the colony. But eventually it caused all sorts of problems - including near starvation of the colony. Men lacked motivation to labour to produce food for other men's wives and children. After they reverted to a free-enterprise system, productivity soared - and human inter-relationships improved too. The colony was saved.

Here in Australia where we haven't felt earthquakes, where tsunamis are only 20cm high, where circumstances aren't as bad as those faced by the early Church in Jerusalem - it may be appropriate to use other strategies besides liquidating and redistributing wealth.

Give someone employment. Or train him. Or, help him deal with whatever issues prevent him from staying in a job.

It might require that we give something in the beginning. But eventually the goal should be to help the person become self-sufficient.

Meanwhile there will always be emergencies somewhere, especially overseas. In those circumstances. Acts 2 & 4 will serve as a great example to us.

Actually, the spirit of Acts 2 and 4 can filter through everything we do - even in circumstances when being that radical isn't called-for.

May that faith infiltrate everything we do.

Those are my thoughts so far. I'm open to learning more.

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