The majority of people, especially millennials and Generation Z, have only a hazy idea of socialist and communist theory. They may know and love the idea of perfect social and economic equality which socialism and communism promise; they may agree with communists and socialists that capitalism is inherently unjust; they may even know a few socialist-communist principles. But they know little of the materialist assumptions about the human person, especially as a social animal, on which socialist and communist theorists have long relied.
So when they read in Acts 4:32-35 that “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common,” and that “[t]here was not a needy person among them,” they find exactly the community that socialism and communism promise. Combine that observation with a few scriptural and patristic passages which illustrate the dim view the Judeo-Christian tradition has taken of greed and rich people, and it’s tempting to conclude that Jesus and the early Church were proto-socialists or primitive communists.
It’s tempting but wrong.
The Socialist and the Communist
First, let’s distinguish between socialism and communism. Both intend the equitable redistribution of wealth (“To each, according to his needs; from each, according to his ability”). Socialism, on the one hand, requires the ongoing intervention of a strong central government, including some degree of government ownership of the means of production. Communism, on the other hand, is a kind of anarchism; it wants the end of centralized government and transfer of power to autonomous collectives in which all property is owned in common. Socialism can be instituted peacefully through established liberal political processes; communism, however, demands violent revolution.
Both ideologies have a variety of flavors. Schools of socialist thought differ on the degree to which government ownership and intervention is necessary, as well as the manner and degree to which labor and management participate in political and economic decisions. Likewise, schools of communist thought vary on the role of central government in the transition from revolution to the commune and on the governing principles and relationships between the communes themselves. Some schools, especially the Marxist-Leninist school, posit socialism as an intermediate stage between the revolution and the commune.
Most importantly, both ideologies are philosophical descendants of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory of inequality’s origins. Rousseau’s theory depends on his belief that Man in his natural state is amoral, autonomous, self-interested, and atheistic. Socialism is generally unconcerned with human spirituality, while communism is generally hostile to religion. Both concede some difference in income and possessions according to certain rational differences in contribution and need. But they refuse to accept the egregious wealth and income gaps that traditional capitalist and mercantile systems create. A system that satisfies every citizen’s material needs, they theorize, will be happy, prosperous, and just (making religion irrelevant).
An Inductive Fallacy
If you are a communist (socialist), you dislike wealth and believe in shared resources. The early Christians disliked wealth and shared their resources. Therefore, the early Christians must have been communists (socialists). This is the basic line of reasoning neo-socialist analysts such as New Testament translator David Bentley Hart, author Roman Montero, and Patheos blogger Chuck McKnight ask us to accept. They choose a handful of socialist-communist principles, then cherry-pick scripture and the Church Fathers for citations that purport to show that Jesus and the early Church also held those principles.
If lightning hits a house, it catches on fire. This house is on fire. Therefore, lightning must have hit it. Even if we agree it’s true that houses hit by lightning inevitably burn (it isn’t), it isn’t true that lightning strikes are the only cause of burning houses. Similarly, that you can reach conclusion P from grounds A, B, and C doesn’t preclude the possibility that you can reach P from other grounds, such as D, E, and F. Logicians call this kind of inductive error affirming the consequent.
For instance, communalism has much the same ideal community that communists and socialists have in mind. But where communism holds violent revolution and destruction of the capitalist ruling class as a necessity, communalism insists on working within the present system, making peaceful, orderly changes until it dies of irrelevance. Likewise, while the various flavors of socialism require strong central government intervention, communalism stresses subsidiarity, even a weakened federation. If we want a word to describe early Church practice that avoids the emotional, philosophical, and historical baggage that comes with communism, then communalism would be the choice.
The Absence of Systemic Criticism
But even to call the early Church communalist is to risk misleading the reader. As I’ve argued elsewhere, any attempt to fit the Christian faith, early or modern, within a secular ideological framework almost invariably distorts and damages the faith. Hybrids like “Christian objectivism”, “Christian socialism”, and “Christian communism” can’t avoid being oxymorons. Having erroneously supposed that the primitive Christians held social, economic, and political beliefs similar to socialism and communism, the neo-socialists compound the error by supposing that the early Church had an ideological agenda beyond making disciples of all nations.
Communalism, like communism, liberalism, anarchism, and every other ism, is a theory about the structure and dynamics of an ideal society; in short, it’s about a system. But Jesus’ preaching was solely and explicitly about human persons as individual moral agents, not about governments, economies, or social structures. It has social implications because humans are social, relational, and political. Nevertheless, Christ’s focus was on the individual’s relationship with God and how that relationship reflects in the individual’s relationship with other people. Jesus and the apostles criticized individual behavior but said little we could reasonably construe to be systemic indictments.
The most stunning example of the radical absence of Christian systemic critique shows up in everything Jesus, the apostles, and the Church Fathers didn’t say about chattel slavery. Paul Allard, writing in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, noted, “Primitive Christianity did not attack slavery directly; but it acted as though slavery did not exist.” Eventually, the Church grew into an early and vocal critic of slavery. But it was many centuries before the Christian West finally made slavery taboo. G. K. Chesterton gives us crucial insight:
Christ as much as Aristotle lived in a world that took slavery for granted. He did not particularly denounce slavery. He started a movement that could exist in a world with slavery. But he started a movement that could exist in a world without slavery. He never used a phrase that made his philosophy depend even upon the very existence of the social order in which he lived. He spoke as one conscious that everything was ephemeral, including the things that Aristotle thought eternal. (The Everlasting Man, 195; emphasis mine)
Injustice and Original Sin
Systems don’t make people saints. This fact is implicit in St. Paul’s reluctant critique of the Law of Moses (see Romans 7:7-25). Montero notes the Law’s attempt to manage economic inequality through compulsory religious and social practices. However, the Law failed at the attempt because neither regulating nor proscribing greed cures it. As St. Paul notes, the knowledge that an act is sinful is often itself an inducement to sin (vv. 7-8). For instance, part of the kick paraphiliacs get out of sexual transgressions such as pedophilia is the knowledge that they’re indulging in taboo behavior.
Benjamin Disraeli admirably summed up the futility of systems to compel goodness: “When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken.”
Socialism and communism are protests against an unjust world. But the Judeo-Christian tradition, at least from the time when the book of Job was composed, accepts that the world is unjust, that the wicked often prosper and the good often suffer. Christ took the unfairness of the status quo for granted. He taught his disciples to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12) and, at the same time, to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … for [God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44-45).
Systems as human inventions are unjust because the souls of the people who create, enforce, and live within them are damaged through original sin—we are flawed, failing, mortal creatures. “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Jesus didn’t come to change systems; he came to save sinners. The lessons he taught us about loving God and our neighbor he meant us to apply without regard to systems.
The Christians shared everything, not because of some economic doctrine or political agenda, but out of agápē. For a brief moment in history, the post-Pentecost Church showed what kind of community is possible when its people allow God’s grace and the Holy Spirit to completely transform their hearts. But it was a second-order consequence of the gospel message, not its telos. Since communalism wasn’t an essential or intrinsic part of the kerygma, eventually it came to an end—without controversy, without lamentation, even without comment. That it ended is at least as significant a fact as that it arose.
Heresies don’t always begin with the denial of dogma; they sometimes begin with the exaggeration of minor details into pivotal doctrines. For over 180 years, beginning with Ven. Pius IX, the Catholic Church and other Christian communions have rejected both socialism and communism as incompatible with the faith, and in turn, have suffered varying degrees of oppression under socialist and communist regimes. There’s no pretending these things didn’t happen. As St. Augustine of Hippo once said of another mistake, “The matter is at an end. Would that the error too might sometime come to an end!”
Capitalism, especially the laissez-faire kind that’s been rebranded as “free-market capitalism”, has deserved most if not all the criticisms its detractors, including various popes (and Yours Truly), have leveled at it. But so have socialism and communism. Systems are ephemeral. When enough individual people change their attitudes, values, and beliefs, systemic changes inevitably follow; ironically, nothing better demonstrates this fact than the sexual culture changes we Christians protest so much. The early Church’s communalism not only shows what Christian love makes possible, but it also demonstrates why communism and socialism fail:
No system ever devised or dreamed of can make people love one another.