The book of Acts does not condone or command socialism because socialism didn’t exist in the first century. Socialism is an ideology that arose in response to the social problems brought about by the industrial revolution; the Apostles were preaching the gospel and doing many miraculous things long before Proudhon and Saint-Simon. The church rescued abandoned babies, fed the poor, took care of the sick—and completely altered the way we understand poverty—long before Marx and Engels were around.
So why do people bother with the comparison? Why do people like Gregory Paul still try to compare vapours with the Holy Ghost? Here is his understanding of Acts 2-4:
Now folks, that’s outright socialism of the type described millennia later by Marx—who likely got the general idea from the gospels.
The pro-capitalist Christians who are aware of these passages wave them away even though it is the only explicit description of Christian economics in the Bible.
I encourage you to read the whole thing—especially the two paragraphs following that quote. But do you get that? Marx probably got the “general idea” of his theory (which talks about religion as metaphysical free basing) from the gospels. Right, and Lenin is St. Peter.
All this would be fine and dandy if it wasn’t met with such a weak theological response from those who should know better. Art Lindsley’s response on the Gospel Coalition’s blog (a reprise of an earlier work from the otherwise excellent Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics) is a classic example. Here’s a typical quote:
The communal sharing in Acts 2-5 was not the practice of the early church in the rest of the New Testament, so it is clear that this practice is not a mandatory command. Thus, even if Acts 2-5 was socialism, it would hold nothing other than historical interest to later believers and would have no binding power on the later church.
I wonder what one makes of Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler? Here’s how Luke (the author of Acts) describes it:
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Was that merely a suggestion, or was it a command from God? On what grounds should it be considered universal?
None of this is to say that what people like Lindsley are arguing for—private property, free markets, etc—does not have merit. It’s simply to say that their defence of them leaves a lot to be desired from a theological standpoint. Too often, Christians have let discussions of what are actually heresies—liberalism, socialism—define the terms of theological debate rather than Scriptures and the church. In other words, let’s have less debate about whether Acts condones socialism or affirms free markets, and more about what the Holy Spirit tells us in Scripture about how we should act economically. In other words, economics needs someone to do for it what Oliver O’Donovan has done for politics: a thoroughgoing recovery of Christian economic tradition, a rich economic theology of , and a coherent set of economic ethics.