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Was the Early Church Socialist?

“Socialism only works in Heaven, where they don’t need it, and Hell, where they’ve already got it.” — Ronald Reagan No one likes a cherry-picker. Pick-up basketball players everywhere will attest to the unfavorable stigma immediately attached to any player who lollygags while getting back on defense, hoping that his teammates can somehow get a quick steal and hurl a long pass to him for an easy, uncontested layup. With that said, let me tell you about a guy named Gregory Paul. Paul is a progressive atheist who is a “free lance paleontology writer who dabbles in theology.” Recently, he penned a 2,000 word repudiation of all Christians who are so foolish as to think that the Bible supports any form of free-market enterprise. Exhibiting all the skills of a rhetorical cherry-picker in the basketball game of intellectual inquiry and debate, Paul lazily attempts to make the case that Jesus and the scriptures are pro-socialism, anti-American and the inspiration for Karl Marx’s worldview. The editors at The Washington Post then published  Dr. Jay Richards’s rebut to Paul’s “From Jesus’ socialism to capitalistic Christianity” piece. Let me quickly run through a few of the major points Paul tries to make first, summarize Richards’s rejoinders, and close things out with a few thoughts of my own. Christians, Paul claims, have aligned themselves with Ayn Rand’s objectivist ideology, which aims to dissolve Judeo-Christian values in the culture. Not only that, he protests, but we rubes on the Religious Right have unwittingly signed off on all forms of godless social Darwinism by supporting competition in the private sector. Upon completion of his bid to shackle Ayn Rand and Darwin around the necks of two-faced religious conservatives everywhere, Paul moves on to “prove” that the dual witness of Christ’s life and the New Testament’s teachings on socio-economic matters confirm that God and socialism go together like peanut butter and jelly. Citing the over-cited, under-understood passages in Acts chapters 2, 4 and 5, Paul performs exegetical surgery on the texts to arrive at some convenient conclusions that, had the patient been human instead of a collection of words, would have earned him numerous medical malpractice lawsuits. Namely, he states that the early church in Jerusalem was a collectivist utopia that would have continued to inspire all Christians everywhere to communal living and forced wealth redistribution if it hadn’t been for those meddling Calvinistic Dutch traders in the 18th century. And the story of Ananias and Sapphira is held up as an example of how God will smite all those who refuse to spread the wealth around. Overall, Paul aims to discredit religious Americans who believe in things like private property, personal responsibility and economic liberty. But fear not, friends of the free market! Dr. Jay Richards, author of the incredibly important “Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem,” responds. From his own Post piece:
Paul argues that American Christians who defend the free economy are involved in a profound contradiction, since Jesus and Christianity are self-evidently socialistic. Let’s pass over his caricature of capitalism, since no one would defend the idea as he describes it, and get to the two big holes in his argument. The first is his claim that “many of these Christian capitalists are ardent followers of Ayn Rand,” a known atheist and anti-Christian. The second claim is that Jesus and the Bible are pro-socialist rather than pro-capitalist.
Richards points out that nearly all of the examples of “Christians who are beholden to Ayn Rand” that Paul gives are non-Christian libertarians. And when Paul points to Catholic Congressman Paul Ryan’s supposed requirement that his staff read “Atlas Shrugged,” Richards appropriately reminds us that to jump from “Rep. Ryan likes a novel by an author” to “that author hated religion” to “Rep. Ryan is a hypocrite” is gross leap in logic. Moving on to his refutation of Gregory Paul’s second claim—that Jesus and the Bible are pro-Marxist and socialist, as supposedly exhibited in the account of the early church in Acts 4—Richards has four specific things to say:
  1. While Christians in Acts are selling their possessions and sharing freely, Marx “viewed private property as oppressive.” In his class warfare theory, “workers would revolt against the capitalists-the owners of the means of production-and forcibly take control of private property.”
  2. In Acts, “no government [was] confiscating property and collectivizing industry … The church in Jerusalem was just that-the church, not the state. The church doesn’t act like the modern communist state.”
  3. Furthermore, “the communal life of the early church in Jerusalem is never made the norm for Christians. … Acts is describing an unusual moment at the beginning of the church in Jerusalem.” Christians shared their possessions in the interim of having traveled to Jerusalem and their plans to return home.
  4. We know that “other churches in other cities had quite different arrangements.” Paul told “Thessalonian Christians to ‘earn their own living,’ and he warned, ‘Anyone unwilling to work should not eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3: 10, 12).” Some Christians started to take advantage of others’ generosity. “…It’s no surprise that the early communal life in Jerusalem was never held up as a model for the how the entire church should order its life, let alone used to justify the state abolishing private property.”
I encourage you to read both columns and consider the arguments made in each. There is confusion regarding both economics and doctrine, but Paul’s appraisal of the situation is to pretend that the Religious Right is simultaneously over-educated on libertarian economics and heretical in its rejection of allegedly Marxist tenets taught in scripture. To paraphrase my favorite writer—and someone who I actually disagree with when it comes to macroeconomic policy—G.K. Chesterton: It’s not that the ideal of free-market conservatism has been tried and found unsatisfying; it has been found difficult to articulate in our modern culture, and tragically left untried and undefended. It’s time for those who agree with me to start getting back on defense. The game is far too important to keep losing to a bunch of cherry-pickers.