Early Christians Not Communistic
THE cold war of words is a heated battle for your mind. Its invasion forces converge upon the target from all possible directions. “Voices” of nations penetrate foreign lands, only to be jammed and countered by retaliatory blasts. By sustained round-the-clock bombing with words the propagandists seek to subjugate the public mind, to mold public opinion to fit their selfish interests. Accusations and denials, hot charges and hotter countercharges, smears and slurs, personal digs and name-calling, telling of half-truths and suppressing of whole truths—all such tactics are marshaled to assail your mind and take it by storm.
The political force that now crusades so zealously for the mind of the masses is communism. This wily user of propaganda knows all the tricks, including the ruse of selling an idea on merits other than its own by having testimonials for it from highly respected sources. When trying to make political converts of persons in Christendom who supposedly respect the Bible some communists frequently quote the Bible. They argue that the early Christians were communists, and quote Acts 2:44, 45 as proof: “All that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” Like so many politicians who quote the Bible for selfish purposes, these communists have no understanding of the scriptures they repeat.
We need to have the setting in mind. It is late spring of A.D. 33. That agonizing Passover day on which Christ Jesus had been impaled on the torture stake was now seven weeks past. In those weeks he had been raised from the dead, seen by hundreds of his disciples, and ascended into heaven an incorruptible spirit creature, leaving behind the promise that he would soon pour out upon his followers the holy spirit. Now, fifty-one days after Passover, Jerusalem was crowded by multitudes of Jews. They had come from near and far, to celebrate the feast of weeks, the day of Pentecost. It was one of the three feasts of the year that all Jewish males were to observe in Jerusalem.—Deut. 16:1-16.
Jesus’ followers were there also, about one hundred and twenty in number. On this day of Pentecost A.D. 33 they were assembled together. Suddenly a noise like that of a rushing wind filled the meeting place, tongues as if of fire became visible over them, the holy spirit filled them, and they started speaking in different tongues! The commotion attracted the religious Jews from many nations, Jews who were present in Jerusalem at this time of Pentecost. These Jews who spoke many different languages were “bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language”. In answer to their astonished questionings the apostle Peter explained that it all came about in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy concerning the outpouring of holy spirit, and he preached so convincingly to them that “those who embraced his word heartily were baptized, and on that day about three thousand souls were added”.—Acts 2:1-41, NW.
During the days that followed “all those who became believers were together in having all things in common, and they went to selling their possessions and properties and to distributing the proceeds to all just as anyone would have the need. And day after day they were in constant attendance at the temple with one accord, and they took their meals in private homes and partook of nourishment with great rejoicing and sincerity of heart, praising God and finding acceptance with all the people. At the same time Jehovah continued to join to them daily those being saved”.—Acts 2:44-47, NW.
At the public religious feasts in Jerusalem there had always been a sort of community of goods. Houses or beds were loaned freely by their owners. Other necessary things were willingly shared during the limited period of the feast, especially with visitors from distant places. However, in the case of these Christians this generosity went much farther, even to the selling of possessions to provide funds to care for the poor and needy. The situation was unusual. Many among the three thousand souls added on the day of Pentecost were from distant parts. They had come to Jerusalem for the feast of weeks, but because of the miraculous things that had occurred they remained in Jerusalem much longer than they had anticipated. They had made no provisions for this unexpected, extended stay. Yet they stayed, for now their chief concern was to gain further understanding concerning this new faith that they had embraced, to be edified, to fellowship with other Christians, to preach to others, to assist in building up and organizing the early church. Additionally, other converts were poor, and needed brotherly help.
The Christians who were better off in material goods desired to share with their less fortunate brothers, especially in view of the unusual circumstances. That none might suffer want, goods were sold to supply the needs. If Christian brothers would not come to the assistance of the poor ones, who would? The orthodox Jews looked down on the Christians and rather than help them conspired to persecute them. Under religious pressure the Romans had killed their Leader; they hated His followers. So logically it was the materially blessed Christians that gave willingly to aid their poorer brothers. They properly showed indifference to worldly goods, not placing trust in them, but sharing them out of affection and Christian love. They knew Jerusalem would eventually fall, and its coming desolation and Judea’s ruin made them realize the futility of material wealth as a deliverer. Moreover, they wished to honor the Lord with their substance, make friends by wise use of the mammon of unrighteousness. So it was for all these reasons, and not because of any requirement or commandment or doctrinal precept, that these early Christians set up a relief arrangement among themselves, and were thereby enabled to continue for a time in a sort of extended convention. It was for getting the early church off to a good start. It was only a temporary arrangement to meet the unusual circumstances of those days; but even it was in no sense of the word a complete pooling of all the possessions of all the Christians.
Concerning this same general period of time it states, at Acts 4:32, 34, 35; 5:1-4, NW: “Moreover, the multitude of those who had believed had one heart and soul, and not even one would say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. In fact, there was not one in need among them; for all those who were possessors of fields or houses would sell them and bring the values of the things sold and they would deposit them at the feet of the apostles. In turn, distribution would be made to each one just as he would have the need. However, a certain man, Ananias by name, together with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession and secretly held back some of the price, his wife also knowing about it, and he brought just a part and deposited it at the feet of the apostles. But Peter said: ‘Ananias, to what end has Satan emboldened you to play false to the holy spirit and to hold back secretly some of the price of the field? As long as it remained with you did it not remain yours, and after it was sold did it not continue in your control? Why was it that you purposed such a deed as this in your heart? You have played false, not to men, but to God.’”
Those who did sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the apostles for distribution would certainly gain some notice and recognition because of this act of Christian love, as is evidenced by the special mention of the Levite Joseph Barnabas, at Acts 4:36, 37. This very recognition of them as exemplary contributors indicates that their giving was wholly voluntary, and not the result of any seizure of property in accord with some inflexible, communistic edict. Further showing the completely voluntary nature of the giving is the case of Ananias and Sapphira. Unlike the other contributors, the motive of these two was impure. Apparently they coveted the reputation of giving all, but were too selfish to earn it. So they conspired together, sold a possession, and while pretending to give all deposited only a part of the price of the field at the feet of the apostles. Through a special gift of knowledge by the spirit, Peter discerned their duplicity and exposed them, and Jehovah executed them for their hypocritical, showy, false front.
But the point here to notice is Peter’s words to Ananias: “As long as it remained with you did it not remain yours, and after it was sold did it not continue in your control?” The property was theirs. They did not have to sell it. And if they wanted to sell it and keep the price for themselves, they were free to do so. They were under no compulsion in the matter. This action of the early Christians in selling their goods and giving the entire proceeds into a common fund for relief work was entirely voluntary. It was Ananias and Sapphira’s false pose of giving all to gain a reputation for generosity that brought down upon them Jehovah’s wrath.—Acts 5:4-10.
The ‘having of things in common’, as spoken of at Acts chapters 2 and 4, was confined to Jerusalem. There is no indication that it was practiced by Christian groups beyond the Jerusalem vicinity. Jerusalem was where mutual assistance was so urgent, for there was the stronghold of the scribes and Pharisees and temple priests, there was the hard core of opposition. The amazing increases of the Jerusalem Christians following Pentecost so roused clerical ire that a violent campaign of persecution was touched off, spearheaded by the stoning of Stephen. It was “on that day great persecution arose against the congregation which was in Jerusalem; all except the apostles were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria”. It was well that prior to this the Christians had sold possessions to aid one another; it kept their goods from falling as loot to the persecutors that scattered them.—Acts 8:1, NW.
When this particular burst of persecution spent itself and the Christian congregation openly functioned again in Jerusalem, there is no record that any ‘holding of things in common’ was resumed. The early church had weathered a rough storm, and was stronger for it. The need for such emergency measures seemed past. In fact, just before the satanic wave of persecution broke over them, it seems that these more drastic relief measures were tapering off and giving way to the principles more generally set forth in the Scriptures, such as relief for the bereaved or fatherless and widows. This is indicated at Acts 6:1-4. Since this text also is sometimes construed as supporting communism, we quote it for analysis:
“Now in these days, when the disciples were increasing, a murmuring arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the Hebrew-speaking Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution. So the twelve called the multitude of the disciples to them and said: ‘It is not pleasing for us to abandon the word of God to distribute food to tables. So, brothers, search out for yourselves seven certified men from among you, full of spirit and wisdom, that we may appoint them over this necessary business; but we shall devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’” (NW) The suggested course was followed and the matter promptly cared for.
This cannot be construed to mean that the early Christians set up community eating centers or operated “soup kitchens” where all assembled to take their meals. Acts 2:46 plainly states that “they took their meals in private homes”. (NW) Please note, also, that their homes were private, and not viewed as the property of the entire congregation. The daily distribution referred to in Acts 6:1-4 was a relief work whereby the tables of the poor were properly and impartially supplied. The text deals specifically with widows, who would likely be persons without other means of support. It was to such destitute ones that foodstuffs were distributed, and not a case of the entire body of Christians pooling everything and then all drawing on this common store of goods for their daily needs.
RELIEF WORK A REQUIREMENT
Jehovah’s Word expresses concern for widows, and decrees retribution upon any who oppress them. (Ex. 22:22-24; Deut. 14:28, 29; 26:12; Ps. 68:5; 146:9; Zech. 7:9, 10; Mal. 3:1-5) He commands that they be honored, which would include their support if necessary. Jesus showed that this included support when he clashed with the scribes and Pharisees over their traditions. He pointed out that God’s Word commanded honor for one’s father and mother, but that their tradition allowed them to slide out from under the responsibility of giving their parents material support. In this way he linked honor with material support, and that to fail to support parents who needed it was the same as failing to obey the command to honor them. (Matt. 15:1-6, NW) Paul showed this same understanding of the expression “honor” when some thirty years later he wrote to Timothy on how to deal with those in the congregation who were actually widows, that is, those without means of support. He said:
“Honor widows that are actually widows. Now the woman who is actually a widow and left destitute has put her hope in God and persists in supplications and prayers night and day. Let a widow be put on the list who has become not less than sixty years old, a wife of one husband, having a witness borne to her for right works, if she reared children, if she entertained strangers, if she washed the feet of holy ones, if she relieved those in tribulation, if she diligently followed every good work.” (1 Tim. 5:3, 5, 9, 10, NW) This indicates that those widows too old to earn their own living and without relatives to support them, yet who were worthy, theocratic women, should be on the list for congregational relief work.
In no sense was this communism. If widows could be privately cared for, they were not to be put on the list for congregational support. Each household was responsible to provide for its own. Godly devotion would require children to honor their parents by material support, duly compensating their parents, who had reared them and provided for them while they were growing to maturity, until they were no longer helpless, until they were able to support themselves. Hence Paul wrote: “But if any widow has children or grandchildren, let these learn first to practice godly devotion in their own household and to keep paying a due compensation to their parents and grandparents, for this is acceptable in God’s sight. Certainly if anyone does not provide for those who are his own, and especially for those who are members of his household, he has disowned the faith and is worse than a person without faith. If any believing woman has widows, let her relieve them, and let the congregation not be under the burden. Then it can relieve those who are actually widows.” (1 Tim. 5:4, 8, 16, NW) Nor were young widows to burden the congregation with their needs. They could either work, or, better yet, remarry.—1 Tim. 5:11-15.
The early Christians did not try to erase the political evils or social inequalities of their time, not by communistic teaching nor by religious precept. If the permanent Christian rule had been for all things to be held in common, there would have been no rich or poor. There would have been no need to take contributions from those with money to aid others who were poor and needy, as Paul did. (Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8:1-15; 9:1-15) More than twenty-five years after Pentecost no form of communism had equalized Christians in a material sense, for the disciple James cautioned against class distinctions between rich and poor, and warned those intent on heaping up material wealth, as did Paul also. (1 Tim. 6:7-10; Jas. 1:27; 2:1-9; 5:1-6) The rich were alerted to the deceitfulness of riches, and were to lovingly share with needy brothers, not under compulsion or with grumbling, but cheerfully, as evidence of their faith, viewing such giving as more of a blessing than receiving.—Acts 20:35; Rom. 12:13; 2 Cor. 9:7; Jas. 2:14-20; 1 Pet. 4:9.
As for Paul personally, he gave himself over to the service of the Christian congregations, yet he never sought support for himself from any communal fund. (Acts 18:1-4; 20:33-35; 2 Cor. 11:9; 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7-9) Nor did Paul show communistic tendencies by trying to upset the existing social order of slavery, but recommended that Christian slaves be obedient to their masters in a fleshly sense, and even more so when the masters were themselves Christian brothers.—Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1, 2; Titus 2:9, 10.
All the foregoing makes it clear that early Christians were championing neither communism nor capitalism. They were theocratic, for God rule, for preaching the gospel above all else. Social and political evils they left for correction by Jehovah God, in his way, in his time, through his kingdom. Hence any communist who loads his propaganda gun with scriptures is loading it with blanks.