Jesus a socialist? That’s a myth

The notion that Jesus’ teachings are similar to socialism has been circulating the internet in the form of memes, chain emails, and Facebook posts for years. Some elected officials have long supported this idea: Rev. Raphael Warnock, a US Senator from Georgia, claimed years ago that “the early church was a socialist church.” He’s not the only one holding onto this misguided belief.

A much-cited passage from the Acts of the Apostles, the first work in church history, has strong socialist traits. Christian socialists use this passage to argue that socialism was a historical reality for Christ’s followers. If they are right, it will have tremendous implications for a country that remains majority Christian. Luckily they are wrong.

Acts 4:32-35 gives believers a picture of a highly egalitarian church. Among the believers “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions.” Those who had property sold it and took it to the church. Proceeds were “allocated to each according to need”. That almost sounds like the classic Marx line – “to each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” – but read on.

Acts 5 contains a harrowing account of two church members, Ananias and Sapphira, who sold their property but lied about the price. Confronted with their deception by St. Peter, they suddenly perish. The passage states that they were not only punished for withholding their wealth. “Are the proceeds not at your disposal?” asks St. Peter, indicating that the property and its fruits were theirs. The real lesson is the imperative of absolute truth before God. For those who have received the Holy Spirit, lying is dangerous.

Later, Acts tells of Saint Paul’s missionary journeys, during which he worked as a tentmaker to support his ministry. Although not motivated by private profit, Paul still turned to the market. We also know from his letters that during his travels he asked for financial support for the Jerusalem church. Without production and trade, the early Christians could not have donated. There is little biblical evidence for a blanket condemnation of property and commerce.

Ultimately, claims of early church socialism miss the point because they conflate two types of communities: organizations and religious orders. Organizations are consciously designed to achieve the goals of their members. Missions are spontaneous and evolving, arising from the interactions between organizations. Companies, educational institutions, charities and municipalities are organizations. But economic systems like socialism and capitalism are orders.

To call the Church an organization in no way diminishes its divinity. It simply means that one can think of the Church in part as a conscious community with its own canons and customs. This is of great importance for the interpretation of early church history.

Whether it is a 21st century economic society or a first century religious society, who gets what is determined by carefully designed rules. These rules can be meritocratic (bonuses and stock options) or egalitarian (reliefs for widows and orphans). They can be consensual (committees, votes) or hierarchical (executives, orders). But they are not socialist. Nor are they capitalist. These terms refer to orders, not organizations.

Markets don’t allocate resources within the church, but that’s true of any organization. In fact, the whole point of organizations, for-profit or not, is to avoid markets. They are temporary refuges from the fickle forces of supply and demand. If we call all attempts to suppress the market allocation of resources “socialism,” then even the most profit-driven company imaginable is socialist. If you zoom in close enough, all organizations look like central planners.

It is foolish to apply the categories of economic systems to the Church. Socialism regiments society, an unplanned give and take between innumerable organizations, according to an overarching economic plan. That is not the mission of the church. The reconciliation of all creation to God in Christ is. Although the church has a strong communal ethos, it is not tied to any particular set of economic institutions. Exploring the inner workings of the church can be fascinating, and the generosity of the early Christians should serve as an example. However, this has no bearing on the merits of single payer health insurance or the nationalization of railroads.

Knowing whether an economic system is compatible with Christianity requires a careful study of the social doctrine of the church, but church history is also important. Historical memory and interpretation are powerful forces in shaping contemporary beliefs. A socialist can be a good Christian, but the story of early church socialism is a myth.

Mr. Salter is an economics professor at Texas Tech University, a research fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and a senior fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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