Glad You Asked: Was the early church communist?

On this episode of the podcast, Angela Zautcke talks about the communal life and values of the early church.

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What do we know about the life of the early Christians in the first few generations after the death of Jesus? While there’s a lot of debate about such topics as leadership roles and gender equality, Acts is pretty explicit about a few details: The very first Christians held all things in common. When people joined the community of believers, they would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds. They made sure everyone’s needs were met. 

Some people reading these passages have concluded that the first Christians practiced an early form of communism. While this notion aligns with other ideas in the Bible, especially Jesus’ teachings about giving up one’s possessions, it’s still a controversial claim—especially since many conservative Christians view communism and socialism as completely antithetical to Christian values. So which is it? Is communism an evil, atheistic ideology? Or is it the best possible way to live out the gospel? 

On this episode of Glad You Asked, the hosts talk to guest Angela Zautcke about the communal life and values of the early church, how to interpret those Bible passages, and whether we can call the practices of the early church a variety of communism. Zautcke is an advanced doctoral student at the University of Notre Dame. Her fields of scholarship include the gospels, narratology, Second Temple Judaism, and apocalyptic literature.

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The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Emily Sanna: And I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor at U.S. Catholic. On today’s episode, we’re going to discuss a topic that cuts across history, church teaching, and contemporary political debates: Was the early church communist?

Rebecca: The Book of Acts may be vague about some aspects of early Christian life, but is pretty explicit that in the early church, people held all things in common. People who joined up would sell their possessions and distribute the proceeds among the community. 

Emily: Reading these passages, as well as passages in the gospels where Jesus admonishes the rich, some people have concluded that the first Christians practiced an early form of communism. It’s a controversial claim, especially since many conservative Christians argue that communism and socialism are completely antithetical to Christian values. 

Rebecca: So when people oppose things like universal health care, free college, or paid parental leave, they’ll say “we can’t do that, that’s communist.” And then others might reply “communism is a good thing – the early church was communist!” But is that an accurate characterization? 

Emily: On today’s episode of Glad You Asked, we’re going to talk to guest Angela Zautcke about the communal life and values of the early church, and whether we can call it a variety of communism.

Rebecca: Zautcke is an advanced PhD student at the University of Notre Dame. Her fields of scholarship include the gospels, Narratology, Second Temple Judaism, and Apocalyptic Literature.

Emily: Thanks so much for being a guest on today’s podcast.

Angela Zautcke: Thank you so much for having me. I’m very glad to be here.

Rebecca: So for the purposes of this conversation, we should probably start with a quick clarification of what communism actually is. We checked with Merriam-Webster and according to that, it is to be understood as a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed, or a theory advocating elimination of private property. Or it could be understood more formally as a doctrine based on revolutionary Marxian socialism and Marxism-Leninism that was the official ideology of the Soviet Union.

Emily: Capitalism is often understood as a totalitarian system of government, but totalitarianism alone does not make a system communist. There has to be a single authoritarian party that controls the state-owned means of production and distribution of goods.

Rebecca: And the term is also sometimes used to reference a theoretical final stage of society, according to Marxist theory, a stage in which the state has withered away and economic goods are distributed equitably.

Emily: Okay, so back to the early church. We know from Acts that people held all things in common. What does this mean, Angela? Did they have any sort of conception of personal versus communal property?

Angela: Yes, if we look at the text from Acts, which comes mainly from chapter 2 verses 42 through 37, and then chapter 4 verses 32 through 37, the text does say that the members of the church held all things in common. It specifies this, which seems to be in opposition to personal ownership of goods. So in Acts 4, for instance, the text says that some people sold their property and then brought the proceeds to the community.

And this Greek word for holding all things in common is koina, which can be defined as to be of mutual interest or shared collectively, communal or common. So certainly this shared ownership is in contrast to personal ownership.

Rebecca: What was their rationale for this lifestyle? Was this focused on a kind of communal sense of justice or was there a different motivation?

Angela: In my mind, it’s very much just growing out of the teachings of Jesus and really the rest of the Bible to practice this radical love of neighbor. It’s as simple as that. The primary rationale, we can look back towards this word koina that I’d mentioned earlier, because there’s another Greek word related to this, and that’s koinonia. This can be defined as communion, fellowship, association, close relationship.

Essentially this close association that involves mutual interest and sharing. And in Acts chapter two versus 42, so that’s just before we get the description of how the early Christians held all things in common, the text says that the early converts devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to koinonia. So we see that this attitude of communion really characterized the early Christian communities.

I’ve also seen it defined as radical sharing, and I think that gets at that deep sense of communion that koinonia involves and the kind of practice that comes from it. So it means sharing in all things, so material goods, but also faith, love, joys and sorrows, every way that a community can be united. And if we look further at the verses that describe the sharing of goods in Acts 2, we see that this is really only part of how this early group of believers is described. So the text goes on to emphasize how they formed this joyful community that spent a lot of time together in the temple, shared all their meals together, praised God together, and generally had the goodwill of all. Acts 4, a little bit shorter, but it says, now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and then describes how they shared possessions.

So the sharing of possessions is really the outflowing of this love of neighbor that the community really embraces in all aspects of life. So in that sense, quite distinct from, I think, the political system that you described at the beginning, right? Very different motivations for this sort of behavior, but very biblical.

Emily: Yeah, so that’s my next question, which is that, you know, what you’re talking about, that seems like the sharing and distribution of goods was voluntary as opposed to coming out of this totalitarian system of government. So is that accurate? Were people free to choose not to share if they were part of the early Christian community?

Angela: Yes, yes, I think that comes through in the text in other places in the New Testament as well. So that is a distinct difference. It does not seem to be compulsory as we would associate with a government movement. So the New Testament describes it in a way that seems voluntary. And when we’re interpreting the text, we always want to think about the context of both historical but also literary. So the literary context is what’s helpful for us here. So as I just said, the description of sharing possessions, it’s sort of bundled with these general descriptions of how the community of believers are closely united. So again, sort of a description of what this koinonia looks like. And when the sharing of goods is described, it’s really just a description. And by that, I mean, Acts as telling you what the community is doing. And this behavior is very radical at the time period. The early Christians were quite countercultural in this, but the text doesn’t say anything about the apostles mandating this. So we don’t get the sense that it’s required. Now I have heard some people argue that there’s another passage in Acts that makes it seem like this behavior is mandatory. And that’s Acts chapter 5, verses one through 11, where we hear about a couple named Ananias and Sapphira who sell some property, but then keep some of the profit to themselves and sort of lie about the profit that they gained to Peter. And they’re both struck dead because of this. So this at first says, you know, they’re punished for it. So this says, oh no, they should have shared everything.

But one could also read this text as indicating that what they were punished for is not so much that they kept some of the proceeds, but that they lied about it. I’ve heard scholars argue that, and I think that’s a plausible reading. So the issue is not sharing, it’s lying. There is a little bit of ambiguity there though, so I would allow for maybe different interpretations. But when we look at the broader picture of the New Testament, we still have a sense that this sharing was very much voluntary.

So we can look at another verse about the early church for this. So this is from 2 Corinthians chapter 9, verse 7. We often hear this shortened as God loves a cheerful giver. But this verse occurs while Paul is asking the Corinthian community to contribute to a collection that’s being taken up for the church in Jerusalem. So still the sense of communal sharing. But the full verse says Paul is addressing the community. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. So Paul is making the point here that people are meant to give freely. So he makes it very clear that this is not demanded of them. So it doesn’t make sense to me that Paul would have this sense of giving should be voluntary and expression of love, but then also mandated. So in my mind, the sharing, the radical sharing of goods, is voluntary.

Rebecca: So clearly then, you know, it’s not enforced. It’s certainly not being enforced by the government at that time because the Christian community was often at odds with the government at the time. So what was the relationship between these early communities and the political authorities?

Angela: So again, this question of comparison with communism, the most important point to make is that distinction, as you said, between the early Christian communities and government. So any kind of sharing or community organization is very much just the Christian communities operating on their own, apart from any kind of government control or mandate. There was some conflict. The early Christians were, as I said earlier, countercultural, maybe kind of getting the side-eye from some of the other members of the empire and the government. They wouldn’t participate in a lot of the festivities and celebrations to the Roman gods. So that made them seem like bad citizens or sometimes even threatening. So yeah, very much a distinction between these early Christian communities and the government. They’re not working together.

Emily: So what about class structure? Did early Christians have this concept of abolishing class structure? What social classes and demographics were involved in these early church communities?

Angela: Yeah, interestingly, the early church comprised people from a variety of different classes. So we might think of Jesus’s early followers as being ordinary people. That’s certainly who he ministers to in the gospels. But it seems very quickly we learn in Acts that there is an explosion of conversions as a result of the apostles’ missionary work, especially Paul. But the Christian message seems to be appealing to people from different class structures. So we have some wealthy members of the community who join as well. These are the ones who are selling their property to support other members of the community. And of course, property ownership is not going to be widespread. Most people in the ancient world are living at subsistence level or just below poverty. But yeah, we have some wealthy members in that early church community. We do not get the sense that the early Christians are oriented towards abolishing class structures. That doesn’t seem to be coming through that there’s an image of this happening on a broad scale. That attitude seems more characteristic of modern times. And of course, we always want to be careful about holding an ancient society to the standards of the modern period. But abolishing class structures in the way that I think communism envisions would be a huge societal upheaval and restructuring on a scale that I don’t think the early church envisioned or would have been really possible for them considering they’re not working with the government. They don’t seem to be pushing for this broad reform in that sense, at least not politically.

Rebecca: So they’re not trying to take their ideals and enshrine them in political codes, but where the early Christian groups were recruiting others to live in the way that they did, was that part of their mission of evangelization to share this particular way of life with others? Not just in their immediate vicinity, but kind of across the whole empire.

Angela: I think that the early Christians did envision evangelization as of course very important. So I think they would envision everyone sort of coming to believe in Jesus. My sense is that that’s the initial goal. It’s to spread the good news, the gospel message to as many people as possible and have them convert and become believers. And then once they’re believers and part of this Christian community and listening to Jesus’s teachings about radical love of neighbor, I think then the behavior and the lifestyle follows from this. So I don’t get the sense that the structure is the goal, but rather the faith and the message of love of neighbor. And then the behavior comes after that.

Emily: So can you talk a little bit about why and when Christians moved away from this way of living?

Angela: Yeah, it’s a little bit difficult to say exactly when and how this communal living sharing of goods seems to have persisted well into the second century. We have other writers kind of talking about those pesky Christians and their practice of charity and how it makes the Roman government look bad or they’re kind of mocked for their refusal to have private property, which is, you know, even in the ancient world, surprising to not have any private property. So it’s going on into the second century, but we’re not sure when exactly it peters out, but my guess is just the sense of practicality. At some point you do need to hold private property and as the church grows and gets more complicated in structure, then I think that sense of sharing all things in common just perhaps practically didn’t work so well. But the practice of charity that’s related to this, that persisted for a long time.

And charity and koinonia, this fellowship, are very much related. I mean, the reason we have hospitals today is because of this early Christian emphasis on sharing and providing for the poor, which is also related to Judaism. But yeah, hard to say exactly when this died out. We do see it practiced in smaller religious communities. It seems to be easier to maintain on a smaller scale, which makes sense. If you were sharing goods with a group of people, like a potluck or something, let’s say a communal event, you could have a great potluck with five or 10 people.

But a potluck with like 5,000 people is gonna be a lot more difficult to maintain. So that’s how I think of it in my mind. Once the scale gets too large, you can’t quite hold to that radical sense of sharing that you see in the small or early communities.

Rebecca: So clearly then it would be inaccurate to say that the early church practiced the kind of communism that you would see in a totalitarian regime or kind of a formally codified communism with a government at the center. But would it be accurate to say that the early church practiced a form of communism?

Angela: I think you could say that it was a form of communism, but not the political kind. So communism in the sense of communal living that puts the community first and is really this expression of living in true communion with one another in a way that embodies this very radical love of neighbor and love of enemies and love of everyone that Jesus and really the whole Bible teaches. And that’s kind of the question I think we should ask when we’re considering our stance on policies in light of faith.

So rather, does this seem to be coinciding with communism or another form of political government that’s totalitarian, rather than what policies best put this spirit of koinonia into practice? What best displays this radical love of neighbor and sharing and communion of the whole community that’s so essential for the early church? How do we live that today? That’s how I would phrase it.

Emily: Well, Angela, thank you so much for being our guest today on Glad You Asked.

Angela: Thank you so much for having me.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.