Monday, November 26, 2012

Communism, in the New Testament (Part III)

How are we to understand the community of goods practised by the Church in Jerusalem in the light of what the Bible has to say about this practice and what it has to say about other issues bearing upon it?

First, the community of goods practised by the Church at Jerusalem is nowhere in the Scriptures commanded, nor even commended. In fact the practice of the Jerusalem Church is not commended in the Book of Acts; it is merely described. What then, it may be asked, does the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11), who failed to enter into the Spirit of this experiment and were struck dead for their sin, teach us? It teaches us precisely that they were under no obligation to participate in the community of goods and that failure to do so brought no disapprobation. This is clear from Peter’s rebuke of Ananias: “But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou has not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:3–4). Sapphira’s offence was that she was complicit with her husband in this lie (Acts 5:7–10). Their sin was lying to the Holy Spirit about what they had given to the community, not their holding back part of the proceeds of the sale of the land. Peter acknowledged that the property was their own, that they had the freedom to dispose of it according to their own will, and that they were under no obligation to give the land or the proceeds of its sale to the community. Scripture makes no further direct comment on this incident nor on the experiment in the community of goods as practised in Jerusalem, nor does it give any further teaching on this issue other than what can be deduced from the condition of poverty into which the Church subsequently fell, evidenced by the need of the Gentile Churches to support the community of believers in Jerusalem financially. Nowhere in the Bible is the community of goods advocated as a social theory or an advisable way to life.

Second, however, the teachings of the Bible on the use of wealth and the kind of economic system advocated in the Bible are incompatible with the community of goods. For example, the Bible teaches that “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children” (Pr. 13:22). Leaving an inheritance to one’s children and grandchildren is a godly ideal in Scripture. The expropriation of a man’s inheritance is condemned in Scripture (1 Kg. 21). The inheritance of the Israelites was jealously guarded by the laws of the Torah. The social and economic system of ancient Israel as laid down in the law of Moses was aimed at protecting the inheritance of the Israelites and ensuring that a family’s inheritance could not be permanently alienated either by force or choice. Furthermore, the eighth commandment (Ex. 20:15) and the command not to move the boundary mark of another man’s land (Dt. 19:14; 27:17; Pr. 22:28; 23:10f.) are meaningless in a communistic society. The Jubilee was instituted precisely to ensure that the people were not permanently dispossessed of their inheritance.[1] Inheritance is a significant theme in the history of Israel and an important concept in Scripture both economically and eschatologically. Such an economic and social system is not compatible with the ideal of communism.

Third, the community of goods practised in the Jerusalem Church runs contrary to the principle taught by Paul to Gentile believers, namely that they should work to provide for their own needs and produce a surplus (i.e. a profit, to use the economic term) so that they would be able to help those in need (see for example Acts 20:33–35; Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11–12 and 2 Thess. 3:8–12 taken together). The community of believers in the Jerusalem Church was not able to provide for its own poor, let alone provide help for others, and this is why Paul had to secure financial help from the Gentile Church.

Does all this mean that the experiment in the community of goods in Jerusalem was sinful? It may be difficult to maintain such an argument without some qualification, but it is clear, first, that for those participating such an experiment could only be entered into voluntarily and second, that one would need to ensure that such a lifestyle did not lead to the disinheriting of legitimate heirs (Dt. 21:15–17; Pr. 13:22) or neglect of one’s duty to provide for one’s dependants (1 Tim. 5:8–16).[2] Failure to abide by these two principles would have involved participating members of the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with communism in sin. It is clear from the case of Ananias and Sapphira that communism was not mandatory for individual believers in the Jerusalem Church, even though it appears to have been practised by the community as a whole. Third, subsequent teaching by the apostle Paul makes it clear that the Jerusalem Church did fall short of the Christian ideal with regard to the provision of welfare: “But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God . . . if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel . . . If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:4, 8, 16).[3] The communism of the Jerusalem Church produced a lifestyle that Paul here condemns in no uncertain terms as worse than that of non-believers and a practical denial of the faith—i.e. an ongoing situation in which neither the participating believers nor the Church as a whole could provide for their own dependants. Surely, if the community of goods practised by the Jerusalem Church is God’s will for his Church, and indeed for society as a whole, we must ask why the apostle Paul never teaches this himself in his epistles nor requires its practice in the Gentile Churches he founded. He does not even so much as hint at such an arrangement. Indeed, he teaches the precise opposite, namely that believers should provide for their own dependants and that Church welfare should be available only when the family is not able to provide. It is as if the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with communism was an embarrassing failure that is not spoken about, but rather avoided. It may even conceivably have been the failure of the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with communism that prompted Paul to give these strongly worded instructions to Timothy. In the light of this subsequent apostolic teaching, therefore, it is questionable whether such an experiment in communism as that undertaken by the Jerusalem Church could now be repeated without sin, i.e. without the flagrant disregard of subsequent apostolic teaching, which, Scripture tells us, is part of the foundation of the Church and of the life of faith (Eph. 2:19–20). At the very least we can say that even in the best scenario (i.e. where no sin is involved) such a way of living is not advisable in the light of biblical teaching. The community of goods is not a biblical ideal. The Jerusalem commune failed miserably to live up to the ideals given us in Scripture about the use of wealth and charitable provision for those in need. Charity necessitates the production of a surplus—i.e. a profit. Subsistence living is incompatible with the ideal of charitable aid to the poor because such aid requires the accumulation of wealth that can be transferred to those in need. But the Jerusalem Church did not last very long before the community of goods failed even to produce enough to meet the needs of her own members. Instead of providing for their missions in the Gentile world the Christians in Jerusalem became dependent upon their mission Churches financially.

. . . to be continued

   1. On the biblical Jubilee see Appendix C, “Help for the Poor and the Meaning of the Jubilee” in my book The Political Economy of A Christian Society (Taunton: The Kuyper Foundation, 2001), pp. 282–300.
  2. Cf. also the implications of the case of the daughters of Zelophehad in Num. 27:1–11 and 36:1–9. On the Old Testament laws of succession and inheritance see Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1961, trans. John McHugh), p. 53ff. and R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), p. 180ff.
   3. See further Rushdoony, op. cit., p. 770ff.

No comments:

Post a Comment