Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Communism in the New Testament (Part IV—concluded)

Although the Bible does not explicitly condemn the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with voluntary communism as sinful per se, it seems clear from what Scripture says elsewhere about the use of wealth and the organisation of society economically that it was a mistake that produced long-term adverse consequences for the Jerusalem Church and her mission Churches in the Gentile world, which had to support the believers in Jerusalem financially. And although it cannot be argued directly from Scripture, this may well have weakened the Jerusalem Church’s ability to function as an example to the growing Church throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, thereby weakening the moral and spiritual authority of the Church at Jerusalem. Already, within the time span covered by the Book of Acts, Antioch takes on a much more important role as a centre of missionary activity than Jerusalem, which quickly seems to lose authority and credibility as the geographical centre of the Christian faith.

If this is the case it may well be asked how the Church over which the apostles presided could have made such a significant mistake. But of course this was not the only mistake made by the early Church and the apostles that the Bible records for our instruction. The apostolic Church was not infallible, nor were the apostles infallible. There are two other incidents that illustrate the fallibility of the apostles and caution us against treating their actions as examples to be followed and drawn into rules without further confirmation from the broader teaching of Scripture.

First, Acts 2:12–26 records the decision of the Church following the Ascension to replace Judas Iscariot, thereby bringing the number of the apostles back up to twelve. The criterion that the apostles laid down as being essential for anyone who was to fulfil the role of an apostle was that he should have been a fellow companion with themselves and Jesus from the beginning. They therefore chose two men who fulfilled this criterion and selected one of them, Matthias, by means of lot. This whole process of choosing another apostle to replace Judas was carried out in direct disobedience to the explicit command of Christ himself that the apostles should remain in Jerusalem and wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4f.). Instead of waiting for the outpouring of the Spirit, whom Christ had promised would lead them into all truth (Jn 16:13), Peter decided to set himself up effectively as the archbishop of the whole Church and establish the first code of ecclesiastical law to govern the future ministry of the Church. But this led to a problem, because God then chose Saul of Tarsus to be his apostle to the Gentiles, a man who not only had not been with the apostles and Jesus from the beginning, but who had been a fierce persecutor of the Church up to the point of his conversion to the faith. Furthermore, he was sent out as an apostle from Antioch, not Jerusalem, and the apostles in Jerusalem had no part in his being chosen and ordained as an apostle to the Gentiles. After his first mission to the Gentile world, therefore, Paul had to defend his apostleship before the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. When Paul appeared before the apostles and reported to them all that had taken place in his mission to the Gentiles the apostles accepted Paul and Barnabas into the company of the apostles (Acts 15:1–35; Gal. 2:1–10). In doing so they overturned their previous criterion for accepting anyone into the company of the apostles. The criterion initially used to determine suitability for apostleship by the apostles themselves was clearly erroneous, and the recognition that this rule was worthless was only brought about when the issue was forced upon the apostles by subsequent events. Indeed, in 2 Cor. 5:16 Paul attacks the very principle upon which the apostles’ original ruling was based, i.e. knowledge of Christ according to the flesh, which for Paul has no bearing on apostolic authority.[1] With the conversion of Paul and his calling to preach the gospel to the Gentiles it became clear that the man-made and self-serving rules laid down by Peter and the apostles in Jerusalem were detrimental to the mission of the Church and that the spread of the gospel could not be dependent on the authority, direction and example of the Jerusalem Church. Centralised international control of the Church by clergymen and ecclesiastical law-making had no part in God’s plan for the apostolic age—and if the apostles themselves could not be trusted with such power, much less are the lesser men of the papacy and large centralised denominations to be trusted with it. The divine calling of Paul took no account whatsoever of the ecclesiastical law laid down by Peter and the other apostles for ordaining their successors. It was as if God had thumbed his nose at the apostles’ vain attempts to control the future of the Church’s ministry by means of ecclesiastical laws and regulations and the ordaining of clergymen. The concept of apostolic succession was, therefore, discredited at its very inception by the divine calling and ministry of Paul, which represented its complete antithesis.

Second, when the apostle Peter visited Antioch he at first joined in fellowship with the Gentiles, who had been accepted into the Church without having to convert to Judaism. The acceptance of the Gentiles in this way was a principle that Peter believed and practised as a result of being shown by the Lord in a revelation that the Gentiles were to be accepted into the Church without having to be circumcised first. But when certain Judaisers, who had come from James, arrived in Antioch Peter, fearing the party of those who insisted that Gentile believers should be circumcised, stopped mixing with the Gentiles and stood aloof from them, with the result that the rest of the Jews joined him and even Barnabas was led astray by Peter’s hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11–21). Paul therefore opposed Peter and rebuked him for his hypocrisy and the bad example he had set.

It is clear from these incidents that the apostolic Church was not infallible, that the apostles were not infallible, that they made mistakes and committed sins, and that the Scriptures, which are the inspired and infallible word of God, record these errors for our instruction, i.e. so that we might understand what happened and learn from the mistakes of the early Church.[2] In neither of these incidents can the initial actions of the apostles be held up as examples to be followed, let alone drawn into rules for the Church to follow in all ages. In just the same way, the community of goods practised by the apostolic Church in Jerusalem is not an ideal to be followed. As with the criterion for apostleship and Peter’s hypocrisy in Antioch, subsequent events and the wider teaching of Scripture must be taken into account when assessing the meaning and value of the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with communism. These events are recorded in Scripture to teach us something. Of that there can be no doubt. But it is not that the community of goods is an ideal to follow. Rather, it is that the community of goods is an example that we should not follow and that such practices end in the economic and/or social impoverishment of the communities that adopt them. What is held up in the Bible as the ideal of a just economic system is incompatible with the community of goods: i.e. private ownership of property, private stewardship of the economic resources of society and the inviolability of legitimate inheritance.

The communistic model is nowhere repeated in the Bible, nor is it held up as an example to be followed. If it were a good example to be followed we should expect it to be referred to in other passages where the Bible gives teaching on wealth, work and helping others. But there are no such references. Paul does not refer to it in giving advice to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:8–12; 2 Thess. 3:8–12) or to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:28), where we should expect it if it were good advice and where helping the poor is commended—something that is only possible if we produce wealth in greater abundance than our own needs. On the contrary, in these Scriptures Paul gives alternative advice that is incompatible with the community of goods. Neither does he refer to it when writing to the Corinthians regarding the support of his own ministry while among them (2 Cor. 11:7–9). In this respect it is significant that the great model of welfare provision for the needy was pioneered by the Gentile Churches of the Roman empire and was one of the great testimonies to the Christian faith in the ancient world.[3] But this was not the practice of the Jerusalem Church, which was a recipient of welfare not a provider.

What this experiment in the community of goods in the Jerusalem Church clearly demonstrates, therefore, is that if communism did not work in the New Testament Church under the guidance of the apostles of Christ, it has little chance of working anywhere. The end product of communism is universal poverty, and this was just as much the case with the New Testament Church as with any other society that has practised it. The only exceptions to this general rule historically are communities that have abolished the Christian ideal of family life and either denied procreation altogether or separated it from the normal family context of raising children—in other words marriage and procreation are practised but the family unit is replaced by the broader community.

However, the Bible does show us that the Church [4] is to be a real society, i.e. a social order that functions effectively as a model for the nations. The goal of apostolic labour in the New Testament period is the Christian community, which stands in Christ as a work of God’s redemptive power manifested in history.[5] This work of God’s power is not a commune, but it is a community,[6] a social order that should grow and increase until it displaces and ultimately supplants the godless society of non-belief that surrounds it.[7] This is our calling in the Great Commission to disciple the nations (Mt. 28:18–20). The Jerusalem Church was a failure in this respect. There is nothing about the economically debilitated condition of the Church in Jerusalem that commends itself as an example to the world. The example, rather, is the practice of the Gentile Church, which did not follow the ideal of communism and was able to provide financial assistance to those in need. Both the mission and the influence of the Gentile Church were therefore much greater.

We must not confuse the ideal of the commune with the ideal of the Church living as a real society, a social order that functions across the whole spectrum of human life. When the Church functions as a real society, meeting the needs of human society in a Christian way of life, she provides light to the world. This of course involves helping and caring for each other and for those in need. But the Jerusalem Church fell at this very point, as do all communistic societies, with the exception of those that reject the family as the basic unit of society. Helping those in need is an important part of living as the Church. But in order to do this we need to provide an example to the world of how society should function. This necessitates the rejection of the social ideal of the commune and the adoption of the Christian community—i.e. a true society founded on faith in Christ—as our social ideal.

  1. See von Campenhasuen, op. cit., p. 37.
  2. Despite the clear testimony of Scripture regarding these matters it is common to find theologians arguing to the contrary on the presumed authority of Scripture—i.e. claiming scriptural authority for dogmatic statements that contradict Scripture. According to Charles Hodge, for example, “the apostles were inspired, and as religious teachers infallible” (Commentary on Romans [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, (1835) 1975], p. 16). Similarly, Edward J. Carnell tells us that the marks of an apostle were “to be with Jesus from the beginning, to be appointed by Jesus, and to perform signs and wonders" (The Case for Orthodox Theology [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1959], p. 20f.) According to Carnell, “Orthodoxy is that branch of Christendom which limits the ground of religious authority to the Bible” (ibid., p. 13). On this basis Carnell’s own statement about the marks of apostleship is unorthodox. Peter claimed that a mark of an apostle was to have been with Jesus from the beginning. Subsequent events proved him and all who follow him in this claim to be wrong; these events are recorded in Scripture for our instruction. Furthermore, at one point even Paul himself in his first epistle to the Corinthians warns his readers that what he has to say on a particular question about which he had been asked for guidance is his own opinion and not to be considered the infallible word of God (1 Cor. 7: 6, 12, 25). It is of course true that orthodoxy limits the ultimate ground of religious authority to the Scriptures; but it limits it to the Scriptures as a whole, not to texts taken out of context and interpreted contrary to the genre of the literature from which they are taken or contrary to reason, though of course what is to be considered reasonable must also be determined in subjection to the teaching of Scripture. In other words, Scripture must be allowed to interpret itself: “The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture, (which is not manifold, but one,) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly” (Westminster Confession of Faith, I.IX). To read the Bible in any other way is to reduce it to a mere collection of unrelated proof texts at best, and therefore unorthodox and unfaithful to Scripture as a whole.
3. This led the apostate emperor Julian (361–363) to comment that “the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well” (cited in Hugh Flemming, Post Hippocratic Medicine: The Problem and the Solution—How the Christian Ethic has Influenced Health Care (Taunton: Kuyper Foundation, 2010), p. 30.
4. I am using the word Church here to refer to the body of Christ, the community of believers, in other words the Church as an organism, not an institution, much less a denominational structure.
5. Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theologial Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968, trans. G. W. Bromiley), Vol. II, p. 313.
6. See my essay “The Church as a Community of Faith” in Common-Law Wives and Concubines: Essays on Covenantal Christianity and Western Culture (Taunton: Kuyper Foundation, 2003), pp. 179–194.
7. According to Christopher Dawson, for Augustine “the Church is actually the new humanity in process of formation, and its earthly history is that of the building of the City of God which has its completion in eternity . . . Hence, in spite of all the imperfections of the earthly Church, it is nevertheless the most perfect society that this world can know. Indeed, it is the only true society. Because it is the only society which has its source in a spiritual will. The kingdoms of the earth seek after the goods of the earth; the Church, and the Church alone, seeks spiritual goods and a peace which is eternal” (op. cit., p. 256f.).

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