Christian Communism or Christian Charity?

This year (1976) THE OUTLOOK (formerly TORCH AND TRUMPET) is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary of publication. The nrst issue was published for April-May 1951. In commemoration of this occasion, each issue during 1976 is to Carry one or more reprints from the issue of that first year, 1951. At the time he wrote this article, the late Professor Henry R. Van Til was a teacher of Bible at Calvin College.

Among the many popular misconceptions of historic Christianity there is the vague notion that originally Christianity was communistic in its intent and practice. Hence we often hear the “community of goods” of Acts 2:44 and 4:32, which was purely local, voluntary, temporary, and occasional, referred to as “Christian Communism.” For an orthodox believer such talk sounds blasphemous and, at the very least, is to be interpreted as irresponsible. Such identification belongs only in the camp of Stanley Jones and all those who would bring the Kingdom of God upon earth by a totalitarianism religiously motivated and based upon the perfectibility of human nature.

It is my purpose in this article to point out the incompatibility of the term “Christian” with the idea of “Communism.” If we use both terms in their historic sense, we shall find that they are an utter contradiction to each other. The adjective “Christian” negates the noun “Communism” at practically every point. Certainly the facts reveal that it is doing despite to the Spirit of God to call the experiment of Christian charity in the early church at Jerusalem Communism.

A Spiritual Brotherhood – Consider, first of all, that the facts and transactions recorded by Luke in chapters 2:43–47 and 4:32–5:6 of Acts are presented as the results of the outpouring of the Spirit of God. It was a Spirit-filled community in which the believers were of one heart and mind. As a result, no one said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. These people, who called God their Father, had been made conscious of their spiritual brotherhood by the indwelling Spirit of God Who testified with their spirits that they were the sons of God.

This Christian community was not an involuntary association of atheistic and agnostic nihilists who denied all truth and morality, who wanted to revolutionize the society of their day by instilling class hatred. There is no battJe cry by Peter to unite all the proletarians of Jerusalem so that they may take away the houses and lands of the rich by force and thus establish a classless society, a Utopia of plenty.

This company of men and women that “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers” was not godless in the sense that Marx, Lenin, and Stalin are godless and atheistic. They did not believe with Marx that “man is the Supreme Being for man,” and that “religion is the opiate for the people.” Their leaders did not order them to give up their means of production and draft them as so many dumb, driven cattle or as cogs in the communal machine.

Community of Goods Not Practiced by All – This “having .all things common” was practiced only in Jerusalem for a short time and not by all. A few of the exceptions mentioned include Mary, the mother of Mark, who continued to own her spacious and commodious home and held it available for a meeting place. Then there is Barnabas who is cited as being especially generous for selling a field. And, finally; there are Ananias and Sapphira who are assured by Peter that they were under no compulsion to sell and, having sold, they did not have to give all the proceeds if they did not so desire. The selling of the land was merely incidental to the punishment they received for haVing lied against the Holy Spirit. Their iniquity had nothing to do with communal ownership, but consisted of misrepresentation to the apostles.

In speaking of this passage in Acts, the learned and eminent New Testament authority of the Free University in Amsterdam, Prof. Dr. F. W. Grosheide, observes that it has often been deduced from these verses (Acts 4:32ff.) that the early Jerusalem congregation practiced a kind of communism. However, if we look at it correctly, what is described for us here has nothing in common with what later passes under the name of Communism. Indeed, there is no mention of a bringing together and dividing of a common possession, not even of a common operation of a communal possession.

We ought to note first of all that the members of the congregation remained the personal owners of their possession and, when they chose, voluntarily sold and brought the money to the apostles for distribution. Personal ownership remained intact. This is clear from Peter’s statement that both the land and the proceeds were completely. in Ananiaspower. What we have here is a special form of diaconal care, n form which arose under the first impulse of the outpouring of the Spirit, which was an expression of the first love of the Church of Christ. Hence there was always money when the poor came to the apostles.

Caring for the Poor a Voluntary Act – But two striking matters ought to be observed. In the first place, this method of caring for the poor soon ran into difficulties (Acts 6:1), and later Paul admonished the saints to regular contribution for the poor in Jerusalem. Secondly, this method was never prescribed. Paul indeed commanded a completely different method of caring for the poor (II Cor. 8, 9). Moreover, even in Jerusalem there was no command. Caring for the poor was a completely voluntary act and therefore not communism.*

At this point someone may want to run to a dictionary and cite the definition of Webster’s Collegiate that communism is “any system of social organization in which goods are held in common.” But even so the definition does not apply. The goods mentioned in Acts 2 and 4 were not held in common but remained private property and were never subject to the will of the community. Only when Spirit-filled men saw the need of fellow-saints, they were moved to sell that which was their own and give it to the poor through the authorities in the church.

Communism Not Revolutionary Enough – But Communism as it has developed historically is the exact opposite. The spiritual fathers of Communism were not inspired by the Spirit of Christ, but were of the antichrist. They rejected God and Christ and Christian love. They tried to destroy religion and filled men‘s hearts with hatred for their fellow-men. The Communist Utopia is not the Kingdom of God, its classless society is a snare and a delusion for which men are asked to scrape and sacrifice and die.

The Communists do not propose a revolution by regeneration of the individual, but by the violent overthrow of the ruling classes. Communism fails to recognize the total depravity of the human race and the fact that the heart of man is desperately wicked. It seeks rather to reorganize society by its collectivistic economy. However, it fails, because it is not revolutionary enough: it does not propose to revolutionize the revolutionist who is in need of a new heart; it does not believe in the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

All this is common knowledge for which I need not advert to any sources on Communism, especially since I hope to deal with this matter in some detail in future issues. But the very thought of bringing Communism, with its historic meaning and all that the term implies today, into juxtaposition with Christianity, to name in the same breath as blood brothers, is sacrilege! What concord hath Christ with Belial? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?

Let us indeed practice Christian charity! Let him that hath two coats give to him that hath none, and let him that hath abundance give to him that hath not—but let us not call that Communism. That would be comparable to the Scribes who said that Christ cast out devils by Beelzebub, the prince of devils. Let us not sin against the Holy Spirit of God by identifying his work with the monstrous caricature and travesty of Christian love called “Communism”!

*This is a free translation of the treatment of the author in his commentary on Acts, pp. 97, 98.