The Early Church Was Not Socialist

Socialism
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“The early church was a socialist church.”

So said Rev. Raphael Warnock in 2016, four years before the citizens of Georgia elected him a U.S. senator.

It’s a strange statement, least of all because the description “socialist church” is an oxymoron. Not only would the Church fathers be puzzled by it, but so would socialism’s fathers. “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms,” stated Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”

Religion and communism are incompatible, both theoretically and practically,” noted Nikolai Bukharin, founding editor of Pravda. “Communism is incompatible with religious faith.” On behalf of the Bolsheviks, he insisted: “A fight to the death must be declared upon religion. We must take on religion at the tip of the bayonet.”

That they did. They knew that religion and socialism/communism were incompatible.

(For the record, Marxism-Leninism defines socialism as the final transitionary step into communism. As Lenin explained: “And this brings us to the question of the scientific distinction between socialism and communism. What is usually called socialism was termed by Marx the ‘first,’ or lower, phase of communist society.” Communism shares the exact same goal of socialism, namely: common ownership of the means of production. “We call ourselves Communists,” stated Lenin. “What is a Communist? Communism is a Latin word. Communis is the Latin for ‘common.’ Communist society is a society in which all things—the land, the factories—are owned in common and the people work in common. That is communism.”)

Nonetheless, statements like Warnock’s are not unusual among the highly confused “social justice” Religious Left. Even Catholics, who belong to a Church that has vociferously rejected socialism/communism since at least Pius IX’s Qui Pluribus in 1846 (two years before The Communist Manifesto was published), can succumb to the sloppy sophistry of thinking that Christians can find kinship in Marxism. The Jesuit America Magazine, in July 2019, published an astonishing piece titled, “The Catholic Case for Communism,” which very likely would have gotten the magazine excommunicated under Pius XII’s 1949 Papal Decree Against Communism.

It’s a sign of the times that followers of a Church with an unsurpassed intellectual tradition of opposing socialism/communism could think that a Catholic case could be made for either. Nonetheless, decades of failed teaching have brought us to this embarrassing point.

I’ve written about this here before, and clearly will need to continue to address it again and again. But I write now because of the recent New Testament reading from the Lectionary (carried into the week), which prompted one person to ask me to clarify how that reading from the “early church” (as Warnock would describe it) does or does not support socialism. Here’s the passage from Acts 4:32-35:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

It is this passage that Warnock was clearly lifting from. He told Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, back in 2016:

The early church was a socialist church. I know you think that’s an oxymoron, but the early church was much closer to socialism than to capitalism. Go back and read the Bible. I love to listen to evangelicals who stand on the Bible. Well, they had all things in common. They took everything—I’m just preaching the Bible—they took all of their things and they had all things in common. But even the folk who say they just follow every word of the Bible, they’re not about to do that. But if we would just share what we have, everybody can eat, everybody ought to have water, everybody ought to have healthcare. It’s a basic principle.

Well, it’s certainly not a “socialist” principle.

Let’s start with indeed the most basic principle, which is this: this passage from Acts is not socialism. Socialism/communism does not bear witness to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, or to belief of God. Likewise, do not be deluded by the phrase “distributed to each according to need.” Karl Marx, as he often did in his aping and mockery of religion, appropriated that line and rewrote it as, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

How does this passage bear no resemblance to socialism/communism? For many reasons, but above all, the religious believer reading this passage must understand that the passage deals with a religious movement. Socialism/communism is an anti-religious movement.

“Communism begins where atheism begins,” explained Marx. He wrote: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” He and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, said that communism represents “the most radical rupture in traditional relations.” It seeks nothing less than to “abolish the present state of things.” He and Engels closed the Manifesto by calling for “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.”

That included religion above all. Socialism/communism is a revolutionary ideology that completely rejects religion.

“There is nothing more abominable than religion,” declared Vladimir Lenin. He said that “all worship of a divinity is a necrophilia.” He echoed Marx: “Religion is opium for the people. Religion is a sort of spiritual booze.” Lenin underscored socialism’s incompatibility with religion: “Everyone must be absolutely free to…be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule.”

I could list quotes like this one after another. Here’s one more example:

William Z. Foster was the first major public face, as well as chairman, of what became known as (and remains) Communist Party USA, prior to which he had been with the Socialist Party of America. Note this 1930 exchange he had with Congressman Hamilton Fish during sworn congressional testimony:

Fish: Does your party advocate the abolition and destruction of religious beliefs?

Foster: Our party considers religion to be the opium of the people, as Karl Marx has stated, and we carry on propaganda for the liquidation of these prejudices amongst the workers. 

Fish: To be a member of the Communist Party, do you have to be an atheist? 

Foster: In order to be—there is no formal requirement to this effect. Many workers join the Communist Party who still have some religious scruples, or religious ideas; but a worker who will join the Communist Party, who understands the elementary principles of the Communist Party, must necessarily be in the process of liquidating his religious beliefs and, if he still has any lingerings when he joins the party, he will soon get rid of them.

He must get rid of them because one could not be a communist and a Christian. (For the record, in the USSR, one had to be an atheist to be a member of the Communist Party, as the party militantly pursued what Mikhail Gorbachev described as a “wholesale war on religion.”)

As for the passage from Acts, there have long been religious communities that engage in common ownership. Those communities are driven by religious motivation. They are voluntary movements of free will. Members agree to sell property and share things by their own choice, not under compulsion by a coercive socialist/atheistic state which insists that every citizen, under threat of punishment, sell and share all resources.

An even cursory read of The Communist Manifesto, or the brute decrees of Lenin and Stalin and Mao and the Kims and Castro, shows no similarity with the language of the Old and New Testaments. The fact that certain passages of Scripture, or certain guidelines of religious orders, express forms of communalism doesn’t mean they’re thus practicing the perverse and destructive 19th century ideology known as communism/socialism. That’s a really silly simplification. From the Acts of the Apostles to, say, the Franciscans, these groups were forged on a Christian model; religion served as their anchor, their rudder, their animating force—the very spiritual force that communism ridicules, rejects, and seeks to abolish. Read any writing by Marx or Engels or Lenin vs. Jesus Christ or Paul or St. Francis; they’re completely different in every meaningful respect. 

Moreover, the Bible offers vigorous defenses of property rights, as rudimentary as the understanding implicit in the Creator’s Ten Commandments: thou shalt not steal. To steal is to take someone’s property, a basic right according to biblical and natural law. The assertion by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto that “the entire communist program may be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property” is completely antithetical to the teachings of God. 

I could go on and on with examples. In the New Testament, individuals like the Good Samaritan or Zacchaeus or the vineyard owner all voluntarily give their own wealth or earnings as free-will acts of benevolence, not as forced responses to state fiat. (Read on in Acts 4, which in the next line speaks of the first of two disciples who voluntarily “sold a piece of property that he owned.”)

I’ll close with a word of advice to Reverend-Senator Warnock. It comes from Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno: “Those who want to be apostles among socialists ought to profess Christian truth whole and entire, openly and sincerely, and not connive at error in any way. If they truly wish to be heralds of the Gospel, let them above all strive to show to socialists that socialist claims, so far as they are just, are far more strongly supported by the principles of Christian faith and much more effectively promoted through the power of Christian charity.” 

As Pius XI noted, there’s “no reason to become socialists.” 

In other words, just become a Christian—and please stop with the claptrap about “Christian socialism.”

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

Paul Kengor

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Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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