“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had… And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:32–35).
Many have used these verses in Acts to try to prove that the early Christians followed a form of communism, but a careful reading of what the Bible says here shows that nothing could be further from the truth. We should note immediately that this seems to have been a temporary situation while the fledgling church was becoming established and before any formal mechanisms for helping the poor within the church were in place. Many of those who had come to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2) and had been converted now were staying there and had as yet no means of support. So many shared what they had at that time. But we should also remember that once this temporary situation passed, there is no evidence that the early church continued in exactly the way described here.
Unlike communism as it is known in the modern world, the State was not in any way involved in this sharing; the Christians did not all share their property as a result of some decree or decision – rather “from time to time” people would decide to give, and only those people gave who wanted to. There was also no requirement to share, as Peter himself clearly tells us in the story of Ananias and Sapphira: “Ananias.…why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the [sale of your] lands? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? …You did not lie to men but to God!” (Acts 5:3–4). Finally, we should notice that the early Christians’ goods were not equally divided among everyone, but were “distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:35).
This is all very different from modern era communism in which the State forcibly redistributes all wealth – theoretically sharing it equally between everyone in the society. There is also a clear difference in attitude. As has been jokingly said, though not without some truth, communism operates on a principle of “What’s yours is mine,” whereas the early Christians operated with the attitude of “What’s mine is yours.”
We should also remember that there is no room for communism in the teachings of Jesus. Although he recommended a certain rich young ruler sell all he had and give to the poor (not distribute it among Jesus and his followers), this appears to have been an individual test. We see that Jesus had Judas look after his funds and these were used as were needed and, on occasion, some funds were given to the poor (John 13:29) rather than anything that was received being automatically equally distributed. Communism is, in fact, diametrically opposed to a great many of the teachings of Jesus, as we can see in the parable of the “talents” (Matthew 25:24–30) and the parable of the “minas” (Luke 19:12-27) where the servants are unequally rewarded, and elsewhere.