Avoiding the implications of Acts with McCarthyism

I have spoken before about the need to avoid insisting that the ends of Acts 2 and 4 are not really talking about Communism or Socialism. It’s not that I think that’s what they’re saying, just that I think we should stop making that point. You can hear why in this short clip:

I bring it up again because the Stand to Reason blog have done just this. You can read their article here.

The fact is, this all smacks a little of American McCarthyist Red Scare stuff. These points seem to be raised most commonly by American commentators who seem desperate not be seen to be, in any way, supporting Marxism. But, as I have asked elsewhere, is this really a real and present danger – especially somewhere as culturally capitalist as the USA?

That aside, the reality of continually making this point is much worse than a misplaced fear of reds under the bed. The real problem is highlighted in the final point raised in the STR post. They state:

The Bible never makes the communal life of the early church in Jerusalem prescriptive for Christians. Furthermore, it doesn’t even seem to be the norm for the Jerusalem church but was rather short-lived.

It is one thing to insist that Acts 2 and 4 aren’t teaching Communism (which, for the avoidance of any doubt, I don’t think they are!) but this point, which we should really stop making, always descends into this. Essentially, it wasn’t normative living so we don’t have to do it today.

In fact, the article goes on to state:

This behavior is nowhere mentioned again in the book of Acts or even in the entire rest of the New Testament. It also does not fit with Luke’s main purpose for writing the book of Acts.

Therefore, given the context and indicators within the passage itself, along with the fact that this behavior should not be considered normative or prescriptive, it certainly cannot be argued from these verses that communism is in any way the Christian ideal or was even practiced by the early church.

That is a handy get out of even encouraging this behaviour quite apart from whether it teaches Communism as a Christian ideal or not. This goes well beyond whether this passage is a Communist Manifesto and seeks to suggest that because they deem this descriptive and not normative, we don’t really have to even consider the behaviour.

On a textual level, the argument isn’t very convincing. For one, the article landed on Acts 4 and then states the behaviour isn’t mentioned again in the book of Acts. That’s a little misleading because it is specifically mentioned in Acts 2. Had they taken Acts 2 as the starting point, we would see the pattern repeated.

Secondly, the idea that this behaviour isn’t mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament is also a bit misleading. The principles and commands which undergird what was going on in Acts 2 and 4 clearly do encourage large elements of this sort of behaviour. So whilst we don’t have the exact scenario described again (for a third or more times), there are principles and commands that would encourage us to emulate much of what was going on. So the argument is textually weak at any rate.

But even beyond that, what are many people going to hear when this is emphasised? Given that the relationship of this passage to Communism is obviously not the main point intended by the author, commentaries and preachers going on at length about how this has nothing to do with Communism and how this behaviour isn’t normative sounds troublingly close to wriggling out of the implications of this passage.

To many, it sounds like people trying to say they don’t have to share their money and things with you. To others, it sounds like a legitimate Biblical defence to selfishly hoard your own stuff. If preachers and commentators are at such pains to point out that this emphatically does not mean I have to share my stuff with you, and it most certainly isn’t Commie literature that would make us share our stuff with you, what teaching point am I mainly going to take away from that?

The point that always seems lost on those who bang on about Communism this way is that, actually, there was some enforced sharing going on. Sure, it wasn’t the government, nor was it the apostles and neither were deacons acting as the Gestapo. But there can be no doubt there was something (or someone) compelling these believers to share their stuff, in a way they weren’t before, that appears Communistic. Isn’t it funny how the Holy Spirit – who was compelling people to live this way – compelled people to share in such a way that every Western commentator feels it vital to spell out that, despite how it looks, this isn’t Communism and we can keep all of our Western riches to ourselves?

Once again, I’m not suggesting this passage is teaching Communism. But clearly there is a level of spiritual compulsion going on here. What is more, the implications of the Spirit’s work seem clear too – it looks remarkably close to Communism (even if it isn’t actually that)! At a minimum, if the Spirit himself appears to make the Early Church behave in ways evidently reminiscent enough of Communism that we want to wrestle the text free of any such overtones we perceive, are we not spending a lot of our time trying to argue that we should be pleased we are not even close to emulating what was clearly a work of the Spirit? Is this not just an exercise in self-justification regarding our wider Capitalist, consumeristic culture and, more pointedly, our perhaps less than generous church culture? Why on earth would we want to dedicate most time justifying why we don’t have to behave in ways that most people would see as genuinely good?

Whilst this passage isn’t about Communism, the reality is that most people haven’t insisted that it is and – looking at the church throughout history – this doesn’t seem like the clear and present danger reading the passage. So, you tell me, who is twisting scripture and trying to wriggle out of its implications?