Does Acts 2 endorse Capitalism?

During our Bible study and preaching series through Acts, many questions and elements of the passage can lead us down the rabbit hole and away from the main intention of the text. They are often a reflection of later ideas and questions asked back upon the text, rather than arising from the text in its own setting. One of those issues is the question of Communism or Socialism in Acts 2:42-47. Verse 44 in particular tells us that the early church “had all things in common”, and verse 45 adds that “they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” On a surface reading, we could say that a communist form of government with no private ownership is closest to this, and should be what Christians advocate for.  

Not So Simple…
However, this is only a surface reading of the text, which doesn’t paint a full understanding of how the early church operated and what the modern political system of communism stands for. In terms of this passage, the “having all things in common” refers to the use of objects, not their ownership. So individuals might have owned a house, but they used it for the common good. We know this, because Christians such as Ananias and Saphira and Barnabas were able to sell their property later and then give the proceeds to the church. Acts 2 clearly doesn’t entail a legal handing over of all property, otherwise, there would be nothing to sell later.
Furthermore, the verbs here of “selling” and “distributing” are written not in the aorist tense, but in the imperfect. Don’t let the big grammar words scare you, basically (and this is a gross simplification) aorist tense indicates an activity that occurs in the past, once off, or is punctiliar (at a particular point of time). However the imperfect tense indicates ongoing activity. Logic tells us that the ongoing activity of selling and distributing their possessions meant that it didn’t happen all at one time, like it was a requirement to join an exclusive cult. As believer’s had certain needs, those in the community that owned more would use those goods for the needs of the people. Likewise, they would even sell their stuff periodically to provide financial support for others. The ultimate example of this was believers like Barnabas who sold their land and property completely and gave it to the poor. This action would not be noted and attributed to an individual if it was the norm and not an outstanding example.
Capitalism or Communism?
The other thing worth noting, is that this kind of sacrificial love and communal living is something that is only described after the outpouring of the Spirit at the beginning of chapter 2. That is to say, this is something that is impressed on believers, by the Spirit, and should be viewed as impossible without the transforming work of  that Spirit. In other words, the believer may have it impressed on them, through God’s guidance, to a radical, selfless generosity (and every Christian should to varying degrees). However, to expect it from a nation as a whole, even from the unregenerate, finds no justification in Acts 2. That is not to say that the greediness and individualism that is more typical in capitalist societies is a more biblical picture either. The Bible simply does not outline a complete political picture of what secular governments should look like in the midst of the church age. What it does advocate is that the church is a rival kingdom, with a completely different and indeed radical agenda from the society around it. That might mean generosity and social justice where the poor are marginalised and forgotten, and empowerment of the individual and family units when the government becomes oppressive and supreme.
The question that this passage should raise in our hearts is not actually about communism, but about the importance of generosity that goes above and beyond the expected. It is a well noted point that the New Testament does not at all advocate a tithe (10%) offering to the church. As C.S. Lewis famously put it “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” (Mere Christianity, p86-87). The early Christians clearly valued their faith, their love for Christ, and their love for each other well over getting ahead and being financially successful. It is only when the idols of our heart, particularly the lure of materialism, is more important and more treasured than Christ, that we would baulk at the idea of selling all we have and give to the poor. Every time I teach or preach on a passage that involves radical generosity, you can almost hear an audible sigh of relief when I say something like: “God doesn’t expect this from every Christian”. But the challenge I want to leave with you today is not to downplay the challenge of this chapter. Would you be willing to give well beyond your means for the sake of the kingdom? If not, why not? How can you put your money where your mouth is this week?
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Dan Bassett