The Reverend Raphael Warnock has been the pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the congregation that Dr. Martin Luther King pastored far too long ago. The Reverend is now Senator Warnock with his victory over Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler last week in Georgia’s widely watched run-off election. The new Senator has some very interesting ideas about the kind of politics he will be bringing with him to our nation’s capital which he clearly believes derive from his Christian faith.
Preaching from the New Testament Book of Acts, Warnock told his congregation directly: “The early church was a socialist church.” He added, “The early church was much closer to socialism than to capitalism. Go back and read the Bible.”
He continued, “I love to listen to evangelicals who stand on the Bible. Well, they had all things in common. I’m just preachin’ the Bible. They had all things in common. But even the people who say they follow every word of the Bible, they’re not about to do that.” Rev. Warnock concluded, “But if we would just share what we have, everybody could eat. Everybody oughta have water. Everybody oughta have health care. It’s a basic principle.”
The good pastor is indeed reading the words of his Bible correctly. His interpretation and application, however, has much to be desired. He simply repeats a tired, old canard that the New Testament Church was socialist. This assumption is based on an unsophisticated understanding of Acts 4:32-37, the text Senator Warnock was referencing,
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. …There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
This is what members of the early church did. We are clearly told as much. It was a lovely demonstration of selflessness, sacrifice, and living-as-one-people in those first days of the gospel’s spread. But there are three basic facts that must be understood if we are going to assume this means the early church was a socialist church as the new senator stated.
Huge Difference Between Church and State, Free Will and Compulsion
It is interesting that for all the talk from liberals to conservatives about how the supposed wall of separation between church and state should be tall, long and strong, they do not seem shy about quoting scripture when it serves their political purposes. Of course, we should all go to scripture for our direction and never shy from doing so. But we must appreciate relative to this text in Acts that it is certainly one thing for a small rag-tag group of Jesus’ new believers who chose to share their belongings in common with their fellow believers, and wholly another for the government to demand and force everyone do so.
The first is called kindness and sharing. The second is the definition of socialism. The first makes for a great community. The second has a very poor historical record.
The Church Was Never Socialist, Ever
The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a conservative think-tank dedicated to intelligent Christian thought and practice in economics, carefully explains that neither Jesus, nor the Book of Acts ever taught anything close to socialism.
First, the Bible affirms the right to private property. This passage clearly states that each Christian supported the needy with “the things he possessed.” Socialism by definition denies the right to private property and nationalizes all economic activity.
Second, the Apostle Peter underscored the voluntary nature of Christian tithing. Just a few verses later, he upbraided Sapphira, who sold her land but held back part of the proceeds: “Was it not your own? And after it was sold, was [the money derived from the sale] not in your own control?” Christians freely give their alms to the? poor out of love, personally tailoring their intervention to the recipient’s need.
Any study of Christian history will fail to show the church as anything resembling a socialist institution, resisting the ownership and individual control of private property. Some small denominations and communes have practiced a sort of soft-socialism from time-to-time where their community itself through individual freewill shared resources in common. But they also recognize the fundamental good of private property as well.
Additionally, throughout the history of the Christian church, no serious, mainstream school of theology believed or taught Christianity was denying its Founder by honoring the individual’s ability to manage the distribution of their own private property.
Socialism, as a school of political thought and practice, was simply never, ever apart of Christian belief and practice. But generosity and the selfless sharing of personal goods with those in need has always been praised, practiced, and always will be.
The Church Does Give Freely
Christian charity, which manifests itself mightily in nearly every town of any size where Jesus people are found, is administered through the ministry of the church and not the power of the state. Warnock spoke of the need for food, water and healthcare. He well knows that when a person in need seeks food or medical assistance without cost, the facility to which they turn will most likely have clear Christian roots.
Most hospitals that serve the sick have the words like “Saint,” “Advent,” or “Baptist” in their name, all revealing their Christian roots. The same with the community clothes closet and food pantry available to anyone in need. Of course, other groups of citizens serve their communities in this way, but it is demonstrably true that The Aldous Huxley Memorial Hospital or Charles Darwin Soup Kitchen are unicorns. If you are poor and in need and desperately need help in your community, it is likely you will find that help from an organization that works under the symbol of the cross.
Christianity is not socialist, but it is selfless and generous.
Photos from Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS/ABACA and Sanjeev Singhal/REUTUERS