Monday, November 26, 2012

Communism, in the New Testament (Part III)

How are we to understand the community of goods practised by the Church in Jerusalem in the light of what the Bible has to say about this practice and what it has to say about other issues bearing upon it?

First, the community of goods practised by the Church at Jerusalem is nowhere in the Scriptures commanded, nor even commended. In fact the practice of the Jerusalem Church is not commended in the Book of Acts; it is merely described. What then, it may be asked, does the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11), who failed to enter into the Spirit of this experiment and were struck dead for their sin, teach us? It teaches us precisely that they were under no obligation to participate in the community of goods and that failure to do so brought no disapprobation. This is clear from Peter’s rebuke of Ananias: “But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou has not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:3–4). Sapphira’s offence was that she was complicit with her husband in this lie (Acts 5:7–10). Their sin was lying to the Holy Spirit about what they had given to the community, not their holding back part of the proceeds of the sale of the land. Peter acknowledged that the property was their own, that they had the freedom to dispose of it according to their own will, and that they were under no obligation to give the land or the proceeds of its sale to the community. Scripture makes no further direct comment on this incident nor on the experiment in the community of goods as practised in Jerusalem, nor does it give any further teaching on this issue other than what can be deduced from the condition of poverty into which the Church subsequently fell, evidenced by the need of the Gentile Churches to support the community of believers in Jerusalem financially. Nowhere in the Bible is the community of goods advocated as a social theory or an advisable way to life.

Second, however, the teachings of the Bible on the use of wealth and the kind of economic system advocated in the Bible are incompatible with the community of goods. For example, the Bible teaches that “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children” (Pr. 13:22). Leaving an inheritance to one’s children and grandchildren is a godly ideal in Scripture. The expropriation of a man’s inheritance is condemned in Scripture (1 Kg. 21). The inheritance of the Israelites was jealously guarded by the laws of the Torah. The social and economic system of ancient Israel as laid down in the law of Moses was aimed at protecting the inheritance of the Israelites and ensuring that a family’s inheritance could not be permanently alienated either by force or choice. Furthermore, the eighth commandment (Ex. 20:15) and the command not to move the boundary mark of another man’s land (Dt. 19:14; 27:17; Pr. 22:28; 23:10f.) are meaningless in a communistic society. The Jubilee was instituted precisely to ensure that the people were not permanently dispossessed of their inheritance.[1] Inheritance is a significant theme in the history of Israel and an important concept in Scripture both economically and eschatologically. Such an economic and social system is not compatible with the ideal of communism.

Third, the community of goods practised in the Jerusalem Church runs contrary to the principle taught by Paul to Gentile believers, namely that they should work to provide for their own needs and produce a surplus (i.e. a profit, to use the economic term) so that they would be able to help those in need (see for example Acts 20:33–35; Eph. 4:28; 1 Thess. 4:11–12 and 2 Thess. 3:8–12 taken together). The community of believers in the Jerusalem Church was not able to provide for its own poor, let alone provide help for others, and this is why Paul had to secure financial help from the Gentile Church.

Does all this mean that the experiment in the community of goods in Jerusalem was sinful? It may be difficult to maintain such an argument without some qualification, but it is clear, first, that for those participating such an experiment could only be entered into voluntarily and second, that one would need to ensure that such a lifestyle did not lead to the disinheriting of legitimate heirs (Dt. 21:15–17; Pr. 13:22) or neglect of one’s duty to provide for one’s dependants (1 Tim. 5:8–16).[2] Failure to abide by these two principles would have involved participating members of the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with communism in sin. It is clear from the case of Ananias and Sapphira that communism was not mandatory for individual believers in the Jerusalem Church, even though it appears to have been practised by the community as a whole. Third, subsequent teaching by the apostle Paul makes it clear that the Jerusalem Church did fall short of the Christian ideal with regard to the provision of welfare: “But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God . . . if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel . . . If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:4, 8, 16).[3] The communism of the Jerusalem Church produced a lifestyle that Paul here condemns in no uncertain terms as worse than that of non-believers and a practical denial of the faith—i.e. an ongoing situation in which neither the participating believers nor the Church as a whole could provide for their own dependants. Surely, if the community of goods practised by the Jerusalem Church is God’s will for his Church, and indeed for society as a whole, we must ask why the apostle Paul never teaches this himself in his epistles nor requires its practice in the Gentile Churches he founded. He does not even so much as hint at such an arrangement. Indeed, he teaches the precise opposite, namely that believers should provide for their own dependants and that Church welfare should be available only when the family is not able to provide. It is as if the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with communism was an embarrassing failure that is not spoken about, but rather avoided. It may even conceivably have been the failure of the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with communism that prompted Paul to give these strongly worded instructions to Timothy. In the light of this subsequent apostolic teaching, therefore, it is questionable whether such an experiment in communism as that undertaken by the Jerusalem Church could now be repeated without sin, i.e. without the flagrant disregard of subsequent apostolic teaching, which, Scripture tells us, is part of the foundation of the Church and of the life of faith (Eph. 2:19–20). At the very least we can say that even in the best scenario (i.e. where no sin is involved) such a way of living is not advisable in the light of biblical teaching. The community of goods is not a biblical ideal. The Jerusalem commune failed miserably to live up to the ideals given us in Scripture about the use of wealth and charitable provision for those in need. Charity necessitates the production of a surplus—i.e. a profit. Subsistence living is incompatible with the ideal of charitable aid to the poor because such aid requires the accumulation of wealth that can be transferred to those in need. But the Jerusalem Church did not last very long before the community of goods failed even to produce enough to meet the needs of her own members. Instead of providing for their missions in the Gentile world the Christians in Jerusalem became dependent upon their mission Churches financially.

. . . to be continued

   1. On the biblical Jubilee see Appendix C, “Help for the Poor and the Meaning of the Jubilee” in my book The Political Economy of A Christian Society (Taunton: The Kuyper Foundation, 2001), pp. 282–300.
  2. Cf. also the implications of the case of the daughters of Zelophehad in Num. 27:1–11 and 36:1–9. On the Old Testament laws of succession and inheritance see Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1961, trans. John McHugh), p. 53ff. and R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), p. 180ff.
   3. See further Rushdoony, op. cit., p. 770ff.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Communism in the New Testament (Part II)

Throughout history communistic communities, of whatever nature, voluntary or State-enforced, have not been economically viable communities except under certain abnormal conditions. Where societies that practise a community of goods are economically viable they are not usually family based societies. In fact, the rejection of the biblical model of the family is usually to be found in such communities in some form. For example, monasteries are often economically viable communities, [1] but they are not family based communities. They are single sex communities that require the rejection or suppression of a fundamental aspect of human nature. They are therefore abnormal societies. Furthermore, although they are often economically viable in the narrow sense, i.e. they produce enough to enable the community to live from year to year, and even a surplus beyond this that can be used to generate successful business enterprises, they are dependent upon the outside world for new members, since reproduction is denied as a means of securing the long-term future of the community. In other words, the continued existence of the community requires the existence of a world that does not share the ideals of the community, and indeed that lives in a way that contradicts the ideals of the community, from which it must recruit new members. If everyone were to adopt the ideals of monastic living the community would not so much cease to be viable economically as cease altogether. In that sense it is a sterile community that contradicts one of the most basic and fundamental purposes of God’s creative will for mankind, the command to multiply (Gen. 1:28).

There are other economically viable communistic communities that do not share this ideology of sterility or infertility. The Hutterite Anabaptists, for example, whose ideals are derived from the Radical Reformation, live in societies that practise a community of goods and that are economically viable, but retain marriage and procreation. Nevertheless, these societies do not usually practise normal family life. The family is communised as well as man’s goods. Children are not brought up in family units but by the whole community. [2] In this sense the ideal of the commune goes much further than the community of goods. The children are not really treated as the children of particular families but as the children of the commune and they are brought up in a way that is consistent with this belief. Normal family life is abandoned.

“The function of the family is to produce new souls and to care for them until the colony takes over the major responsibility of training [i.e. educating—SCP] the children. The family performs those functions that cannot easily or efficiently be performed by the colony. Child-rearing is not thought of as a private enterprise; children are not extensions of the parents’ egos but gifts of God who belong to the colony, and potentially to the church.” [3]

This amounts to much more than the existence of a mere extended family. It is rather an ideology that structures the community.

In communes that are economically viable there is usually a price to be paid in this way. The social theory and practice of the commune is abnormal from the biblical point of view. That is to say it involves the setting aside of the biblical pattern of family life, and this usually involves the denial of some aspect of man’s created nature. The family does not function as the basic unit of society. Rather, the community takes over this function. The basic building block of normal society, the family, is either dispensed with altogether or restricted virtually to a mere biological function. The community replaces the family. In the more extreme mediaeval European heretical communistic sects and also in the socialism of many Enlightenment philosophers the communisation of sexual relationships was also an article of faith. [4] Another example of this is the communistic community established by the Oneida Perfectionists in Madison County, New York, between 1848 and 1880 under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes. Although commercially successful as a communistic community sexual communism and the abandonment of normal family life was a central doctrine of the community. [5]

The eradication of marriage and the abolition of family life based upon it in favour of “free love”—i.e. sexual communism as well as economic and political communism—has also been one of the goals of Marxist communism. [6] According to the Russian communist diplomat and radical feminist Alexandra Kollontai:

“The old form of the family is passing away; the communist society has no use for it. The bourgeois world celebrated the isolation, the cutting off of the married pair from the collective weal; in the scattered and disjointed bourgeois society full of struggle and destruction, the family was the sole anchor of hope in the storm of life, the peaceful haven in the ocean of hostilities and competitions between persons. The family represented an individual class in the social unit. There can be no such thing in the communist society. For communist society as a whole represents such a fortress of the collective life, precluding any possibility of the existence of an isolated class of family bodies, existing by itself, with its ties of birth, its love of family honour, its absolute segregation.” [7]

This ideal of free love proved impossible to sustain even in communist Russia: “Experience taught the Government that lawless love endangered the good of society, that there were fundamental laws that could not be infringed without peril; and so new legislation corrected the excessive liberties permitted at first.” [8] Nevertheless, although communism has not been successful in achieving its goal of eradicating family life altogether, the rise of socialism has been one of the main causes of the decline of marriage and stable family life in those countries where it has had any influence, either as an individual ideology or as a form of economic and social organisation. According to Shafarevich, speaking of socialism as a phenomenon spanning the entire history of mankind: “in socialist states we observe the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, state control of everyday life, and the subordination of the individual to the power of the bureaucracy; in socialist doctrines we observe the destruction of private property, of religion, of the family and of marriage, and the introduction of wife sharing.” [9]

In societies practising community of goods, whether voluntary or State-enforced, where the family does remain the basic unit of society, economic viability is compromised, though where there is a sudden change to communism from a previously highly capitalised non-communistic organisation of society it may take considerable time, possibly even a generation or more, for this fact to become evident. Such communistic societies, whether voluntary or State-enforced, are not economically viable societies. This is why there were shortages of food and other basic necessities of life in Soviet Russia. It is also why the Church at Jerusalem ended up in the situation in which she could not take care of her own poor. History has shown this to be the case time and again. And it would seem that it is this same lesson that the Bible teaches with regard to the Jerusalem Church when all the biblical evidence is considered. The Christian community in Jerusalem had become unable to support itself economically and needed help from the Gentile Church. Therefore Paul had to take collections from the Gentile Churches, which did not practice the community of goods as described in Acts chapters 4 and 5, to help the poor in the Church at Jerusalem.

. . . to be continued

  1. Despite the ideal of poverty espoused by the monastic orders, property was not forbidden to most monastic communities. It was private property that was forbidden. Property was owned by the community not the individual. The Rule of St Augustine, for example, requires the surrender of private property to the monastic order—i.e. common ownership. Likewise the Rule of St Benedict. The Rule of St Francis, by contrast, requires not common ownership of property but poverty, i.e. the rejection of all ownership by both the individual and the community. This requirement was founded on the reputed poverty of Christ. The doctrine of the absolute poverty of Christ, however, was declared heretical by Pope John XXII in 1323 (Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Middle Ages [Manchester University Press, 1967], Vol. I, p. 238; see ibid., pp. 51–255 for a full discussion of the Franciscan problem and its history).
2. According to Peter Rideman, one of the founders of the Hutterite movement, “God from the beginning ordained naught private for man, but all things to be common” (Account of Our Religion, Doctrine and Faith, given by Peter Rideman of the Brothers whom men call Hutterians [Hodder and Stoughton/The Plough Publishing House, (1565) 1950], p. 88). For Rideman’s views on marriage see ibid. p. 97ff., and on the education of children ibid. p. 130f. Rideman’s Account of Our Religion, Doctrine and Faith etc., originally written in 1540, has remained the fundamental confession of the Hutterian Brethren up to the present.
3. John A. Hostetler, Hutterite Society (John Hopkins University Press, [1974] 1997), p. 203, see further ibid., pp. 203–224; see also Karl Andreas Peter, The Dynamics of Hutterite Society: An Analytical Approach (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1987), pp. 62–70.
4. See Shafarevich, op. cit., pp. 18–130.
5. See R. Bruce Taylor, “Communism” in James Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1980), Vol. III, p. 785bff.
6. See Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1936, trans. J. Kane), pp. 87–107, and Shafarevich, op. cit., pp. 243–248.
7. “Prostitution and ways of fighting it,” speech to the third all-Russian conference of heads of the Regional Women’s Departments, 1921, cited in Christopher Dawson, Enquiries into Religion and Culture (London and New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933), p. 262.
8. M. C. D’Arcy, S.J., The Mind and Heart of Love: Lion and Unicorn—A Study in Eros and Agape (London: Faber and Faber Ltd, [1946] 1954), p. 161.
9. “Socialism in Our Past and Future” in Alexander Solzhenitsyn ed., From Under the Rubble (Collins and Harvill Press, 1975), p. 44 (italics in original).

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Communism in the New Testament (Part I)

Christians usually look back to the early Church of New Testament times as an example that the Church should emulate in succeeding ages, even in the modern world of the twenty-first century. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that the best examples given us in Scripture should be drawn into rules for the Christian life. The community of goods described in Acts chapters 2:44–45; 4:32–37 and 5:1–11 has often been held up as an example that the Church should follow. It has also been claimed, often with alarming social and political consequences, that this example should be taken as indicating how society should be organised politically; i.e. it is sometimes taken not merely as an example of voluntary communism, which is in fact all that it was, but also as an example of how States should organise the economic life of society, by force if necessary.

Perhaps the most notorious example of the outworking of this “Christian” communist ideology is the Anabaptist revolution that overtook Münster, the capital city of Westphalia, Germany, in 1534. “Taking advantage of the struggle going on between Catholics and Lutherans, the Anabaptists gained control in the municipal council and then completely subjugated the town. All who refused to accept a second baptism were expelled after being stripped of all their possessions. Thereafter all property in the city was appropriated for the common lot, everyone being obliged to deliver his possessions under the supervision of special deacons. Next polygamy was introduced, and women of a certain age were forbidden to stay unmarried.” [1] This was not an isolated example however. There is a long tradition of violent revolutionary “Christian” communism stretching from the heresies of the Free Spirit and the Apostolic Brethren in the thirteenth century through to the Taborites of the Hussite Wars in the fifteenth century, the heretical teachings of the Zwickau prophets and Thomas Müntzer, the Anabaptist revolution itself in Münster in the sixteenth century,[2] and on to the Marxist communist ideology of the modern Liberation Theology movements.

According to the Mexican Liberation Theologian José Porfirio Miranda,

“Jesus himself was a communist . . . communism is obligatory for all Christians . . . The Ananias episode . . . means: pain of death for whoever betrays communism, Christianity’s indispensable condition . . . No one can take the Bible seriously without concluding that according to it, the rich, for being rich, should be punished. Not to let them into the kingdom when the whole point is to establish the kingdom is clearly punishment. To commit them to torment, as the parable teaches, is punishment. To deprive them of all their goods and send them off with nothing is also punishment—for the simple crime of being rich.” [3]

In the last few pages of his book Communism in the Bible Miranda provides a defence of mob violence against private property based on John 2:15 in which Jesus is represented as the leader of a pogrom against the Temple.[4] Not surprisingly, therefore, Miranda describes Jesus as “a hardened revolutionary.” [5] According to Miranda “The sacred authors know that all differentiating wealth is ill-gotten, that it has necessarily been obtained by despoiling and oppressing the rest of the population, and that therefore to be rich is to be unjust. They sigh for Yahweh to intervene and re-establish justice by despoiling the despoilers. For the sacred authors, the problem of evil is a social problem.” [6] The bizarre conclusion that Miranda comes to is that even God himself is obliged to support the communist revolution because it is his creative act that is responsible for the existence of the poor in the first place and the denial of their strict rights:

“To the extent that one does not participate in this [communist—SCP] revolutionary struggle, one participates in the benefits of a society which lives essentially by exploiting and oppressing the poor. Merely abstaining from the struggle constitutes complicity. The situation of the poor is injustice in the most strict, and commutative, sense of the word . . . in the sense that obliges restitution. Even God is under obligation in this matter, for it is God who set in motion the machinery of creation which has resulted in tearing to bits the strict rights of the poor, who did not ask to come into the world in the first place.” [7]

Although Miranda’s views are on the very extreme of the socialist ideological continuum, the basic principles that underpin his perspective and revolutionary conclusions are not essentially dissimilar to those espoused by more moderate “Christian” socialists. That is to say, many Christians have extrapolated from the practice of the Jerusalem Church in the early chapters of the book of Acts to the idea that the State should enforce communism, or at least to the idea that Scripture supports the organisation of society on a socialistic model. Of course this begs the question of how we determine what the best examples in Scripture are. There are plenty of bad examples in Scripture that we are to learn from. They teach us to do the opposite. But there are also examples in Scripture of good people doing very bad things, and we are to learn from these also. King David’s example of adultery and murder is hardly to be imitated, though in other respects he is held up as a model of faith, and rightly so. We must be careful, therefore, about how we determine what examples in Scripture we are to follow. It may be argued, of course, that Scripture elsewhere condemns adultery and murder. Before following the example of those whose lives are described in Scripture, therefore, we must look carefully at what else the Bible has to say about these people and their actions. Likewise, we must look carefully at what else the Bible has to say about wealth, ownership of property, the family, and social order, all of which have an important bearing on the issues surrounding the community of goods in the Jerusalem Church of Acts chapters 2 to 5, before we draw the conclusion that the latter is an example that we should follow.

But there is one practice of the early Church of the New Testament that the Church throughout subsequent history has not followed; nor has it ever been argued, to my knowledge, that the modern Church should follow this practice. And yet it is no more directly condemned in Scripture than the community of goods in the Jerusalem Church is directly condemned in Scripture. Nevertheless, the Church has not considered this to be a good practice to follow, and with good reason. The issue here is the funding of missions. The primitive Church of the New Testament, the Church in Jerusalem, became, within a few years of the inauguration of the Great Commission, financially dependent on her mission Churches, i.e. the Churches of the Gentile world (Acts 24:17; Rom. 15:26–27; 1 Cor. 16:1–3). This was the reality of the New Testament situation.[8]

Are we right not to follow this example? Is the practice of the Jerusalem Church a good example? Yes, we are right not to follow this example, because no, the practice of the Jerusalem Church was not a good example. Paul’s statement in 2 Cor. 12:14, “I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children,” may well be an indirect criticism of the Jerusalem Church’s experiment with the community of goods because of its consequences for the Gentile missions. And here lies a cautionary tale for those who would use the Church of Jerusalem as their model for the modern Church and society at large, and indeed for all primitivist thinking about ecclesial and social theory.

The Jerusalem Church could not provide for herself economically. At the very least the community of believers at Jerusalem was too poor to be able to provide relief for the poorest members of the Church. And yet this was the Church that practised community of goods. Why was the Church in Jerusalem so poor that Paul had to provide financial aid from the Gentile Churches of Macedonia and Achaia?

 . . . to be continued

   1. Igor Shafarevich, The Socialist Phenomenon (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. 40.
   2. See further ibid., pp. 24–79; see also Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Secker and Warburg, 1957, p. 139ff. et passim.
   3. Communism in the Bible (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1982 [1981]), pp. 7, 8, 11, 24.
   4. Ibid., p. 77–78.
   5. Ibid., p. 22.
   6. Ibid., p. 32. Miranda’s claim that all differentiating wealth is condemned in Scripture takes no account of the fact that some of the greatest saints of the Old Testament, e.g. the Patriarchs, were fabulously wealthy men by comparison with the greater part of the people among whom they lived. Even in the New Testament differentiating wealth is nowhere seen as in itself being inconsistent or incompatible with Christian discipleship, as the case of Joseph of Arimathaea demonstrates (Mt. 27:57). The acceptance of Joseph of Arimathaea as a disciple by Christ also demonstrates that in the case of the rich young ruler (Mk 10:17–27; Lk. 18:18–27) what is being considered is not wealth or even differentiating wealth per se, but rather the idolatry of wealth. The command to sell everything and give it to the poor is not a universal command to all the disciples, therefore, but Jesus’ calling to this particular young ruler, whose sin, i.e. his idolatry of riches, was manifested by his disobedience to Christ’s command. This fact is further confirmed by the case of Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1–9), who gave away only half his riches to the poor (v. 8), an act that brought forth no criticism or rebuke from Christ, and which was accepted as just, the Lord Jesus declaring that salvation had that day come to the house of Zacchaeus (v. 9).
   7. Ibid., p. 69.
   8. It has been suggested by Hans von Campenhausen that the primitive Church at Jerusalem may have seen this contribution from the Gentile Churches as implying a formal payment of dues (cf. Rom. 15:26–27), but von Campenhausen emphatically denies that this was how Paul himself saw it (Ecclesiastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries [London: Adam and Charles Black, (1953) 1969], p. 34).