How Christians Misunderstand Socialism, Communism, Tithing, and God’s Economy


Mention the word socialism to people and you’re likely to conjure images of Soviet tanks in Red Square, stern men with spider-veined noses, and the hammer & sickle.

Or some folks might think 2015’s first Democratic debate, when several Commander-in-Chief-wannabes fell all over each other to promise the most free stuff to the most people.

Or some might talk about a Scandinavian country or two, and how those countries seem to do a better job taking care of people at all stages of life than we do in the U.S. Canada’s or England’s “socialized medicine” may get a mention.

A few Christians may even recollect Gog & Magog, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and Armageddon.

Whatever the case, a quick perusal of social (not socialist) media reveals the always inevitable divisions, as Americans line up either to fight socialism tooth-and-nail or to embrace it wholeheartedly.

Perhaps stating what socialism actually is might help focus the discussion. From Merriam Webster:

1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

As the definition states, a line of demarcation exists between communism and socialism, with socialism a stop on the way to full-fledged communism. Merriam Webster again:

1 a: a theory advocating elimination of private property
b: a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed
2 capitalized
a: a doctrine based on revolutionary Marxian socialism and Marxism-Leninism that was the official ideology of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
b: a totalitarian system of government in which a single authoritarian party controls state-owned means of production
c: a final stage of society in Marxist theory in which the state has withered away and economic goods are distributed equitably
d: communist systems collectively

I think these two definitions provide a foundation to talk about what socialism is and isn’t.

Now, because this is a Christian blog that aspires to make sense of modern American Christian living in light of the 1st century Church, I’ll throw into this mix two passages from the Bible:

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
—Acts 2:41-47 ESV

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. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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.
—Acts 4:32-35 ESV

I believe it is important for us to place these verses in the context of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit first fell on the new Church in power. What were the actions of people newly filled by the Spirit of God?

  • Devoting themselves to receiving teaching
  • Devoting themselves to fellowship and to one another
  • Sharing meals together
  • Praying
  • Manifesting signs and wonders
  • Showing awe for God’s working
  • Practicing unity by holding all things in common
  • Selling possessions and land and distributing the proceeds to those among them who were needy
  • Ensuring none among them was needy
  • Redistributing goods and properties
  • Rejecting claims of personal ownership
  • Meeting together in the temple and in each others’ homes
  • Displaying gladness, generosity, and praise to God
  • Testifying to the resurrection of Jesus

Would you not agree that all these are evidence of a changed way of thinking and living due to being filled with the Spirit? They were practices and beliefs that set apart Christians from the rest of the society of their time. They are the distinctives of Christian life, belief, and practice made manifest immediately after the individuals who make up the Church were filled by the Holy Spirit.

You hear the term DNA tossed around a lot in both the corporate world and American churches. But do we believe that the list above constitutes part of the DNA of the Church?

No, I don’t believe we do.

It never fails that quoting these two passages from Acts raises more ire in supposed born-again Christians than almost anything I can quote from the New Testament.

Actually, let me qualify that: They raise the ire of American Christians. I’m not so sure they would trouble those who live outside North America or who cannot be considered part of the West.

The trouble items in the list:

  • Practicing unity by holding all things in common
  • Selling possessions and property and distributing the proceeds to those among them who were needy
  • Ensuring none among them was needy
  • Redistributing goods and properties
  • Rejecting claims of personal ownership

Some Christians bristle at the thought of socialism coming to America. Other Christians think the Church needs to be more socialistic or at least support government programs that reflect socialistic ways of thinking and acting.

The catch: According to the definitions from Merriam Webster, the economy the early Church practices in Acts wasn’t what we commonly think. In fact, it wasn’t socialism at all but—wait for it—communism (see the definition 1b).

Does that make anyone out there squirm?

Here’s another problem for those who have some issues with this new New Testament way of thinking about God’s economy: The Old Testament undergirds it.

And the LORD said to Aaron, “You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any portion among them. I am your portion and your inheritance among the people of Israel. “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for an inheritance, in return for their service that they do, their service in the tent of meeting, so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die…”
—Numbers 18:20-22 ESV

In the Old Covenant, the inheritance of the Levites, the tribe called by God to be His priests, was a portion of the bounty of those who were not in the priesthood. We call that a tithe, usually considered to be 10 percent, and it was what was expected to be received by the priesthood.

We know that the New Covenant Jesus established replaced the inadequate Old Covenant. Did that mean that Jesus did away with the priesthood?

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
—1 Peter 2:9 ESV

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
—Revelation 1:4-6 ESV

Who is the priesthood in the New Testament? Everyone who is born again in Jesus. In other words, every person who comprises the Church.

And how do we see that priesthood operating in Acts? By tithes? By capitalism? By private ownership?

About that latter one:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
—Galatians 2:20 ESV

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.
—Colossians 3:3-6 ESV

What happens to the legal rights of the dead? To their property? What do they still own? Or can call their own?

Let’s run that list through one more time of the distinguishing practices of the Spirit-filled Church:

  • Practicing unity by holding all things in common
  • Selling possessions and property and distributing the proceeds to those among them who were needy
  • Ensuring none among them was needy
  • Redistributing goods and properties
  • Rejecting claims of personal ownership

I hear a lot of talk about Acts 2 and 4 being descriptive and not prescriptive. But when you consider that the Spirit-filled Church understood itself to be a priesthood in which every person functioned as a priest, and that each person had been united to Christ in His death and could no longer lay claim to the things the living expect, it all begins to come together and make sense. We can see why the Church lived out that list.

Love givenWhat we see is a new economy. God’s New Testament economy. The economy of a Spirit-filled Church. We, a royal priesthood, are no longer our own; we were bought with a price. That changes everything.

Because of Jesus, we don’t just give up part of ourselves, but we give up everything to be dead to the world and alive in Him.

Jesus is our inheritance as a priesthood. Nothing is ours in the world but Him. It’s all His, even us. Therefore, everything we are in Him is always to be available, especially to our fellow priests, who are His and in Him as well.

The problem for us American Christians is that we are Americans first and Christians second when it comes to issues of God’s New Testament economy. We don’t want to give up the idea of that thing over there being mine or that property belonging to me. We don’t want to hold things in common or give more than 10 percent, even though Jesus owns us and has made us His new priesthood.

Instead, we go off on tangents. We bristle at the idea that the government should forcibly take away our stuff and give it to someone else. Yet at the same time, we—as the Church—can’t be bothered to give up our stuff in the name of Jesus either, even if that stuff is going to a fellow Christian who needs it more than we do. Heck, we’re not even sure we should share it.

The American Dream clouds almost everything God wants us to think about how His New Testament economy works. Our hatred for Soviet-style Communism or Scandinavian quasi-Socialism obscures the rest. (See “American Civil Religion vs. True Christianity” for more.)

The result? We don’t really live the way the Bible shows how people filled with the Spirit are supposed to live when it comes to our stuff. Nor do we want to.

We won’t even consider it.

Which is sad, because I fear I wasted my time writing this.

So we Christians in America will go on debating whether the United States is threatened by socialism or communism or some other anti-Americanism -ism while God holds out His hands all day, every day, to a stiff-necked people who just can’t bring themselves to live the countercultural way He has purchased for us. Meanwhile, the lost of today sit waiting for someone, anyone, to heed the call to model for them the reality of the Kingdom of God.

How to Fix Everything That Is Wrong with Everything


In the last week, I’ve seen more talk than usual about what’s right and wrong with the contemporary Church in America and the way we Americans worship…or don’t. Some of this may be in response to Donald Miller’s confession last week that he didn’t attend church regularly (see my response “Donald Miller and the Anti-Church“).  A quick pass through the Interwebs reveals more comments on Church worship and how it’s not right. I suspect some of that is in response to Miller too.

And if I go on Facebook, I read what’s wrong with our government. I read what’s wrong with entertainment. I read what’s wrong with kids today. I read what’s wrong with the elderly.

Well, maybe not so much that last one.

Nonetheless, there’s a whole lot of wrong out there.

My first thought is that each of us needs to drill this truth into our heads:

This life is not about me.

What if every person in the United States woke up tomorrow and said to himself or herself, This life is not about me ? And what if that thought echoed through our heads the entire day and affected everything we do?

I can’t help but think everything would be changed for the better. Maybe not overnight, but soon enough.

Human self-centeredness and pride is at the root of so much that is wrong in our country, government, schools, churches, and homes. Most of the egregious wrong that happens in the world is because someone, somewhere is looking out solely for number one. What’s in it for me? has replaced E Pluribus Unum as the motto of the United States of America. We just don’t want to admit it because it looks bad. And it looks bad because there is still that “thing” deep down inside us that considers looking out for number one wrong—whenever someone else lives that way.

Oh my.

Sun & CrossThe funny thing is, This life is not about me  is at the heart of the Christian faith. Imagine if Jesus had said to the Father, “Taking on the sins of the world and dying on a cross—you know, I’m not really into doing that.” Fact is, He didn’t want to do that. But He did it anyway.

By its very nature, the cross is hard to bear. No one said it wouldn’t be.

The cross hurts? No, it downright kills. But what spring from that death is life itself

That cross is at the heart of Christianity. There’s a cross for each person who follows Jesus. The cross epitomizes This life is not about me.

If we want to fix everything that is wrong with everything, we have to start at the cross. We pick it up daily and walk in its shadow.

There is no other solution.

Radical for Jesus: What Does That Look Like in America?


When my wife and I lived in Silicon Valley (that’s the South San Francisco Bay area for the geographically business challenged), we’d routinely encounter folks who would brag about chucking their tech jobs to run a bed & breakfast or start an organic farm. The appeal of that break from the typical grind for something more idyllic became even more engrossing when the Dot Com bubble showed initial signs of bursting.

Couple after couple were successfully negotiating the move from being beholden to The System to charting their own destiny—well, who wouldn’t love to break out of that stranglehold and find a new way to live?

What they don’t tell you of the New American Dream story is that folks who make this sort of change are rich. Or were rich. Because the way to a small fortune as a bed & breakfast owner or an organic farmer is to start with a large fortune.

But who talks about that? Don’t be a downer, right?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve written about voices preaching that the only genuine Christian life is the one that is radical for Jesus (“Radicalism and Reality (A Response to ‘Here Come the Radicals!’),” “God’s Promises and Their Fulfillment: How Much Is the Church’s Responsibility?,” and “Kids, Systems, and Success (A Response to Brant Hansen’s ‘Your Kids Don’t Need Your Stupid Success Track’)“). This is the hot, new clarion call coming from some well-known pastors/leaders of churches and parachurch organizations that cater to the rich or upper middle class.

Only the utterly sold out are truly Jesus’ followers, they claim. Everyone else is duped—and possibly on their way to hell.

Because I think the Church in America is increasingly out of touch, that should be a message that resonates with me. But it doesn’t.

I have a problem with pulpit-preached messages that sound great on the surface but come with no practical way to make them happen. It is one thing to tell me about a radical life sold out for Jesus but quite another to model it for the rest of one’s life and in such a way that others can emulate it.

Isn’t there something off about a pastor of a church of rich people talking about being radical for Jesus? When that pastor claims to live radically, is he really doing so?Radical for Jesus? If he and his family got in financial straits for their “radicalness,” wouldn’t one phone call to the elder with connections result in a “rescue” check showing up within half a day? How radical are you truly when you live off the donations of people who are not as sold out for Jesus as you claim to be? So they fund your radicalness yet go to hell because they weren’t as radical as you?


And how radical are you really when you have no chance of failure? When you can simply press rewind and go back to doing what you did before you got radical? How painful is it when you started with a large fortune and ended up with a small one, but a small one nonetheless?

Then there’s the poorer working class schlemiel who hears that radical message, takes it to heart, and gets in trouble because he didn’t calculate the cost of entry to being radical and didn’t have a cushion when he fell.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

—Matthew 10:34-39 ESV

We know the words of Jesus, don’t we? What I don’t think we know is how to apply them to our lives today.

For all the talk of being radical for Jesus, how do we actually live it?

America 2013 is not an agrarian culture. We don’t teach our children animal husbandry. We don’t weave fabrics from plants we grew to make our own clothes. We aren’t fishermen by trade. We’ve farmed out large chunks of the kinds of things people did in Bible times to others to do for us. That’s how our economy works. We’re all niche players in a way that people didn’t use to be.

Today, the cost of entry into our society is a college degree. A private college costs $50,000 a year for many kids. And many employers now demand a master’s degree. Some kids end their schooling six figures in debt.

How radical for Jesus can you be when a bank owns you?

Unless you live in a city in America, you need a car. And a car costs money. A lot of it. The United States developed differently; it’s not Europe, where you can walk to work or to the grocers. Our spread-out-ness changes things. There’s a different, higher cost.

In fact, everything about America costs—and much more than some are willing to admit.

Many years ago, I worked for a ministry that didn’t pay very well. I think I made $60 a week. I didn’t have a lot of debts, but I still had some, so I needed to supplement that income by asking people for financial support. I raised four times what I really needed and secured a lot of promises from people. In the end, that support dried up within months, and I was quickly under what I needed to meet my meager obligations. I had to quit that ministry.

I have been a Christian since I was a teenager. As much as it pains me to admit this, I don’t know how to live the kind of sold-out-for-Jesus life that I hear talked about by these preachers of radicalness. I don’t know how to make it work.

I don’t think I’m alone, either.

Is it as easy as selling all you have and giving it to the poor? What it your spouse doesn’t share your radicalness? What if you have a mentally challenged child? What if all the donations that support your radicalness dry up and you end up failing? Is failure even possible for the genuine, sold-out Christian? Where does radicalness end and “thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test” begin? When can one “put down the plow” and not look back, and when does one need to fulfill existing obligations? When can you rely on the Church to bury your dead for you and take care of any widowed parents you leave behind?

Here’s where I struggle: If preachers of radicalness are right, then almost all of us are in trouble. The question then is, what do we do to get out of that trouble in a practical way?

No one really talks about that, though.

What does a genuinely radical life lived for Jesus look like in America 2013? And how do people make that work in a way that isn’t fluffy bunnies and unicorns?

Or is radicalness by nature always impractical? And if it is, what do we do when we go for the impractical and fail? Are American churches ready to support and dust off those folks who embrace the radical life and yet blow up once, twice, thrice? Or is the message of radicalness one that sounds good on the surface but is simply impossible to enact unless we Christians change everything about the system in which we live?

I should have an answer, but I don’t. That I don’t seems like a failure both of the American Church and of my own discipleship. Maybe we’ve abandoned too much of the infrastructure needed to make such a radical life possible. Maybe our role models let us down. Maybe the Spirit has been trying to get a word in edge-wise, but the clamor of the American Way of Life has drowned Him out to the point that we don’t even know what He sounds like anymore. Maybe it’s simply too late for all of us to change.

It is one thing to tell us the engine of our car is broken. It is another to fix it. It is quite another to teach us how to diagnose and fix it ourselves with guidance from wise mechanics who already know what must be done to fix it and can pass that practical, step-by-step wisdom onto us, and who will bear with us when we don’t fix it right the first time.

If we don’t find those people soon, we’ll never get this thing running right and never get to our destination. At least that’s what we keep hearing.