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.

The Church, Tech, Ethics, Jaron Lanier, and the Destruction of the Middle Class


Jaron Lanier - www.jaronlanier.comAfter reading my recent post “‘Free’ and the Destruction of Worth,” reader Brian Auten sent notice of a compelling Salon interview with tech futurist Jaron Lanier—“The Internet Destroyed the Middle Class”—in which the polymath suggests he and other prognosticators underestimated the negative impact the Internet would have on our lives.

As a musician, Lanier thought the personal freedom offered by the Internet would enable music makers to take greater control of their careers and enhance their freedom to create the kind of music they wanted to make, free from corporate interference. Sadly, the Internet has instead reduced the net worth of musicians and created a career wasteland for many of them.

In a bold confession, Lanier admits he was shortsighted concerning the negative impact, saying his naiveté helped fuel the downturn.

Lanier goes on to note that rather than freeing people to do what they want, the Internet has destroyed aspirations—especially those related to jobs. The promise that the Internet will let us pursue the job we want to create for ourself has instead been replaced with the reality that it and other tech tools are allowing fewer and fewer people to do the work that once employed thousands, leaving no options for the displaced.

While many will just nod their heads and say We told you so, Lanier brings up an ethical issue raised by the destruction of middle class jobs that few are discussing:

Do corporations have an ethical responsibility to society to create jobs simply to employ people, even if technology has rendered those jobs less essential?

This is a question that has bothered me since the economic meltdown of 2008. Because it seemed that at one time companies DID stay loyal to employees whose jobs were less essential. There was a long view that a working middle class was universally better than a nonworking middle class that would slide gradually into poverty. And it may very well be that attitude of support for the less essential employee made America great.

Globalization and the race to the cost bottom may have put pressure on companies to abandon this ethic, but the 2008 meltdown pretty much sealed the deal in their collective minds.

Which brings me, as it always does, to the Church.

In the fin de siècle period (around 1900), the American Church was actively addressing many changes in American business. As more women entered the workplace, the Church was concerned for their welfare, especially in what could have become a predatory environment for young, inexperienced women moving from farms to the burgeoning big cities. And this was only one area of concern and active involvement. Speaking to the business world was a huge concern for the Church.

Today, the Church seems more concerned with how to start a workplace Bible study than any greater vision related to social change and the general welfare of employees.

This paradigm shift has worked against the Church in the long run. American Christians no longer prioritize general human welfare. In the case of the typical workplace, the Church’s concerns are not the ethics and operation of that workplace and how Christ can impact it, but the Church thinks solely of how to preserve some aspect of institutional church operation within that sphere.

I contend this is a wrong, selfish mentality. We Christians should be less concerned with preserving traditional church functions and more with the general welfare of people. It’s as if we have no more confidence that the Church can survive because we are afraid of the world’s successes against traditional Christian bastions. So we operate from a position of desperation instead of from our position of strength in which all the riches of heaven are on our side.

What is today’s Church saying about the ethics of hiring people simply so those people can have a job? And how can this NOT have an impact on the Church itself? The starving man is more concerned with food than with the Gospel, but give him that food in the name of Jesus and his ears will suddenly open to the message of Christ. We see this demonstrated again and again in the Gospels and the Book of Acts.

What is the need? Meet the need. Then speak about Jesus. It could not be more simple.

In addition, the Church has decided in the last century that it has nothing to say to corporate leaders about other aspects of employee welfare. And where is the boldness, in the midst of the ongoing ethical meltdown in big business, from a Church that should be able to promise those businesses that if they give them their people, the Church can return a more ethical employee?

Instead, the primary Church goal is relegated to fighting the corporation to ensure that a handful of employees can enjoy a lunch break Bible study in a back room someplace. Yes, that may be needful, but God help us, the vision is so vanishingly small!

What tech has done to the workplace and general employment MUST be something the Church, like it once did 100 years ago, speaks to.

Tech is increasingly outpacing the ethical answers the Church once provided to society. In other news, it is now possible to print guns with 3D printers, those printers available to the average consumer. What does this or any other tech-driven issue mean for the Church?

Are we Christians asking these questions? If so, where are the answers?

Is the Church simply in survival mode—or are we Christians actively working toward addressing the most intractable issues of our day, issues that, in the end, affect every person on the planet?

If the Church can’t answer these questions, who will?

No Longer Ignoring the Economy, But…


This Christianity Today article holds out some hope for those of us who have been railing for years about the American Church’s stunning silence on economic issues: “How the Economy Became a Family Issue.

Someone with a national voice is finally speaking out. Finally!

But wait…darn!…the speakers frame the conversation entirely within a political context (based on the snippets reported in CT), despite the “family issue” rhetoric. If that’s the case, then we will continue to lose this battle, as the means of correction go far beyond politics.

We Christians have forgotten that community and economy go hand in hand. If we do not rethink our practice of community and move beyond a “every nuclear family for itself” mentality, then we will NEVER fix our economic problems, no matter which chad we punch in the election booth.

OK, so let’s pray this is a baby step in the right direction and not a tangential slide into voting into office a herd of status quo, talk-talk-talk Republicans. The track record is not good (think The Contract with America).

We can only hope that the conversation turns into a self-examination by Christians concerning our own complicity in creating the mess we now find ourselves in. Perhaps then something glorious will rise from the ashes of our broken communities and shattered economy.