The Rev. Raphael Warnock, one of the new Democrat senators from Georgia, preached a sermon in 2016 on socialism in his church in Atlanta, the Ebenezer Baptist Church. In that sermon, he told his congregation the following:
“The early church was a socialist church. I know you think that’s an oxymoron, but the early church was much closer to socialism than to capitalism. Go back and read the Bible. I love to listen to evangelicals who stand on the Bible. Well, they had all things in common. They took everything – I’m just preaching the Bible – they took all of their things and they had all things in common. But even the folk who say they just follow every word of the Bible, they’re not about to do that. But if we would just share what we have, everybody can eat, everybody ought to have water, everybody ought to have healthcare. It’s a basic principle.
“And I don’t mind telling you that those who have more ought to give more. The strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak. And in the nation and in the church, to whom much is given, much is required. We need to level the playing field. And to be concerned about the poor does not make you a socialist; it actually makes you a Christian, and it means that you believe that everybody is a child of God.”
The second chapter of the book of Acts in the Bible gives the account of the first church in Jerusalem. If that church practiced socialism, it was the only one in the first century that did so, as the rest of the books of Acts and the letters from Paul demonstrate. But let’s assume the reverend knows what he is talking about and the church in Jerusalem foreshadowed Marxist socialism. That still doesn’t mean we should scale up the practice of a single congregation to the national level.
Hayek pointed out that socialism is necessary in families and tribes as the rules of capitalism would destroy them. The same goes for churches. In small groups where everyone knows everyone else, socialism works fairly well because it’s easy to discern who really has a need and who is just lazy. Scaling up to the national level where people deal mostly with strangers changes the dynamics. New rules are needed to prevent theft and fraud, capitalist rules. The dismal history of socialist experiments for the past 150 years proves it. Assuming that a nation is like a church or family is the fallacy of composition, too.
There are good reasons to believe the church in Jerusalem was not socialist but practiced capitalist charity. First, the people gave willingly, knowing that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). The leadership of the church did not require anyone to give, as the state does under socialism. Also, the tense of the Greek verbs used for giving indicate an ongoing activity. In other words, people sold some of their possessions and gave them as needs arose. They did not turn all their wealth over to the church to distribute because we know that for decades churches met in the homes of wealthy Christians.
By the time the Jerusalem church picked deacons (Acts 6), the leadership had restricted charity to helping widows. Later, Paul instructed churches to support only widows over the age of 60 who had maintained a good reputation (I Timothy 5). He insisted that anyone who could work and did not should not eat (2 Thessalonians 3). Men should work to support their families and provide, of their own free will, for the less fortunate (I Timothy 5).
Giving to the poor in the Bible is always voluntary because it is an act of devotion to God and there is no virtue in forced devotion. Even the poor laws in the Torah were to be followed voluntarily and not coerced by the government, according to the Jewish scholar Joseph Lifshitz in his book, Judaism, Law and the Free Market: An Analysis. God gave Israel no human executive or legislature. Israel had only courts to adjudicate the civil laws among God’s 613 laws. Most of the commandments applied to religious ceremony and moral principles that the courts did not decide. The poor laws, such as Jubilee in which land returned to the original owner, were among the moral laws left for God to enforce. The New Testament continues the idea that giving to the poor is the same as giving to God, but it must be done voluntarily.
However, force is the essence of socialism. The state takes your money without consulting you and gives it to whomever it desires, usually the most loyal apparatchiks. The poor are always worse off than under capitalism.
Some socialists argue that in a democracy we all agree to allow the state to be the instrument of our giving to the poor, but that is a delusion. The wealthiest 20% pay 80% of the taxes, so in reality voters are deciding to take by force from the rich and give to the poor. It’s hardly different from a Democrat going to a rich neighbor, robbing him at gunpoint and giving the money to a poor person.
If the reverend senator from Georgia actually cared about the poor, he would promote capitalism because only capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty. Before the advent of capitalism, humanity was condemned to frequent cycles of famine and mass starvation. Google for the “hockey stick” graph of per capita GDP. There are different versions, but most show that standards of living from prehistory until the spread of capitalism throughout Western Europe, usually 1800, living standards never improved. Abraham and Sarah living in England in 1799 were as poor as Abraham and Sarah in Canaan in 2000 B.C.
Then living standards took off like the blade of a hockey stick because of capitalism. Starvation was banished. In the past generation, China and India have lifted over 500 million from the worst poverty to relative wealth according to the World Bank. What has the socialism of the reverend senator Warnock done? History proves that it has only impoverished people everywhere people have tried it.
Socialists loudly proclaim their complete devotion to the poor and hold up their socialist policies as evidence. But we have good reason to question their motives. Who really cares about the poor, the person who gives his own money, or the one who gives someone else’s money? According to Arthur Brooks in Who Really Cares, 91% of religious people give their own money to charity while 66% of the irreligious do so, and the religious give four times as much. Of course, some socialists are religious, but as Brooks points out, their numbers are too small to matter. Most religious people are conservatives who give their own wealth to charities.
The church in Jerusalem did not practice socialism, but the capitalist virtue of voluntary charity.
If they make it to heaven, Christian socialists will be surprised to learn that God gives them no credit for taking other peoples’ money to distribute to the poor.