A recent post over at Diglotting rejects the idea that New Testament principles and example can be normative for economic theory. I agree in principle, but think this position needs a defense against the usual criticism that it unfairly neutralizes the NT’s apparent sanction of socialism.
My short defense leaves aside the question of specific logia of Jesus and looks only at the example of communalism in the early Jerusalem Christian church (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37).
People often treat this example in accordance with pre-arranged views of the value of their own economic philosophy. Those opposed to communalism will marshal supporting evidence which minimizes the degree to which this compelling example of careless love was manifest in the church; those in favor of communalism will demand that we take the text as it stands.
It is not necessary, however, to paint this communal economy as only a partial socialism, or an outreach to the poor, or the result of expectations that the world should end. Instead I join those who would ‘take the text as it stands,’ but argue that we have historical evidence ‘standing’ elsewhere in the NT that the communalist program in Jerusalem was opposed to the divine will and unblessed by any success beyond its first 2 decades, after which it collapsed in misery.
From the letters of Paul, dating little later than 20 years after Pentecost, it appears that the church at Jerusalem was not any longer able even to provide for its own poor (Gal2:9ff). James, Cephas, and John were driven to the humiliating extreme of prevailing upon Paul’s gentile churches to raise funds for this purpose on behalf of the mother church. But Paul’s own words indicate that the community at large – all the saints – are in poverty. He calls his fund-raising mission: “contribution for the saints” 1Cor 16:1ff; “relief of the saints” 2Cor 8:1ff; “offering for the saints” 2Cor 9:1ff; “ministry for the saints” Rom 15:25.
I think it stands to reason that, if membership reached a plateau in Jerusalem soon after Pentecost, fresh revenues must have dried up. The ‘saints’ who had joyously (and rashly) liquidated their property and capital in the early days would eventually fall into extremes of poverty not as individuals but as a group.
We can’t say for sure, because Rome put an end to the experiment not long after Paul’s final infusion of gentile cash – a trip whose necessity was the occasion of his arrest, deportation, imprisonment at Rome, and eventual execution.
My point is that nothing in this communalist form of economy has the ring of God’s infallible will. Until it collapsed, the love-economy presided over by James, Peter, and John (themselves poor from the beginning) was only a sadly mistaken application of Jesus’ small-group missionary principles to the realities of long-term self-sustaining societies.
NOTE: That the poverty of the Jerusalem Christians was due to their practice of communalism of property and goods has the authority of Augustine (cited by Rt. Rev. A. Robertson, Commentary on First Corinthians (ICC), 1911, p.382).