Now and again you’ll hear someone, usually a professing Christian whose politics skew left, try to draw a parallel between what took place in the early church (recorded in Acts 4) and our contemporary welfare state. I find this connection to be utterly untenable, and I thought I’d explain this to my readers by listing the similarities and differences between the two, but first, the text from Acts 4:32-35 (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.

Similarities:

1. Money earned by one person is spent on goods and services by another person.
2. There is no other similarity between Acts 4 and our contemporary welfare state (that readily comes to my mind).

Differences:

1. In the early church, the group involved was the church community; in the welfare state, both the “contributors” and the receivers are the general populace. This difference between the early church and the contemporary welfare state is the difference that makes all the difference in the world, giving the lie to the unsubstantiated notion that socialism is somehow “Christian”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
2. In the early church, everything was done voluntarily; in the welfare state, everything is done under threat of force.
3. In the early church, there was face-to-face accountability; in the welfare state, there is little-to-no accountability.
4. In the early church, there existed the opportunity for everyone to contribute (even “receivers” could contribute something, so this was true regardless of the size of one’s contribution); in the welfare state, we have those who give and those who receive, and rarely the twain shall meet.
5. In the early church, there existed the opportunity for the exercise of Christian gratitude on the part of the receivers directly to those who gave (or at least to the church as a whole), an overlooked-but-essential ingredient in the process; in the welfare state, there is little opportunity for, or encouragement to, such gratitude.
6. In the early church, those who were poor, and thus primarily receivers, would be far less likely to develop a dependency upon others; in the welfare state, dependency upon a nameless, faceless bureaucracy is practically a given.
7. In the early church, every time a member gave of himself, he had the opportunity to receive the joy of giving, to think about (and pray for) the recipient, often to encourage those who received, one would think. Nothing like this happens in the welfare state.
8. In the early church, the motives for sharing were first, to honor and glorify God, and secondly, to help others. In the welfare state, it may be fairly said that those who plan and oversee the program might have the second, and lesser, motive in mind, but this motive does not necessarily translate to those from whom money is taken to meet this need. In fact, for some, an opposite emotion often attaches itself: resentment.
9. Similarly, in the early church, the entire context for sharing was committed love. In the contemporary welfare state, aid is dispensed in a context that cannot be described as “love”.
10. Though people are human beings and always have been, it is more difficult to see the operation of wrong motives in the context of the early church than it is in the contemporary welfare state.
11. There is an appropriate sense of reluctance that ought to be attached to the receiving of help from others. In the early church, there was a much, much greater opportunity (given the face-to-face nature of life together) for this appropriate sense of reluctance to urge people away from relying upon the generosity of others and toward self-reliance. There are hardly any disincentives in this day and age to receiving perpetual government assistance, particularly when we now see government heralding its own necessity in the lives of people, as we see under this administration.

Conclusion:

The next time you hear someone try to equate our contemporary system of welfare with the practice of the early church as described in Acts 4, tell them that you see a correspondence between a pogo stick and a Maserati. After all, they are both modes of transportation…

4 responses »

  1. AC says:

    Two points affirming and expanding on this:
    1. Christians give because of what God has done for us, not because people deserve it. This is similar to forgiveness, where we forgive because we are forgiven. It’s mercy triumphing over judgement, and it has everything to do with a triune God and an atoning Christ – not some “greater principle” that can be woven into a state that’s not integrated with the church.
    2. Say theoretically the apostles were operating a commune. (Byron already made clear that they weren’t.) Say that’s the “Christian way to live”. How is having the government do that any more Christian than having the government criminalize private sins? That covers all fornication and homosexuality, intoxication (no automobile required), and any religion except Trinitarian Christianity.

    What we have here is a “Christian left” that is at least as obnoxious as the most extreme “Christian right”, wanting to use our government as a vessel to do the work of the Church. Except that the “Christian right” has one thing going for them – what the Bible says about the role of government. Nothing in the New Testament says anything about the role of the government as a provider, but it does talk about the government having the sword to administer justice and punish wickedness.

    Now I don’t believe that a government has to punish every sin. I believe in limited government on the grounds that those in government are fallen, corruption prone humans. I think much of the sins I listed above should be off-limits for legislation. I’m just making the case that trying to use the government for Christian charity is at best misguided and at worst hypocritical.

  2. Byron says:

    Excellent, AC! Well-said.

  3. Derlin says:

    An interesting followup would be to compare/contrast ancient Israel with a modern welfare state. There you had a theocracy with approximately a 33% tax to support others including the Levites, the temple, and the poor and needy.

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