Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: Primitive Christianity and Society - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
3: Primitive Christianity and Society - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Primitive Christianity and Society
Primitive Christianity was not ascetic. With a joyful acceptance of life it deliberately pushed into the background the ascetic ideals which permeated many contemporary sects. (Even John the Baptist lived as an ascetic.) Only in the third and fourth centuries was ascetisism introduced into Christianity, from this time dates the ascetic re-interpretation and reformation of Gospel teachings. The Christ of the Gospels enjoys life among his disciples, refreshes himself with food and drink and shares the feasts of the people. He is as far removed from asceticism and a desire to flee the world as he is from intemperance and debauchery.21 Alone his attitude to the relations of the sexes strikes us as ascetic, but we can explain this, as we can explain all practical Gospel Teachings—and they offer no rules of life except practical ones—by the basic conception which gives us our whole idea of Jesus, the conception of the Messiah.
“The Time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” These are the words with which, in the Gospel of Mark, the Redeemer makes his entry.22 Jesus regards himself as the prophet of the approaching Kingdom of God, the Kingdom which according to ancient prophecy shall bring redemption from all earthly insufficiency, and with it from all economic cares. His followers have nothing to do but to prepare themselves for this Day. The time for worrying about earthly matters is past, for now, in expectation of the Kingdom, men must attend to more important things. Jesus offers no rules for earthly action and struggle; his Kingdom is not of this world. Such rules of conduct as he gives his followers are valid only for the short interval of time which has still to be lived while waiting for the great things to come. In the Kingdom of God there will be no economic cares. There the believers will eat and drink at the Lord’s table.23 For this Kingdom therefore, all economic and political counsel would be superfluous. Any preparations made by Jesus must be regarded as merely transitional expedients.24
It is only in this way that we can understand why, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus recommends his own people to take no thought for food, drink, and clothing; why he exhorts them not to sow or reap or gather in barns, not to labour or spin. It is the only explanation, too, of his and his disciples’ “communism.” This “communism” is not Socialism; it is not production with means of production belonging to the community. It is nothing more than a distribution of consumption goods among the members of the community—”unto each, according as any one had need.”25 It is a communism of consumption goods, not of the means of production, a community of consumers, not of producers. The primitive Christians do not produce, labour, or gather anything at all. The newly converted realize their possessions and divide the proceeds with the brethren and sisters. Such a way of living is untenable in the long run. It can be looked upon only as a temporary order which is what it was in fact intended to be. Christ’s disciples lived in daily expectation of Salvation.
The primitive Christian’s idea of imminent fulfillment transforms itself gradually into that conception of the Last Judgment which lies at the root of all ecclesiastical movements that have had any prolonged existence. Hand in hand with this transformation went the entire reconstruction of the Christian rules of life. Expectation of the coming of the Kingdom of God could no longer serve as a basis. When the congregations sought to organize themselves for a prolonged life on earth they had to cease demanding that their members should abstain from work and dedicate themselves to the contemplative life in preparation for the Divine Kingdom. Not only did they have to tolerate their brethren’s participation in the world’s work, they had to insist upon it, as otherwise they would have destroyed the conditions necessary to the existence of their religion. And thus, Christianity, which began with complete indifference to all social conditions, practically canonized the social order of the declining Roman Empire once the process of adapting the Church to that order had begun.
It is an error to speak of the social teachings of primitive Christianity. The historical Christ and his teachings, as the oldest part of the New Testament represents them, are quite indifferent to all social considerations. Not that Christ did not sharply criticize the existing state of affairs, but he did not think it worth while to consider how matters could be improved or even to think about them at all. That was God’s affair. He would set up his own glorious and faultless Kingdom, and its coming would be soon. Nobody knew what this Kingdom would look like, but one thing was certain: in it one would live carefree. Jesus omits all minuter details, and they were not needed; for the Jews of his time did not doubt the splendour of life in the Kingdom of God. The Prophets had announced this Kingdom and their words continued to live in the minds of the people, forming indeed the essential content of their religious thought.
The expectation of God’s own reorganization when the time came and the exclusive transfer of all action and thought to the future Kingdom of God, made Jesus’s teaching utterly negative. He rejects everything that exists without offering anything to replace it. He arrives at dissolving all existing social ties. The disciple shall not merely be indifferent to supporting himself, shall not merely refrain from work and dispossess himself of all goods, but he shall hate “father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life.”26 Jesus is able to tolerate the worldly laws of the Roman Empire and the prescriptions of the Jewish Law because he is indifferent to them, despising them as things important only within the narrow limits of time and not because he acknowledges their value. His zeal in destroying social ties knows no limits. The motive force behind the purity and power of this complete negation is ecstatic inspiration and enthusiastic hope of a new world. Hence his passionate attack upon everything that exists. Everything may be destroyed because God in His omnipotence will rebuild the future order. No need to scrutinize whether anything can be carried over from the old to the new order, because this new order will arise without human aid. It demands therefore from its adherents no system of ethics, no particular conduct in any positive direction. Faith and faith alone, hope, expectation—that is all he needs. He need contribute nothing to the reconstruction of the future, this God Himself has provided for. The clearest modern parallel to the attitude of complete negation of primitive Christianity is Bolshevism. The Bolshevists, too, wish to destroy everything that exists because they regard it as hopelessly bad. But they have in mind ideas, indefinite and contradictory though they may be, of the future social order. They demand not only that their followers shall destroy all that is, but also that they pursue a definite line of conduct leading towards the future Kingdom of which they have dreamt. Jesus teaching in this respect, on the other hand, is merely negation.27
Jesus was no social reformer. His teachings had no moral application to life on earth, and his instructions to the disciples only have a meaning in the light of their immediate aim—to await the Lord with girded loins and burning lamps, “that when he cometh and knocketh, they may straightaway open unto him.”28 It is just this that has enabled Christianity to make its triumphant progress through the world. Being neutral to any social system, it was able to traverse the centuries without being destroyed by the tremendous social revolutions which took place. Only for this reason could it become the religion of Roman Emperors and Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs, of African negroes and European Teutons, medieval feudal lords and modern industrial labourers. Each epoch and every party has been able to take from it what they wanted, because it contains nothing which binds it to a definite social order.
[21. ]Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums (Leipzig, 1907), pp. 50 ff.
[22. ]Mark, 1, 15.
[23. ]Luke, XXII, 30.
[24. ]Harnack, Aus Wissenschaft und Leben, Vol. II (Giessen, 1911), pp. 257 ff.; Troeltsch, Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen, pp. 31 ff.
[25. ]Acts of the Apostles, IV, 35.
[26. ]Luke, XIV, 26.
[27. ]Pfleiderer, Das Urchristentum, Vol. I, pp. 649 ff.
[28. ]Luke, XII, 35-36.