The Church and Common Ownership
Jack Putterill.

Birmingham, C.C.M.C.O., 1944. Magnificat Publication No. 6


We often hear it said that the early church in Jerusalem was Communist. Is this true, and if so in what way was it Communist? How long did it last and why did it fail? are questions this pamphlet seeks to answer; also to answer what relation, if any, has this early Communism with the Communism of to-day.

In the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles we read that "The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul; and not one said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common." -- Ch. 4, v. 32.

In an earlier chapter 2, v. 44, we read, "All that believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need." And in a previous verse 42 we are told of the four distinguishing marks of the Christian community, "And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers." The Greek word for "in fellowship " is KOINONIA (which we will often abbreviate to K). It is a word which we hear often in church circles in these days. A careful examination of the meaning of this word will help in answering the questions we have set ourselves.


Does it mean more, or less than our word "fellowship" or has it some special exclusive religious and supernatural meaning? To answer this we need to know if the word was in common use among the Greek writers, and what they meant by it, and only by knowing this can we understand its use by the Christian writers.


We find this word KOINONIA frequently in Plato. He uses it many times in his Republic to describe "the Communism (K) of women and children among the guardians of the state." He uses the word also to mean "Community," and again for " a common feeling of pleasure and pain."

Aristotle, too, uses the word continually in his Ethics, where he treats of Friendship. in Book 8. He maintains that "In every communion (K) there is some principle of Justice and Friendship," which justifies the old proverb "The goods of friends are common, since friendship rests upon Communion (K)." In another place he speaks of the Communion between father and son, and in another he uses the word. for marriage.

Numerous other quotations could be given from the Greek writers to show that with them the word always means "community, communion, intercourse, to share and have things in common."

In Aristophanes (393 B.C.) we have a very clear example of its use socially and politically. In his play " ECCLESIAZUSAE," Aristophanes shows how the women of Athens were disgusted with the mismanagement of the state by the menfolk (their husbands). (Times change but little it seems!) So the women contrived a plot to seize control of the state. They rose early one morning, while their husbands were yet asleep, and dressed themselves in their husbands' clothes, put on wigs and beards, and thus disguised, they proceeded to the Assembly. There, they moved a resolution that the affairs of the State should be handed over to the women. The reason advanced for this (by the disguised women) was that as the women manage their homes so successfully it was likely that they would as successfully run the affairs of the larger home -- the state. This resolution was carried unanimously and the women forthwith returned home to announce the news to their respective husbands. When they reached home they found their husbands hunting for their clothes; and very angry and impatient to be off to take their places in the Assembly. But they were too late; they realised that they had not only been tricked out of their clothes, but also out of their positions as governors. The women were certainly up too early for them. In due course the women took over the government of Athens and Praxagora, the women's leader outlined their new policy. The new law of Athens is to be KOINONIA. This is her speech:

"The rule which I dare to enact and declare
Is that all should be equal and equally share
All wealth and enjoyments; nor longer endure
That one should be rich and another poor.
That one should have acres, far stretching and wide
And another not even enough to provide
Himself with a grave; That this at his call
Should have hundreds of servants and that none at all.
All this I intend to correct and amend.
Now all of all blessings shall freely partake
One life and one system for all men I make,"
B. B. Rogers, M.A., the translater and commentator of the play says in regard to this speech:
"This first word of Praxagora's address, KOINONEIN, strikes the note of the scheme she is about to propose: a scheme which aims at making a clean sweep of the existing order of things, social as well as political, and setting in its place a system of pure unadulterated Communism under the control of the women. This is surprising because the claim of the women in the play is based upon their conservatism as contrasted with the desire of change in the men."
True conservatism is thus seen to be Communism. Thus the word (K) is here seen to mean community, fellowship and Communism.


Greek scholars of the New Testament all agree that this is also the essential meaning of the word as used in the scriptures, and insist that it is always more than a feeling of fellowship. Dr. Hort says, "It expresses something more external and concrete than a spirit of Communion. It is inward fellowship with outward manifestation." Both these aspects are involved in its true meaning. A glance at its use In the New Testament will suffice and confirm. 1 Cor., 10, 15. Is it not the communion (K) of the blood of Christ? Gal. 2, 9: They gave the right hand of fellowship (K)'. Gal. 6, 6: Let him that is taught in the word communicate (K), and in the more theological passages we find the same double aspect of the word, e.g., and the Fellowship of the .Holy Ghost" which is more than a divine friendliness but is a communication of the Holy Spirit. Jesus expressed this essential principle in the Divine economy when he said, "All things that the Father hath are mine." John 15,16:

Let us turn now to its use in the Acts of the Apostles, Ch. 2, v. 42, already quoted, "They continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and in fellowship (K)." Dean Alford, one of the greatest authorities on the Greek of the New Testament, says that here KOINONIA means "The community, the living together as one family, and having things in common." It is the Spirit of Brotherhood which expresses itself in sharing of goods and the common life.


This Christian Communism has been a source of great worry to later-day Christians, who are all too eager to discredit it and to make out that it was failure. (Is it not a grave blasphemy so to speak against the work of the Holy Spirit?) Dr. Swete says in this connection: "From the first, the Church was inspired with the consciousness of possessing a common faith and life, common interests, and brotherly love. The Mother Church at Jerusalem practised at first something which approached to a community of goods; and though this experiment was not altogether successful, and does not seem to have been extended to other Christians' societies, the thought of the Church as a brotherhood, involving new relationships and obligations, was general wherever the faith made its way. The Christians of the sub-apostolic age had their limitations and imperfections, but the spirit of fellowship was as strong among them as it had been in the Apostolic days." Whatever limitations and imperfections they may have had in those early days, they would have had a shock on seeing what our modern age has made of Christianity. Further, we may well ask what evidence there is that this community of goods was not altogether successful, and that it was peculiar to Jerusalem? This is such a very general assumption by modern Christians, to whom the wish is father to the thought, that it is well to weigh the evidence carefully. The only evidence advanced, however, is that these Jerusalem Christians were very poor and St. Paul and others were constantly having to make collections for them in the other Churches -- this is adduced as conclusive evidence that Communism had failed. But these learned scholars fail to notice that the poverty of the Jerusalem Christians was not due to their Communism, but to a severe famine which affected Judaea at this time, and which was so severe that many of the citizens of Jerusalem perished from hunger. This famine is mentioned both in the Acts itself, and also in the history of Josephus in Book 22, chapter 2:

Antiquities Josephus XXII., chapter 2. Queen Helerm goes to Jerusalem:

" She arrived at Jerusalem at a happy hour for the citizens, as so dreadful a famine prevailed at that time, that multitudes were perishing for want of bread. Their distress was no sooner made known to this benevolent princess than she sent several of her train, some to one place and some to another in search for relief, insomuch in a short time great quantities of wheat were brought from Alexandria ...which she immediately caused to be distributed among the poor. Her son, Izates, likewise, on receiving intelligence of the famine, sent great benefactions in money to the rulers of Jerusalem for the use of their poor."
This explains the collections of St. Paul. It was owing to their Communism that the Christians survived this severe famine. It is very unlikely that the Christian would benefit much from the royal bounty or from the distribution of the authorities, for indeed at this time they were being persecuted by them ; a persecution not unconnected with their communistic way of life. So this contention of the belittlers of the Communism of Jerusalem breaks down before the evidence. Further, there is mention of "This sharing of goods" as the normal life of Christian communities more than a hundred years after Pentecost. For Tertullian in his Apology, writing in A.D. 165 says:
"Fraternal stability of our community of goods, our brotherhood, how it knits, while the Roman system of individualism disintegrates. . . no tragedy makes a noise about our brotherhood. The family possessions which generally destroy brotherhood among you, create fraternal bonds among us. One, in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things except our wives are common among us." -- Tertullian Apology. Ch. 39.
St. Ignatius uses similar words. St. Clement of Rome quotes Aristotle with approval in his Recognitions:

Clement Recognitions, p. 194.:

A certain man, the wisest among the Greeks, knowing that these things are so, says 'that friends should have all things common' . . . he says also, that 'air and the sunshine cannot be divided, so neither ought other things be divided which are given in this world to all, to be possessed in common which should be so possessed."
This mark of the Church, KOINONIA, was the fruit of the Spirit showing itself first in the common life of sharing, lived by our Lord with his Apostles, and then practised generally by the Early Church, a mark which remained in the Church certainly during its first two-hundred-and-fifty years.

After the establishment of the Christian Religion as the State Religion of the Roman Empire, scholars admit that the Church lost a very large measure of its former vitality. Bishop Gore once said, in a lecture at Oxford to the Anglo- Catholic Summer School of Sociology, "The Christianity that survived Constantine had one-tenth of its former vigour," and the Christian Fathers that come after this date look. back to the earlier days and especially to this KOINONIA as a state of Grace which had been lost. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechical Lectures given at Jerusalem in A.D. 350 writes: "So great was the Grace of the Holy Ghost, which wrought by means of the twelve Apostles in them who believed, that they were of one heart and one soul, and their enjoyment of their goods was common, the possessors piously offering the prices of their possession, and no one among them wanting aught; while Ansanias and Sapphira who attempted to lie to the Holy Ghost underwent their befitting punishment." According to St. Cyril, this Communism was a success, not a failure. St. Chrysostom, the Golden Tongued preacher at Antioch and Constantinople, speaks in the same way:

St. Chrysostom often expresses the resolute opinion that private property is the root of all Church disasters and checks. "It is not for lack of miracles that the Church is staid, it is because we have forsaken the angelic life of Pentecost and fallen back on private property. If we lived as they did, with all things common, we should soon convert the whole world, with no need of miracles at all." -- Homily 25 Acts.
Again in a sermon at Constantinople (Homily II.):
"That is a lovely saying; Grace was upon them all. The cause of the grace was, there was none that lacked. This means the zeal of the giver was so great that none lacked. . . if this were done now our lives would be far happier, be we rich or poor. It would bring just as much happiness to the rich as to the poor. . ." - - Quoted from Marson, p. 91, Co-operative Commonwealth.

The principle underlying this sharing of goods, "that among friends all things are common " is the accepted teaching of all the early Fathers of the Church as to property and its rights.

St. Ambrose, the great. Bishop of Milan, says in one of his sermons:

"It is not yours that you give to the poor, it is his. What was given for the common use of all do you alone appropriate. The earth is all men's, not the property of the rich; but those who use their own are fewer than those who have lost the use of it. Therefore 'in alms' you pay a debt, you do not bestow a bounty."
Again, Pope Gregory in his answers to St. Augustine's questions as to various problems arising in his missionary enterprise to this country of England, says:
"You are to follow that course of life which our forefathers did in the time of the Primitive Church, when none of them said anything he possessed was his own, but all things were in common among them. ..." -- Bede, Anglo Saxon Chronicle.
And again in his Pastoral Rule, St. Gregory annunciates and applies the .same .principle:
"Those who neither desire things which belong to others, nor bestow of their own, are to be admonished carefully to consider that the earth from which they are taken is common to all men, and therefore it also bringeth forth nourishment for all in common. In vain then do they think themselves innocent who claim to their own private use the common gift of God, and while they give not that they have received go on in the slaughter of their neighbours; for they cut off almost everyday so many dying poor as they hide away relief for at home. For when we administer any necessary to indigent persons, we render to them their own, we do not bestow that is ours; we rather pay a debt of righteousness than perform works of mercy." -- St. Gregory, p. 297, Pastoral Rule.

But what form did this Christian Communism take? Did they share their tooth brushes? The Acts states that those with houses and lands sold them and brought the money to the Apostles' feet for distribution to the needs of the poorer brethren. It does not imply, however, that there was any general pooling of goods, but rather all things were held as common property, and to be treated as such, especially in the relief of need. A principle which is illustrated not only by St. Barnabas, who, having lands, sold them and gave the proceeds to the Apostles, but also by the collections later made by St. Paul and Barnabas for the distress at Jerusalem.

This principle of Common Ownership lies at the root of an the teaching of the Church both ancient and mediaeval. On it St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologia, bases his teaching in the section, "Whether it is lawful to steal through stress or need," by saying:

I answer that things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or divine right. Now according to the natural order established by divine providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succouring man's need by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things based upon human law, do not preclude the fact that man's needs have to be remedied by means of these very things.

Hence, whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succouring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says, Sermon 64, Day 10th: 'It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money you bury in the earth is the price of the needy man's redemption and freedom.'

Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succoured by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need is so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance, when a person is in imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succour his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly; nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.

It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly .and use another's property in a case of extreme need; because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need. In a case of a like need a man may also take secretly another's property in order to succour his neighbour in need." P. 232, Q. 66, Art. 7.

All this teaching is based upon the principle, " In cases of need all things are common property."

Very gradually, as capitalism developed, we hear less and less of common property rights from the official Church, and more and more about the rights of private property. There comes a wave of stealing; first, the rich stealing the common lands of the people, and then the evicted and starving peasants stealing from the rich and being hanged for it. The first stealing was legalised and the second terrorised. We find always in the struggles of the people for their rights, the appeal to this Natural Law and Christian Teaching of the essential common ownership of the earth and its fruits. Thus we find John Ball, Martyr and chief organiser of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, in one of his famous sermons, saying:

"Good people," cried John Ball, "things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in COMMON, and so long as there be villeins and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater folk than we? If we all came of the same parents, ADAM and EVE, how can they prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend on their pride? They are clothed in velvet and warm in their furs, while we are covered with rags, They have wines and spices and fair bread; and we oatcakes and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; and we have pain and labour, the rain and the wind in the fields. Yet it is of US and OUR TOIL that these men hold their state."
There is the same appeal in the rebel's complaint of Robert Ket, Martyr, who led the Peasants' Revolt against the enclosures of 1549, on which he says:
"The common pastures left by our predecessors for our relief and our children are taken away. The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in and made several; the pastures are enclosed, and we shut out.

Whatsoever the fowls of the air or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth -- all these do they devour, consume and swallow up; yea, Nature doth not suffice to satisfy their lusts but they seek out new devices, and as it were forms of pleasures to embalm and perfume themselves, to abound in pleasant smells, to pour in sweet things to sweet things. Finally, they seek from all places all things for their desire and provocation of lust. While we, in the meantime, eat herbs and roots, and languish with continual labour, and yet are envied that we live, breathe, and enjoy common air! Shall they. as they have brought hedges about common pastures enclose with their intolerable lusts also all the commodities and pleasures of this life, which Nature, the parent of us all would have common, and bringeth forth everyday, for us as well as for them? We can no longer bear so much, so great. and so cruel injury; neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess and pride of the nobility. We will rather take . arms, and mix heaven and earth together, than endure so great cruelty. Nature hath provided for us as well as for them; hath given us body and a soul, and hath not envied us other things. While we have the same form, and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike unto ours, and differ so far from us in calling?"

Mention need hardly be made of the passionate plea of St. Thomas More against the cruel injustices of this same time, when whole villages were being pulled down to make way for the more profitable industry of sheep farming; when families were turned adrift on to to roads to starve. And how that his plan for a better England is based upon a thorough Common Ownership. It is well to remember his Utopia was the dream, not of an ignorant hot-head, but of the Chancellor of England, easily the most learned Justice and Scholar in the realm, if not in Europe.

Right into the Seventeenth Century, at the time of the Commonwealth, 1648, we find the Diggers appealing to the same basic law. Gerrard Winstanley in his "New Law of Righteousness; budding forth to restore the whole Creation from the Bondage of the Curse; or a glimpse of the new Heaven and the new earth wherein dwells righteousness," in which he makes the same appeal to the common ownership of the earth as the essential law of nature. "The rich, in their enclosure saying, 'this is mine'; and the poor upon the commons saying, 'this is ours, the earth and its fruits are common.' And who could be offended at the poor for doing this? None but covetous, proud, idle, pampered flesh,, that would have the poor work still for this devil (particular interests) to maintain his greatness that he may live at ease."

". ..Leave off dominion and lordship one over another for the whole bulk of mankind are but one living earth."

Nearer our own time, we find the Rev. Frederick Denison Maurice reminding the Victorian Age that Communism is the essence of Christianity. In a letter to Mr. Ludlow, he writes:

I think they should be made to feel that Communism, in whatever sense it is a principle of the New Moral World, is a most important principle. of the Old World. And that every monastic institution -- properly so called -- was a Communist institution to all intents and purposes. The idea of Christian communism has been a most vigorous and generative idea of all ages, and must be destined to a full development in ours." .

Although Maurice was fully aware that the principle of Communism was inherent in true Christianity and, in consequence, called himself a Christian Socialist, yet he did not identify himself with the growing Socialist Movement of his day, but rather set up Christian Socialism as a counter-blast to the secular movement. He could demand Communism for the Church and co-operation for society as a whole, but he writes:

I must have Monarchy, Aristocracy and Socialism, or rather Humanity, recognised as necessary elements of an organic Christian Society." -- P. 131, "Life of Maurice," by F: Maurice.
He was, however, a pioneer of Christian Socialism, and one of the first in that age to see the inherent Communism of Christianity, and it was left to his followers to see further the inherent Christianity in the secular socialist movement. For later there arose the famous Guild of St. Matthew and the Church Socialist League, with such famous names as Stewart Headlam, Charles Marson, Conrad Noel, Lewis Donaldson, Percy Widdrington, Paul Stacy, George Lansbury, Frederick Verrinder, Paul Bull, Cecil Chesterton, etc., all making their witness that Socialism, not Capitalism, is the true expression of Christianity. A challenge which is maintained to-day by many Christian Socialist Societies, among them the Socialist Christian League, and the more recently formed CCMCO [Council of Clergy and Ministers for Common Ownership].

Nor has the realisation that Christianity must concern itself with social systems and the social theory of property been confined to these small Christian Societies, for we find that through their work and the influence of the great Labour and Socialist Movement, the Bishops of the Anglican Church, as well as leaders of other denominations, have made far- reaching pronouncements on these things. During the last world war the Canadian Methodists declared that:

"The present economic system stands revealed as one of the roots of war. . ."

:The war has made more clearly manifest the moral perils inherent in the system of production for profits; condemnation of special individuals seems often unjust and always futile. The system rather than the individual calls for change. . . the ethics of Jesus demand nothing less than. the transfer of the whole economic life from the basis of competiion and profit to one of co-operation and service." -- The New Social Order, Ward, p. 342.

The Resolution, No. 87, of the Lambeth Conference of 1921, passed by the Anglican Episcopate:
"An outstanding and pressing duty of the Church is to convince its members of the necessity of nothing less than a fundamental change in the spirit and working of our economic life. This change can only be effected by accepting as the basis of industrial relations the principle of co-operation and service for the common good, in place of unrestricted competition for private or sectional advantage. All Christian people ought to take an active part in bringing about this change, by which alone we can hope to remove class dissensions and resolve industrial discords."

But what relation has this Christian teaching of KOINONIA to the doctrines of Modern Communism? Communism as we now know it was largely formulated by Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, 1848. Here, the programme is clearly set forth that all the main industries would have to come under common ownership and be democratically controlled by the people. But the Manifesto makes a very clear distinction between what it calls "capitalist or bourgeois private property and personal property." It says "Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society, all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labour of others by means of such appropriation."

The application of this is seen in the present Soviet Socialist Constitution, which says in Article 10:

"The right of citizens to personal property in their income from work and in their savings, in their dwelling houses and auxiliary household economy,their domestic furniture and utensils.and objects of personal use and comfort, as well as the right of inheritance of personal property of citizens are protected. by law (in Article 6), while water, the land, mines, transport and factories are declared to be the common property of all the Soviet citizens."
Karl Marx had studied the mechanism of capitalism very closely and saw clearly that its fundamental injustice was the .exploitation of the property-less-man by the man of property. He saw that all industry was caught up in a vicious round of competition and antagonism which in its turn lead to monopolies and cartels and consequent rivalries on an ever increasing and threatening scale until the cycle burst into armed conflict. History, since his day has all too tragically illustrated the truth of his analysis, and to-day millions are aware that there can be no peace until the monopolies and cartels are owned and controlled by the people and worked for the common good. His prophecies, or rather scientific deductions of a hundred years ago are now accepted truths. Recently, Vice-President Wallace, of the United States of America, in his speech at Chicago, fully confirmed the truths that Marx had set forth in his Manifesto.

Vice-President Wallace said, at Chicago, 11th September, 1943:

What I didn't know, and what 130,000,000 Americans did not know, was that the private rulers of world industry and their own private approach to synthetic rubber, was a subject of a private treaty between a great American Oil Company and I.G. Farben, the German Chemical colossus. These two great concerns made a deal. The Germans were given a world monopoly on synthetic rubber, the Americans were given a synthetic petrol; this monopoly was good over the entire world, with the exception of Germany. This secret agreement between an American monopoly and a German cartel was submitted to no public authority in this country. It was far more important than most treaties, but it was never brought before the United States Senate. The peoples and the governments of the world had unwittingly let the cartels and the monopolies form a super government by means of which they could monopolise and divide whole fields of science and carve up the markets of the world at their own sweet pleasure. The people must get back their power to deal with this super government. This super government has misused the people of the United States not only with regard to rubber, but in a host of other critical industries as well."

The Communist solution outlined by Marx is but the extension to society of those Christian principles of brotherhood and sharing practised so successfully at Jerusalem 1,900 years ago"

In the earlier part of Christian history this KOINONIA was a challenge to the world, but after the year 313 A.D., we have seen how the world fought back, and Christianity, far from overcoming the world, was nearer to being overcome by it. The vision of the Early Christians was for a world based upon KOINONIA, a world of peace and international brotherhood, the kingdom of God.

This is still the goal of humanity, and it is for the Christians to join in the struggle for this International Commonwealth. The Greeks had word for it -- KOINONIA..

NOTE: Jack Putterill, "turbulent priest and rebel," succeeded Conral Noel as Vicar of Thaxted, where he served for over 30 years. Along with Stanley Evans, Jack Boggis, Hewlitt Johnson, Alan Ecclestone, and others, he was active in the Council of Clergy and Ministers for Common Ownership [CCMCO] for whom this pamphlet was written. In a forward to Putterill's 1977 autobiography, Thaxted Quest for Social Justice, Stanley Wilson writes: "Father Jack Putterill is one of those rare prophets who is a disciple both of Jesus Christ and Karl Marx. His religion and politics are all one -- just sharing the good things of life since all mankind are brothers and sisters under the Fatherhood of God. He has been known to give away his last shirt to someone who seemed to need it more than he did . . . His blood-red banner streams afar and Jack is always in the front rank of the battle." Some of his particular political conclusions may strike us as a little naive from our vantage point, 60 years on, but "sharing the good things of life" remains as valid -- and essential -- as ever. -- Ted. M.