This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 38 states:
XXXVIII. Of Christian men’s Goods, which are not common
The Riches and Goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast. Notwithstanding, every man ought, of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to his ability.
As a whole, these thirty-nine Articles of Religion are a collection of points of faith that set out both statements of belief as well as boundaries that identify which is outside the biblical faith of the Church. A few Articles have already named one extreme that is outside the bounds of the Anglican tradition, namely the “Roman” or “Papist” accretions to catholic doctrines. Article 38, here, names another tradition that puts forth doctrines contrary to the Christian faith: the Anabaptists. They were implicitly warned against in Article 27, wherein the practice of infant baptism is upheld, but this is the first (and only) time they are named specifically.
One of the features of the Anabaptist traditions when these Articles were written was their tendency to form tight-knit communities and renounce individual ownership of possessions in favor of common ownership among the members of the church. They did so with strong arguments to defend their views drawn both from the Scriptures and the Early Church, most noteably Acts 4:32 – “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.” Article 38 somewhat ironically references this text to say seemingly the opposite. The critical error of the Anabaptists of the day was that the sharing of possessions ended up being church-enforced. And besides, there are no universal teachings anywhere in the Scriptures that private ownership is to be eschewed.
Rather, God’s people are called to be liberal, “according to his ability”. This doesn’t mean we are to give if we are able, but as we are able. The difference is key: generosity is not the sole purview of the comfortably rich, but of all God’s people. As two of the Offertory Sentences available in our liturgy explains, “They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you” (Deut. 16:16-17) and “If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity” (Tobit 4:8-9).
Sometimes people take teachings like Article 38 a step further and conclude that Christians are to be capitalists. Such an assertion is a step too far. No economic theory will perfectly capture the biblical teachings; no invention of man can live up to the decrees of God. The teachings to liberality throughout the Bible and the system of property ownership detailed in the Law of Moses suggest a ‘distributist’ approach to economics, but again this does not endorse the economic ramification of modern theories such as socialism or communism either. As with politics and philosophy, a Christian’s approach economics must be defined by the teaching of Scriptures first, making use of modern theories secondarily. Whatever we conclude about the role of the state and the rights of the property owner, we know that the Church has no authority over her members’ assets, but that it is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).