Socialism in the Bible

According to Dictionary.com, capitalism is “an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations.” Based on this definition, the thrust of capitalism is that all things economic (being the production and consumption of resources) are to be held privately and not be governed by a single source, i.e. government. Further then, the idea of being private is to assume and infer freedom of choice with limited interference or direction; and that direction being only that minimal amount that is necessary to maintain social order. Leaving these principles leads to an abandonment of capitalism.

The question then is, where does Bible stand on this? And even more specifically, does God call his followers to practice capitalism? The answer is yes. The scriptures referring, in even the slightest manner, to economics are undoubtedly biased towards capitalism; and not just capitalism, but capitalism that is in its purest form. Said another way, we should not necessarily look to the context of the current economic environment for an accurate example of the ‘what’ and ‘how’.

This having been, there are certainly scriptures that on the surface do not appear to be favoring capitalism. And Christ himself teaches lessons throughout the New Testament where it could be reasonably deduced that capitalism is unhealthy and leads to a sinful life. Here are examples of both.

Acts 2:45 – “and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone who might have need.”

This text provides an example of the early Church practicing a model of socialism. Perhaps more specifically, they were practicing a form of what we refer to as welfare or the redistribution of wealth. They collected and combined their resources and then redistributed them throughout those who had need within their group.

Another such example is found in Acts 4:32-37 – “32And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. 33And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. 34For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. 36Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), 37and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

This text goes a step further and indicates a centralized organization and distribution through the apostles. And because of this factor, this illustration more closely represents a socialist system than the previous text – which is obviously in contrast to capitalism. To take this thought a step further, the text continues by telling the story of a married couple who sold their land but held back some of the profits for themselves. They were struck dead for their transgressions.

These two arguments that have been presented are common in this religious debate – does the Bible teach socialism? With that having been said, while they do portray this picture a certain way, there is much more to be considered than just the practical perception – which is that this collection and redistribution of resources inherently speaks against capitalism. This is an errant argument because it ignores the political and social context of the situation and the theological framework of the text. In both these examples there is a clear inference of the participants willing participation – which as referred to previously is paramount to the definition of capitalism. There is no indication of organizational, social or political pressure being applied. To the contrary, the primary theological lesson of these texts is that these new Christians are motivated and called to give liberally by Christ’ love that now lives in them and is poured out through the Holy Spirit. Consideration of these facts leads to the conclusion that these two scriptures are examples of capitalism being practiced in its purest form. More specifically, individuals of greater means saw a need and opportunity to help and then freely choice to give of their personal resources. These examples dispel the argument that some form of socialism is necessary to care for and provide basic necessities for those who are unable to do so for themselves.

There is often a perception that the primary premise or purpose for capitalism is for the individual to be able to gather and accumulate as much wealth as possible – otherwise, why not just endeavor to make the collective group as wealthy as possible. In accepting this idea, the text found in Matthew 6:19-21 becomes particularly relevant. It states, 19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20“But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”.

The Christian who opposes capitalism or perhaps is just of the opinion that the Bible teaches socialism, will reference this scripture to argue that capitalism leads to a sinful love and accumulation of money. And then deduce and further argue that since Jesus stated that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” that capitalism is wrong or leads to sin. This argument ignores the context of the text and audience to whom Jesus was speaking. He was talking about our priorities. He understood, even then, the strong attraction (or temptation) of materialism. He was simply providing a stern warning to avoid the temptations of materialism.

Thanks so much to John DeMoss at DeMoss Accounting for sponsoring my blog!