Free Markets, Socialism, and Biblical Stewardship

by Derek Brown

In a previous article, I made the case that Christians should have some concern about the economy because the economy is directly related to our calling to work, exercise dominion, and steward the resources God has entrusted to our care. I also noted that Christians should have an interest in economics because of it intersects with a biblical worldview at several crucial points.

Economic theories and policies are not developed in a theologically neutral setting where scholars cull objective facts from a vein of financial truth buried in a secret cave. No, economic theories and policies are built upon assumptions about ultimate reality: the existence and providence of God, the purpose and goodness of creation, the nature of humankind, the nature of sin, the dignity of work and private property, the role of government, the direction of history, and how to effectively care for the poor. Each of these categories are essential features of a biblical worldview.

Economic theories and policies are built upon assumptions about ultimate reality.

Given the relationship of a biblical worldview to the study of economics, then, Christians should have some concern that socialism has re-emerged with some vigor in the national conversation, especially among the so-called millennial generation. Even some Christians being swept up in the tide and advocating for socialism because they view it as the “Christian” economic model.

Christian Socialism?
For example, the Institute for Christian Socialism describe themselves as an, “ecumenical institute founded on the conviction that the socialism of the Gospel is irreconcilable with capitalism and demands Christian participation in the emergence of new forms of political economy today.” This group is liberal in their theological convictions, so you might think that liberal theology and advocacy for socialism go hand and hand—they usually do—but even among some professing evangelicals today there appears to be a soft-spot for socialism.1 Out of the Anabaptist tradition are the Bruderhof communities, an “international Christian community of more than 3,000 people living in twenty-eight settlements on four continents” where members have “gladly renounce[d] private property and share everything in common.”

Broadly speaking, among Christian socialists, there are those who who view socialism as a macro-economic model that best coincides with Christian convictions. These Christian socialists, therefore, advocate for socialism at a political level with the goal of of seeing it applied to a national economy. The Institute for Christian Socialism would be representative of this approach. But this approach should be distinguished from those who argue that socialism at a community-level is the best and most biblical way for Christians to live, while not necessarily suggesting that countries adopt a socialist economy on a broad scale. The Bruderhof communities would be representative of this latter approach. While there will be overlap between these two groups in terms of conviction about how communities should form and economies should function, we should be careful to distinguish these two approaches.

In this article, therefore, I will focus specifically on the topic of socialism and distinguish it from a free-market economy to see how Scripture informs these distinctions and consider whether or not a biblical worldview actually leads us to embrace one model over the other. I will also take up the question of whether or not the Bible requires Christians to live in socialistic communities.

Defining our Terms: Free-Markets and Socialism
A free-market economy is where “decisions about economic production and consumption are made by the free choices of individuals, not by the government.”2 The market consists of individuals and companies (that consist of individuals) producing goods and services, lawfully earning money, then freely choosing on what to spend their money for other goods and services. In this system, individuals are making decisions about what they need and want and what they are willing to pay for what they need and want. The means of production is privately owned by individuals and is protected by the state from theft.    

A free-market economy is where “decisions about economic production and consumption are made by the free choices of individuals, not by the government.”

A socialist economy is an “economic system in which the government owns the means of production (the business and farms), and goods are almost entirely produced and distributed by government direction.”3 The goal in a socialist economy is to eventually distribute the means of production to The People so that the workers own equal shares in the means of production, all inequality and class structure is abolished, and the state only acts as a guide for The People. But order to achieve this utopia, the state must direct things in the beginning.    

Socialism often appeals to people because of its idea of equality for all the participants in a given economy. As you survey any particular society or even the world at large, you see rich people and poor people with the poor people are struggling and the rich people doing well and even getting richer. In such a scenario, it seems right and just to equalize people’s wealth and abolish whatever creates these inequalities—namely, private ownership of property and the means of production—and put everyone on the same economic page, generally speaking. (I say “generally speaking” because even within socialist countries there is no such thing as absolute equality.)

Socialist proponents often chide free-market economies because of the perceived intrinsic injustice of the system. A situation in which some people have more material resources than others and where the means of production are privately owned seems to put the ordinary worker at a perpetual disadvantage. The owner of the factory, for example, can easily control the wages of the worker and exploit the worker’s need to earn a living in order to expand the owner’s profits. The remedy to such “injustice” is to remove private ownership so that the worker is no longer at an economic disadvantage.

Does Scripture Call us to Abolish Private Property?
Is such a scenario biblical? Should Christians get their weight behind socialistic proposals in their own country? First, we have to consider that God himself has established the private ownership of property. The command “You shall not steal” (Ex 20:15) only makes sense if there was such a thing as personal property that belonged to another person. The command “You shall not covet…anything that is your neighbor’s” (Ex 20:17) assumes that your neighbor has goods that belong to him that do not belong to you or anyone else. God then establishes a set of specific rules to help Israelite find restitution if their personal property was ever stolen or damaged.

But these commands to protect private property are not the arbitrary whim of a tribal deity: they are built on the Creator’s design of man and woman in his own image and their calling to exercise dominion over the earth and steward the resources God had allotted to their care. The designation of personal property enables individuals to identify the specific section of earth God has entrusted to their oversight so that they can steward it accordingly.

Socialism, however, undermines our ability to freely steward the resources God has entrusted to us by abolishing the category of private ownership and taking what rightfully belongs to us (by God’s design) and redistributing our property to society as whole. Alternatively, a free-market economy is built on private ownership of property and the protection of such property by the government. When people are able to really own things (a car, clothing, money, a home, tools, a business, etc.) and they have the confidence that these things are protected from theft, they are able to use these items and steward them in the way they deem is best.

In a free-market, people also have an important incentive to care for their resources and increase their value: because they will be able to enjoy the fruits of their stewardship through diligent oversight, they are motivated to work all the more. (This point relates to why nations should work to keep their tax rates low so that people remain motivated to produce more goods and services without the fear of having the fruits of their labor taken from them by high taxes. When people expect to lose much of what they’ve worked for, they tend to lower their output in order to avoid taxation.)

The incentives that are attached to private ownership are viewed by Scripture, not as base desires or the mere “profit-making motive,” but as God’s design. Consider the Proverbs. One incentive (there are others, of course) for hard work is that by it a man is able to increase his wealth: “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Prov 10:4; see also 12:24: 13:4; 21:5). Contrast this scenario with the sluggard who fails to tend to his God-given assets: he will only suffer poverty due to his failure to work and develop his land (Prov 24:30). In both cases, each person owned some bit of property and either stewarded it well to their own benefit or neglected it to their own harm.

Are Discrepancies in Wealth Inherently Unjust?
These observations from Scripture also undercut the socialist notion of “justice.” Fundamental to the socialist economic model is a view of justice that requires equality of outcome for all the people who compose a given society. According to socialism, it is inherently unjust for people to own more goods than others or for only some of the population to own the means of production. Justice prevails when all people have the same amount of goods and ownership is equally divided among all workers.

But as we’ve already seen, Scripture itself recognizes that there will be discrepancies in wealth among people in a given society. Some people are wealthy. Some people are poor. Some people are wealthy due to their diligence while others are wealthy due to an inheritance (and some are wealthy due to both). Some folks are poor due to laziness, and some are poor due to injury or a series of devastating circumstances (including actual acts of injustice as we will see). Scripture, however, never decries such discrepancies as inherently unjust (unless they were directly caused by injustice), nor does it suggest that a nation should redress these perceived injustices with wealth redistribution.

In Israel, there were laws that protected the poor from total ruin. For example, Israelites with fruitful vineyards were to leave the grapes they dropped during harvest for the poor to later collect. It was also for this reason owners were not to strip their vineyards bare (Lev 19:10). When owners harvested their fields, they were not to reap all the way to the border of their property, or collect the gleanings from the harvest but instead leave these gleanings for the poor. And there were price-reduction provisions for the poor when it came to purchasing necessary items (Lev 27:8). Property owners were warned to not oppress the poor hired-worker (Deut 24:14), nor was anyone allowed to change the boundaries of one’s property or their neighbor’s property (Prov 23:10).

These various laws guarded the poor in Israel from utter devastation, and they may even serve to legitimize a secular nation’s use of some tax revenue (see Rom 13:6) to help those who are genuinely poor get back on their feet.4 Nevertheless, even under God’s own intervention and economic oversight, poverty would remain a reality for some: “For there will never cease to be poor in the land” (Deut 15:11a). God’s solution, however, was not to label such a situation as inherently unjust and assign the governing authorities in Israel to gather the personal property of individual Jews and redistribute it the poor in the nation thus equalizing each person’s economic status.

Rather, God’s design was to appeal to individuals to use the property which they were entrusted to care for the poor. Immediately after God reveals to Israel that the poor would always be among them, he says, “Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’ (Deut 15:11b). Even the requirement on harvesting and gleaning assumed that owners continued to possess their lands and vineyards and needed to maintain them.

But when a secular government takes what a person has rightfully earned and redistributes it to others in order to create a kind of economic equality, they are removing each person’s freedom to act on what God has commanded him with regard to caring for themselves and the poor. In this action they have infringed on a person’s calling to manage his God-given resources for God’s glory, the good of oneself, and the good of others. Ultimately, as history amply demonstrates, governments that attempt to equalize the economic condition of its citizenry end up devastating their nation’s economy and removing many of people’s basic freedoms in the process.5

When a secular government takes what a person has rightfully earned and redistributes it to others in order to create a kind of economic equality, they are removing each person’s freedom to act on what God has commanded him with regard to caring for themselves and the poor.

A free-market, however, where private property is protected by law and an enforcing agency (i.e., the government), is most conducive to our calling to exercise dominion and steward the resources God has given us. It is also the most effective system for producing useful goods and services, matching supply with demand, creating wealth, and uplifting the poor by providing them opportunities for property ownership, a competitive job market, and entrepreneurship.

Does the Bible Support Communal Socialism?
As we bring this article to a close, let’s consider briefly the notion of Christian communal socialism. Is this a biblical model? Does the Scripture require Christians to give up all their private property to a Christian collective? Given what we’ve seen about what Scripture teaches about the goodness and necessity of private property, we should be immediately suspicious of any Christian group that suggests radical Christianity is expressed in the abolishing of private property. Nevertheless, it will be helpful to address the biblical passages on which these claims are usually built.

The idea that Christians should sell their positions, relinquish personal property, and live in a Christian commune is usually taken from Acts 2:44 and 4:32 where Scripture says that the early church “held all things in common.” But there are a number of features in the text that indicate that Scripture is not requiring or even advocating for a church/commune structure where members must relinquish private property.

First, at no point do the believers sell all of their property, nor was there any external compulsion from the community or from God himself that they must do so. For example, when Ananias attempts to make it appear that he and his wife had sold more of their property than they really had, Peter rebukes them for their sinful motives and reminds them that they could have done whatever they wanted with their property while they owned it (see Acts 5:3-4). Second, even as believers were choosing to give away their property, Christians continued to meet in homes which implied that they were keeping their homes and selling extra property.

Third, Acts 4:32 says that “no one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own; but all things were common property to them” (emphasis added). The point is that none of the Christians were viewing their personal property as something to be selfishly hoarded, but as resources to be used for the common good. Nevertheless, their generosity was voluntary, not coerced, and such voluntary generosity coincides well with Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). Furthermore, the remaining portions of the New Testament do not require believers to sell everything they have. There is even an acknowledgement that some in the body of Christ will be wealthy (1 Tim 6:17-19).

The conclusion we must draw from our study is that Scripture does not promote socialism in any of its forms. Rather, in God’s good design, he has entrusted us with resources to steward and endowed us with the freedom to care for and multiply these resources in a way that brings him glory, provides for our needs, and blesses others. A free-market economy best enables us to fulfill this stewardship.

1Heath Carter, “Does Socialism Have to Be Godless?” Christianity Today, November 20, 2019.
2Barry Asmus and Wayne Grudem, The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway: 2013), 137. 
3Asmus and Grudem, Poverty of Nations, 121.
4 This does not suggest that Scripture supports the idea of work-free welfare or a welfare state. Even in the case of the poor who were allowed to take the gleanings of the harvest and the leftover grapes, they still needed to work in order to collect these items. Scripture on the whole exalts work and chides laziness. Paul himself said that able-bodied men and women needed to work to earn their own living (1 Thess 4:11-12). Those who chose not to work give up their right to eat (2 Thess 3:10).
5 See Kristian Niemetz, Socialism: The Failed Idea that Never Dies (London, UK: London Publishing, 2019) for a survey of the last 150 years of economic and humanitarian devastation caused by countries that have attempted to implement a socialist economy. See Les Sillars, Intended for Evil: A Survivor’s Story of Love, Faith, and Courage in the Cambodian Killing Fields (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016) for a true story of a man who lived under the Pol Pot’s communist/socialist government. See also my review of Sillars’s book: “With Christ in the Cambodian Killing Fields.”

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