Opinions on faith and life

Christ and Capitalism

2009-08-22

Many today make the claim that capitalism, especially the concept of personal ownership, is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Let’s examine the scriptures to see what examples and principles we find there.

1 Kings 4:25 During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and fig tree.

Micah 4:4 Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.

Acts 5:3-4 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”

John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Acts 2:45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.

Hebrews 10:34 You sympathized with the imprisoned and accepted the confiscation of your property with joy, knowing you have better property that no one can ever take away.

1 John 3:17 Now if anyone has an income in this world yet sees someone in need and is cold-hearted, how can the love of God remain in them?

2 Timothy 4:13 When you come, bring the overcoat I left in Troas with Carpus, and the little scrolls, especially the parchments.

Ephesians 4:28 Let the thief stop stealing! Instead let him work! They must work with their own hands so they can share with the needy.

1 Thessalonians 4:11 Strive for a quiet life, minding your own business and doing your own work, just as we directed you.

2 Thes. 3:8-10 Neither did we accept handouts from anyone, but worked very hard night and day so we would not be a burden to any of you. And it isn’t like we don’t have the right! But we wanted to be a model for you to follow. Even while we were still with you, we made the rule that if anyone refuses to work then they should go hungry.

Notice the presumption, in both Testaments, that people own property. Ownership is also portrayed as a good thing, a sign of God’s blessing. And theft is impossible if people own nothing. How can one’s property be confiscated unless they own it? And how can anyone be generous if they own nothing?

Of course we all recognize that as Christians our lives are not our own, and everything we have belongs to God. We are, in this life, stewards of what God has entrusted to us. But God has also made it clear that a person has the right to enjoy the fruit of their labor (1 Tim. 5:18, James 5:4). Conversely, the lazy have no right to eat! Food, clothing, shelter, and medical care are necessities but not rights; they are privileges for which we should be grateful. In the US, our rights are spelled out but do not include these necessities; only “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. (Other rights were spelled out later of course, but again, they do not include guaranteed necessities for all.)

So capitalism is not at all in conflict with the teachings of Jesus, nor with anything in the Bible. In fact, when a government denies personal ownership, it makes generosity and sharing one’s possessions utterly impossible. It is the same with angry sermons about tithing; we cannot obey the scriptural mandate of cheerful, voluntary giving (2 Cor. 9:7) while being commanded to pay, for that is compulsion.

Some will cite Acts 2 as support for communism, but as I’ve said before, the critical error in that view is that the early believers gave willingly. There was no governing body ordering them to “share”, and what is sharing if the group already owns it all? Others will cite Acts 6, where seven were chosen to distribute food to the needy, as a mandate for the Christian community for all time to have a governing body “redistribute wealth”. But again, nobody forced anyone to give, whether from one individual to another or by people bringing their gifts to one location and having others see to its distribution.

Communism is no guarantee of compassion and in fact acts against it, just as surely as capitalism risks the neglect of the poor. But as Paul said clearly,

But keep this in mind: the one who plants sparingly will harvest little, and the one who plants generously will harvest much. Let each one give as they decide in their heart— not out of sadness or compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver.

Now God has the ability to shower you with gifts, to the point where you will not only have all your needs met, but that you will overflow with good works. As it is written, “He gives generously to the poor, and his justice remains forever.” May He who supplies seed to the one who plants and bread for food give you a limitless expense account so that the produce of your justice will multiply! Then you will be rich in every way— enabling you to be generous, which will result in gratitude to God. This official service— meeting the needs of the holy ones— will certainly produce overflowing gratitude to God. By means of this evidence— this distribution— God will be glorified, because they will see your support and agreement with the good message of the Anointed One, your generous partnership with them and everyone. And they will pray for you and be eager to meet you because of the overflowing grace of God to you. Thank God for his indescribable gift! — 2 Cor. 9:6-15

“Charity” that is enforced by a governing body does not glorify God. We cannot learn to be generous or volunarily make sacrifices for the poor unless we first work for something and own it. The lazy are not to be pampered for the same reason; they must learn to be providers themselves instead of dependents. Then, and only then, will there be enough resources to help the truly poor. If the poor lack under such a scenario, it will be because the people as individuals lack compassion. But no amount of coercion can change that. God will deal with such people; it is not the place of any of us to try and dictate compassion in others.

19 Comments

Chris Ryan

Does the notion of property *have* to require ownership? Or simply that at this point something has been entrusted to your care by God for responsibly usage?

Your critique of communism is dead on.

Paula Fether

Tanx. :-)

Ownership is simply an expression of a person’s exclusive right to use property or ideas. We could even use the word "sovereignty". While all believers would agree that we are only stewards of the property of Another, the duration of that stewardship is for this life. And if God gives stewardship to us such that each person has unique domains, it is a violation of what God has decreed to impinge upon the stewardship of another. That is, no one has the right to demand someone else’s property as their own, since both of them are only stewards.

It is God who truly owns, so only God can demand what is due Him. So it is a usurpation of God’s authority to claim rights to another person’s property.

So the issue I disagree with you on is that people do not have the right to claim each other’s areas of stewardship. If property or ideas are not given up to another person willingly, they are stolen. I do not have stewardship over your house, car, food, etc., and neither do you have stewardship over mine. And God never granted such stewardship to either the church or to secular government. Government, as God set it up, is to see to public safety and to guard basic principles of justice. Nothing more.

Junkster

Another fine article, Paula. I appreciate your insights. Thank you for using your gifts to edify the body.

Paula Fether

Tanx Junx! :-D

And of course, dey aint my insights, I’m jes a-borrowin’ ’em. [/tongue in cheek]

Chris Ryan

Oh, I absolutely agree with you that people cannot claim what has been entrusted to somebody else. But cannot a person point out when somebody else is not being a good or responsible steward of their trust? We’ve been having this discussion over on Wade’s blog, and like I told Lydia I have no problem with property, I have a problem with the connotation of entitlement we have given property. As a steward who agrees that God owns it all anyways, is it more responsible for me to give what another can use better even if it is "mine" or to withhold because it may still be of some benefit to me? I am inclined towards the former. Too many people, I think, are inclined towards the latter and our church society has been largely okay with that, selfish though I think that is.

Lydia

But Chris, our conversation has been about government run health care. If I take your view on property:

"As a steward who agrees that God owns it all anyways, is it more responsible for me to give what another can use better even if it is “mine” or to withhold because it may still be of some benefit to me?"

....then how can we even suggest that giving more of our resources to government for universal health care is responsible? Knowing what we know about government, its track record for programs and the fact that Congress will not even submit itself to this plan?

That has been the whole point of the post and our discussion.

But it has turned into a diatribe on greedy Christians who are too selfish to not want to fund this plan.

Paula Fether

Chris,

If the topic of discussion is whether or not a particular form of government or economics is compatible with Christianity, then personal accountability is completely beside the point [even "off topic", some might say ;-) ]. That’s part of the problem going on there; people have lost sight of the point under debate and mixed it with a separate issue.

Pointing out someone else’s character flaws or showing concern for their practice of Christian virtues is a private matter, unless of course the person in question is a leader whose shortcomings are harming the Body. And we have to remember that we are all on the same plane in that regard, relating as equals and not judges. So when someone labels another person’s views as un-Christian or accuses them of lacking compassion, they have crossed the line into personal attack.

Whether someone feels entitled is a matter of conscience. But when the government or church fosters and teaches entitlement, we have to speak out against it. Have we not seen in Wade’s blog how some feel entitled to medical care that someone else has been forced to pay for? Is it not a huge problem in our country that so many people feel entitled to housing, food, medicine, clothing, and entertainment? Why, then, is it okay to bash someone for their entitled attitude if they worked for their stuff, but not if they didn’t? I’ll never understand that double standard.

Where is the line drawn between selfishness and "the worker is worthy of his wages"? The government cannot say; the church cannot say. Only God can say, and He says it to each person. Or else what is the point of saying "Let each one give what they have decided in their heart to give" (2 Cor. 9:7)?

The thing for the church to do is teach and encourage the fruit of the Spirit. We should emphasize that the ultimate motivator should not be personal gain or even the rewards promised us by God, but love for our Savior. Everything else will flow from there; the one who loves Jesus will grow (and this takes time!) to be generous, because "freely you have received; freely give" (Mt. 10:8). But we must be careful not to "shoot our wounded" by scolding them for not being as far along the growth curve as we happen to be.

Nobody who supports capitalism, speaking of Christians posting in this or Wade’s blog, is advocating hoarding or selfishness. But points made about the fact that forced "giving" is robbery have been ignored or danced around. Injustice is injustice, and there is no Biblical rebuke for standing up for justice, even when the victim is us. What you may see as a selfish cry of "Mine!" may in fact be a stand for justice.

I’m sure you are zealous for Christians to "walk the walk", but remember these principles. Remember that we’re all on different levels of growth, that it is God and not you or I to whom others will answer, and that it is impossible to force spiritual maturity.

Chris Ryan

Lydia,

First off, I never suggested that we do so. On the thread, from the beginning, I have said I was against govt run health care. I have told you that over and over. I don’t doubt that there are many who don’t want to fund that effort for selfish reasons and many for much more acceptable reasons, but I have been trying to show that if we Christians had a different attitude towards what we possess then govt run healthcare wouldn’t even be a concern. If I have seemed to be communicating differently, then I apologize for my lack of clarity.

Paula, I just have to point out, given our previous discussion on the contemplative prayer post, that your talk of us being at different levels of spiritual maturity and growth is "dangerous." But kidding (and requests for consistency) aside:

Firstly, you say that the matter of personal accountability is "off-topic." I disagree. If personal responsibility is a component of a Biblical economic theory, then its relation to another economic theory such as Capitalism is entirely on point in light of an attempt at a Biblical critique, rather than pointing out what Capitalism does right and ignoring its shortcomings.

Secondly, I have never advocated the double-standard which you mention. I think it is just as wrong for someone to feel entitled to movie tickets or food as it is for someone to feel entitled to a boat because they work hard. Those who don’t work and could, especially, should have no sense of entitlement. I feel like you are trying to straw-man me, here. But again, the question is about the attitude which we have towards what we *do* have. I keep getting responded to as though I am talking about the attitude you should have towards what you don’t have. Coveting, greed, theft, etc. are wrong no matter which side of the equation you are on. I thought I had conceded that when I admitted you had nailed the problems with communism.

I agree that a generous spirit takes time, but I also believe that we have been very content taking tithe checks and saying no more and expecting no more growth. And so because people are not aware that more may be required, they are not challenged to grow even further in discipleship. That shortcoming is what I am trying to rectify.

Paula Fether

I just have to point out, given our previous discussion on the contemplative prayer post, that your talk of us being at different levels of spiritual maturity and growth is “dangerous.” But kidding (and requests for consistency) aside:

You see no difference between levels of maturity and a "more enlightened" form of prayer not found in scripture which is identical to that practiced by pagans? CP is no mere matter of maturity but of a forbidden path to a "higher plane". And by implication, your statement presumes that CP is "mature", while I’ve said that "the fruit of the Spirit" is mature. And by "mature" I mean exhbiting that fruit in increasing measure, NOT entering into an altered state to contact whatever "spirit" you might find there.

Firstly, you say that the matter of personal accountability is “off-topic.” I disagree. If personal responsibility is a component of a Biblical economic theory, then its relation to another economic theory such as Capitalism is entirely on point in light of an attempt at a Biblical critique, rather than pointing out what Capitalism does right and ignoring its shortcomings.

I stand by my view. The topic is whether it is possible for any Christian to be a capitalist, not whether each Christian practices the teachings. We may have different viewpoints on whether it is consistent with Christianity, but not whether it’s possible. Do all capitalists practice capitalism exactly the same? Either we are talking about theories of systems, or we are talking about practice.

Secondly, I have never advocated the double-standard which you mention.

I didn’t say that you personally had done this. But some in that thread have argued that the demands of the dependent are Christian, while the demands of the providers are not.

I think it is just as wrong for someone to feel entitled to movie tickets or food as it is for someone to feel entitled to a boat because they work hard... I feel like you are trying to straw-man me, here.

If nobody is to feel entitled, then why haven’t you been as vocal about the receivers’ claims to what they think is theirs? In that thread, I only saw the givers being reprimanded for selfishness. Now you are suddenly qualifying and adding information, then claiming I am setting up a straw man.

I thought I had conceded that when I admitted you had nailed the problems with communism.

Again, I have been addressing an entire thread involving more than just you, and it is only now in this thread that you have clarified and added information about your view.

That shortcoming is what I am trying to rectify.

I completely agree and have been arguing this very point all along. Should I accuse you of doing the straw man thing on me? Anyway, keep in mind that it isn’t up to you or me to rectify the character flaws in others.

Some have argued in that thread that the government should force workers to pay for dependents’ health care. The counter argument was that this is robbery. The response was that only selfish people would object to being robbed, since it isn’t their stuff. The counter response was that the dependent is every bit as selfish, because they feel entitled to support.

So now you say, and I agree, that neither should be selfish. So what is your solution? That’s the question that has been on the table all this time; what is the Christian response? I have argued that it is to let people "give from the heart" and not be robbed or shamed into supporting the dependent. I have quoted scripture stating that "the worker is worthy of his wages" in response to your claim that the very idea of personal property is selfish. Don’t deny it; you made that point clear. That’s why your "clarification" on communism doesn’t make any sense to me; it’s two different arguments.

Paula Fether

PS: see the comment timestamped Sat Aug 22, 05:07:00 PM 2009 at this link for where I got your views on personal property.

Chris Ryan

Paula,

Then with that definition of terms, my questioning of your consistency is at an end. I just wanted to make sure that you weren’t trying to talk out both sides of your mouth. Since Foster had never used the word "enlightened," only "maturity," I thought I would bring it up in case. I do see the difference between "spiritual enlightenment" and spiritual maturity. If you believe that you and he are using the term "maturity" differently, my confusion is cleared up.

Sorry if I was not as vocal about the other side as you would have desired me to be. One side inflames my passion far more than the other does. Please do not take that as an endorsement of the other. As to only adding to my view here, the conversation was different with different people. Necessarily, that will entail that the conversation becomes directed in different ways. If you had been commenting on Wade’s blog, perhaps much of this would have come out there, also.

And I realize that I cannot rectify the character flaws of others. I can rectify the absense of a very important concept from Christian proclamation.

And the time-stamped post was a beginning point. I think that I had to (and rightly so) refine that position and back off from parts of it. I think that, ultimately, I can go 9/10’s of the way with you on this issue. Just trying to figure out what the 1/10th is that makes me uncomfortable.

Paula Fether

And the time-stamped post was a beginning point. I think that I had to (and rightly so) refine that position and back off from parts of it. I think that, ultimately, I can go 9/10’s of the way with you on this issue. Just trying to figure out what the 1/10th is that makes me uncomfortable.

When your own position is being refined as the conversation progresses, it is practically guaranteed that people will not know which position you’re actually arguing. I’m trying to make sense of the whole picture while the picture is changing, and it just isn’t going to work. So hopefully now you see why making the charge of straw man wasn’t exactly fair.

I’m not sure what’s making you uncomfortable. But my position is that selfishness is as big a problem among the dependent as it is among the workers. If I were to summarize the kind of government I think the Bible portrays as the best run by humans, I’d call it "compassionate capitalism". God does not obliterate the individual personality, nor the individual delegated sovereignty. There is no better way to develop character than to be given responsibility and autonomy. As I’ve often said, there is no glory in staying clean and safe if you never leave your house.

When the government dictates "charity", the church cannot perform it as well because some of people’s resources are confiscated, leaving less for them to manage as they see fit. The less government is involved, the more people can control how the fruit of their labor is used-- and that means more money is available for charity.

If we look to government for this, it is ultimately because we don’t trust God. The Holy Spirit within each of us is capable of changing us, but not even He will force Himself upon us. But if we truly have faith that God will care for the needy, we will not insist that the government codify and enforce payments to dependents.

So this whole thing is not a matter of one side being more selfish than the other, but of whether robbery, for any purpose, is ever right. And yes, it is robbery to take by force the fruit of someone’s labor.

Greg Anderson

Let me be up-front and honest right now to make it clear that I am left-of-center so far as worldly politics go.

I know that for many Christians, it is not possible to be left-of-center politically and to be a Christian too.

Many of the devout will insist that the two are mutually exclusive, I would submit that they are not. Just as our government has the right and responsibility to restrain the worst abuses of human nature, so it also has the right to regulate commerce and markets.

There is vast gulf between the private property envisioned by Adam Smith and David Ricardo (18th cent. economists) and the corporate monster big business has morphed into.

Smith saw the free market as small local farmers, artisans, and bankers with a stake in the local economy, not a grisly food chain of bigger fish gobbling up littler fish in order to satisfy the appetites of the Great White Sharks on Wall Street.

In the early days of the Republic, corporations and the granting of their charters could only exist at the pleasure of the state legislatures and in the interest of the public good.

They knew from experience with the abuses of the British Mercantile system in collusion with the Crown, that there is no such thing as free markets when corporate interests hold sway. Competition is stifled and what the market will bear in the prices of goods is dictated from afar.

It is perhaps a grand irony here that this is precisely what the first American rebellion was about, freedom from corporate interests enforced by the Crown.

In 1855 (Dodge v. Woolsey), there was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are not individuals and that they do not have the inalienable rights guaranteed to individual persons under the Constitution, and that they answer to the people.

By the time of the Civil War (1861-1865) this had all changed in favor of the corporation to do as it pleases with no review by any state legislature. Just before his death, Lincoln observed:

"...Corporations have been enthroned...An era of corruption in high places will follow and the money power will endeavor to prolong its reign by working on the prejudices of the people...until wealth is aggregated in a few hands...and the Republic is destroyed..."

The end of the Civil War saw the rise of the 1st gilded age in which big money wheeled and dealed as it saw fit until the great crash of 1929.

It was not until the 1930’s that FDR’s new deal separated the banking and investment industries. The Glass-Steagle Act was passed by Congress so that capital (money markets) could not do a repeat performance with unregulated speculation.

Over the last 30 yrs. or so, FDR’s new deal has been steadily and systematically dismantled by big business.

Glass-Steagle was repealed in 1980 and it enabled another speculative bubble (2008-2009)to expand and go down in flames like the Hindenburg disaster.

Sorry for such a long rant Paula, but I felt compelled to offer reasons why I am no longer a Conservative.

And yes it is robbery to have my taxes used for TARP funds (700 billion) in order to cover the gambling debts of the high rollers on Wall Street.

The insurance giant AIG is at the forefront of any kind of health care reform. So the next time you hear horror stories about socialized medicine and rationing, kindly remind them that we already have socialism to the tune of a 700 billion dollar bail-out for the big guys on Wall Street, and rationing for little folks based on their ability or inability to pay exhorbitant premiums.

Paula Fether

Hi Greg! I’ve been wondering what happened to you. You’ve been vewy kwiet.

And good points as usual. We haven’t been a true constitutional republic since at least the early 1900s, with freedom and autonomy mere illusions for the masses. And most people never think about the fact that monopoly is the inevitable end of any free market system, because the most savvy and aggressive want to stay on top of the heap they clawed their way up on. So I would agree that there have to be some limits on corporations.

And no need to apologize for ranting at all, bud.

Brad Wilson

I would like to respond to Greg Anderson’s comments above. My friend, you are assuming as truth the myth that the CEO of a big business is automatically a capitalist. Capitalism is the economic word for freedom. There can be no freedom without capitalism. Capitalism always entails a degree of risk; you may succeed, you may fail. If you are starting at the bottom, you have to roll the dice to get to the top- but once at the top, the risk of capitalism will hurt you more than it can help you. In other words, these guys are sell-outs. They are no longer capitalists. Why do you think they spend goo-gobs of money on the tens of thousands of lobbyists that congregate in D.C. like locusts? THEY ARE BUYING REGULATION THAT BENEFITS THEMSELVES AND SQUEEZES OUT THE LITTLE GUY. Big business loves to be regulated, it’s how they stay on top. If they could not buy the force of government, this would not be possible. Advances of a truly free market will sooner or later bring any giant crashing down. The bigger they are... Look at how big IBM got. (Too big, they got arrogant, didn’t see the next thing coming and Bill Gates ate their lunch). AT&T, had they not been dismantled in the 80’s, would have fallen in the cel phone revolution of the past decade. Big business is not about capitalism, it is about an unholy alliance between business and government, and that alliance is called Fascism (which, contrary to popular belief, is a phenomenon of The Left). In summation, the Founding Fathers were wise enough to see that Government had no place meddling in business, that’s why the constitution limits the powers of the Federal Government. So, if you have moved to The Left because you think that Big Government is the answer, then you are playing right into their hands. They have created the problem, and blame their opposition, which is what they always do. Just food for thought. Believe in freedom! And God Bless!

Paula Fether

Welcome Brad! :-)

I’m sure Greg will be along later, but I’m pretty sure he’s under no delusions about big gov’t being any kind of answer. You make a good point though, about people only using capitalism as long as it suits them, and then they use their power to knock the ladder away and keep others from following. It is those kinds of people who give capitalism-- and a constitutional republic-- a bad name.

Brad Wilson

Allow me to add a small amendment to what I wrote above. The Constitution does allow the Federal Government to "regulate" (to make regular) business. What that means (in The Originalist view) is to maintain and enforce law and order; to prevent a person or corporation from stealing, committing fraud, or creating an unfair advantage over another person or corporation. However, most regulation enacted today does exactly the opposite. It is written precisely to give an advantage to one or more parties at the expense of others. This is one way that our Constitution has been perverted. And it is not the true conservatives who are doing it! George Washington said "Government is brute force". I only wish we had men of such wisdom in government today.

Paula Fether

Right, and I think that’s what we were trying to get across before. Problem is, we’ve got wolves guarding the henhouse.

Words of a Fether » Half The Bible

[...] to quote only half the pertinent verses on a given topic. For example, a while back I wrote about capitalism and the examples in scripture that show us what God thinks about the concept of personal property. [...]