The 2008 Great Recession changed the world in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Perhaps one of the most underappreciated is the discrediting of limited government and free markets. With the foundations of capitalism shaken, many people are trying to understand what went wrong—and wondering if socialism is the answer. Some even claim it is what the Bible teaches.
For many people, achieving a moral economy means raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy to make sure they pay their “fair share.” To students and supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, it means student loan forgiveness, free college and free national health care.
To the hundreds of homeless people who turned out to hear Pope Francis speak at the Archdiocese of Washington’s Catholic Charities offices, it meant free houses. “The Son of God came into this world as a homeless person. The Son of God knew what it was to start life without a roof over his head,” the pope said. There is “no social or moral justification, … whatsoever, for lack of housing.”
But for most, the common feeling is that the system is broken and that the power of the government is needed to redistribute the wealth from those who have it to those who don’t.
Unfettered capitalism is the “dung of the devil,” says Pope Francis. Working for economic justice, however, is a Christian “commandment.” It is the moral and fair thing to do.
Is he right?
Socialism in the Bible?
Is socialism really the biblical system? Socialists point to several scriptures.
“He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none …” (Luke 3:11). And 1 John 3:17 says, “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
Some people conclude from these verses that the Bible supports government-enforced wealth redistribution. But what these verses really show is that the Bible advocates generosity. These are two very different concepts.
Generosity springs from free will. The motivation to give and share originates in compassion, as 1 John 3:17 indicates—but there is choice involved. With socialism, it is the opposite. Redistribution of wealth is always by force of government. The government simply uses its overwhelming power to take what it thinks is “fair” from the “givers.”
God has created laws that govern human action and that work automatically, like the laws of physics. A principle of the Bible is that there are blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. God is not forcing people to obey His law. Blessings are the natural result of obeying His laws and principles. Generosity and sharing with those in need are biblical commands. Yet under God’s system—aside from tithes, which we will look at shortly—it is up to the giver to decide to give and how much he or she can afford to give, and, in many cases, whether he or she will give at all! God allows free choice. In fact, free will is essential to true Christianity.
Had God wanted to create robots that flawlessly keep His law, He could have. If He wanted to use the overwhelming force of government to impose His will on people, He could have. But God is concerned about people developing character, and this only happens through free choice.
Perhaps the single most commonly cited “proof” that socialism is biblical is the claim that the early New Testament Church was socialistic or even communistic. Acts 2:44-45 read, “The believers all kept together; they shared all they had with one another, they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds among all, as anyone might be in need” (Moffatt translation). The phrase “they shared all they had” or “had all things common,” as it reads in the King James Version, supposedly proves that these people sold all their earthly possessions and put the money into one pot, and everyone took what they needed. But consider what this verse actually says and what was actually happening in Jerusalem at that time.
The preceding verses in Acts show that the time setting is the annual festival of Pentecost. On this day, thousands of Jews from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem. This was an exciting event, the start of the New Testament Church. It was the day the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples. Three thousand people were baptized and converted that day.
Most of these Christians were Jews who lived in places scattered all over Judea and Asia. In their excitement of finding God’s truth, conversing with God’s apostles and people of like mind, many remained in Jerusalem longer than they had planned and ran short of food and money. As Herbert W. Armstrong explained, “Consequently, of necessity, they formed a sort of community for the time being only. And, whenever some in poorer circumstances had need because of these unexpected conditions, others in better circumstances would from time to time sell part of their goods or land and share with the less fortunate” (Plain Truth, January-February 1949).
These people were not socialists or Communists. But they were generous, giving and compassionate! Many of the local Church members sold their property as needed to help fellow brothers meet their expenses in Jerusalem during this exciting time in Church history and to help those who had been ostracized and cut off from the synagogues and their means of employment by the Jews of the day (John 9:22; 12:42).
These Church members who generously stepped in to fulfill a need were able to do it because they were wealthy property owners. “They did not all sell everything they owned at once, but they sold property only when, or ‘as anyone might be in need.’ … But an absolute community of goods never was practiced by the Church at Jerusalem or any other Christian church” (ibid).
The Fenton translation says, “[N]o one who possessed property claimed it as exclusively his own: but it was for the use of all. … For some who were possessors of lands and houses sold them; and bringing the price of the sales, and presenting the same at the feet of the apostles, a distribution was made to each according to his need” (Acts 4:32, 35).
Not all sold their property. Only some of the property owners sold their possessions. “This selling of property was wholly voluntary,” wrote Mr. Armstrong. Later on, the Apostle Peter said to Ananias, “was the money not yours to do as you pleased about it?” (Acts 5:4; Moffatt). Some of the members had more assets than others from their occupations. “Here was private enterprise and private initiative and private ownership,” noted Mr. Armstrong.
So in reality, the account in Acts 2 actually proves that the Church did not practice socialism, which is a theory that advocates that the means of production, distribution and exchange should be owned or regulated by the government or community as a whole.
The last major argument claiming that the Bible advocates socialism usually revolves around tithing.
The Bible described three types of tithes in ancient Israel. The first tithe (10 percent of a person’s increase) was paid to God and used by the priests and Levites. After the founding of the New Testament Church, this tithe was used by the Church for proclaiming the gospel (Hebrews 7). The second tithe was to be saved and kept by individuals so they would have money to attend the Feast of Tabernacles.
But the Bible also talks about a third tithe, and this third tithe does play an important role as a welfare program!
But consider how different God’s welfare system is compared to socialist welfare.
God’s Welfare System
First, this tithe—10 percent of any increase—was collected twice in a seven-year cycle, in the third and sixth years. This works out to less than 4 percent of a person’s yearly income, and less than 4 percent of the national income—a tiny fraction of what is spent on bloated welfare programs today. It was also an unchangeable, set percentage and was not subject to the whims of government bureaucrats arbitrarily deciding who should pay and how much their “fair share” should be. The wealthy paid the same percentage as the less advantaged.
More importantly, notice what the money was spent on. “At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied …” (Deuteronomy 14:28‑29; New King James Version).
Third tithe is not for the poor! It is for specific individuals who could not provide for themselves because of specific circumstances. This “welfare” was for the Levites, because they did not own any land; for foreigners who temporarily needed aid while in the nation; for the fatherless, who were too young to provide for themselves and did not have family to take care of them; and for widows who likewise were too old to work or had no family to support them.
The third tithe was not given to able-bodied men and women who were capable of working. For able-bodied people, God’s welfare system is—work. How different from modern social welfare programs!
In fact, the Bible is clear that people should be rewarded by what they contribute to society.
In the parable of the talents, for example, the unfaithful servant who did not add to the money he was given had his talent taken away from him, and it was given to the servant who had gained the most. The ruler did not say, You are poor, so you may keep the money you failed to put to good use. This poor servant had the least money of all. Wouldn’t letting him keep some have been the morally compassionate thing to do? At the very least, wouldn’t it have been fairer to give his talent to the servant who had only four talents? (Matthew 25:14-30). In this biblical instance, wealth was actually redistributed to the wealthier servant.
The Bible is specific about what God expects of able-bodied members of society. In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, Paul said, “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (nkjv). This was a principle he took seriously. Paul commanded people to follow his example in how he worked Sunday through Friday to earn a living (as a tentmaker, Acts 18:1-4). In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul describes how he did not take tithes from the brethren to live on even though it was within his right, and instead worked to support himself so as not to put any spiritual stumbling blocks in front of new converts.
The Bible is filled with many such admonitions to work and provide for your family. “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Yet God understood that even with hard work, people sometimes make bad decisions; in addition, as King Solomon said, “time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). Circumstances do bring people to poverty sometimes. Consider some other economic principles God outlined in order to address this fact of life.
God instructed that arable land be divided up among families and, if sold, returned to the original family at the end of 50 years (Leviticus 25). Think of how far this would go to reduce generational poverty. No government-sanctioned theft (wealth redistribution) here. Just transactions governed by clearly understood law.
Every seventh year, all consumer debts are to be abolished (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). Today, debt is one of the primary causes of bankruptcy and entrenched poverty.
In God’s system, all loans are to be non-interest bearing (Leviticus 25:36‑37). Lending is a voluntary action to help people, and is to be done knowing that God promises to bless that action. No longer can people get rich due to others’ debt servitude.
Ungleaned fields are left for the poor (Leviticus 19:10). Wealthy people are not to harvest every last bit of their crops—and poor people are required to work to collect their food.
A Better Way
Think about how these laws, including the third tithe, would work to naturally keep the more vile tendencies of human nature in check and at the same time preserve private incentive. No need for government-enforced wealth redistribution. No need for bureaucrats to decide how much wealth is one’s “fair share.”
But even as the Bible does not advocate socialism, it does not advocate the type of crony capitalism practiced by America today either. In fact, it explicitly condemns it.
1 Timothy 5:18 says, “The labourer is worthy of his reward.” How many of today’s social problems result from employers trying to exploit their workers? Although unions today do not work for the interest of their members as much as they do for the best interests of union leaders and politicians, the existence of unions arose from gluttonous business leaders in the past imposing excessively poor working conditions.
Looking at America today, far too often you see selfish, greedy men of excessive vanity, ambitious in their lust for power, scheming to get their hands on the throttle of power for personal aggrandizement and monetary gain. Such greedy businessmen actually want the government involved in the economy—to write advantages for them into law. You find graft, immorality, deception and dishonesty running rampant in virtually all high places, including the halls of government.
No wonder so many people are looking at a radical new economic system.
But here is the key. These evils are common to all systems—Communist, socialist or capitalist.
Evils are endemic to all economic systems because human nature is evil. Those people hoping socialism will solve economic ills will be sadly disappointed.
Economic breakdown is a result of moral breakdown—the Bible is clear on that! Only by turning to the God of the Bible and by obeying His laws will nations and people truly begin to prosper again.