Christian Economics – Introduction
When it comes to Christian Economics, Christians hold different views about which economic system is most in line with biblical teaching. Some believe the Bible encourages a system of private property and individual responsibilities and initiatives (citing Isaiah 65:21–2; Jeremiah 32:43–4; Acts 5:1–4; Ephesians 4:28). Others support a socialist economy (citing Acts 2:44–45). Still others, who are called liberation theologians, believe the Bible teaches a form of Marxism and that some form of socialism will usher in the Kingdom of God.
No economic system, however, is capable of saving us or bringing in the Kingdom of God. Nor is any single economic system perfect. Yet one is more compatible with biblical teaching and our imperfect, sinful world.
Christian Economics – Socialism or Free Enterprise?
The Christian worldview of economics must embrace either socialism (centralized control) or some form of capitalism (free enterprise or open markets). No economic system exists in its pure form in the real world—all capitalist systems contain some elements of socialism, and vice versa.
Ronald Nash outlines the distinctions between free market capitalism and socialism: “One dominant feature of capitalism is economic freedom, the right of people to exchange things voluntarily, free from force, fraud, and theft. Capitalism is more than this, of course, but its concern with free exchange is obvious. Socialism, on the other hand, seeks to replace the freedom of the market with a group of central planners who exercise control over essential market functions.”1
Christians who believe socialism (or communism) is a more desirable system than capitalism do so trusting that centralized control or command economy will create a more just means of sharing scarce resources. Those who call for a socialist economic system do so on the basis of Acts 2:44–45 that describes Christians in the early church sharing all things in common. They fail to consider, however, the implications of Acts 2:46–47 that describes Christians eating with others in their homes and Acts 5:1–4 that tells of their freedom to own and sell private property.
The Bible as a whole supports an economic system that respects private property and the work ethic. (See especially Proverbs 31, Isaiah 65:21–22, Jeremiah 32:43–44, Acts 5:1–4 and Ephesians 4:28.) Rodney Stark’s definition of capitalism is biblically sound: “Capitalism is an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well-organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relatively free (unregulated) market, taking a systematic, long-term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce, and guided by anticipated and actual returns.”2
Stark argues that capitalism centers around property rights, free markets, free labor, cash/credit, management, and a work ethic that looks upon work as a virtue, not a vice. He maintains that capitalism began in the early Christian monasteries, long before the Protestant Reformation and Adam Smith.3
Christian Economics – Private Property
Those Christians who believe socialism is a more just economic system than capitalism argue that public ownership of property prevents the greed and envy that private ownership tends to create. This way of thinking, though, is incompatible with biblical teachings. Irving E. Howard says, “The commandment ‘Thou shalt not steal’ is the clearest declaration of the right to private property in the Old Testament.”4
Both the Old and New Testament teach about private property and good stewardship of property (Genesis 23:13–20; Deuteronomy 8; Ruth 2; Isaiah 65:21–22; Jeremiah 32:42–44; Psalm 112; Proverbs 31; Micah 4:1–4; Luke 12:13–15; Acts 5:1–4; Ephesians 4:28). E. Calvin Beisner asks the pointed question, “Why does Scripture require restitution, including multiple restitution, in cases of theft, even if paying the restitution requires selling oneself into slavery (Exodus 22:1ff)?”5 Ownership of property is a God-given right, and stewardship is a God-given responsibility.
Our right to own property stems from our duty to work. After God thrust Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, He decreed that they (and we) would face a lifetime of hard work (Genesis 3:17–19). However, God mercifully allows our hard work to reward us with property. The very existence of private property encourages our diligence and fruitfulness: “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Proverbs 10:4).
We are accountable to God for how we use the property He allows us to own, and we are responsible to exercise wisdom in our stewardship not only of property but also of God’s creation. Beisner says, “Biblical stewardship views God as Owner of all things (Psalm 24:1) and man—individually and collectively—as His steward. Every person is accountable to God for the use of whatever he has (Genesis 1:26–30; 2:15). Every person’s responsibility as a steward is to maximize the Owner’s return on His investment by using it to serve others (Matthew 25:14–30).”6 We can use our property to serve others only in a society that permits private ownership.
When we understand private property in the context of godly stewardship, we are better able to concentrate on our need to work and serve others rather than accumulate more and more for our selfish purposes. In this sense, private property encourages our wise use of scarce resources, whereas publicly owned property provides no such incentive.
Christian Economics – Economic Competition
In reviewing the notion of Christian economics, the Bible teaches that workers deserve their pay, and those that work hard are rewarded, while those who are lazy remain poor (Proverbs 10:4, 14:23; Luke 10:7). These teachings imply that competition in the workplace leads to fruitfulness. However, Christians who believe a socialist economic system is more biblical than a capitalist system contend that competition is evil in that it leads to greed and envy, and competition for limited resources is counterproductive.
Competition encourages cooperation in a capitalist society when we act in accordance with the principle of comparative advantage. This principle states that individuals in a free market economy can produce valuable goods or services by specializing in an area where there is the least absolute disadvantage. In other words, focusing on producing goods or services through cooperation benefits society as a whole. This in turn creates more goods and services that can benefit the poor.
Christian Economics – Conclusion
In summarizing the concept of Christian economics, competition through comparative advantage also reinforces our worth and dignity in the sense that our work and diligence contribute to the welfare of society as a whole. Comparative advantage allows us the opportunity to become the best producer of a service or product. Thus, competition that leads to cooperation and the recognition of individual worth harmonizes with the Christian worldview, which sees human beings as image-bearers of God.
The Christian worldview embraces a form of democratic capitalism that allows for the peaceful and free exchange of goods and services without fraud, theft, or breach of contract as the biblical view. First, the Bible grants us the right to private property and calls us to be good stewards of our resources. Second, a free enterprise system affords the greatest opportunity to steward our resources responsibly by creating wealth and opportunity. Third, the competition in a free market system works according to the principle of comparative advantage, which affirms our inherent worth as individuals.7
The thousands of years of experiments with socialist economic systems have resulted in nothing but failure and tragedy—Fascism, Nazism, and Communism relied on the faulty ideas of socialism and Darwinian evolution. Their catastrophic failings are documented in Igor Shafarevich’s The Socialist Phenomenon,8 Ludwig von Mises’ Socialism,9 and Joshua Muravchik’s Heaven On Earth: The Rise And Fall Of Socialism.10
Socialism’s call for economic equality is countered by capitalism’s call for the biblical requirement of equality before law. The biblical view does not cause the rich to get richer and the poor poorer as socialists contend. Rather, the biblical view encourages the rich to create more wealth, thereby aiding all of society. Policies of redistribution of wealth, including welfare systems, only multiply problems for the poor by creating needless bureaucracies and concentrating too much power in the hands of the government. Capitalism, on the other hand, encourages freedom in the political sphere, minimizing the danger of granting sovereignty to the state instead of to God.
The biblical Christian worldview supports private property and free enterprise. Christians see work as a virtue, not a vice. The Greeks and Romans, in contrast, grounded their case for slavery in the idea that work is a vice, a view endorsed by both Aristotle and Plato.11 The Bible does not teach socialism or communism, a truth evident even to Engels, who writes, “[I]f some few passages of the Bible may be favourable to Communism, the general spirit of its doctrines is, nevertheless, totally opposed to it.”12