Social Justice and Scripture: Untie the Knot Pt.13

What of “socialism” in the Bible?

Alexander cuts the gordian knot

Many Christians (including professors, pastors, and leaders) reason that since God desires us to do good toward others, the government should step in to provide for those whose needs are not met. They call this the “safety net.” They consider it an aspect of caring for one’s neighbor. They deny that the result is “confiscation” and “redistribution” of wealth.

I respect their desire to do good toward others, but I consider their position ill-informed.

While Scripture does exhort Christians to give to others, it does not force others to give. Consider Galatians 6:10: “As we therefore have opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto those who are of the household of faith.”

Here Paul encourages people to give individually and voluntarily as they see opportunity. He is not advocating a welfare program. In fact, he writes, “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10b).

For Paul, the focus is on individual responsibility:

“But if any provide not for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith and is worse than an infidel” (1 Timothy 5:8).

Giving to others is a means to individual reward: “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).

Evidently, God considers it good that individual Christians give voluntarily and under no compulsion.

This seems to bear against the possibility that God would be pleased with Christians forcing other people (including even nonbelievers) to give.

It is indeed true that, “Pure religion, undefiled before God and the Father, is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). But just as this passage is not advocating “forced religion,” so it is not advocating “forced generosity.”

Those who try to advocate socialism from Scripture have a steep hill to climb. There is a logical difference between what “should be” and what “should be law.” If they seek to make their way a law over others, they will not find support in Scripture.

Even the most famous scriptural example of “socialism” does no good for their case.

Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-35 tell how the first Christians were of one heart and one soul and shared their belongings with one another.

What can we observe about this situation? Who were these people? We know around 3000 people came to faith on the day of Pentecost. Many of these were Jews traveling to Jerusalem for the celebration. They had suddenly found faith and community. Likely, many decided to stay in Jerusalem to learn the apostle’s teaching. These people needed provision. Of course those who had property were willing to share, given the extraordinary circumstances. But the early church was no commune. Only a modern reader looking for such a conclusion would find it.

Admittedly, Karl Marx did take inspiration from Acts 4:35b: “And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” He turned it into a motto: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

But where Marx created a permanent legal principle, the early Christian practice was temporary, situational, and voluntary.

What about Acts 4:32, which says the early Christians did not say the things they possessed were their own, but shared them instead?

By saying this, did they negate the concept of individual property? Or rather, doesn’t this verse simply describe what it means to give something to someone? You say, “This is no longer mine, it is yours now.”

Acts 5:4a settles the question, for Peter says, “While it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?”

The early Christians recognized ownership and made no demands on others.  In this way our modern entitlement state bears little resemblance to the early church.


 

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Appendix