One of the core differences between socialism and the free market is of course the place of private property. Simply put, the former hates it and seeks to eradicate it, while the latter celebrates it and is fully based on it. Thus for the Christian one’s views on these competing economic systems will in good measure depend on how we should view private property.
If you happen to think that private property is manifestly evil, unjust and immoral, then you might opt for socialism. If you think private property is acceptable and useful and even moral, then you will likely run with the free enterprise system.
For the believer the question finally comes down to what Scripture says about the matter. Does the Bible condemn private property, or does it allow for it and/or even affirm it? My short answer is this: private property is everywhere assumed and condoned in the Bible, and nowhere condemned in and of itself.
Like wealth and riches, it all depends what you do with it. If you greedily hoard it for yourself and make it your god, then of course it become something sinful and idolatrous. But if used the way God designed it, then we see it is fully supported in God’s word.
So let’s look at some of the biblical evidence for the acceptableness and appropriateness of private property. As to the Old Testament it is everywhere assumed and allowed for. When Adam and Eve were made stewards over the Garden, it was theirs to work and improve.
As the term stewardship implies, we manage and look after that which ultimately belongs to someone else. So the garden, and the whole earth, actually belong to God. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10). As Psalm 24:1 says “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”.
But as with all things God has granted us, we are co-workers, co-owners, and co-labourers with God. He entrusts to us things which we are to take good care of. That includes land and property. That includes material things and rewards for our labours. Thus private property is a right, but not an absolute right, since God is the ultimate owner of all things.
That people own property and can do so morally and justly is seen throughout Genesis and the rest of the OT. Simply think of the land which the Patriarchs owned. Think of the burial plots for the Patriarchs which are mentioned repeatedly. Think of the division of the land once Israel made it into Canaan.
The allotment of the land fully entailed private property. Even the much loved chapter which the religious lefties hold up so often – Leviticus 25 – is fully premised on the reality of private property. The Year of Jubilee was not a socialist event by any means, but a reversion of the land to its original owners! But I speak to this passage in greater detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/02/difficult-bible-passages-leviticus-25/
It is important to note that a full one fifth of the Ten Commandments are completely based on the notion of private property. The commandments against theft (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19) and covetousness (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21) of course presuppose and fully rest on the notion of private ownership of possessions.
Plenty of other OT laws speak to the sin of theft which of course presupposes the right to private property and personal ownership (eg, Ex. 21:28-36; 22:1-5, etc.) And consider the warnings about curses for disobedience and blessings for obedience, as found in Deuteronomy 28. It is all about personal ownership! Here are a few of the passages found there. Consider first the very material blessings:
-28:4 The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
-28:8 The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.
-28:11 The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity—in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground—in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.
And then the very material curses:
-28:18 The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
-28:30 You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit.
-28:38-42 You will sow much seed in the field but you will harvest little, because locusts will devour it. You will plant vineyards and cultivate them but you will not drink the wine or gather the grapes, because worms will eat them. You will have olive trees throughout your country but you will not use the oil, because the olives will drop off. You will have sons and daughters but you will not keep them, because they will go into captivity. Swarms of locusts will take over all your trees and the crops of your land.
Indeed, the latter are what are known as futility curses, and we find them throughout the OT. When people rebel and disobey the Lord, even good and moral things such as private property become cursed as part of God’s judgment. Here are a few more of them:
-Jeremiah 8:10 Therefore I will give their wives to other men and their fields to new owners.
-Micah 6:13-15 Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing, because what you save I will give to the sword. You will plant but not harvest; you will press olives but not use the oil, you will crush grapes but not drink the wine.
-Haggai 1:6 You have planted much, but harvested little. You eat, but never have enough. You drink, but never have your fill. You put on clothes, but are not warm. You earn wages, only to put them in a purse with holes in it.
The wisdom literature also speaks much about private property and related themes. Here are just a few examples.
-Psalm 37:11 But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
-Proverbs 10:4 Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.
-Proverbs 14:23 All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.
-Proverbs 19:14 Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.
-Ecclesiastes 6:2 God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire.
Also think of all the times we are warned about moving or removing boundary markers. This again presupposes private property, and it is seen as a serious sin to interfere with this (Proverbs 15:25; 22:28; 23:10, etc.) These go back to laws found in Deuteronomy 19:14; 27:17 and so on which speak about a curse on those who move his neighbour’s boundary marker.
Also recall the strong warning given by Samuel when the Israelites demanded a king like all the other nations. He says such leaders will take their property, their livestock, the fruit of their land, and so on, and turn them into slaves (1 Samuel 8:10-18). We of course find a perfect and tragic example of this when evil King Ahab stole the vineyard of Naboth (1 Kings 21).
Plenty of other lines of evidence could be presented here. A key one is this: often the OT makes much of every man blessed by God sitting under his own vine or of his own fig tree. In 1 Kings 4:25 for example we find this: “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.”
This is obviously a clear example of private property, and God’s approval of it. But this is not just for life in this present, fallen world. Quite importantly, the prophets picture all this as part of what life will be like in the world to come as well! Consider a few of these verses about the days ahead:
-Isaiah 65:21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
-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.
-Zechariah 3:10 “In that day each of you will invite your neighbour to sit under your vine and fig tree,” declares the LORD Almighty.
In the New Testament this same attitude to private property is found. The disciples owned homes, owned boats, had small businesses, and so on. Jesus never condemned such private property, but he did remind those who would follow him that they should be willing to let go of everything for the sake of the Kingdom.
As but one example of praise for hard work, earnings based on productive work, and the place of private property, consider the Parable of the Ten Minas as told by Jesus in Luke 19:11-27. The servants were told to “do business” until the ruler returned. The ten servants were each given ten minas and were to be wise stewards of what was entrusted to them, and earn more from what they had been given. Some dealt wisely and some foolishly with this wealth, and were praised or condemned accordingly.
The epistles affirm the importance of work and reward, and expect people to get recompense for their labours. They also insist – as did Paul – that those who do not provide for their own household are worse than an infidel (1 Timothy 5:8). And of course one of the main gifts found in the NT is the gift of giving. It is pretty hard to give if you don’t own anything.
One passage which the religious left love to appeal to – and love to mangle – is found in the end of Acts 4 through the beginning of Acts 5. They claim this is socialism at work. It is of course nothing of the kind. Once again, private property is fully affirmed, there is no government forced redistribution of wealth, and the sins of Ananias and Sapphire were lying, not personal ownership of property. See here for more detail on this: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/06/21/difficult-bible-passages-acts-432-511/
A final passage that can be mentioned speaks to the dangers of state ownership versus private ownership. In Revelation 13:17 we read about a frightening day to come in which people “could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name”. This speaks on an evil corporate/state conglomeration which will prevent people from buying, selling or owning. The total socialist state, in other words.
Much more could be said about all this, but let me close by stating the obvious. The Bible nowhere blesses the selfish, greedy and materialistic life. God expects us to be cheerful givers, to be generous with our possessions, and to use what he has blessed us with for Kingdom purposes.
But all that presupposes we have our own property to make use of. Giving in the NT is always about individual believers making wise and loving use of their own wealth and possessions. It is never about the State confiscating wealth and doing the work of the Kingdom.
While there is a God-ordained place for the state and even for some forms of taxation (but that is the stuff of another article), the emphasis is always on the individual giving freely and generously for the sake of the Kingdom. Thus this article in no way is seeking to justify crass greed and consumerism and the selfish desire to get it all in this life.
That is a perversion of the gifts of private property and wealth creation. And those religious lefties who think greed is inherent in the free market but absent in socialism are clearly off on another planet. Anyone who knows how the communist states operated will know that greed was a major part of it, especially among the communist rulers.
So it is time we think clearly and biblically here. Moral and mental clarity is required. Private property is most certainly allowed for and blessed in Scripture. How we use it is another matter of course. As always, getting the biblical balance right is crucial.
One extreme to avoid like the plague is the wretched prosperity gospel which basically equates all wealth with God’s favour. It ends up just being a gospel of greed, as I have written elsewhere, eg.: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/04/17/the-prosperity-gospel/
The other extreme is that of the religious left who tend to despise riches, private property, and wealth creation. They wrongly think that the coercive state should redistribute wealth, foolishly forgetting that wealth has to be first created before it can be distributed.
And under socialism wealth is hardly created – certainly not efficiently and fruitfully. But it is created big time in the free market economy. So even in a discussion about how to best help the poor, equalised poverty as found in socialist countries is certainly not the solution. The biblical balance is nicely summarised in Proverbs 30:8-9:
Give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.