Strictly speaking, the study of economics does not include questions of what we should or should not do. Questions of right and wrong are ethical questions. But as Christians, we should be concerned with both. It is not enough to understand whether various economic systems are effective in achieving their goals (economic questions). We must first and foremost consider what is right (an ethical question). Before considering the economic implications of different economic systems, we must first consider ethics of private property and the exchange of goods. From a Christian perspective, how should we feel about the ownership of property?
The Bible is full of warnings against greed (Prov. 15:27; 28:25), covetousness (Lk. 12:15), the love of money (Mt. 6:24; 1 Tim. 6:10; Heb. 13:5), and the desire to be rich (1 Tim. 6:9). What’s more, Scripture continually encourages an open-handed approach towards possessions, where we are always ready and willing to give our possessions to others. Paul encouraged the church in Corinth to be generous in their giving by pointing to the example of Christ, who “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). In Acts 2:45, we are told that the earliest Christians “were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Possessions can certainly become a stumbling block. It should be noted, however, that nowhere in Scripture is the possession of property ever condemned. In fact, the numerous prohibitions against theft imply at least some notion of private property.
God as the Ultimate Owner
The Christian approach towards possessions begins with the recognition of God as the Creator and the ultimate possessor of all things.
For every beast of the forest is mine,Psalm 50:10
the cattle on a thousand hills.
The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof,Psalm 24:1
the world and those who dwell therein.
As the ultimate possessor of all things, God has the right to delegate the use and oversight of his possessions to whomever he desires. For instance, in Genesis 1:29 God said “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” God commanded mankind to subdue the earth, teaching them that by their labor the earth would yield produce which they could enjoy (cf. Gen. 1:28; 3:19).
People are not owners, but stewards who are called to temporarily manage those things which ultimately belong to God. This relationship is illustrated in the parable of the talents (Mt. 25:14-30). God has entrusted the authority over possessions to mankind. In his authority and wisdom, he delegates more possessions to some, and less to others. Regardless of how little or how much he entrusts them with, everyone is called to exercise our management of those possessions under the watchful eye of the Creator.
As the ultimate owner of all things, God maintains the ultimate right to establish the principles he wants mankind to follow in regards to his property. God is the one who can determine how we can morally invest it, trade it, and use it. He can forbid certain uses of it. For instance, in Genesis 3:15-17, God gave Adam and Eve the right to eat of every tree of the garden except one, which he forbade them from eating. When God forbids greed, the love of money, or theft, or when he commands us to be generous with our possessions, he has that right. After all, he is the ultimate owner of all things, so he can determine how they should be used. Ultimately, God will hold mankind accountable for whether or not we have managed his property in accordance with the principles he has established (Mt. 25:21-28).
For this reason, when as we consider private property from a Christian perspective, it is important to always recognize that all things are ultimately possessed by God, and we are only stewards. To echo the words of Deuteronomy 8:17-18, when we are tempted to think “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (v. 17), we should remember that it was the LORD our God gave us the ability to produce wealth in the first place (v. 18).
Prohibitions Against Theft
Throughout the whole Bible, the possession of property is recognized as something which must not be violated. The Old Testament is filled with prohibitions against theft. “You shall not steal” was one of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:11). This commandment included the prohibition of oppression and fraud (Lev. 19:11-13).
The command is reiterated in the New Testament as well. Not stealing is part of what it means to love your neighbor (Rom. 13:8-10). As Paul encouraged the Corinthians to be charitable, he never called for the compelled extraction of funds, but instead emphasizes the importance of voluntary giving (2 Cor. 9:7). Paul encourages Christians not to steal, but to do honest work so that they may give to those in need (Eph. 4:28). Peter recognized that choosing what to do with possessions is the responsibility of the one who owns the possession (Acts 5:4).
Besides outright theft and fraud, Jesus tells us that the motivation for theft begins in the heart (Mt. 15:18-20). This echoes the ten commandments, which forbid not only stealing, but also covetousness (Ex. 20:17).
Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are not to take from others what belongs to them. When God entrusts someone with property, it is their responsibility to manage it.
The Principle of Voluntary Exchange
Since the Bible continually teaches that people’s ownership of property should be respected, there can only be one morally proper way for humans to exchange goods with one another, and that is through voluntary exchange. The prohibition of theft prohibits the forced, or involuntary, exchange of goods.
To illustrate this point, consider how Luke describes the time when Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property and told Peter that they were giving all the proceeds to the church, all while holding back some of the possessions for themselves (Acts 5:1-2). Peter confronted Ananias by saying:
While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.Acts 5:4
Peter plainly says that their possessions were theirs to do with as they wanted.
Jesus affirmed this principle in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16). Jesus told about a master who hired different laborers to work for different amounts of time for the same amount of money. In response to the complaints of the laborers, the master responded:
Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose to do with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?Matthew 20:13-15
Although not the main point of the parable, Jesus’s teaching relies on the accepted principle that the owner of property is the one who has the right to choose what to do with it.
Just because God delegates ownership of property to individuals, this does not indicate that a property owner is free to use his possessions however he may desire. God is the ultimate owner. Everyone will be held accountable for how they use the property that God has entrusted to them. It does, however, imply that it is wrong to forcibly remove the management of property away from another person.
The Moral Implications of Private Property Upon Economic Policy
As we consider the strengths and weaknesses of different economic systems or policies we must continually remember that the only moral way to divide up the earth’s possessions is through voluntary exchange. Even if it could be shown that an economic system could be designed which can promise greater prosperity by forcibly restricting or compelling the exchange of goods, we as Christians must ultimately come back to the question of what is morally right. Because of the numerous biblical restrictions against theft, only voluntary exchange is morally right.
It should be noted that the prohibitions against theft not only forbid individuals from taking the possessions of other individuals. God also forbids governing authorities from doing so. Even rulers are commanded to serve the Lord with fear (Ps. 2:10-12). The only way for a ruler to do this is to rule with justice (2 Sam. 23:3). God does not command us not to steal unless we work for the government. For example, consider 1 Kings 21, where King Ahab was held accountable for forcibly taking Naboth’s vineyard. His authority as king did not give him the authority to take what did not belong to him. (For a more thorough discussion of the ethics of taxation, click here).
Jesus calls his disciples not to follow the example of gentiles who seek greatness by lording over others. Instead of seeking to exercise authority over the lives of others, Jesus’s followers are expected to be servants (Mk. 10:42-44).
God has delegated to mankind the possession of the earth. In his wisdom, he also gave us moral laws about how to use those possessions. These laws include the prohibition against theft. For this reason, all exchange of goods should be voluntary in nature.
In future parts of this series we will examine how God’s wisdom regarding the possession of property and voluntary exchange has laid a necessary foundation for the division of labor and the creation of wealth. As the study of economics reveals to us, this enables us to be more productive, provide more benefits for one another, and is necessary to alleviate poverty. God created the world with wisdom, and in his wisdom, he gave us his commands. Economics demonstrates that following the wisdom of God’s teachings is the best way for mankind to thrive in God’s world.