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There are numerous economic problems with socialism, as was argued in part 9 of this series. Because of the incentive problem, the knowledge problem, and the economic calculation problem, socialism will always fail to live up to it’s promise to provide a more abundant life.
But some will defend socialism or socialistic economic policies because of Christian ethics. Advocates for socialism are often driven by attitudes of goodness, generosity, a willingness to share, gentleness, and compassion. Since Jesus taught his disciples to act charitably towards the poor and oppressed, it is argued that Christians should advocate for socialist economic policies. Even if an economic case were made to show that socialism fails to increase wealth, Christians must be willing to sacrifice wealth for the sake of others. After all, “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3; Mt. 4:4).
Two passages are often pointed to as a scriptural foundation for socialism, both of which describe the early church in Jerusalem.
And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.Acts 2:44-45
Two chapters later we read of what appears to be a communal pooling and sharing of resources in the early church.
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.Acts 4:32-37
The Ethical Problem with Socialism
The primary ethical problem with socialism is that it violates God’s prohibitions against theft. As was discussed in detail in Part 5, the commandment, “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15; Deut. 5:11) means that people do not have the right to take other people’s property.
What’s more, the Bible teaches that rulers are not free to establish their own standards of right and wrong. They are bound by the same moral laws as everyone else. Kings are expected to act justly. This means they cannot exact gifts or tributes.
By justice a king builds up the land,Proverbs 29:4
but he who exacts gifts tears it down.
Jeremiah emphasized the moral obligation of rulers to act justly. Their position of authority in no way permitted them to steal or murder.
Thus says the LORD: “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”Jeremiah 22:3
Psalm 2 warns kings not to cast off God’s authority over their lives, but rather to submit to God’s anointed King.
Kiss the Son,Psalm 2:12
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all those who take refuge in him.
If is for this reason that kings are not permitted to commit murder or theft.
One example that illustrates this truth is the account of King Ahab, the wicked king of Israel. Ahab committed both theft and murder, specifically in the case of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21). When Ahab desired Naboth’s vineyard and offered to buy it, Naboth refused. Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, then orchestrated a false accusation against Naboth resulting in his stoning. As soon as Ahab learned of Naboth’s death, he immediately claimed the vineyard as his own. In response, God, through the prophet Elijah, condemned Ahab for his actions.
I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD. Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.1 Kings 21:20b-21
This account serves as a clear reminder that rulers are accountable to God for their actions and are expected to abide by the same moral laws as every other human being. It is for this reason that socialism is not an option for the Christian. The prohibition against theft disallows for any sort of state-mandated socialism. Since people are not permitted to take the property of others, the state has not moral right to collectivize other people’s property.
The Voluntary Nature of Christianity
What then should we make of the two passages from Acts previously quoted? Clearly, those early Christians were engaged in the voluntary sharing of their possessions. Their property was not confiscated by either the governing authorities or the church leaders.
The text is clear that Ananias and Sapphira were not punished for owning property which they refused to contribute to the church community. They were struck down for lying about it. Peter even points our that they did not have to lie, because it was their property to start with. It could have remained unsold if they had chosen.
While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? After it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it then that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God. – Acts 5:4Acts 5:4
The ethical problem with socialism does not lie in the distribution of goods, but in the forcible redistribution of goods. The state is not a god, capable of distributing goods it creates out of nothing. It must first seize ownership of land, labor, and/or goods from others. The state cannot give to one person what it does not first take from someone else.
We must not confuse sharing and generosity with socialism or socialistic policies. Sharing is voluntary. Socialism is not. Sharing expresses love. Socialism does not. Sharing is self-sacrificial. Socialism sacrifices others against their will. Sharing is Christ-like. Socialism is not.
Although the early church is a wonderful example of sharing, it offers no justification for socialism or socialistic practices. Regardless of the motives of those who push for socialistic reforms, socialism violates the economic laws which God built into creation, and it is thus doomed to result in waste, poverty, and strife (Part 9). Although socialism can sometimes help some people, it can only do so by taking from others. For this reason, socialism is an ethical evil which should find no support from those who honor God’s law.