Socialism, Capitalism, and the Scriptures (Part 1) March 16 2019

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

I’m an engineer, not an economist or a political scientist. But I’m also a student of the Scriptures, or by God’s grace try to be, and I find the current debate about governmental structures quite intriguing. As with all our blogs, we are not taking political sides. But the Scriptures provide some powerful truths that are pertinent to this discussion. We’ll lay a Scriptural foundation in this blog, and follow up with more about governmental structures next time.

Let me start by saying that there are flaws in all governmental systems, and those flaws are called … humans. As long as we humans are involved, there are no perfect forms of government. Having said that, as believers we are living under a new Master, yet we are also to be subject to the governing authorities, as we know from Romans Chapter 13.

“Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (verse 1).

Keep in mind that this was in Paul’s letter to the Romans, not exactly a government that was benevolent toward Christians. The instruction includes reference to paying taxes and giving honor to the authorities. We do this not just to avoid punishment, but “for conscience sake” (verse 5). The passage goes on to say that all the commandments are “summed up in this saying, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 9).

It is remarkable that the “love your neighbor” statement is in the context of government, but it really highlights our responsibility as believers in this world. Our primary work is not to change government (although we should try to help it function better, as we have opportunity), but our primary responsibility is to demonstrate love within the society that government oversees. The ministry of Jesus and the disciples who followed Him was about the change within individuals, not change within the governmental structures around them. It was about living individually with God’s supernatural peace, with or without governmental peace.

This truth should allow us just to take a deep breath and not get so tied up in knots about the daily news (you can take a deep breath right now if you need to). The real question is: “how can I show the love of Christ in what is sometimes the chaotic context of our daily lives?” Or as Jesus reminds us, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). Don’t you love the simplicity of the Scriptures? So simple that even a child can understand how to do that, but so profound that it takes a lifetime to live it out as a part of our characters.

We had an individual in our Self-Confrontation course in Washington D.C. some years ago who was a former prisoner, and he was happy to be visiting the Nation’s Capital so that he “could see where all those laws were coming from that he had violated.” At first, he was shocked to see how many thousands upon thousands of laws there were that could be disobeyed. But then he remembered Jesus’ statement to the lawyer in Matthew 22:37-39 that it all boils down to just two laws, “love God and love your neighbor.” This is good citizenship boiled down to its essence.

Now with that as an overview, let’s consider socialism and capitalism. There are a number of variations of socialism, but a common dictionary definition would be “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” Typically, the government is more in control of economic activity. Karl Marx thought of socialism as a transitional social state between capitalism and communism, although some socialist nations exist that have no intention of transitioning to communism. This is a separate issue from how leaders are designated, whether through a public vote, monarchy, dictatorship, etc. Keep in mind that there are countries that try to present themselves as democracies with free and fair voting but are, in effect, socialist dictatorships – witness Venezuela. The now deceased Hugo Chavez’s government takeover of industry has not worked out so well.

A typical definition of capitalism would be “an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.” The natural question is, “why should we care about socialism and capitalism?” Part of the answer to that question goes back to the fact of how human we are.

At the risk of over-simplifying the situation, let’s just say that the human failing most associated with capitalism is greed; the human failing most associated with socialism might be summed up as some combination of laziness, lack of motivation and poor stewardship. Both responses reflect a lack of love for people.

In socialism, if there is little reward for my labor, I am more inclined not to be productive. The government then often is inclined to instill “motivation” through fear. You can see this in the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. An extreme outgrowth of capitalism would involve an attitude of “every man for himself,” – using every legal means (sometimes illegal) to gain an economic advantage over others. It may succeed in yielding overall economic success, but sometimes at the expense of others. We’ll talk about the profit motive and compassion for the poor under a capitalistic system in the next blog.

I have worked in both the private and public sectors over the years, and like to think that I have been equally productive in both. But I have to say that, with the private sector, not knowing if you will have a job in a month or a year is a very strong motivation to do your best and to be as competitive as possible. It inspires innovation, creativity, and cost control – the very things that have allowed America and other capitalist societies to succeed from an economic perspective. Those motivations can also be there within government, but it depends on leadership and the rules of employment and management.

As Christians, we have a big advantage, because we realize the truth of Colossians 3:23-24 -

Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.”

If others around us are not motivated, that should not deter us from being the best employees we can be. If we are surrounded by people who think we are just trying to “get in good with the boss,” that’s OK. We aren’t dependent on the opinions of others. Having a boss that is unfair or difficult to work for should still not deter us from doing our best. We may come to the conclusion that we have to say something to improve the situation or even seek another job, but based on the principle of love, we should do it out of love for that person or people in the organization, not out of our own personal retribution.

We had this come up in a class in Colombia, South America a few years ago, where a young lady presented a situation about dealing with a difficult boss. As the class looked on, the instructor took her to 1 Peter 2:18-19, which is in the context of submissiveness to human institutions more generally, and to masters (employers) more specifically:

Servants be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly.”

The passage goes on to talk about the ultimate example of this being Jesus Himself. It was almost like there was a collective gasp (in Spanish) from the class of about 30 people, and a few tears from the one asking the question. But they all got the point. The Christian life is about radical, transformational love. Later that week during testimony time she explained how the Lord had used that principle to improve the relationship between her and her boss.

There is much more in the Scriptures about the types of behavior that will lead to a loving, productive society, and what that might mean for governmental structures, but we’ll get into more depth on that next time. If you have questions about this or other blog posts, please e-mail blog@bcfministries.org. You may also subscribe to the blog by emailing that address and put “Subscribe to blog” in the subject line. If you need general information about BCF, you can access our home page at www.bcfministries.org

Steve Smith