Socialism, Capitalism, and the Scriptures (Part 2) April 06 2019

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

We observed in the last blog that as long as we humans are involved, there are no perfect forms of government. Romans 13, which addresses the Christian’s responsibility toward government, showed us that the same principles of love apply in our relationship to government as in the rest of life. All the commandments are “summed up in this saying, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).  The ministry of Jesus was focused on 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.

Lets face it. There is no shortage of challenges in life, whether government-induced or otherwise. A characteristic of spiritual maturity that cuts across all of life’s challenges, regardless of source, is learning to be content, as Paul states in Philippians 4:11-12:

I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.”

Paul didn’t say “I wish I was living under Greek rule right now. It would have been so much easier.”

One would think that government officials would want exactly the types of citizens who could be content in the way that Paul described. This would make it easier for leaders to rule, and to solve some of the tough problems that face every country. But politics boils down to trying to convince the public that they should be discontent with the current situation, because their party is the only one who can make our lives better, and they go on to recite all the benefits that will come if they are elected. While we may reluctantly accept that this is the way politics works, it requires some discernment to distinguish what will truly “make our lives better.” So let’s see what we can discern from the Scriptures about this in the context of government.

Paul gives us a little hint in 1 Timothy 2:1-4, regarding how we should pray:

“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

We can certainly pray for God’s influence upon our leaders to allow freedom and circumstantial peace for our lives. There are many countries where freedoms are not given and peace is not a reality (we need to continue to pray for our brethren who live under these conditions). However, the greater principle here is this: the peace we experience comes as a result of us praying for our government leaders. It is God’s supernatural peace within, not a delicate external tranquility dependent on others changing. Living a life with God’s peace and contentment is possible under any range of economic systems.

Does the Bible give us any guidance about these systems, ranging from government-focused socialism to profit-focused capitalism? We saw in the last blog that socialism and capitalism mainly differ in their systems of economic production, so it would make sense to start with the question of “What is the motivation to be productive?” or in other words, “What is the motivation for work.”

We find in Genesis 2:15 that, from the beginning of creation, God intended man to work: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” The Hebrew word abad, translated here as cultivate, appears almost 300 times in the Old Testament. It is also translated work, serve, labor, and multiple other ways.

We see the “work” theme multiple times in Proverbs, including the somewhat satirical passage in Proverbs 6:6-11: “Go to the ant, O sluggard, observe her ways and be wise, which having no chief, officer, or ruler, prepares her food in the summer and gathers her provision in the harvest. How long will you lie down, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, A little folding of the hands to rest – Your poverty will come in like a vagabond, and your need like an armed man.” In other words, the lowly ant can put us humans to shame. There are apparently no “couch potatoes” in an ant colony. While someone can be lazy in both a socialist or capitalist regime, he is probably less likely to be “rescued” in a capitalistic one.

We see this work theme in the New Testament as well. For example, let’s look at 2 Thessalonians 3:10-11 – “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies.” Paul preceded this passage with a description of how he and other leaders had demonstrated their work ethic. Society in biblical times was expected to be industrious.

If you look up the word “profit” in a concordance, you will see in both the Old and New Testaments that the profit motive is almost universally assumed to exist within cultures. It seems that making a profit (or at least working to put food on the table) is an expected, natural motivation for living.  While there is no sin in making a profit, the Scriptures also say that it must be done justly and fairly – no bribes (Exodus 23:8; Proverbs 17:23), no cheating on weights and measures (Leviticus 19:36; Proverbs 20:23), and no taking advantage of people through excessive interest (Leviticus 25:35-38).

This is the vulnerability of capitalism – people controlled by greed can wreak havoc in what can otherwise be a very effective approach to economics. Paul includes “greed” together with his long list of depravities in Romans 1:29-31 as a characteristic of those whom God “gave over to a depraved mind.” In other words, greed is not a characteristic of love, and God set up specific laws even in the Old Testament to guard against abuse of the freedom people have to make a profit. And abuse of this freedom (real or perceived) is what sometimes leads people to embrace a more socialist approach.

We also see in the Scriptures the command to care for the poor and disadvantaged. There are many references, but see for example Deuteronomy 15:7-11. In Ephesians 4:28 we also see that working and sharing is stated as the cure (or biblical “put on”) for a habitual thief:

He who steals must steal no longer, but let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.”

There are different ways to organize assistance to make sure the poor can survive. In many countries, government takes on the task of helping those who are unable to work because of age or disability, with the amount of assistance varying widely. But if taken too far, it is easy to see how this can strip citizens of their motivation to be ambitious, productive, creative, and innovative.

At the other end of the spectrum, capitalistic societies that are driven by greed and not tempered with fairness and care for those in need can be dysfunctional as well. We have seen a number of examples of this in recent years. It allowed Bernie Madoff to cheat investors out of billions of dollars. The system of banks, mortgage brokers, real estate organizations (combined with lack of oversight) brought about the housing crash in the U.S. in 2008.

The purpose of this blog is to highlight biblical truth, not give political recommendations, leaving conclusions or actions up to the reader. Sorry if you were expecting to see some sort of endorsement of a political/economic system. But we can see how the primary focus of the Scriptures is on our own individual responsibilities before God, not how to structure government. I am grateful for those who take the initiative and risk to run for office and who try to help government run more efficiently.

While we should try to improve government, our hope for the future does not rest there.  This is why BCF’s focus has always been to keep people anchored in God’s Word. If you are despairing today about the state of government, it is comforting to know that our hope does not rest in our earthly authorities. As Christians, our lives are greatly simplified by acting on 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.”

Also, this blog does not deal with how to decide if or how you should resist a totalitarian government, like some have had to endure with Nazi Germany and other regimes throughout history. Some had to experience unspeakable horrors, but nevertheless, all the biblical truths of how to have peace in the midst of those horrors still apply. This is not to minimize the challenges, but even so, is a great hope for us and for all our dear brothers and sisters worldwide.

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Steve Smith