One of the many issues that so-called progressives try to justify with the Bible is socialism. This article is intended both to assist those who are christians and those lovers of liberty who may not be christians but are trying to persuade christians of why socialism is wrong. It is (mostly) written from a minarchist perspective, but should not be taken to think that The Price of Liberty supports minarchism.
Socialism is the political ideology that government ought to oversee and control all aspects of the economy rather than leaving private businesses and individuals to conduct their business and affairs as they see fit. It is based on the idea that all property and wealth are to be shared and the government (at whatever level) is the entity which determines how they are to be shared. Of necessity, socialism demands a strong centralized government to be able to do this.
Advocates of socialism often claim that it is the “fairest way” for a society to function economically. That it protects poorer people (citizens and non-citizens) from oppression by wealthy people and companies (especially big corporations). Many attempt to use the Bible in order to defend this idea. One alleged example of “socialism” commonly given the early Christians who sold their property to share with those who were in need (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35).
Socialism requires civil (human) government to have a very large role in the economy and society. Among other things, socialism imposes a greater tax and regulatory burden on the people. The “sharing” is mandatory and ultimately rests on a threat of force or actual use of force to control the economy and everyone in it.
Basic Bible Principles
God has ordained a limited role for civil authorities (if indeed He does not (for now) tolerate this evil) – Why is this important? Because people attempt to make Biblical arguments for what “government ought to do.” At very best, the divinely-ordained role for civil authorities is to (a) protect the innocent from evildoers, (b) punish those evildoers (Romans 13:3-4), and (c) maintain a situation where people are free to serve the Lord (1st Timothy 2:2). Do governments do many “good” things that go beyond this limited role (such as operating a postal service)? Perhaps, but God there is no Biblical justification for governments to claim it has those roles. So we ought to be very cautious of expecting, requesting, or demanding anything beyond what God ordained.
The Bible warns us of dangers presented by government – When the children of Israel called for a king, God told Samuel to warn them. He explained what it would be like to have a king – he would “take” from them everything he wanted to fulfill his own purposes (1st Samuel 8:9-17). The wise man warned: “If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them” (Ecclesiastes 5:8). The Bible establishes standards for “good, godly government” but those standards are virtually never (if ever) met. The Bible writers described how large bureaucracies are inefficient and ineffective, regardless of their intention. This type of power and bureaucracy is absolutely essential in socialism, even in a limited socialism.
God gives us the blessings that we enjoy in this life, including the abundance of the wealthy – The wise man described the riches of the wealthy as “the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19). As economists have learned, the wealthy are an essential part of advanced society, even if they are not godly people. In 1st Timothy 6:17, Paul told Timothy to remind the rich (Timothy’s primary audience were christians and those he was teaching to be christians) that God is the One who “richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.”
Socialism, due to the size and scope of the government needed for it, naturally results in civil authorities usurping the authority of God over the people – This has been a problem throughout history (see Genesis 10:8-10; Ezekiel 28:2; Acts 12:20-23 and any history book). Too often, man wants to (in effect) replace God. Rulers who attempt to portray themselves as a benevolent god-like figure to the people often expect the allegiance, obedience, and praise that ought to be reserved for God alone. Virtually every socialist system – secular or religious – in history has demonstrated that.
Socialism encourages and rewards for sinful behavior to the harm of those who do what is right – Paul wrote, “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat either” (2nd Thessalonians 3:10). Yet socialism is built on a system of taking from the productive to give to the unproductive. The wise man said it was “evil” and “a severe affliction” for possessions to be taken from someone who received them as God’s blessings and given to another (Ecclesiastes 6:1-2). Rather than one having his possessions taken by force to help others, he should be encouraged to sell what he has that others need (Proverbs 11:26) – a voluntary free-market interaction rather than a forced confiscation of property to be redistributed in an inefficient and bureaucratically wasteful manner – or give of his own free will to help others (Acts 4:32-35). Stealing is stealing – and wrong – regardless of whether it is done by an individual, a private group, or government.
There may never have been a human government that did NOT go beyond the limited role that God seems to have “ordained for them” (that is, tolerated). However, the political ideology of socialism is built upon a foundation of evil. Not just that government can control and steal from people, but the concept that human rulers can take God’s place over the people, and take the blessings that God gives both the righteous and unrighteous and hand them out to others. Clearly, this provides special challenges for Christians living in that society.
“And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” — Acts 4:32-35
Tom, thanks for posting that scripture. As you know, that was not socialism as defined today – or for that matter, in the past. There was no coercion, it was not run by a government (“democratically” elected or not) and as Acts chapter 5 makes clear, it was completely voluntary on the part of those participating.
I don’t think any of us should have a problem with people practicing this sort of socialism on a voluntary basis, any more than we should have a problem with people who refuse to worship God or worship something else – and they are certainly able and free to try and convince the rest of us to join them. As long as they don’t force us to do so, either directly or indirectly.
It’s the end-state, or most extreme form, of socialism: Communism.
As for the definition of socialism, the actual definition — worker control of the means of production — doesn’t inherently have anything to do with the state.
That is certainly one (of many) definitions of socialism – the problem comes with “how” the workers supposedly control the means of production. It always seems to involve the state – coercive human government.
I understand that many “highly-respected” socialists have condemned the very idea of employee-owned corporations (as are common among engineering and architectural firms, and I am sure there are others) as being “fake” worker control. (But I don’t think the situation in Jerusalem would be “socialist” under that definition – no workers, no control, and no means of production are identified.
As for identifying the church in Jerusalem in AD 30-40 (or so) as Communism or communism, is that not what Engels (and perhaps Marx and Lenin) considered the ideal, end-condition, once government had “withered away,” right? I have heard that it was “communism” (or “primitive communism”) from various writers and apologists, all the way back to the 1960s (and written long before that), But I don’t see how it matched either actual socialist or self-proclaimed “Communist” systems that we have seen throughout history. Those always seem to involve government and coercion and threats and violence – and almost always control “as the voice (or vanguard) of the people” by a small, usually self-appointed and self-perpetuating elite.
You make great points and it certainly should help readers to better understand the issues. Thank you!
“the problem comes with ‘how’ the workers supposedly control the means of production. It always seems to involve the state – coercive human government.”
Always? Er, no. Early modern socialist theory was explicitly anarchist and there was a years-long fight in the First International between the anarchist and statist camps, culminating in a split in 1872. The statist branch of socialism certainly became DOMINANT, especially after the Russian revolution, but there’s never been a time since the early 19th century when there weren’t anarchist socialists and communists (including Tolstoy’s explicitly Christian communists).
As for the early church, if there was no means of production, then they all starved. There’s no record of that happening. The small, self-appointed and self-perpetuating elite in that scenario was — at least according to Acts — God himself, who executed Ananias and Sapphira for holding out on the “all things in common” scheme.
I had forgotten Tolstoy’s contributions completely, and stand corrected on that. You are right about at least some socialist theory, and I tend to concentrate on the 20th Century (and now 21st Century) versions.
Acts 4:34 states in part “all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of the things that were sold,” – there is no mention of giving of wages or profits from production, just the sale of capital goods. Although the Lord was (and is, of course) in charge, there is no indication that this practice was commanded by God (unless we are to understand that Jesus’ reply to the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:21 to be a universal commandment, which conflicts with many other things). And in Acts 5:3-5, Peter makes it clear that Ananias and Sapphira were not punished for “holding out” but for lying. Peter makes it pretty clear it was not for keeping what was theirs when he said, “Wasn’t it yours while you possessed it? And after it was sold, wasn’t it at your disposal?” It appears they wanted the glory or honor accorded to Barnabas and others, without actually doing the deed.
Again, great thoughts, and appreciate your work in making me clarify and correct things.