What is Socialism?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines socialism this way:
1 any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.
2 A: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property.
B: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state.
What is Capitalism?
1 an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.
Two thoughts as we begin:
- Scripture is our authority in deciding if Socialism is more Christian than Capitalism
- Christianity can exist and endure under any economic system
But since we live in the United States of America, and we have the right to vote for our leaders, what can we learn from Scripture that will shed light on the choices we can make?
The Scriptures affirm in many Old and New Testament passages the right to own and develop private property.
- Two of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not steal” and “You shall not covet,” imply private property ownership (Exodus 20:15, 17, ESV). Stealing involves taking something that is another’s. Coveting involves desiring what is another’s.
- There are extensive provisions to repay the owners of property and livestock if one’s actions caused harm to them. (see Exodus 22 for example)
- In Deuteronomy 19:14 and four other places in the Old Testament, God warns his people: “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.”
What about the New Testament example of the early church? Scripture says, And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
By God’s grace, they refused to allow needs to be unmet in their midst. A very good example for us today! Scripture does not say that they all had equal resources, but that there were no unmet needs. Further light is shed on this practice a few chapters later. In Acts chapter 5, a couple sold a piece of property and gave some of the proceeds to the church. They lied however and said that they had given the whole amount. Listen to the Apostle Peter: 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 affirms their right to own it and their right to keep all the proceeds if they sold it. God disciplined them for lying, not for owning property. So the early church showed commendable generosity with the property they owned, not a system where there no longer was any private property.
One Old Testament provision for the nation of Israel that was not carried over into the New Testament era is the Year of Jubilee. A brief synopsis from gotquestions.org–
The word “jubilee”—literally, “ram’s horn” in Hebrew—is defined in Leviticus 25:9 as the sabbatical year after seven cycles of seven years (49 years). The fiftieth year was to be a time of celebration and rejoicing for the Israelites. The ram’s horn was blown on the tenth day of the seventh month to start the fiftieth year of universal redemption.
The Year of the Jubilee involved a year of release from indebtedness (Leviticus 25:23-38) and all types of bondage (vv. 39-55). All prisoners and captives were set free, all slaves were released, all debts were forgiven, and all property was returned to its original owners. In addition, all labor was to cease for one year, and those bound by labor contracts were released from them. One of the benefits of the Jubilee was that both the land and the people were able to rest.
God’s initial economic design allowed for a fresh start every 50 years. This kept there from being an increasingly wide gap between the rich and poor.
While the Year of Jubilee is not prescribed in the New Testament, elements of our economic system in the U.S. mirror its intent. These include progressive taxes on the wealthiest, social welfare programs, government-paid job training, mandatory public education, and personal bankruptcy to name a few. These “secular” provisions are in addition to the efforts of the churches and para-church organizations to address and assist the neediest.
The Situation Today
Doesn’t capitalism allow greedy people to exploit others for personal gain? Yes, but so does socialism, and arguably worse.
In a capitalist system, any organization must meet real needs at a competitive price, or lose all their business to a competitor. When the means of production are socialized, there are no longer any competitors. For example, if you do not like your healthcare insurer, you can choose another. If the government is the single purveyor of healthcare, your choice is taken away. If it performs poorly, it is the only option you have.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the late Russian author who escaped the gulags of Communist Russia and fled to the West, says: “Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.” He goes on to say that because he believes in the fallen nature of man, he believes capitalism is superior to socialism. One reason he gives is that capitalism decentralizes power so that the greedy capitalist’s damage is more limited whereas the centralization of power in a socialist system gives the fallen and faceless bureaucrat much greater power to harm.
In an interview in 2003, Solzhenitsyn says: “In different places over the years I have had to prove that socialism, which to many western thinkers is a sort of kingdom of justice, was, in fact, full of coercion, of bureaucratic greed and corruption and avarice, and consistent within itself that socialism cannot be implemented without the aid of coercion. Communist propaganda would sometimes include statements such as “we include almost all the commandments of the Gospel in our ideology”. The difference is that the Gospel asks all this to be achieved through love, through self-limitation, but socialism only uses coercion.”
I have had the privilege of traveling in Russia, Belarus, Cuba, and Nicaragua and can testify that this is indeed the case.
Mary and I were blessed to be in the Soviet Union in 1991. The Economic Attache’ of the U.S. Embassy spoke to our group and said, “The Soviet people do not yet understand capitalism. Under communism, there is only so much pie. If you get a bigger piece, that means I get less.” He went on to say that the American system is one on which we believe that the size of the pie can be increased and wealth can be created through innovation, invention and taking risks. Think of the companies and jobs that did not exist 25 years ago. New companies and new types of jobs flourished in a country that rewarded innovation and risk-taking.
“Untouched by the breath of God, unrestricted by human conscience, both capitalism and socialism are repulsive.” Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
The world needs Christ and his gospel of salvation. While I believe capitalism gives greater freedom and more opportunity, neither capitalism nor socialism is ultimately redemptive. People need the Lord.
What can we do?
- As the early church did, let us not hoard what God provides, nor put our resources in the hands of the government, but place them in the hands of the Lord. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein… (Psalm 24:1) We are stewards of what he has provided; we will give an account.
- As the people of God in this American culture so dominated by money, let us use the resources God has given us so that there is no need among us. And while we meet the temporal needs of others, never forget that salvation is our greatest need, and the one need only Jesus can meet.
- Let us look beyond our local church family to the needs of the world. Pastor and Author John Piper: “While the world is uncared for medically, uneducated, drinking filthy water, is poverty-ridden and unevangelized, these needs sink under the weight of healthy 65-year-old people playing bridge, shuffleboard and collecting shells, fishing and golfing their way into the presence of King Jesus. And you and I are going to join them, my friend, unless we make some very radical decisions and commitments about where our treasure is.”
Neither capitalism nor socialism serves to eliminate greed from the human heart. Only the gospel can do that. Come, Lord Jesus!