Capitalism or Socialism?
One of the focal points of the political division between Americans is the ongoing debate about which ‘ism should be dominant in our culture: capitalism or socialism. The Church in America cleaves upon the same divisions, instead of providing America with a light to see the best for our culture. In the series of blog posts that follow under the caption “Capitalism or Socialism?” we will look into the Bible for guidance to help the Church to shine that light.
Definitions and Basic Questions
According to Wikipedia.com articles on Capitalism and Socialism:
“Capitalism is an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit.” “The term capitalism gradually spread throughout the Western world in the 19th and 20th centuries largely through the writings of Karl Marx. However, it is the default economic system and it has its roots tracing back to the beginning of recorded history.” Paul R. Spickard and Kevin M. Cragg attribute the “invention of capitalism” to the middle-age emergence of urban mercantilism in Western Europe. The new system replaced the feudal aristocratic dominance of wealth that preceded it. (A Global History of Christians, Page 97).
“Socialism is an economic system characterised by social ownership and cooperative management of the means of production and a political philosophy advocating such a system.” “Modern socialism originated from an 18th-century intellectual and working class political movement that criticised the effects of industrialisation and private property on society. In the early 19th-century, ‘socialism’ referred to any concern for the social problems of capitalism regardless of the solution. However, by the late 19th-century, ‘socialism’ had come to signify opposition to capitalism and advocacy of an alternative system based on some form of social ownership.”
Did either of these ‘isms originate from the Bible, and thus, is one of them the God-ordained economic system for humanity? Has God specified an economic system for humanity? Should the Church advocate either system as God-ordained? To begin to understand, we will first consider the early story of humanity described in book of Genesis. You can read of it in the next blog post.
Genesis -- Early Humanity's Story
God, Creator of heaven and earth, gave humanity responsibility for ruling the material creation on earth (Gen. 1:26). He “took man and put him in the Garden of Eden to take care of it” (Gen. 2:15). Here there is no suggestion of how humanity would manage an economy. But God intended that humans would populate the earth (Gen. 1:28; 9:1), becoming tribes and eventually nations and migrating to various places on earth (Gen. 10:32).
In one early attempt to establish a city, humanity worked in a cooperative way (Gen. 11:3-4). The attempt to build the tower of Babel was not a private venture; there is no indication of slavery or employment; instead, humans pooled their resources “to make a name” and “not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4). This seemed to be a united action of resistance to free humanity from the Sovereign rule of God over the earth. God intervened, and the plan didn’t work (Gen. 11:5-9). Although this passage does not discuss the economic ramifications of the effort at Babel, capitalism does not appear to have originated or influenced it; if anything, as the cooperative effort suggests, it had a socialistic-type appearance.
Later, Paul summarized God’s activity with early humanity in these words: “The God who made the world and everything in it… made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times and the exact places where they should live (Acts 17:24, 26). Earth’s resources were in the land, which belonged to God, who exercised His prerogative to distribute to humanity.
Sometime after populations grew and nations began to arise, God sent Abram, later named Abraham, to the land of Canaan that it would become the land of his descendants (Gen. 12:1-2). At that time, Abraham and others had “possessions they had accumulated” (Gen. 12:5), through which in time he became “very wealthy” (Gen. 13:2). This was a form of capitalism. There, Abraham’s descendants grew into several small tribes, one of which had Isaac and later Jacob as patriarchs.
The land of Canaan was not a settled nation under a central government. Instead, it, and nearby lands, were home of many “kings” of city-states (Gen. 14:1-2) as well as large unsettled areas. At the same time, Egypt was a nation under one ruler, Pharaoh (Gen. 12:10, 15; 39:1).
When Jacob’s family grew to about seventy people, a severe famine in Canaan led them to relocate to Egypt to survive. This move, orchestrated by God, was preceded by a series of events that led to the ascendancy of Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons, to become Governor in Egypt’s government under Pharaoh (Gen. 41:39-43; 42:6). Joseph administered a plan for national food-production and storage that not only provided for the survival of the people of Egypt but also for surrounding countries (Gen. 41:56-57). Through this plan, Jacob’s descendants, the tiny tribe of Israel, survived in Egypt. God told Jacob that the move was Providential and that there Israel would become a nation (Gen. 46:2-3).
Here we see more a form of socialism than capitalism. Joseph administered a government-run food distribution program. God directed Israel to participate and gain its benefits. As the story went, the famine resulted in complete dependency of the Egyptian people on the government (Gen. 47:13-19). Joseph established a system of taxation that funded the government (Gen. 47:23-26). The pyramids and other extensive building of infrastructure and monuments in Egypt are evidences of the wealth and power of the government drawn from the citizens. When new government leaders replaced Pharaoh and Joseph, the people became victims of severe abuse (Ex. 1:8-11), which we probably should conclude is one of the hazards of such a system. What can we conclude about a God-ordained economic system from the Genesis account? Clearly, there was none. In the next Blog post we will continue to explore the Bible on this matter.
In biblical history, only one nation had the designation as God’s. Yahweh covenanted with Israel to become His nation (Ex. 19:5-6, 24:8). He chose Israel to be His people; they did not choose Him to be their God (Deut. 7:6); the choice had nothing to do with their population (Deut. 7:7) or character (Deut. 9:4-5). It was Yahweh’s purpose, driven by His love (Deut. 7:8) and desire that all nations would learn from Israel about God (Deut. 4:5-7) so that He could bless them too (Gen. 12:2-3).
He brought Israel into the land of Canaan to take possession of it as their own land (Jos. 1:11). He distributed the land to the various tribes of Israel to become their permanent inheritance (Jos. 14:1-5). His intent was that all Israelites would own land, but He did not intend that some would find ways to buy out or otherwise gain possession of others’ inheritances (Lev. 25:14, 23). Although He gave it to them, in reality they were tenants on His property, and He intended that all should benefit.
Yahweh intended that there would be no poor people in Israel (Deut. 15:4), but that could only be if the nation completely conformed with His law. Reality is that there would be poor people (Deut. 15:7, 11), and for those who became poor He established measures to help them through debt cancellation every seven years (Deut. 15:1-3), through temporary bond service (Deut. 15:12-15), and through the Jubilee year (Lev.25:10).
For those who were disadvantaged, Yahweh also made provision through Israel’s law. Included were Levites, because they did not have inherited land; aliens for the same reason and because they lived under various other conditions (for example: lack of tribal or family support, language and cultural limitations, and real or imagined second-class citizenship) that made their lives more difficult; orphans and widows (Deut. 26:11-13). Each third year one tenth of wages were to be set aside to give to those in these groups. This is a form of what we might call Welfare today. God’s law for Israel included it.
During this early part of Israel’s history, their type of government was Theocracy. Yahweh was their king and ruled the nation through the priests, judges, elders that He selected through the law. Israel’s laws preserved a type of capitalistic economic system with welfare provisions for the poor and needy, as well as socialistic-type distribution of the land.
Later, Israel’s government changed to a kingdom. Yahweh did not intend the type of system that resulted, but He allowed it (1 Sam. 8:6-8, 22). The human king brought about changes to the economic system that included government owned land, industry, and workforce (1 Sam. 8:11-18). Under them, large construction projects were undertaken (temple and royal property), armies were deployed, and national industries were instituted (naval) (1 Kings 4:20-28; 9:10-12, 26). Under the monarchy, the nation experienced a huge social and economic burden (1 Kings 12:4). Israel never recovered from the change in government. The years that followed only brought more and more social and economic disarray until finally they lived under occupation of foreign governments.
Those who look at the Old Testament as a guide to divinely-established economic system cannot find it in God’s chosen nation of Israel. In the next Blog post, we will consider the New Testament.
Through Jeremiah the prophet, the Holy Spirit inspired the promise of a new covenant to replace God’s covenant with Israel (Jer. 31:31-34). Jesus Christ inaugurated this New Covenant at His Last Supper with His disciples before His crucifixion (Luke 22:20). The writer of the book of Hebrews repeated Jeremiah’s prophecy in Heb. 8:6-12, adding in the next verse that it made the Old Covenant obsolete. This New Covenant was not between God and a nation but God and His chosen people of all nations through Jesus Christ, as made clear in Gal. 3:26-29; the mention of “Israel” by Jeremiah applies to “the Israel of God” that is not limited to “the circumcision” – ancient jargon for Old Covenant Israel (Gal. 6:15-16). Instead, as explained in Eph. 2:11-13, through Jesus Christ all previous foreigners to the covenants of promise are included.
The New Testament name of this group of people is “Church” – a group of people called out and set apart to belong to Jesus Christ (Mat. 16:18); they are not defined by tribal, geographical, cultural, or language distinctions. The Church is not national, and it does not have a God-ordained economic system that looks like one of the ‘isms.
Jesus’ teachings to those who are set apart to belong to Him fly in the face of all economic principles of this present world. He taught that money is a “master” of humans in this age (Mat. 6:34-35) and told His followers, “You cannot serve both God and Money.” He said that “the meek” will inherit the earth (Mat. 5:5). He considered the tiny donation of a poor widow greater that the large donations of the rich (Luke 21:1-4). His measure and value of currency was altogether different than either capitalists or socialists.
Those set apart to belong to Christ are heirs of the promises of God (Gal. 3:29). Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15), which upon His return His followers – those who accept Him as their King – will inherit (Mat. 25:31-34). Since Jesus came, all nations, including the vast Roman Empire, tiny Judea, as well as all nations today, while hosting this group of heirs of the Kingdom of God, have been free to use the economic system that they choose.
With that said, what does the Church that consists of heirs of the Kingdom of God have to do with these ‘isms? I know of people who confess faith in Jesus Christ and hold tenaciously to one of these isms as if Jesus commanded them to do so. They listen to preachers and political talkers who impress these strong beliefs upon them. My prayer is that this Blog leads them to the one reservoir of the mind of Jesus – the Bible – to look closely at what He and His Apostles said and did as recorded in the New Testament. If they sincerely and carefully do that, it will become clear that God has something better in mind. In the next Blog post, we will look at what the Spirit of God has to say through the Church about the ‘isms.
The Church and the 'isms
The Church began at Jerusalem when God poured out the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples on the day of Pentecost. One hundred twenty followers exploded to several thousand in one day (Acts 1:15; 2:41). The core group was mostly from Galilee (Acts 1:11) and did not have residences in Jerusalem. A smaller number of followers who were Jerusalem residents provided temporary living quarters (Acts 1:13) for their Galilean friends, but all of that changed on that Pentecost.
Suddenly, a flood of Hellenistic Jews from surrounding nations and Roman provinces (Acts 2:5) were drawn to the small group. It was from among these that the three thousand added came (Acts 2:41). This unusual situation immediately brought about a new need: living conditions for a large group of aliens; consequently, a community of shared resources arose (Acts 2:44-45). Those with homes opened them for others (Acts 2:46).
Days went by (Acts 2:46; 3:1), perhaps weeks, we don’t know how many, but the situation of a growing cluster of people in Jerusalem without residences as well as the community of sharing to meet their needs continued (Acts 4:4, 32-37).
At that time an unusual event in the history of the early church in Jerusalem gives insight about the financial system in place. Two residents who owned property sold it with intention to donate to the need but also to deceitfully hold back part for themselves. The outcome was their deaths, not for withholding money but for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-10). Plainly, the property and the proceeds of the sale were theirs; they could have donated as they pleased, but misrepresenting the truth was unacceptable (v.4).
The group of Christ-followers in Jerusalem was practicing a system of sharing resources through centralized administration of donations for the welfare of all in need. Because the gifts were voluntarily given the system was not socialistic, but for much of the same reason, it was not capitalistic.
The circumstances that precipitated the sharing of belongings and resources did not persist. Eventually, tourists and pilgrims left Jerusalem to return to their homelands. In the meantime, increasingly more permanent residents of Jerusalem joined the church (Acts 6:7). Ultimately, persecution scattered the burgeoning group into areas of Judea and neighboring provinces (Acts 8:1). When the figurative dust of the scattering settled, the church members resided in the nearby provinces of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (Acts 9:31). From there, the church spread beyond those provinces into Syria and southern Asia Minor (Acts 11:19). Afterward, as Luke chronicled in the book of Acts, churches sprouted throughout Asia Minor and into Europe (Acts 20:1-6; 28:13-14).
Although most church members resided in their homelands where they received the Gospel and owned their own property, the sharing of resources with people in need continued (Acts 11:27-29). After several decades, the church in Jerusalem numbered in the thousands (Acts 21:17, 20). Many of these members were poor and benefitted from the sharing of resources from wealthier non-Jewish provinces (Rom. 15:25-26). This brief survey of early church history found in the book of Acts is enough to demonstrate that the church did not confine itself to economic principles based on either capitalism or socialism.
As made clear in previous Blog posts about the New Testament, Israel, and the book of Genesis, there is no God-ordained economic system for humanity that fits into the confines of these ‘isms. Instead, the Bible tells and teaches of a system that is based on the grace of God, generously providing for humanity and encouraging humans –through the Law of love – to participate with each other in relations based upon trust in God, freedom of individuals and governments, personal responsibility, caring for each other, and generous sharing of wealth with those in need. The Church is to teach and apply this Biblical guidance as illumination to a dark world driven by lust, envy, greed, egotism, and injustice. The ‘isms do not provide this light. They are merely human implementations of administrations that cater to both good and evil characteristics. May the truth help us to discern between the imperfect and corrupt ways of man verses the good ways of God.