PRIVATE PROPERTY AND THE BIBLE

By
Lester Wehrwein


 

    In a 1983 report a certain organization "condemned Western capitalism as the major source of 'injustice in the prevailing economic order .... The consequences are ... immense human suffering, degradation, and death.'" The same report "declared that the international capitalist system, defined vaguely as 'economic domination and unjust social structures,' suppresses the 'socio-economic rights of people, such as the basic needs of families, communities, and the rights of workers.'"1

    Who was it that issued this report? Was it the Communist Party? The Socialist Party? Sad to say, it was the World Council of Churches, an international, interdenominational organization of several hundred churches, at its 1983 assembly in Vancouver.

    These misguided people have over the years consistently asserted that capitalism is and evil system that is the root cause of much injustice and poverty in the world and ought to be replaced with a global socialist system. "Justice for the WCC did not mean equal opportunity or additional aid to or investment in the Third World, but rather a forced redistribution of income and resources from rich countries to poor ones."2

    "The WCC's pronouncements on capitalism make no mention of the high productivity and other benefits to both developed and developing countries of market enterprise. Nor was any statistical or even anecdotal evidence cited to reinforce the WCC's insistence that free-market capitalism is uniquely responsible for human suffering."3 "Poverty is the plight of all primitive and traditional peoples. Not until the rise of democratic capitalism did any society have the capacity to eliminate stark poverty. Ironically, capitalism, which owes so much to the Protestant work ethic, has become the favorite whipping boy of the WCC's liberation theologians."4

    What is capitalism? My dictionary defines it as "an economic system in which private wealth, lawfully acquired by private enterprise under free competition, lies in the control of its owners: distinguished from socialism." It is free private enterprise, with private ownership of property and the means of production, with a free market with a free exchange of goods and services, and with everyone being free to develop his or her God-given talents to the fullest.

    The Bible teaches that the laborer is entitled to his wages. Luke 10:7; 1 Timothy 5:18. Therefore a person has the God-given right to the fruits of his or her labor. If ones honest labor has resulted in the acquisition of property, that property, humanity speaking, belongs to him alone and to no one else. Except for the right of the government to levy and collect taxes for legitimate purposes, it is wrong and sinful for anyone, including the government, to deprive him of it. If I point a gun at someone who has more of this world's goods than I think he ought to have and say, "Hand over part of what you have to me to distribute among those who have less than you in order that we may all be more equal," who would deny that this is a violation of "Thou shalt not steal"? By what stretch of the imagination does something that is wrong when done by an individual become right when it is done by the government? Government seizure of part of the income of those who have earned it in order to distribute it among those who did not earn it is nothing less than legalized robbery.

    Demands by "liberals," both inside and outside of the church, for so-called "social justice," by which they mean equality of economic condition, by government force if necessary, is totally contrary to Scripture, which plainly states that justice should by impartial and that the poor should not receive special treatment at the expense of the rich. Ex. 23:3; Lev. 19:15. The Bible says nothing about the government having the right or the responsibility to redistribute wealth by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. The responsibility for helping the poor is delegated to private people and organizations. Eph. 4:28; Mt. 25:35-36; Prov. 21:13.

    It is alleged that capitalism is based on greed and that the profit motive of the businessman is wicked. To be sure, there is greed in the hearts of businessmen as well as in the rest of us, including the socialists, but it is due to the sin in the heart and not to the capitalist system. The capitalist system is based on the inherent desire (not sinful in itself) to improve one's lot in this life; greed is not necessarily a part of this desire. Capitalism is not inherently immoral.

    On the other hand, socialism is mostly, if not entirely, based on greed -- greed for more earthly goods at the expense of other people's labor (something for nothing) on the part of those who are envious of those who have more, and greed for power on the part of those who in their supreme arrogance assume that they will be in on running the show because they are endowed with such great wisdom that they know how to run the lives of the rest of us better than we do ourselves.

    The Bible does not disparage the profit motive; it does not condemn Abraham of Isaac or Jacob or Job or David or anyone else for becoming rich. It is not wrong to earn as much as you can. As John Wesley said, "Earn all you can, give all you can."5 And right here may be as good a place as any to cite 2 Thess. 3:10: "If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat."6 In other words, any able bodied person who refuses to work for his living ought to be allowed to starve rather than become a burden to others.

    The ownership of private property was practiced from the very beginning. When Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil that he cultivated as an offering to the Lord, and Abel brought some of the firstborn of the flocks that he raised, neither of them considered what he brought as the common property of both; each on brought from his own personal property.

    In Gen. 13:2 we read, "Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold." This was certainly his own private property. The Gen. 23:3-20 account of Abraham's purchase of a field ends with the words, "So the field and the cave that is in it were deeded to Abraham by the sons of Heth as property for a burial place." Private property had changed hands for the sum of 400 shekels of silver (vv. 15-16). In Gen. 26:13-14 we are told, "The man (Isaac_ began to prosper, and continued prospering until he became very prosperous; for he had possessions of flocks and possessions of herds and a great number of servants." It is plain that these possessions were his own private property. And in verse 12 we are told that this was due to the Lord's blessing.

    "You shall not steal," Ex. 20:15. "The New Testament, in common with the Old, recognizes and takes for granted the right to private ownership of property. The commandment against stealing in the Old Testament Decalogue is but the most outstanding of a number of instances."7 "You shall not covet your neighbor's ... ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's," Ex. 20:17. What can be more obvious than that this verse teaches private ownership of property? Among the laws given by God at Mt. Sinai to the Israelites were some that plainly teach the concept of private property, such as in Ex. 22:1-15 and 23:4-5. If God had willed common ownership of property, would He not have instituted it for His chosen people?

    In Ex. 25:1-7 everyone with a willing heart is told to bring an offering for the building of the tabernacle from his own private property. In the detailed instructions for sin offerings in the opening chapters of Leviticus, each one is to bring an animal or a bird or some grain, whatever the case may be, from his own personal property. The account in Num. 16:30-33 of the earth opening up and swallowing Korah, Dathan, and Abiram states that all their goods disappeared with them. If these goods had been common property instead of their own private property, it is unthinkable that they would have been buried with the people.

    Boaz, in the book of Ruth, was a landowner and an employer who was, by the way, on very good terms with his employees (see 2:4). Moreover, the report is given of a free and willing exchange of private property (see 4:7-9). He, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Job, and others who were highly favored by God, was a capitalist -- one of those who are being maligned and denounced by many in our bloated federal bureaucracy, in the ranks of organized labor, and among the liberal, socialist-minded church leaders (I almost said theologians).

    2 Sam. 24:24 describes how even the king respected the private property of Araunah and insisted on paying for that part of it that he wanted to buy. In Prov. 12:10-11 we are urged to be kind to our animals and diligent in tilling our land, the private ownership of which is taken for granted.

    Jer. 32:8-15 gives a very interesting account of how Jeremiah, during the early part of the Babylonian captivity, bought a parcel of land even while he was in prison, where he had been put by King Zedekiah of Judah; money was exchanged and the deed was signed in the presence of witnesses and then put into an earthen vessel where it would keep a long time. "For thus says the lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: 'Houses and fields and vineyards shall be possessed again in this land'" [after the captivity].

    Turning to the New Testament, let us first look at two of Jesus' parables. The one in Mt. 13:24-30 speaks of a landowner who had servants. The one in Mt. 20:1-15 speaks of a landowner who hired laborers to work in his vineyard. In both of them Jesus speaks of private enterprise and private property. But some may say that these are only parables. True, they are stories illustrating spiritual truths by comparison with earthly things. But would Jesus tell a parable in which the spiritual truth is compared to an earthly thing that is a lie? Hardly. note especially 20:15: "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?"

    The assertion of some that Acts 4-32:37 supports communism and socialism is fallacious. These believers voluntarily brought of their own private property to the apostles to be distributed to their own poor. No force was used by the government or anyone else. In Philippi Paul and his companions met Lydia, a business woman who dealt in expensive purple-dyed garments (Acts 16:14), in whose house they stayed for a while (vv. 15, 40). She was an entrepreneur, managing her own business for a profit.

    Luther's explanation of the Seventh Commandment in the Small Catechism shows that he considered private property a gift and a blessing from God. And C.F.W. Walther says, "Reason ... requires the holding of personal property, because there dwells in the natural man a certain desire for liberty and independence. If man is Not in a measure free and independent, he cannot be happy. Take away personal property and you put an end to liberty."8 The idea of common ownership of property is contrary to human nature. We see this even in young children. They know instinctively, "What's yours is yours and what's mine is mine."

    In a system in which everything is public property, nobody owns anything; consequently nothing is taken care of decently and everything goes to wrack and ruin. The right to own private property is one of the main principles on which our country was founded 221 years ago, and under this system we have been blessed by God with greater liberty, including religious liberty, and prosperity than any other people in the history of the world. This being the case, it is incredible that this system is now under attack by many both in and out of the government, including some who call themselves Christians and ought to know better.

    Now something else needs to be said: Though the ownership of property and wealth -- even great wealth -- is not sinful in itself, it can become so, and is potentially extremely dangerous. The solemn warnings of Jesus, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!" Luke 18:24, and "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" Mark 8:36, are not to be taken lightly. So "if riches increase, do not set your heart on them," Ps. 62:10. Rather, "Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth," Col. 3:2; "for one's life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses," Luke 12:15b. Therefore, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth ..., but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven ... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also," Mt. 6:19-21.

    "No one can serve two masters. ... You cannot serve God and mammon," Mt. 6:24. Those who make a god out of their property will suffer the same dreadful fate as the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 who "fared sumptuously every day" while caring nothing for the disabled beggar lying on the floor, "desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table." Not to be overlooked here is James' scathing denunciation of those rich who live in pleasure and luxury (eat, drink, and be merry), care nothing for the poor, and in the heaping up of their riches have fraudulently withheld part of the wages of their laborers.

    Any dishonesty in the acquiring of property or in the buying and selling of goods is severely condemned: "A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is His delight," Prov. 11:1. "You shall do no injustice in judgment, in measurement of length, weight, or volume. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin," Lev. 19:35-36a. See also Prov. 30:23, Deut. 25:13-15, and especially Amos 8:4-6. And we are all familiar with Jesus' pronouncements of woe on the Pharisees for, among other things, their "devouring of widows' houses," and with the Apostle Paul's solemn warnings against all kinds of deceitfulness.

    In conclusion, let us bear in mind that, though we "own" property, buy and sell it, write up abstracts of title, sign deeds, etc., we actually own nothing. God, who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth, owns everything, including the earth and everything in it and on it. We are only the caretakers. We are told to "subdue" it, to tend it and take care of it. In other words, we are only stewards of God's property. But what an indescribable privilege it is, and what supreme joy it ought to arouse in our hearts, to be stewards in charge of property owned by the King of kings and Lord of lords!
 
 

FOOTNOTES:

1) Ernest W. Lefever, Nairobi to Vancouver - The World Council of Churches and the World, 1975-87; Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington D.C., 1987; p. 56.

2) Ibid., p. 59.

3) Ibid., p. 57.

4) Ibid., p. 59.

5) Quoted by Mark Skousen, Religions & Liberty, a publication of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, May and June 1996 (Vol. 6, No. 3), p. 4

6) All Bible quotations are from the New King James Version.

7) Harold O.J. Brown, Christianity and the Class Struggle; Arlington House, New Rochelle, N.Y., 1970; p. 59.

8) Communism and Socialism, The Lutheran Research Society, Detroit, 1947; p. 58.

Quotation: "For Scripture does not command that property be common, but the Law of the Decalog, when it says, Ex. 20:15: "Thou shalt not steal," distinguishes rights of ownership, and commands each one to hold what is his own," (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 16; Concordia Triglotta, p. 333)

[The above essay appeared in the July-August 97 edition of the Lutheran Conference of Confessional Fellowship Newsletter. Used by permission]