Is Capitalism As An Economic System Biblical?

Jun 3rd, 2023 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

Does the Bible help us to think clearly and plainly about economic issues?  About socialism?  About capitalism? The 8th commandment as an ethical absolute establishes the sanctity of private property (“You shall not steal,” Exodus 20:15).  The Old Testament affirms this ethical absolute in the Levitical code (see Lev. 25:10): Neither the government nor society owns property; individuals do.  The Mosaic covenant was based on laws that defined punishment for stealing and the restitution for damage to another person’s animals, fields, etc.  Deuteronomy 19:14 even affirmed the importance of boundaries for privately owned land.  This ethical standard is also affirmed in the New Testament (e.g., Romans 13:9; 1 Corinthians 6:10; Ephesians 4:28, etc.).  The New Testament also states that individuals have the right of ownership of money, possessions and are to use them wisely, as a stewardship from God (e.g., Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 9:7; Ephesians 4:28, etc.).  In other words, God as Creator and Sustainer of His world owns everything (e.g., Psalm 50:10), but stewards property to individuals, not to the state or the broader culture.

In the modern era, the emergence of communism (and socialism) was an attack on the sanctity of private property.  Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto:  “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence:  abolition of private property.”  Theologian and ethicist, Wayne Grudem comments that “an abolition of private property as occurs under communism is horribly dehumanizing because it greatly minimizes people’s freedom to make wise choices regarding the stewardship of their resources and prevents human economic and cultural flourishing as God intended it to occur.”

In the 21st century, attacks on capitalism are once again surging.  Such attacks come from the progressive left (e.g., Bernie Sanders) and from certain celebrity advocates on the right (e.g., Tucker Carlson).  For that reason, it is quite refreshing to read columnist David Brooks as he highlights “the power of American capitalism: “American capitalism . . . You can invent fables about how America is in economic decline. You can rail against ‘neoliberalism.’ But the American economy doesn’t care. It just keeps rolling on.  The Economist magazine published a report on American economic performance over the last three decades. Using an avalanche of evidence and data, the main thrust of the article is that far from declining, American capitalism is dominant and accelerating.”

  • “Back in 1990, for example, America’s gross domestic product per capita was nearly neck and neck with that of Europe and Japan. But by 2022 the U.S. had raced ahead.
  • In 1990, the U.S. economy accounted for 40 percent of the nominal G.D.P. of the G7 nations. By 2022 the U.S. accounted for 58 percent.
  • In 1990, American income per person was 24 percent higher than the income per person in Western Europe. Today, it is about 30 percent higher.
  • America spends roughly 37 percent more per student on schooling than the average for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a collection of mostly rich peer nations. ChatGPT and mRNA vaccines are not the only signs of American technical prowess.
  • The United States accounts for 22 percent of the patents in force abroad, up from 19 percent in 2004. That’s more than any other nation.
  • The level of education is one reason American labor productivity increased by 67 percent between 1990 and 2022, compared with a 55 percent increase in Europe and 51 percent in Japan.
  • American companies continue to generate amazing value. If in 1990 you had invested $100 in the S&P 500, an index of American companies, you would have about $2,300 today, according to The Economist. If you had invested that $100 in an index of non-American rich-world stocks, you would have about $510 today.
  • In 1990, the U.S. economy accounted for about 25 percent of global G.D.P. In 2022 it still accounted for roughly 25 percent, The Economist found.”

Brooks concludes that “My point is not that American capitalism is perfect. My point is that there is a tension between economic dynamism and economic security. For reasons deeply rooted in our culture, the American brand of capitalism has always been tilted toward dynamism, with freer markets and smaller welfare states . . . The American model of capitalism is under assault from the left, which rails against the supposed horrors of neoliberalism and globalization, and from Tucker Carlson-style populists, who often treat American capitalism as a great betrayal. But it has proved superior to all real world alternatives.”

To aid in thinking biblically about capitalism vs. socialism, Wayne Grudem also offers an instructive application of the 8th commandment:  “It protects property and possessions.  By implication, we are right to think it also protects another person’s time, talents, and opportunities—everything over which people have been given stewardship.  We are not to steal someone else’s property, time, talents, or opportunities.”  What follows are important biblical principles for evaluating democratic socialism:

  1. Private Property as Stewardship: God entrusts to us our time, talents, property, possessions and opportunities as a stewardship.  He expects us to manage these well and to be wise and thankful for what He has entrusted to us.  This proposition has several implications for us as Christians:
  • We are accountable to God for how we use our property (see 1 Corinthians 4:2).
  • God dispenses different levels of stewardship responsibility when it comes to property. Thus, everyone is responsible for being faithful with what they have received from God.  Those who receive much are held to a higher standard of expectation (see Luke 12:48).
  • There are no expectations in Scripture that God will bring about complete equality of stewardship or equality of possessions among His people either in this life or the age to come.
  1. The Blessings of Private Ownership of Property: Our personal possessions are not to be a source of guilt or of feelings of superiority over others. They are to be a source of blessing.
  • Humanity’s dominion authority over God’s world brings glory to Him (Genesis 1:28; 1 Corinthians 10:31).
  • Since God richly “provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), personal possessions should promote a spirit of thankfulness in our lives (see Psalm 103:2; 136:1).
  • Since God richly “provides us with everything to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17), personal possessions should promote a spirit of joy in our lives.
  • The private ownership of property is an ongoing test of our faithfulness and devotion to God (see Psalm 62:1; 73:25-26; 1 John 3:17).
  • Wayne Grudem writes: The 8th commandment “gives (1) the opportunity for human achievement (by entrusting property to us), (2) the expectation of human achievement (by making us accountable stewards), and (3) the expectation of human enjoyment of products made from the earth, with thanksgiving to God.”
  1. The Dangers of Private Ownership of Property: The Bible is filled with counsel that we need God’s wisdom when it comes to private ownership of property.  Without such wisdom, dangers lurk to snare us into egregious sin.
  • The danger of materialism: See 1 Timothy 3:3 and Matthew 6:24.  1 Timothy 6:9-10 argues that the “love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
  • The danger of the “health and wealthy gospel” (aka “prosperity gospel”): Such teaching claims that God desires for each believer to have good health and material prosperity and that the role of the believer is to have enough faith through a “positive confession” of that faith through our spoken words. {Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, etc.)  God never makes such a promise in the NT.  Consider these verses:
  • He promises to meet our needs (Philippians 4:19) and that as we generously give to His work, He will generously supply our needs in return (Luke 6:38).
  • The poor are often used by God as examples of deep faith (see 2 Corinthians 8:2; 1 Corinthians 4:11 and most importantly James 2:5).
  • Nowhere does God command us to seek prosperity but He does warn of us of its dangers (see 1 Timothy 6:8-11; Matthew 19:24; James 2:6-7 and 5:1-2).
  • The Danger of False Asceticism: A teaching that constantly opposes and criticizes the enjoyment of material things that God has placed in His world. See primarily Colossians 2:20-23, where Paul resolutely condemns such teaching.

The current war on capitalism is not only dangerous and unwise; it decidedly violates clear biblical teaching and principles.  It will not only bankrupt the nation, it will introduce a set of assumptions totally alien to wise decision-making when it comes to the stewardship of God’s resources.

See David Brooks in the New York Times (21 April 2023); and Wayne Grudem, Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, pp. 895-916.

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