By David Kowalski
The issue of economic justice is hotly debated in the church. Justice demands not just that society meet out retributive justice, which involves the punishment of lawbreakers; it also demands that society seeks to achieve distributive justice, which David Clark and Robert Rakestraw describe as “the fair apportioning of benefits…and burdens.” Those who are concerned about social justice or the welfare of others are obliged to advocate and work for the economic system which most fairly distributes its resources throughout the populace, and to act in the most ethical way within that system.
While Scripture does not provide us with an economic system that all cultures of all times are required to implement, it does reveal many principles that will help us identify a just, economic system, as well as just, economic behavior by individuals. We find, for example, that God is zealous for the cause of the poor, and He expects His people to be as well. Proverbs 29:7 says “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.”
Through the prophet Amos, God strongly rebukes the Israelites for the economic injustice in their midst, saying that they oppressed the poor and crushed the needy (Amos 4:1). Jesus so identifies with the poor that He says whatever is done unto them is done unto Him (Mt 25:31-46). This zeal for the poor, however, must be kept in balance with a sense of fairness. Paul said that if a man would not work he shall not eat (2 Th 3:10). He did not think it right for the church to support a freeloader. These principles of compassion and fairness will be two of our most influential guides in determining what economic justice looks like in practice today.
Although most Christians at least use Scripture in their efforts to identify what constitutes economic justice in our day, opinions as to the most just economic structure and the extent of individual obligation to the poor range from the extreme free-market capitalism of theonomists such as David Chilton and Gary North, to the extreme Marxism of liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Jose Miguez Bonino.
This article will examine Scripture as well as the major Christian schools of thought on economic justice in an effort to resolve the basic issues involved in this matter, that we might know what system to advocate as well as how to act within it. We shall see, however, that observance of Scripture’s call to wisdom will also require us to examine the viability of various economic theories in an effort to identify the system which is most just in actual practice.
The most basic issue to resolve in determining a just structure is whether private ownership of property is itself ethical. Drawing on the tradition of utopian theorists, Marx and Engels asserted that the only way to a just society was to do away with private property. Liberation theologians, who advocate Marxist economics and violent class struggle in the name of God, echo Marx and Engels’ assertion. In fact, liberation theologian, Jose Miguez Bonino acknowledges that liberation theology is essentially Marxist in philosophy and method.
Though to a lesser extent, many other theologians and economists think that a scriptural and ethical system will involve at least some type of socialist redistribution of the wealth. Art Gish claims that “Capitalism, that is the system of private property and competition, is itself thievery.” Conrad Boerma says, “The church should make a stand for the corporate use of possessions, the reintegration of society, and the redistribution of the means of production.”
Still other Evangelicals, such as Rebecca Blank, seem to acknowledge private property rights, but believe scriptural ethics demand a call for some type of socialist intervention in the economy. In his celebrated book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Ron Sider states that there are serious limitations to private ownership rights, and he advocates policies such as land reform, which take property from the wealthy to be given to the poor. The right to private ownership has come under attack in the Evangelical church.
An honest exegesis of Scripture, however, makes it difficult to join in this attack in an unqualified way. The many prohibitions against theft in the Bible clearly imply the legitimacy of private ownership. One could not be guilty of theft if no one owned the property one takes. Scripture commands that we respect our neighbor’s boundary (Dt 19:14) and it acknowledges the principle of inheritance (Nu 36:1-9). The Jubilee (Lev 25:8-55), which is often cited in a questionable way by Christians who tend toward more extreme socialism, is itself a celebration of private ownership. God intended that land remain within the lineage of its original owners by causing possession of lands to revert to the original owners every fifty years. He declares, “In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property” (Lev 25:13). Consequently, those who “sold” their land were in fact only leasing it out until the time of the next Jubilee.
Jesus recognized the right to own one’s food and clothing (Mt 6:32, Mk. 6:37), and we know that some of His followers maintained possession of their homes (Mk 1:29, Jn 20:10). The koinonia we observe in Acts includes a sharing of goods even to the extent of believers sometimes selling property in order that the proceeds be given for distribution to the saints as they might have need (Ac 4:34-35). This kind of giving was not required, however; nor was it done by everyone in the church.
Barnabas would almost certainly not be singled out for mention in this regard (Ac 4:37) if he had merely done what everyone else had. Peter’s rebuke of Ananias in chapter five of Acts is not for his holding back some of the money from the sale of his property, but for lying about it in claiming to have donated the full price. Peter recognizes that Ananias owned his property and was under no constraint to give it when he said to Ananias in Acts 5:3, “While it remained unsold did it not remain your own? And after it was sold was it not under your control?”
It seems clear from Scripture that God recognizes the right to private ownership of property. If someone takes this property from him or her without the owner’s consent, this is considered theft. Although we shall see that the issue of consent is more complex with respect to government taxation, any ethical, economic system must be constructed on the foundation of the right to private property.
Fairness will dictate that we also recognize some people actually deserve more property than others. Those who have worked harder and wiser should receive more than slothful fools. Those who have courageously risked their own capital and exhibited entrepreneurial skill should expect more in return for their efforts. It is interesting to note what Paul does not say in his exhortation to the wealthy in 1 Timothy 6:17-18:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and be willing to share.
Although Paul reminds the rich that they should share their blessing with others, he does not say that it is wrong for them to have more than others. He does not rebuke them for being rich.
Not only is forced redistribution of the wealth unfair, it seems a perversion of God’s principle of love. Although he overgeneralizes, Gustavo Gutierrez is at least partly justified in declaring that “Poverty is the negation of love.” It does not follow, however, that the remedy to this negation is for Gutierrez to tell his followers to take property for themselves from its current owners in a violent revolution. This is not a loving act on the part of the revolutionaries and what the revolutionaries receive is not love from those they overthrow. While the love God calls us to must be expressed in caring for the physical needs of others (1 Jn 3:17), this expression must be voluntary. It cannot be coerced; it must come from the heart. Love must freely give. Jesus did say “Give to the one who asks of you ” (Mt 5:42), but anything taken is not truly given.
One danger of this kind of system that allows for real love is that the lack of coercion leaves open the possibility that some individuals will horde money and goods for themselves while ignoring the needs of the poor. Nevertheless, any system that abolishes private property in an effort to forcibly redistribute wealth necessarily minimizes opportunities for genuine love to be expressed in compassionate giving. Marxist ideologies may then be excluded from our search for a just system, since they advocate the wholesale taking of properties from some to give to others without the owner’s consent and without concern for fairness. As David Chilton points out, “Socialism is theft.” These ideologies may also be excluded from consideration because they negate the concept of love.
When considering an economic system that affects an entire society, we cannot completely divorce ethics from wisdom. If a system sounds good in theory, but does not work effectively, it cannot be said to be best for the people. Wisdom personified, says, in Proverbs 8:15-16, “By me kings reign and rulers make laws that are just; by me princes govern, and all nobles who rule on earth.”
Ronald Nash complains that many, well-meaning Christian theorists are foolishly advocating an unproductive and inefficient system that hurts everyone in the long run: “Unfortunately, many Christians act as though the only thing that counts is intention. But when good intentions are not wedded to sound theory, especially sound economic theory; good intentions can often result in actions that produce consequences directly opposite to those we planned.”
The industrial revolution caused us to have increased specialization in production with an accompanying increase in the division of labor. As a result, producer A can make shovels more economically than producer B, and B can make tires more economically than A. Common sense dictates that if someone from A needs a tire, he will sell a shovel and buy the tire from B. Likewise, B will buy shovels from A. The result of this trend extrapolated throughout the entire population is that at the heart of our economic system there will be a market that allows for the free exchange of goods.
When the market is allowed to act freely, certain principles are engaged that act in the best interest of all concerned. Adam Smith first documented these in the eighteenth century with his publication of The Wealth of Nations. Smith observed that the drive of individual self-interest in an environment of similarly motivated individuals will result in competition, and this competition will result in the provision of those goods that society wants in the quantities that society desires, at the prices society is prepared to pay. Smith marveled at the way this system worked, and spoke of an “unseen hand” that guided everyone in the system to behave in such a way as to produce the maximum, common good.
History has largely vindicated Adam Smith’s observations, as societies with a free-market economy have tended to prosper and the twentieth century experiment with socialist economies proved to be disastrous. Although socialism attempted to give the poor a larger piece of the pie, it so shrank the size of the pie that all suffered as a result. It is neither loving nor ethical for a government to impose a system that promotes universal misery, regardless of how well-meaning those involved may be.
Marx and Engels theories failed in one way utopian theories always have. Among their flaws, they fail to account realistically for human nature. They fail to accurately assess what motivates human behavior. Writing shortly after the Russian revolution, Joyce Hertzler’s comments on utopianism seem prophetic of the destiny of communism:
It was impossible for utopians to obtain a correct view of human nature. Hence frequently they went astray….They erred also in lightly doing away with private property, the greatest and most natural inducement to individual effort and achievement. Deny it, and your scheme fails. An ordinary man has to have a stake in his job; and no idealism we can inculcate holds out a more effective lure. Ownership appeals not only to the acquisitive instinct, but also to the parental and self-assertive instincts. Fostered and diffused, it makes for social contentment; repress it and disaster follows.
Just as one who designs an engine will take into account those forces that act within and upon the engine, those who would design an economic structure must take into account the force of incentives in human conduct.
Adam Smith’s laissez-faire ideas have been refined over the years by economists such as John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes. Most economists now recognize the need for some kinds of government intervention in the market, but some of these economists do not seem to have learned the lessons of socialism’s failure. As mixed economies (those that combine free-market and interventionist strategies) stray toward more socialist policies, they inevitably experience unintended negative consequences. Charles Colson notes that, especially in European countries, incentives are offered for being unproductive:
Many European nations are discovering that ample benefit programs can undermine the motivation to work…There’s virtually no penalty for dropping out of the work force. The penalty falls chiefly on those who stay in the work force and pay for all these benefits.
Some American economists seem oblivious to the mistakes of the Europeans as they stray into the same kinds of folly. Milton Friedman said, “if you pay people to be poor they will be poor.” In other words, if you provide financial incentives for people to either not work, or to at least earn under a stipulated amount, we should not be surprised if we continue to get the behavior we reward. What is intended as benevolence toward the poor becomes a disservice to them, as it tends to keep them from rising above poverty and achieving their potential. If such policies hurt rather than help the poor they cannot be considered ethical or just.
The wrong kind of interference with market forces often hurts those the misguided policies intend to help. Efforts at rent control are sometimes pointed out as examples of this type of counterproductive policy. E Calvin Beisner explains:
For any good in a competitive market in which buyers compete freely against buyers and sellers against sellers, the market price will be that at which buyers with the least ability to pay can still afford to buy,and at which producers with the least efficient (most costly) can still afford to produce. What this means is that the buyers (renters) who will be shut out of the housing market under rent control will be the poor — the very people the legislators intended to protect from high rents — and the sellers (landlords) who will be shut out of the market will be those least able to afford to provide rental housing. Rent control laws, in other words, hurt the most vulnerable people on both sides of the rental exchange, and they do this necessarily because of the action of the economic laws of marginal utility and supply and demand.
Additionally, since landlords have no incentives to renovate or build new housing, housing shortages result that are not rectified by normal market forces. Rent controls have been so harmful in their effect that Walter Williams commented,”Short of aerial bombardment, the best way to destroy a city is through rent controls.” Since the actual result of the policy hurts the poor, it cannot be said to be a just or ethical policy regardless of the original intent of the policy makers. We cannot divorce ethics and wisdom when considering questions of economic justice.
It is not just economists with socialist tendencies that err through naiveté regarding human nature. Free-market capitalists often speak as though the market automatically makes its participants honest, responsible, and caring. But just as there is no socialist utopia in which men and women are selfless in their motives, there is no capitalist utopia that insures that dishonest merchants will not take advantage of buyers, that uncaring producers will not harm society or the environment, and that the capitalist society will not ignore some of its needy. These matters cannot be left to chance or to the hope that individuals will adequately address each case of dishonesty, irresponsibility, and need.
The society as a whole, as a corporate entity, must act together if these problems are to be handled in the most effective way. The governing bodies which represent these societal entities have not only the right but the duty to pass and enforce laws which protect the environment, limit child labor, ensure safe work conditions, and which protect us from monopolies and dishonest merchants. These governing bodies also have a moral obligation to identify the truly needy and help them.
Gary North protests that charity should only be given on a person to person basis by family members and churches, and that government should have no role whatsoever in this task. What North fails to consider is that the friends and family members of the poor tend to be poor themselves. The needy rarely socialize with the wealthy in such a way as to communicate their needs. Churches which become familiar with the needs of the poor are usually populated by low income members, and it would burden them unfairly to make them responsible for all of the needs they encounter while wealthy, suburbanite churches use their resources to build more elaborate and ornate facilities.
North also reveals an inconsistency in his position. As a theonomist, he believes in imposing biblical law on society, and biblical law includes what might be termed federal statutes for the protection of the poor, such as the laws which require Israelites to leave behind some of their harvest in the fields for the poor to gather (Lev 19:10, 23:2). Thus, the budget of a just economy will include expenditures for the needy. The funds involved will, of course, be raised by taxes.
Conservative, Christian economists sometimes insist that such taxes for the benefit of others is ethically the equivalent of the state enforced theft Marxist governments have been guilty of. We must not be too hasty in our comparison, however. Both Jesus and Paul acknowledged the rights of governments to tax (take from) its citizens (Mt 22:15-21, Ro 13:6-7). The taxes collected by the Romans were used to a great extent for the benefit of persons other than those they were collected from, yet both Jesus and Paul refrained from calling it theft. If we agree that help for the genuinely needy (as opposed to wholesale redistribution of the wealth) is a legitimate function of the governing body, we have no grounds for opposing the collection of taxes from the wealthier in order to help the less fortunate.
While these expenditures to help the needy must be done in the wisest possible way, we must recognize that in a just economy, the populace is not only protected from those who would deceive or harm them, the poor are cared for. In order for this care to be given, there must be at least some bureaucracy to administrate the funds, goods, and services involved. Though this bureaucracy should be run as efficiently as possible, it will have to be funded itself with tax revenues. Thus, while we may legitimately protest waste, fraud, and abuse within the welfare system, the system itself is legitimate. The system will be imperfect in this imperfect world, and we may need to reform it at times, but the system itself is a necessary expression of a compassionate society.
The precise extent to which government should tax wealthier citizens in order to help the poor is beyond the scope of this article. Still, the principles of private ownership and wisdom discussed above should be kept in mind. Taxation should not be a program of wealth redistribution and should never provide incentive for non-production. Government sponsored charity should only help those who cannot produce or at least who cannot produce enough to meet an emergency circumstance beyond their control. It must also be remembered that any system of taxation which provides disincentives for production will only hurt the entire populace, including the needy.
Compassionate capitalism is the system which best seems to harmonize with the biblical principles of compassion, fairness, and wisdom. The differences between compassionate capitalism and socialism are significant. Whereas socialism in its more extreme forms aims to abolish private property, compassionate capitalism seeks to use resources as needed to help the poor. Socialism seeks to gain a monolithic control over the market (which always proves disastrous), while compassionate capitalism allows the “unseen hand” of the free market to work for the common good (while at the same time providing some needed safeguards). Socialism takes away all choice from those it takes from. Compassionate capitalism works best in a democracy which allows all participants a say in the outcome.
Having determined a basic structure to advocate and work for, we must determine if, as Christians, there are any further, personal obligations we have to help those in need, and we find Scripture makes it clear that living in a society with a welfare system does not void individual responsibility to show the love of God in tangible ways to those we encounter face-to-face. The Samaritan Jesus said we are to emulate (Lk 10:25-37) became personally involved in the misfortunes of the man he found on the road, while the priest and the Levite merely walked by. Jesus warned we would be judged for such sins of omission as we see in the priest and the Levite. He warned that some will be surprised on that day when Jesus evaluates not just what they did, but also what they failed to do:
Then He will say to those on his left, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ (Lk 25:41-45)
While it is good to contribute to a community effort to help the poor, group benevolence is no substitute for personal love. Missionary Morris Williams, used to comment that benevolence programs “have no face to them.” The recipient of the goods or services only encounters people in the process as representatives of an impersonal organization. God’s best, Williams contended, was for individuals to lovingly care for other individuals in a personal way. We must recognize that God puts needy people in our path and it is our personal responsibility to help them.
Having discovered our personal responsibility to help others, we must also find out what kind of lifestyle God expects us to live. Is there a limit to how much money and property we may ethically keep in a world that is filled with needs? Many of the Church Fathers argued for simplicity of lifestyle, saying we should not keep what we do not need. Augustine voiced this opinion in the kind of strong terms the Church Fathers frequently used:
Seek sufficiency, seek what is enough, and more do not seek….For if we seek useless things, nothing suffices….Consider: not only do a few things suffice for you, but God himself does not seek many things from you. Seek as much as he has given you, and from that take what suffices; other things, superfluous things, are the necessities of others. The superfluous things of the wealthy are the necessities of the poor. When superfluous things are possessed, other’s property is possessed. 
John Wesley echoed this sentiment, saying Christians should give away all but “the plain necessaries of life.” Ron Sider tries to apply this principle of simplicity to modern life, suggesting that Christians give away a graduated tithe of their income which incrementally keeps less and less as one’s income goes higher. His scheme, literally followed, would put a ceiling of a $14, 850 income on a family of four in 1977.
These calls to simplicity do seem to reflect teaching found in the Bible. John the Baptist told his followers with two tunics to share with the man who had none, and he said food should be shared with the needy in a similar way (Lk 3:11). We encounter a difficulty, however, when we move from principle to specific regulation. Exactly where do we draw the line between necessities and luxuries?
Taken literally, luxuries would consist of anything not necessary for the perpetuation of life. I believe it is safe to assume that both Augustine and Wesley possessed at least a little more than what was absolutely necessary for survival. God allows for possessions beyond survival needs. In 1 Timothy 6:17, Paul speaks of how God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. A thorough examination of Paul’s teaching reveals that he would not have been comfortable with the modern “prosperity gospel,” but neither would he have trumpeted a call to asceticism.
It is neither practical nor scriptural to forbid all superfluities. As difficult as an American family of four would find it to live comfortably in our cultural setting on $14,850 even in 1977, such an income would still allow for what could be literally called superfluities. I believe it is fair to say that a visit to the Sider home would find such unnecessary items as indoor plumbing, heating and cooling, separate bedrooms, carpeting, wall decorations, a refrigerator, and a stove. When Ron Sider tries to turn the principle of simplicity into specific regulations, his suggestions are arbitrary.
While the simplicity principle may legitimately be promoted within the church, attempts to put ceilings on income and to forbid the possession of certain kinds of items prove untenable. We simply cannot impose the simplicity principle in a legalistic way, even if we call our man-made laws “suggestions.” We must recognize that different life settings will call for different applications of the simplicity principle. Different occupations and social settings are among the many factors to be considered in determining the wisest and most responsible way to simplify one’s life. Perhaps the most important element in making such decisions is to examine one’s heart. The greatest question we must answer is not how much we have, but how much what we have has us.
Some principles that have guided us in our quest to determine a just economic structure are compassion, fairness, freedom, and wisdom. Economic schemes from the extreme left and the extreme right fail to embody all of these principles. A free-market system with built in safeguards and wise, public assistance to the needy seems to best express the biblical principles which define a just economy.
We must not limit our concern for economic justice to the kind of system we live in, though. We must individually model the principles involved with those we interact with on a daily basis. We must recognize that God has not designed for us to personally consume every material blessing He has given us. God provides us with resources and opportunities to materially express His love to those in need. While we must be careful not to be facilitators of, or accessories to the continual laziness or irresponsibility of those who would take advantage of our kind intentions, we must remember the poor, as a society and as individuals. I believe compassionate capitalism is the most just system, and personal acts of charity within that system are expected from each of us by God.
- 1) David K. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw, Readings in Christian Ethics vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1994), 213.
- 2) All Scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.
- 3) Hermeneutical approaches to Scripture do vary sharply in this regard, however. Liberation theologians, for example, abandon classical hermeneutics in favor of a hermeneutics which starts from the contemporary situation rather than the ancient text.
- 4) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, ed. Samuel H. Beer (New New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1955),24.
- 5) Jose Miguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 35, 71.
- 6) Art Gish, “Decentralist Economics,” in Wealth and Poverty: Four Christian Views of Economics, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1984), 76.
- 7) Conrad Boerma, Rich Man, Poor Man and the Bible, trans. John Bowden(London: SCM Press, 1979), 92.
- 8) Rebecca M. Blank, Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life (Cleveland: United Church Press, 1992), 168.
- 9) Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1977), 218.
- 10) Ex 20:15, 22:1 B15; Lev 6:2 B7, 19:11B13; Eph 4:28; 1 Pe 4:15; Rev 9:21.
- 11) Authors such as William Diehl, Conrad Boerma, Ron Sider, and many others, use poor hermeneutics and twisted logic to make this passage of Scripture say that God calls either for the forgiveness of all debts or abolition of private property.
- 12) See Proverbs 14:24 and 15:6.
- 13) Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation. trans. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson(Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 168.
- 14) David Chilton, Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators. (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1981), 9.
- 15) Ronald H. Nash, Poverty and Wealth: The Christian Debate Over Capitalism. (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1986), 9.
- 16) Robert L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives and Times of the Great Economic Thinkers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980) 51-72.
- 17) Joyce Oramel Hertzler, The History of Utopian Thought (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923), 302-303.
- 18) Charles Colson, A Dangerous Grace (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1994), 308.
- 19) Milton Friedman, quoted in Rus Walton, Biblical Solutions to Contemporary Problems: A Handbook (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth and Hyatt Publishers, 1988), 213.
- 20) E. Calvin Beisner, Prosperity and Poverty: The Compassionate Use of Resources in a World of Scarcity (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1988), 164.
- 21) Walter Williams, quoted in John Stossel, Give Me a Break (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004), 183.
- 23) Gary North, “Free Market Capitalism” in Robert G. Clouse ed. Wealth and Poverty: Four Christian Views of Economics (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1984), 57.
- 24) Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmum LXXXXVIII, 2, PL 37:1134. quoted in Charles Avila, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1983), 113.
- 25) John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley quoted in Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1977), 172.
- 26) Ibid. 175-178.
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