By Dave Gernhard
Often Christians will argue that Communism is good in theory but that in a fallen world it can never work. Yet Communism, that social theory where governments redistribute the wealth of the citizens, is not only bad in practice, it is sinful in theory. God has established an order in His creation which is both good in theory and in practice. (For if something is poor in practice how can it be in theory sound?) God, in His infinite wisdom, has given man a social institution that, when properly respected, is the foundation for all civilization. Established by God, private property is an institution that can be found in the Genesis account of Creation, Old Testament law, and in the teachings of the New Testament.
The Genesis account of Creation is the most important foundation for the argument supporting man’s right to private property. It is only through a Christian worldview and the belief in an established order of creation that the claim for private property can be made. “The theist will attempt to assign the social order to its place in the total scheme of things in which the personal is sacred and central.”[i] Without the Christian perspective that God has established order in creation any claims regarding rights, or wrongs, is purely subjective. It is through a Christian worldview that the case for private property and individual ownership can be made.
Part of the order of Creation established in Genesis is that man was created in the Image of God. This account of creation is extremely important in understanding the many aspects and degrees of private property. In his commentary on the book of Genesis, John Collins writes that the features of God’s character exhibited in the creation account are a “pattern for man.”[ii] Collins writes that language, intelligence, and an appreciation for what is good are all part of being created in the image of God. It is because man is created in the image of God that the first form of private property, self ownership, can be deduced.
Self ownership is a reference to the control we each have over our bodies. God created man in his image; no person is more human or less than any other. Therefore, no one can legitimately claim to have the right to dominate other people. Walter Block expressed the idea of self ownership, succinctly relating it to private property:
Self ownership means that it is improper for anyone else to invade our bodies. Whether threw enslavement, murder, rape, assault and battery, or any other act… A person’s legitimately held private property shall likewise be safe from invasion. [iii]
By creating man in His image, God gave every person control over their own faculties, and since individuals are not superior or inferior to one another, property rights independent of others are part of the order of creation.
It is in Genesis also that God gives the stewardship of His creation to man. In Genesis 1:28, God commands man to have dominion over creation, to name all the creatures, and to be fruitful and multiply. A Christian understanding of private property must always return to the truth that all of creation belongs to God. Henry Scott Holland wrote that “Man’s authority to say of anything, ‘This is mine,’ rests, finally, on his power to say, ‘I am God’s.’”[iv] Understanding that God alone is the source for private property is an important aspect of the creation.
The Ten Commandments are the written law of God. The eighth of those commandments reads simply “You shall not steal.” This very commandment implies the right to property. If individuals had no rights to property, it would be impossible to steal. Logically therefore, this statement implies a legitimate claim to the existence of property.[v]
In his Systematic Theology, Charles Hodge writes in reference to the above that “this commandment forbids all violation of the rights of property. The right of property in an object is the right to its exclusive possession and use.”[vi] He goes on to add that violations of this -Commandment include communism. Indeed, every attempt to enslave, coerce, force, and restrict the freedom of economic production is a violation of the eighth commandment.[vii] Further still, private property rights can be seen in more than just the eighth commandment.
In Leviticus 6:1-7 the Lord makes clear to Moses that deception to gain property is sinful. The Lord God requires that the deceiver pay restitution to the rightful owner of the property. The victim of the crime is the legal representative of God, for he is the “earthly target of man’s rebellion against God’s standards.”[viii] Private property is given by God and an act to acquire that property through illegitimate means is rebellion.
Later in Leviticus one can observe another property violation. In Leviticus 19:11-12 the Lord instructs His people not to steal, lie, deceive one another, or “swear falsely by my name and so profane the name of the Lord your God. I am the Lord.” Swearing falsely is a clear violation of the third commandment. This group of verses in Leviticus subtly connects stealing with the profaning of the Lord’s name. In both instances sinful man takes what doesn’t belong to him and violates it.[ix] God is protective of His property and likewise His name.
King David serves as an excellent example of the importance of respecting property rights. David coveted another man’s wife. He indulged in a relationship he had no right to be involved in. The Prophet Nathan’s story in II Samuel illustrates the violation quite clearly. In this instance the greedy sin of property violations is presented to David as an analogy to his own sin. It was the rich man who violated and abused the private property right of the poor man. Despite having a great deal more possessions the rich man violated the poor man’s rights and took that which wasn’t his.[x] Violations against property rights are an affront to God and most harmful to the weakest members of society.
The Prophet Jeremiah cries out against men who “get rich but not by rights.”[xi] This is the man who makes his neighbors serve him for nothing, refusing to pay them. Miller writes that the Bible makes it clear that the acquiring of wealth and money due to coveting and stealing is fundamentally due to a lack of the fear of God.[xii] That type of desire violates the first commandment because it puts more faith in man’s ability to gain wealth than God’s ability to provide it.
From these observations in the Old Testament, Fletcher concludes that God’s law prohibits the selfish aggrandizement at the expense of others. Also he writes that people themselves are ends, not to be used as objects for the benefit of a selfish oppressor.[xiii] Their rights to self ownership should not be violated.
The entire Old Testament teaching on Private Property can be seen coming together in North’s interpretation of Leviticus 19:15. The verse reads: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Private property isn’t about rich or poor. It is established by God and any violation, by the poor or the rich, is a sin against God. North writes on this passage that:
The Law of God testifies against any society that
would use the power of the government to redistribute
wealth on any basis except one: the proportional
restitution payment from a criminal to his victim.[xiv]
God has established the right of individuals to own their personal property. Like gravity private property is a permanent feature of our universe given to us by God.
In the twelfth chapter of Luke a man asks Jesus to instruct the man’s brother to share the inheritance. To which Jesus responds “Who made me a judge or a divider over you?” before turning to the people and instructing them to “take head and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses.”
Joe Fletcher observes of this passage that two points are being illustrated. First he writes that there are “no ‘directives’ on specific property issues in the Gospels. Jesus is not a social reformer.”[xv] And secondly that Jesus is primarily concerned with the will of man and God. “It is not property that is evil, and as such must be surrendered,” writes Fletcher, “it is rather the will that is evil and must be surrendered.”[xvi] Private property is still just as much apart of God’s creation in the New Testament as it was in the Old. It is the New Testament focus on the heart that is being articulated by Jesus.
As Paul explains in Romans 13:9, all of the commandments regarding the relationships between men on earth boil down to in the one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That love implies a respect for another person’s property and an attitude that does not covet what belongs to someone else. Christian charity therefore must respect God’s law and private property.
Christian charity is a voluntary charity that doesn’t involve forced or coercive giving. Giving in a Christian attitude has nothing to do with the state mandate or decree. It is a “voluntary act where a man gives of himself, his own money, his own time, and his own resources. This is diametrically opposed to the welfare state or socialistic idea.”[xvii] Despite what may appear otherwise, Christianity is not a communistic or socialistic religion, it is a religion that is focused on the individual and is dedicated to the preservation of private property. Christ didn’t die for society or the state.
Accounts of early Church community fellowship are often construed as models for Christian socialism. However, as Fletcher makes clear, early Christian communal sharing found in Acts and the Corinthians “is not an attempt to solve economic problems.”[xviii] It only illustrates the fellowship and enthusiasm of the early church.
To say “Christianity is communistic is to make a byproduct out into central teaching.” Fletcher is making the point that Christianity by its very nature inspires giving and generosity, but that does not make it a communist faith. Private property endures in the New Testament just as in the Old. As Paul describes in II Thessalonians 3:10,11: “For even when we were with you we gave you this rule: If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
Private property is not a social construct developed by humans. Man is not the source of economic laws and institutions. Created in the image of God man possesses self ownership and control of his personal resources. When God commanded man to have dominion over the earth God gave man possession of creation. Private property is from God and only God. It is an institution that helps man fulfill the creation mandate. God, in his benevolence, has provided man with this tool that allows for economic calculation and the division of labor so that we may each specialize in our God given talents.
Respect for private property is about a respect for the boundaries established by God. God has withheld the ownership of many things from man. We are prohibited from forcefully or coercively owning other individuals or taking their possessions. Likewise man is prohibited from taking the sacred, that which belongs to God, like the Lord’s name, and abusing and violating it. Biblical law is founded upon a respect for the property of others and Christian teaching emphasizes the point that by coveting possessions we violate others rights just as we murder by hating with our hearts. As seen throughout the entirety of scripture, God requires that man respect private property and the possessions of others.
[i] Opitz, E. A. Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974). 119.
[ii] Collins, C. J. Genesis 1-4: A linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006). 66.
[iii] Block, W. Private Property, Ethics, and Wealth Creation. In The Capitalist Spirit: Toward a Religious Ethic of Wealth Creation, ed. P. L. Berger, 107-129. (San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1990). 119.
[iv]Quoted in: Fletcher, J. F. Christianity and Property. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1947.) 12.
[v] Block, 127.
[vi] Hodge, C. Systematic Theology Vol. 3. (Peabody, MASS: Hendricson Publishers, 1999). 421.
[vii]Miller, P. D. Property and Possession in Light of the Ten Commandments. In Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social life, ed. W. Schweiker and C. Mathewes, 17-51. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004). 21.
[viii] North, G. Leviticus: An Economic Commentary.(Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1994). 135.
[ix] North, 209
[x] Fletcher, J. F. Christianity and Property.(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press,1947). 23.
[xi] Grant, R. M. Early Christianity and the Creation of Capital In Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social life, ed. W. Schweiker and C. Mathewes, 7-31. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004). 10..
[xii] Miller, 49
[xiii] Fletcher, 22
[xiv] North, 245.
[xv] Fletcher, 31.
[xvi] Fletcher, 32.
[xvii] Opitz, 91.
[xviii] Fletcher, 39.