By Gordon R. Vaughan
Back in the 1980s, The Forerunner newspaper was one of the best parts of sprawling Maranatha Ministries. Besides ministry news, it introduced readers to a steady stream of important ideas. One of these ended up having a particular impact on me – a 1987 article on the Principle Approach set us on a long course of researching Biblical principles and related topics, and even indirectly led to my wife and I deciding to homeschool our children.
Fast forward a couple decades, now there’s a Maranatha Reunion group on Facebook, where Jay Rogers informed me that The Forerunner is alive and well online. Delightful news, because, frankly, a lot of stuff passing today as conservative, even Christian media, is – ahem – pretty disappointing!
I was asked to expand on some of my comments I made on the Facebook group on whether or not socialism is defensible from a biblical worldview. If we really want to see “change,” we need to forget the pep rallies and slogans, go back to the Bible and find out what it actually teaches! With what we’ve seen lately, the topic of economics is on everyone’s mind. Economic reform is a good place to start if we want to find practical ideas for reforming our society.
Christian Economics: Free Markets Aren’t Enough
Economics impacts pretty much everything. If we get it right, jobs will be created, taxes and tithes generated, and capital freed up for education and other worthy pursuits, such as charity, entrepreneurship and research.
But is there really such a thing as Christian economics? Is capitalism basically what the Bible teaches? What about some sort of socialism? Wasn’t there in fact a form of communism practiced by the very early Jerusalem church? Or should we just head for the hills and become “Christian anarchists”?
Let’s start with the last question first. It’s hard to make much of a Biblical case for Christians retreating from society. We are instructed to pray for our rulers (1 Tim 2:1-2), to be in the world but not of it (John 17:14-21) and to try to live peacably with all, minding our own business (Rom 12:18, 1 Th 4:10-12). We’re also told to “render to all what is due them” (Rom 13:7). Regarding socialism, yes there was communal ownership of property in the early Jerusalem church (Acts 4:32), but it was clearly voluntary (Acts 5:4) and not without problems (Acts 5:5ff, 6:1).
Many religious groups have experimented with communal living, but it’s hard to do over a long period of time, as the group grows and with families. To whatever extent communism did work in the early Jerusalem church, it only was effective when there was a great deal of Holy Spirit outpouring. Bear in mind, there was tremendous unity, with healings and all kinds of miracles also going on at this time! So I would suggest it takes a tremendous amount of the grace of God for socialism to work in any practical way. Note also, later this church is so impoverished that Paul takes up offerings for them in many other churches (1Cor. 16:1-3).
With Marx out of the way, I’ll let the cat out of the bag and tell you: The better system is capitalism – but that’s only half the picture. There’s actually two sides to this:
• Legal compulsion
• Moral obligation
State Control or Free Markets?
Does the Bible explicitly teach capitalism? Perhaps not. But it does teach stewardship – and capitalism, with some degree of government regulation (we could debate all day how much), has historically proved to be the best economic system for generating widespread wealth. We are called to be good stewards over the blessings God gives us (Matt 25:14-30, Luke 12:48), and this is best accomplished in a free market, where we have the flexibility (and opportunity) to derive the greatest value from our goods, time and efforts.
Another lesson we can learn from history, especially the 20th century, is that too much government control and centralized planning of the economy, whether communism or fascism, is indeed very dangerous. As someone said, the power to tax is the power to destroy, and moves in the direction of increasing government functions or regulations should not be undertaken lightly. Civil governments are all too eager to go down the slippery slope of socialism, grabbing power for themselves, but by gaining control over people’s property, terrible violence and other human rights violations have often been the result, not to mention disastrous economic losses (e.g. millions of people starving to death).
But that shouldn’t surprise us, right? After all, Jesus said that “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10). We all know that money has the power to corrupt. And doesn’t the Bible say pursuit of riches can be a snare to our faith (1 Tim 6:9)? Maybe Christians just shouldn’t be very concerned about economics or wealth at all?
Well, not so fast. Let’s be honest, does anyone really believe that? It’s easy to say, but if you look at what people actually do, it’s obvious we all care about our economic well-being. Like it or not, money is a practical part of life, just like eating. Besides, it’s just human nature to want to improve our situation, have more, whatever. I would suggest that drive is something God put into our nature, as a good thing, but like a lot of good things, it can get corrupted.
With the recent financial crisis and the betrayal of so many by those who were supposed to be watching out for their interests, it’s clear that capitalism alone is an insufficient guard against the weaknesses of human nature. Many may be surprised to learn that was – in fact – the view of Adam Smith himself. Before he wrote The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Indeed, he was a professor of moral philosophy. Though his philosophy differed with the Bible, it’s clear even he considered capitalism alone to not be enough. It must be coupled with some sense of moral duty that ensures all of society will have a chance to benefit.
This should be an exciting realization for Christians – isn’t this what we’ve sensed all along, that something was lacking in economics? Is it really supposed to be “the dismal science”? Christian economics is not a zero-sum game, or one where the strong prey on the weak. By helping pull the weak to their feet, the entire society benefits, indeed the strong may even get stronger.
To give an example, right now there’s a film in theaters about a dolphin who lost its tail. In many societies, folks might just say it’s fate, there’s nothing anyone can do about it, or whatever. But here in the U.S., some folks got creative and figured out a way to make a prosthetic tail, so the dolphin could swim and survive. I remember reading about that, it was a fairly difficult project, involving quite a few folks. It would have been easy for a Scrooge to dismiss the whole effort as a foolish waste of time and money.
But was that the end of the story? No, because they learned a whole lot of things building that tail. There’s already been at least one very helpful product and maybe more that will come out of it. Now there’s even a movie, Dolphin Tale. What could have been ridiculed as a boondoggle may end up actually making quite a bit of money! Isn’t that a story we’ve seen over and over in America? When you add a spiritual element such as creativity to economics, then suddenly scarcity is no longer the last word on the subject!
To put things another way, is economics ultimately about scarcity, or about God’s provision? Consider what the Apostle Paul wrote, “my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:19) Isn’t that spectacular? We Christians need to stop “thinking dismally,” scratching around in the dirt trying to barely survive, and start thinking in terms of the opportunities God has given us to be a blessing.
The Christian’s Moral Obligation
When God called Abraham, He promised to bless him and declared that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Were these blessings not really Abraham’s property? Oh, yes they were. Just two chapters later, we see God enabling Abraham to recover in battle all that had been taken from him. Nevertheless, God’s intent is clear: His blessings are meant not MERELY to provide for our own household’s needs, but also to enable us to minister to others.
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians have heeded that calling by ministering to the poor and suffering. Orphanages, schools and hospitals have been built all over the world. We are instructed to remember the poor (Gal 2:10), because it’s so easy to forget about others’ needs when we are comfortable. Sadly, from Old Testament Israel on through modern times, complacency typically follows where God’s blessings overflow. Success has always been one of the greatest dangers for the Church.
If Christians don’t heed the Biblical command to remember the poor, widow, orphan, prisoner, etc., will not God eventually judge that society (Luke 12:48)? Let’s aim to be the exception, a Christian society that remembers to be a blessing!
“And let us not lose heart in doing good” (Gal. 6:9).
Next time … Part 2 – An Even More Radical Theory of Value