Is Christianity a socialist religion?

The subject of socialism has quietly wafted into the public discourse in America over the last four years. When General Motors underwent Chapter 11 reorganization in 2009, our government bought a large stake in the company: 61 percent. It still owned about 26 percent of GM as of May 2012, and 73.8 percent of Ally Financial, a GM-owned banking and auto finance company. Everyone has heard of “too big to fail”: massive loans extended to various organizations such as AIG, in a government effort to avoid their failures’ consequences on markets, employment, and individual lives. President Obama speaks often of everyone “doing their fair share” or “getting a fair shake”. It’s quite evident he and many in the Democrat party value equality over nearly all other principles that steer this nation.

On a more individual level, President Obama has also invoked the Bible in his arguments for fairness in public policy. Most notably, with regard to raising taxes on the wealthy in order to balance the budget, he cited Luke 12:48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48b, NIV). At first glance, this seems like a reasonable assertion. The fact that Scripture makes this statement gives Obama’s words more authority, on their surface. And it makes one wonder: Does Christianity, via the Bible, preach socialism?

There certainly are other verses that seem to lend support to a collectivist view of society as advanced by socialism. Committed Christians often cite Acts 2 as a sort of idyllic church structure:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, NIV)

Some Christian leaders even brand their church “an Acts 2 church”, after this passage. Relative to Christian doctrine, the entire chapter gives an eloquent and concise overview of Jesus’ death and resurrection, a few of the prophecies that foretold it, and why it is imperative for our salvation. It also records the event of Pentecost, at which the Holy Spirit first came upon the apostles. In these ways it is a good foundation for a church’s charter. Pastors also encourage fellowship and sacrifice for the good of the church via the example given in verses 42 through 47. What leader wouldn’t want his congregation to be so altruistic as to sell their very possessions for the good of their neighbors?

In evaluating whether the Bible endorses socialism, we must make one important distinction: between socialism as a societal construct and socialism as a governmental order. Socialism embraced by a government is mandated upon the citizens under that government; but a community can also voluntarily embrace socialism as a societal order.

In order to understand this question we must also evaluate how the Bible views societal classes, wealth, poverty, and governments. With these ideas in mind, a casual read of either the Old or New Testaments will show that the Bible pays a surprising amount of attention to them.

Usually this comes in an indirect fashion: the stories of the patriarchs take place within a landscape of city-states, each with its own king, as well as large nations such as Assyria and Babylon, each usually having one king or ruler. The decisions and events recorded there are heavily influenced by those power structures.

Once the Hebrew people are established as a nation after the Exodus and come into the land of Canaan, the Bible records the messy history of choosing a governmental structure for that nation. Chapters 8 and 9 of Judges record the people’s desire for a king–a human king–to rule over them, just like the other nations around them had. Human beings love to mimic one another (a phenomenon described with great mastery by French thinker René Girard): since the other nations in the region all had kings, Israel wanted to belong. They thought they needed a king in order to have a workable government.

They were right. God was their rightful king. But over and over the Israelites rejected him, following him only when they had a human representative like Gideon to lead them. Eventually God relents and raises up Saul to be the people’s king, who turns out to be a disaster.

So the Bible at least partially endorses one governmental system: a monarchy. However, God makes clear that that monarchy can never work with a human king. It will never be a perfect order. Only he can create a perfect monarchy, as he promises to do through Jesus Christ (as in Isaiah 9:6 and the book of Revelation).

In terms of other governmental structures, besides that set up through the setting of the New Testament in the Roman empire, we see few if any. So let us turn to the Bible’s ideas of wealth and ownership.

Throughout, the Bible recognizes that some are wealthy and some are poor. In it, God repeatedly calls on his holy people, Israel, and then later everyone, to look out for those who are oppressed, and for the fatherless and widows. God’s intentional mention of these specific groups tells us he has a special regard for them. He mentions them copiously (Exodus 22:22-23, 23:6; Leviticus 19:10, 1 Samuel 2:8, Proverbs 29:13, Isaiah 11:4, James 1:27, and many more).

Yet interestingly, God never commands anyone in Scripture–king or commoner–to eliminate the wealth gap between one person and another. He never commands Israel, “Make sure no one is rich and no one poor, but that everyone has as much as his neighbor.” In fact, he sometimes makes one person vastly more wealthy than those around him, as he did with Abraham and Solomon; and he talks often (in Proverbs, for instance) about rich and poor men as if they are trees and rivers in a landscape (see Deuteronomy 15:7-11). However, he does set in his Ten Commandments, the core of the Old Testament law, a commandment against becoming jealous of what another person has: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

We can gather from the existence of this commandment a few very important things. First, God recognizes that a person has an intrinsic right to his own possessions. He has ownership of them. This is reinforced by the eighth commandment: You shall not steal. The act of theft assumes legitimate personal ownership of an item. God recognizes this right to possessions a basic component of orderly society. Therefore, if a person were ever to divest himself of those possessions, the only legitimate way to do so would be of his own accord.

This is why the admonishment to help the poor comes with a clear note of personal responsibility on both the part of rulers and the people. 2 Corinthians 9:6 is a core example:

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written:

“He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.” (ESV; emphasis added)

If the government were to force us to give to the poor  (as it in fact does, under the current American tax system), it compels us to give, and that may breed resentment. It also steals some blessing from the act of giving by removing us from the persons to whom we give, and from the method and means by which we give. Perhaps I wish to give a goat to a family in Africa, but the government takes the funds I allocated and uses them to help build a house for someone in an impoverished American town. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention sums it up:

In modern society government is too often seen as the predominant way that society cares for the poor. This is not the clear biblical description. Individuals and churches are explicitly called to care for the less fortunate, and the vast majority of passages dealing with the poor are within a personal calling. There does seem to be a role for government to help the poor, but Christians cannot simply pay their taxes and feel that they have helped aid those in need. While Jesus and Paul both declare that Christians should pay taxes to the government (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:7), Christians are also charged to give to the poor beyond that measure. Jesus clearly states, “Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). Therefore, taxes should be paid to the government to help in its God-given responsibility to help the poor, but one also has a responsibility to give to God, and [...] God clearly requires that a portion of His money and man’s abilities be used to assist the poor. (http://erlc.com/article/biblical-directives-for-combating-hunger-and-poverty/, accessed 22 September 2012)

We are called to follow human laws and submit respectfully to our government (Romans 13), but we in America also have the privilege and duty to affect change in our government when we feel it is not acting according to our wishes or values.

Although it embraces an eventual monarchy for our earth after Jesus’ return, nowhere does the Bible explicitly endorse a specific governmental system for the nations until that time. God provides his commandments and his grace, and leaves men free to decide for themselves how to administer their affairs. We can put to rest the idea that the Bible advocates socialism as an idyllic societal system. We must, however, take seriously the commandment for each of us to give freely to the poor. There are many more individuals in this world than governments. Only we can create the kind of movement needed to feed the hungry and clothe the cold.

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