In contemporary American society, there is an increasing demand for socialism. The rise of figures like Bernie Sanders indicates that many Americans believe this philosophy is the “way of the future.” Even some Christians tout socialism as a cure for poverty and financial difficulty. But can orthodox Christianity and socialism be reconciled? I maintain that the two simply cannot.
Let’s make sure we understand our terms. Socialism is an economic system based on centralized control by the government. It can manifest itself to varying degrees, including complete central planning by the State and abolishing private property. It can also encompass the Marxist idea about a state of transition between capitalism and communism.
That’s the general framework, but let’s now explore the underpinnings of this ideology. Socialism has its roots in Marxism and the Communist Manifesto. In the book, Marx and Engels advocate for various things, including the abolition of private property, the dissolution of the family, and the annulment of religion. The intent is to create a completely egalitarian society. Committed Marxists adhere to these goals.
A brief look at history shows how these ideas have turned out. The only equality communists and socialists have achieved is in misery and suffering. Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam, etc., have all suffered tremendously for these ideas, and people who otherwise meant no harm lost everything, including their lives, to the revolutionaries.
That’s the theory and history. Let’s see how the principles of Christianity and socialism line up in comparison.
An excellent place to start is in the Old Testament’s Levitical Law. Though we are not under the Law, the moral precepts still apply to us and inform us about God’s views of economics and private property.
The Levitical Law is full of protections for private property. Two of the Ten Commandments are “You shall not steal” and “You shall not covet” (Exodus 20). These two commandments imply that the owner has a right to the items being stolen or coveted and that the thief is in the wrong. There is no exception for egalitarian motivation.
The Book of Deuteronomy also sets out important principles of land ownership. It states, “You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary stone which the ancestors have set” (Deut. 19:14). This principle is reiterated in Chapter 27:17, as well as in Prov. 22:28 and Job 24:2. 1 Kings 21 also recounts the prophet Elijah’s rebuke of Ahab and Jezebel for stealing Naboth’s vineyard and murdering him.
The New Testament does not depart from these principles. Jesus stated several times that we are not to steal (Mark 10:9; Luke 18:20). In Romans 13:9, Paul wrote that following the Eighth Commandment is a part of loving your neighbor. He further noted that those who once stole must steal no longer and must instead work for what they need and desire (Eph. 4:28).
Even with all that, some Christians will respond by pointing to Acts 2, where the believers held everything in common. “This is the foremost example of how Christians need to live, so we need socialism to live Christ-like lives truly,” or so the objection goes. Their claim is that this makes Christianity and socialism completely compatible. But what the socialists don’t take into account is the inherent nature of that arrangement.
Unlike socialism, the center of the early church’s lives was not some vague idea of egalitarianism, but emulating Christ’s self-sacrificial nature. The believers freely and voluntarily gave what they had to support this new community. Socialists offer no choice in the matter and take what others have by force. Nowhere in Acts 2 is there an indication of coercion or motivation of envy or complete equality.
Also of note is that this community did not last long. There were not generations of believers living like this. As Paul continued to write the New Testament, he emphasized that we can still be Christ-like and have our property. Indeed, property ownership appears to be a part of the human condition. I would argue it derives from the dominion mandate in Genesis 1:28.
The socialists derive their motives from envy. The Christians derive their motivations from brotherly love. The results follow accordingly. Envy has long been considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and it is no wonder that connotation has stuck around. When we envy others, we do immoral things we otherwise would not do. That often includes using the power of the State to punish those who have done well financially.
In conclusion, I don’t see how Christianity and socialism are compatible. Scripture is adamant that private property deserves protection and that we must work (2 Thess. 3:10). Indeed, the rule that those who will not work will not eat is what saved the Jamestown colony from starvation.
We deserve to enjoy the fruit of our labor and to have a legal code that protects it (Ecc. 5:18-19). An ideology that denies this principle, along with the Marxist anti-Christian root, is inconsistent with Christian theology.
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