Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Biblical Concept of Private Property

Text: St. Matthew 20:1-16

It is common in churches to use a prayer during the offering which includes the words, “All things come from thee, and of thine own we have given thee.” We Christians readily recognise that everything in this world, everything we own, everything everybody else owns, the whole universe, ultimately belongs to God. If we have it in our hands for our use, it is because of His providence. He is the Creator. Everything comes from Him. And when He made man, he made him to have dominion over his creation – this small part of this creation, the earth. In this way, we reflect God’s image of sovereignty. God rules over all, he delegates the rule, the dominion, the management of this earth to us, as his representative. To the end that we may exercise this dominon, in his name, he has also granted us to mirror his ownership of the world. He who owns everything has delegated ownership – trusteeship might be a better word – of those things in this world he has placed in our hands that we may use them as we exercise our dominion over the earth.

He has also given us direction concerning this ownership in His Word. In the Ten Commandments, we read:
15: Thou shalt not steal.
17: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

We find here, in the Law of God, that private ownership is assumed. “Thou shalt not steal” makes no sense at all unless it is assumed that the property a person owns is really his own private property and it cannot be taken away from him in a righteous manner without his consent.

We observe this kind of thing throughout the Bible. For example, the parable about the landowner Jesus tells us in Matthew 20. The lesson the Lord is teaching there seems to be that God is free to do what He will with His own. He is not under any kind of legalistic obligation to dispense his grace to anyone, and certainly not according to their own idea of what he ought to do. The Pharisees could think that God owed them salvation as if it were a wage due to them for their righteousness. This parable certainly speaks to that kind of thinking. But it more directly applies to the disciples. Jesus had been dealing with them about their attitudes and concepts previously. In chapter 19, we see him trying to teach them through the children around him and in the words about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. It was afterwards, that Peter said,
Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?
28: And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
29: And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.
30: But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

Hopefully, your ears stood up when you heard those last words, because you remembered that they were also at the end of the parable about the landowner. In 20:16 Jesus says, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” The parable in chapter 20 is a continuation of what Jesus is trying to teach Peter in 19. There will be a reward for the disciples, but it will not be according to some idea of wages they may have. They are instead to be humble and recognise that there may be others who will get more honour than they. God is under no coercion to do what he will with his gifts. As the landowner says in the parable, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?” The whole lesson is founded on the recognition of the righteousness of owning private property.

We have both positive and negative examples in the story of Ahab and Nabaoth in I Kings 21. You will remember that Ahab knew the vineyard belonged to Nabaoth and offers to buy it from him. Nabaoth knew it belonged to him as an inheritance and refused to sell it, as it was his right to freely decide to do. Ahab then, steals it from him, murdering him in the process and the terrible justice declared against him by Elijah begins with the words, “Thus saith the LORD, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?” Ahab is punished for both murder and violating the right of private property. Private property is a God-given, inherent human right supported by the plain teaching of Holy Scripture.

Now none of us likes poverty. We do not like being poor. We do not like to see other people poor. Every Christian not only has a duty to care about the poor but should have a heart that cares for the poor as well. The question is what is to be done about the poor? For a long time, in the west we’ve had lots of people who think that we have the power to eventually eradicate poverty. Jesus disagrees with that, as you know. Not everything is bad about poverty, by the way. Remember that Jesus said riches can keep you out of the kingdom! Of course, he cares about the suffering of the poor and he alleviates it, but he does not, in his providence do away with it. And if He, the Lord of Creation says, “the poor you will always have with you,” then it is utterly useless to think we can eradicate poverty. But we have a duty, in light of the Golden Rule, to do all we can to help our neighbour who suffers. The question arises, however: how are we to do it?

For a long time now, in the west, people who have sincerely cared for suffering – and people who have only cared about political power – have believed that the answer to relieving economic suffering is through the economic ideal of socialism.

Unbelievers start with themselves and their own resources to answer the problem of poverty, which they call “inequality of wealth”. They start by denying the principle of private property. They see this principle as one of the main causes for inequality. They can deny this principle with ease because they do not believe in the God of the Bible. Instead of individuals owning property, the society owns the property – thus the term socialism. Everything belongs to everyone.

The question then arises: how to get everything so distributed that everyone has their fair share of all that belongs to them. Who determines the size of the fair share? Who is going to administrate the parcelling out of the fair share? Usually, socialists put this into the hands of the government as a representative of the will of the society as a whole. The result of this is that, if this governing body takes anything from one individual and gives it to another, this is not stealing. The property didn’t belong to the individual in the first place. In fact, the individual should feel morally obligated to cooperate with the confiscation of his property because he should want the wealth he has to be part of the even distribution.

But you can see what is wrong with this. This whole idea of how to deal with unequal ownership of property and wealth is based on a denial of the truth about humanity and of God’s sovereignty. It denies that God ultimately owns everything and has distributed, in His providence, as he sees fit with his own. It denies that He has endowed human beings with the right to private personal property and that taking things from people without their consent is the sin of stealing. It is this foundation of falsehood that is one of the reasons why socialism has always failed where ever men have attempted to practice it.

It is therefore quite evident that the Bible squarely comes down against socialism. Instead, the Bible comes down squarely on the side of what I’m going to call “good capitalism.” Capitalism is the belief that property and wealth belong to the private individual, or a self-constituted body of people. We know there is bad capitalism. Anything men set their hands to is going to be corrupted in some way. The Bible also comes down squarely against bad capitalism, with its greed and other faults. But the very fact that there is a bad capitalism assumes there is a good, and there certainly is. Good capitalism will understand private property the way the Bible teaches us to understand it and use it as the Bible teaches us to use it. It will not neglect the Golden Rule.

But what about "Christian socialism"? Frankly, Christian socialism is a misnomer. There cannot really be a Christian socialism, as socialism is defined above. There can be Christians, like Hughes, who think that socialism is the answer to economic inequality. They may think it’s biblical. But they are mistaken. Socialism, by definition, is beyond the pale of Biblical truth and ethic.

From my experience, people have argued for a kind of Christian socialism by referring to the early church in Acts 2, which we read earlier. What we see there, however, is not Christian socialism in practice but Christian capitalism; good capitalism. If you read the passage carefully, you will observe that the believers were giving up their own goods out of their generous hearts. There is no evidence of the idea that their property did not belong to them but to the community as a whole. There is no evidence that they were coerced. In fact, the opposite is very plainly the case. When Ananias and Sapphira give their gifts to the Church, as we read in chapter 5, Peter rebukes Ananias by saying, in verse 4: “Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” He and his wife were not punished for failing to give to the Church’s society the goods that belonged to it. They were punished for lying about what they were giving to God. The church recognized their right of private property. They didn’t have to give anything. The mutual sharing of goods in the book of Acts is not any kind of socialism in practice. It is good capitalism in practice: private property freely distributed to those in need as a free act of compassionate, loving generosity.

This fact teaches us that, if any people wish to be free with their property, they must be free from socialism. Socialism robs us of our economic freedom. And if we do not have economic freedom, we are not free to serve God with our goods. We are not free to give them to whomever we think ought to have them, but are instead forced to do with our goods what we may not think is right.

Do not think I am saying all taxation is wrong. If a body of people found a social institution, some governing agency, with particular tasks to perform that require funding, it only makes sense that they will contribute of their wealth so that it can do the job they have given it to do. In that case, the people are acting freely and taxing themselves, as it were. This is the ideal of taxation with representation – having a say so about how the government is going to use those taxes.

But should we not pay our taxes if our wishes are not represented? Our government has been running according to principles of socialism for a long time and it is getting worse. We constantly see our money being wasted and given to things that we would never want it to go to. Should we not pay our taxes then? No, we should still pay, even though their taxing of us is ungodly. Paul plainly teaches this in Romans 13. Even though the government is running according to unbiblical principles, it is nevertheless, in God’s providence, the government He has given us and we are to pay our taxes. That does not mean we cannot try to improve the situation, but we do not improve the situation by withholding our taxes. But you see that we are paying our taxes out of a recognised duty to God. By no means would we consent to paying taxes because we think our society already owns our property and may do with it as it sees fit through the government.

The idea of private property is important for our calling to have dominion over the earth. It is certainly important for our society. Without it, we lose a substantial amount of our freedom. We become slaves of the government and whoever makes the decisions about our government, from the mob that votes to the dictators in power. It is because of the Golden Rule and our Christian concern for our neighbour that we, as Christians, need to understand the principle of private property and help others to understand it, because socialism is filling a vacuum in the West. The West has lost a vibrant, Christian understanding of biblical economics, and we are reaping the result. We must work to recover our freedom.

It is important for the Church’s mission. The witness of the generosity of the Church in Acts was powerful. The generosity was also necessary; people had needs. God does not have to have money to build the Church, we know that. But he also uses general means and money can be a determining factor at times in what we can and cannot do in this world.

But let us never take some aspect of biblical truth and turn it into an end in itself. Remember what Habbakuk said? 17: Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:
18: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
Whatever may happen to our earthly private property, we can always find joy in knowing that we are God’s personal property. We belong to him, eternally. We are his by right of creation, by right of redemption, and by right of our own self-surrender to him. We are not our own. We belong to him. And he cannot fail to take care of his own.

Our concern is not whether he will take care of us as his property. Our concern is whether we will live as his own property! Will we continue to seek to live only for him and his will for our lives since we belong to him? Or will we lower ourselves to be all taken up with mammon and politics and social concerns for self-centered reasons. The cares of the world choke out the Word in our hearts as the thorns choke out the seed in Jesus’ parable. Yes, let us, as I have today, be concerned about biblical truth in every area of our lives. Let us do whatever we can righteously do to help our neighbour by alleviating his suffering, which can include social injustice due to the peoples’ ignorance about private property rights. But let us keep things in perspective, let us keep the balance, let us keep the knowledge of Christ in this world and in our hearts the chief thing, for its own sake, and for the glory of our wonderful God.

Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Workers_in_the_Vineyard

4 comments:

George said...

A warm welcome on your impending return to Rugby. Those of us who live here seem to find plenty to do. As I'm sure you in particular realize it's only a matter of where one's interests lie. Reading and hiking, for instance, can constitute a lovely holiday.
Thomas Hughes, I think you will find, was more interested in the cooperative movement than a true socialist one, as we think of it today in the ideals of Marx and Engels. As Hughes himself wrote, "The name Christian Socialists startled people..." His socialism advocated a cooperative bond between capitalism and labor, in the day before labor unions had appeared to take up the cause of the exploited worker. Social improvement, not common ownership of property, was his goal. In Rugby, land was privately owned by individuals or business entities. However, the community store and other ventures were jointly owned by local stockholders who shared cooperatively in any profits or losses. This was not unlike today's rural utilities, telephone cooperatives or credit unions.

Rev. Beckmann said...

George - great comment. Thanks! Your info on Hughes helps make the point. Christian "Socialism" is really a misnomer.
Thank you also for the welcome! We usually bring along our croquet game and if the lawn behind Percy gets mowed we play. I read Austen or Dickens to my wife while she knits. And of course we take walks and spend time sitting around drinking tea. Hope you all have a great Michelmas celebration this weekend!

Rev. Beckmann said...

I have removed the reference to Hughes to simplify matters and avoid confusion. I've also slightly modified that particular paragraph to make the argument clearer.

Anonymous said...

The concept of "private property" and ownership thereof in a Biblical setting is merely a convenient mechanism for achieving God's direction that we are to be good stewards of earthly goods during our time here. That the secular world adapts this convention to foment abuse and corruption upon mankind is no excuse for a Christian to disregard the divine imperative to be a worthy steward for the good of his fellow man.
Jack