Big Questions
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Q Is it true that the Bible endorses free enterprise capitalism? I read that this is because it assumes private property and rewards a good work ethic.

A I would hesitate to suggest that the Bible “endorses” any economic system. It is true that the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” for instance, as well as Old Testament laws regarding property (such as Ex. 22:1-15) assume private ownership. However, God also stated, “The land must not be sold permanently because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Lev. 25:23). The land was the most important resource in an ancient agricultural economy.

Private ownership of land in ancient Israel, therefore, may be closer to lease-holding from God, for “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). In fact, every 50th year, the year of Jubilee, all lands sold were to be restored to their original families, and every Israelite slave freed (Lev. 25:8-55). Jubilee was essentially an economic reset button. It ensured that families who were poor never stayed poor forever by allowing them to regain their homesteads. It also prevented wealthy landowners from accumulating ever more property.

God’s command to keep the year of Jubilee alone should give us real pause from any wholesale endorsement of capitalism. We must be careful not to cherry-pick biblical teachings to endorse either capitalism or socialism. Instead, we need to study the Bible’s teachings as a whole and gain a biblical worldview with which to humbly approach economic issues, knowing we may never arrive at a perfect economic system.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

See comments (6)


Appropriately (and as generally) defined, I think it is pretty clear that Scipture does indeed "endorse free enterprise capitalism."  Yes, Israel was told to live under rules that "allowed private people to engage in economic activity with minimal governmental interference."  And nothing in the New Testament would seem to even possibly contradict that.

Of course, the existence of "free market capitalism" doesn't eliminate a role for government.  Government must regulate the ownership of land and other property (it can't not, and still be government) but that simple and obvious reality shouldn't keep us from concluding that Scripture provides no support whatsoever for socialism, which by definition means that government, by the power of its sword (threat of death) owns/controls the means of production and decides the distribution of which is produced.

It is only the current fashion in political thinking that would make us shy to say that Scripture does not support one side in the "capitalism (free market) vs socialism" debate.  Indeed, it is remarkable that we have gotten so shy about staking out a position on that question.

I would think the correct answer is that God does not "endorse" any human social arrangement. Iinstead, what God asks for is that these arrangements in their particularlity be just. In large measure we do not get to choose the sort of system we live under, be it a parliamentary democracy, a republic or for that matter a kingdom. God can and has worked through all of these. In the same manner, the economic arrangement in society can have a wide variation.

On the specific question, "free enterprise capitalism" is a rather flexible term, meaning different things in say the sociology, the political science, and econoimics department. What we do know is that however defined, the result of the system must still safeguard the poor and the weak from the all too easy actions of the wealthy and powerful. This caution is spelled out over and over again in the Psalms and Prophets. 



There is no conflict between government largely allowing its citizens to economically engage without government's contravening interference and government safeguarding the poor and weak from the actions of the rich and powerful.  This is why governments in western countries have criminal codes as well as social safety nets (the latter protecting the poor/weak sometimes from even their own failures not attributable to the rich and powerful).

Too often, we think the choice is too starkly binary: total government control (socialism) or no government (anarchy, or what some would somewhat mis-characterize as laissez faire capitalism).  The trick is to figure out where government must wield its sword (force, to the point of death even) and where it may not.  Today, I would submit the greater problem -- in the US at least -- is that government uses its force too much (even if sometimes, in some places, still too little).

But no, I don't think the socialism vs free market options are equal choices under biblical scrutiny, "so long as the poor are protected from the rich."  Government that denies the right of private property is bad government, wrong government, government that acts outside of biblical norms.  Certainly, government that doesn't govern (e.g., allows theft, murder, fraud, etc) is equally bad, wrong, and outside of biblical norms, but the greater political question (call it economic if you like) today is on the other side of the court.  

The question as posed assumes that any system that encourages property ownership is equivalent with free-market capitalism. This assumption reflects the political milieu of our day, when certain politicians claim that anything outside of unfettered laissez-faire capitalism is "socialism."

But are we not positing a false dichotomy? Might there not be an economic system that is neither capitalism nor socialism? Even if we accept the proposition that the Bible does not endorse any particular economic system, might there not be an economic system that more faithfully reflects the concept of Jubilee than either capitalism or socialism?

I believe that there may be such a system. In Catholic social thought it is called distributism. Among its proponents are intellectuals like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. While the concepts of distributism are less developed among Reformed political thinkers, one can see its reflections in the writings of Abraham Kuyper and the policies of his Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands.

What is distributism? Simply put, it is an economic system in which property ownership is a fundamental right and the means of production (i.e. tools, factories, infrastructure, natural resources, raw materials) are spread as widely as possible, rather than being centralized under the control of the state (socialism), or a few individuals or corporations (capitalism.)

Another way of describing this is as follows: with capitalism, most folks work for a few rich and powerful people but don’t own the means of production. With socialism, most folks work for the state, but don’t own the means of production. So, capitalism wants a few people owning property. Socialism wants nobody owning property. With distributism, the goal is for everybody own property and make their living from it.

Now, I am not saying the distributism is a perfect system sent down from on high by God on tablets like the Ten Commandments? Of course not. But given the excesses of both socialism and capitalism, and given the need for a third way in our deeply divided political societies, it is an idea that should be studied and considered in light of a reformed view of Scripture and the writings and experience of people like Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd.

I would suggest, Chuck, that what you call "distrubutism" is very much within the definition of capitalism.  In contrast, socialism demands (by power of the sword) that no one owns.  Capitalism allows folks to own in the manner they individually and/or collectively (small "c", by voluntarily association) decide.

I'm a big fan of small businesses, as opposed to larger ones.  Still, I would oppose the ideas that government should regulate the sizes of businesses (excepting to any anti-trust rules).  Car makers need to figure out their own economies of scale points.  Government can't do that and shouldn't try to.  

Again, capitalism essentially means political freedom in the world of economics.  Included in that freedom is the option, exercisable by a few or many, to implement the elements of "distrubutism."  My client files are pretty full of those of those kinds of people.

Economics is amoral; it is an area of study that focuses on how individuals make decisions about production and trade.  The Bible does not endorse any particular economic system directly, however, free market capitalism is the most consistent with Biblical principles (private property, inherent sinfulness of man...).  The basic scenario in a free market is freedom.  People are not allowed to force anyone to do anything.  All exchanges must be voluntary; it is predicated on property rights (which must be protected by civil gov't), which is clearly biblically sanctioned (4th, 8th, 10th Commandments, numerous OT passages specifying boundaries all contradict any call for communal or state owned property).  Therefore, to earn an income in a free society - a free market society - one must create something that will cause others to voluntarily give them something else in exchange.  The system encourages people to think about others and what they want.  In short, all people, even greedy people, must serve their fellow man in order to support themselves.  Furthermore, when it comes to resource allocation, poverty reduction, and safeguarding the poor and the weak, nothing is as efficient and effective as free market capitalism.  That should surprise no one, because it is incredibly consistent with biblical principles.  One cannot say the same thing about socialism.

The passage concerning the Year of Jubilee is not an example of opposition to property rights. To the contrary, it served as a mechanism to limit debt. The person working the land, or leasing the land, knows the land is going back to the owner, which served to limit lending to the next Jubilee. This passage is foreshadowing the redemption of Christ, not advocating for a system of government control and/or ownership of property (the government then was God; today it is a group of inherently sinful men). Also, notice the liberty concept in verse 10. It links ownership of property to freedom.