What Does the Bible Say About Socialism?

My collectivist (socialist) friends believe that a central command-and-control government, fueled by taxes forcibly removed from those who have more than others and funneled into welfare programs, is the best way to take care of the poor. Those who adhere to a free market (capitalist) system believe that voluntary charity wastes fewer resources, lifts more people out of poverty, and keeps the most people from being dependent. Some of my socialist friends whip out verses from the Bible to support their views. Here are some of the most notable ones, along with an explanation of why they don’t support socialism:

In Acts 2:44,45 and 4:32-37, it says that the early Christians had all things in common and helped everyone who had a need. Acts 4:32 is explicit: “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one mind; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” But notice that all this was strictly voluntary. The early believers in Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, chose to do this. They did not expect the Romans, the Jewish Sanhedrin, Herod, or any other government to take care of people. They took care of their own (and others too). There was no civil government forcing them to cough up any of their property for redistribution.

And God certainly did not command Christians to give up all their possessions—or else. In Acts 5, we read of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about giving all their proceeds to the leaders of the church. Peter, in Acts 5:4, told them that the property was theirs to do with as they wished. And after it was sold he said they still had the right to do with it as they pleased. The Apostle Peter upheld the belief in the right to private property. Their sin was in lying, not in retaining some proceeds from a sale.

Matthew 25:31-36 has inspired Christians for the past 2000 years to take care of “the least of these my brethren.” Because of this passage (and others) Christians have created hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and numerous other charitable ministries, all without any urging from government. But is this passage an injunction from Jesus to hand over our property and income to a civil government to take care of the poor? Of course, people of faith should look for the poor and relieve their suffering (and churches and synagogues have been doing just that for 2000 years now). But where in the Bible do you find the command to look to a government to confiscate your property for the purpose of redistributing it to others they deem more deserving of what you have earned? That command is nowhere in the Bible.

In Matthew 19:21, Jesus told the rich young ruler to “go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” The context is of an arrogant, wealthy young man who told Jesus that he had followed the Law of Moses perfectly. Jesus’ challenge in verse 21 exposed the fact that the man loved possessions more than God (and thus was not perfectly following the Law) and was not willing to let God be first. Somehow, we’re to believe this passage teaches it’s a good thing for a government to take from one group and give it to others they think deserve it more? In fact, what it teaches is that nothing should have priority over loving God.

We have the examples of Jesus and the Apostles feeding the hungry (John 6:1-13) and taking up offerings for the poor (Acts 11: 29). But again, these were individuals motivated by God to voluntarily supply others’ needs. There was no central government anywhere in these stories, forcing people to “share the wealth” and setting up a welfare state to endlessly hand out supplies to generations of people. And we also never saw the Apostles telling Christians, “Hey, if someone has more than you, then that’s not fair. You need to tell government to raise taxes so we can take more of their income and give to others we think deserve it more.” Nope. We never saw that. Because that would be covetousness, greed, and stealing. And God seems to be against those things.

The Bible actually argues against a centralized command-and-control economy and welfare state. When the Israelites were established in the land in the book of Joshua and Judges, they were twelve independent tribes with a decentralized government (a “Hebrew Republic” as Harvard professor Eric Nelson calls it in his book by the same name). The judges of Israel led the people in war, heard civil disputes, and left the people alone to live under the Law. God had a welfare system in Leviticus 19: 9, 10. The people were not to harvest the corners of their fields, and anything they dropped they were to leave. We saw Ruth and Naomi use this law to their benefit as they gleaned Boaz’s fields. The poor who were able-bodied were expected to work for their sustenance; God never told people to expect handouts from a government dole. And the indigent, widows, and orphans were cared for by the free will (voluntary) offerings laid out in Deuteronomy 14: 28, 29.

The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) is the lesson about how to take care of our neighbors. A helpless, wounded man was bypassed by the “religious experts,” but an outcast, a Samaritan, had mercy and took care of him. Notice carefully, the Samaritan did not take the beaten man to the Roman or Jewish governments to take care of him. He did not try to shrug off his responsibility by spending other people’s money to help him. He got his own hands dirty. He used his own donkey, oil, and wine. He opened his own wallet and took care of his neighbor, personally.

In Acts and the Epistles, the Christians got their own hands dirty. They followed Paul’s commands in Galatians 6:10 and 1 Timothy 5:3-16 to take care of others in need. And Paul commands in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 that if anyone does not work, neither shall he eat. Notice he didn’t say “if anyone cannot work.” If anyone is unable to work, the people of faith have an obligation to help. But if they can work, the best thing we can do is meet the immediate need and steer them to work, not dependency.

The people of faith for centuries have been the primary agency of effective relief to the poor, but unlike the government-controlled welfare state, they do not have a history of hooking generations into an expectancy of dependency. Unfortunately, many Christians today also now see a government (that is currently $20 trillion in debt and has spent $22 trillion on “the Great Society”) as the primary agency of charity. The best hope for the poor is not the wasteful, bloated government, but rather a revived Church that more seriously takes its responsibility to care for “the least of these my brethren.”