Che vs. J: Socialism & Christianity
Updated: Oct 8, 2020
Socialism has killed an estimated one hundred million people, but the idea itself just won't die. A resurgence of this ideology has smitten many young Americans which at least in part, has been instigated by now two-time Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren pushing the envelope even further. Many rebuttals have been published in response to this cultural shift, such as Christian talk show host Steven Crowder's scathing rebuke of Millennials supporting socialism. While the rebuke contains some substance and a fair amount of logic, it lacks the most important element in any Christian argument—scripture. To Crowder's credit, he later posted a follow-up article which did contain a few biblical reasons for his position on socialism, but I'd like to tackle the subject a bit more thoroughly and with less snark and attitude, as it is a serious and weighty issue with real consequences.
The reality is, the cultural shift has been dramatic, especially among Millennials and Gen Z'ers. Recent polling by YouGov has found widespread support for socialism, and even rising support for communism among young people. A full 70% of Millennials say they are likely to vote socialist and another 36% view communism favorably. A shocking 43% of Millennials believe the Communist Manifesto better guarantees freedom and equality than the Declaration of Independence. More than 1 in 5 (22%) said they believe society would be better if all private property was abolished. Equally alarming is that 72% of Americans incorrectly believe that communism has killed less than 100 million people in the past 100 years.
In response to this poll, Marion Smith, Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation said, "The historical amnesia about the dangers of communism and socialism is on full display in this year’s report. When we don’t educate our youngest generations about the historical truth of 100 million victims murdered at the hands of communist regimes over the past century, we shouldn’t be surprised at their willingness to embrace Marxist ideas. We need to redouble our efforts to educate America’s youth about the history of communist regimes and the dangers of socialism today."
But just as people are often ignorant of the historical record, so too are they of the scriptural stance, often conflating biblical principles on personal charity with socialism. Those two concepts are not the same—at all. Biblical Christianity cannot be lived vicariously through a government program or entity. In the New Testament the commands to care for the poor, orphans, and widows are laid at the feet of individuals and the church, not the government. The biblical distinction in role between individuals, the church, and government is quite critical to understand and differentiate between, so let us lay out and clarify some common scriptural arguments for socialism. However, before we do that let's first define the term we're discussing as it gets thrown around rather loosely at times.
A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the state.
A political theory advocating state ownership of industry.
An economic system based on state ownership of capital.
Any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.
A system of society or group living in which there is no private property.
In Marxist theory, a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism.
In Western societies however, the term socialism is usually used very loosely to describe any and all services that government provides which are paid for by taxes. This catch-all definition utilizes the idea of Social Democratism, which originally was a political ideology designed to to peacefully transition (rather than traditional socialism's violent transition) capitalist societies to communism. After WWII however, the term Social Democratism was appropriated and redefined as simply "a welfare state within a capitalist economy." However this socialism lite obfuscates the true intent and philosophy of socialism and conflates legitimate and biblical responsibilities of government with questionable, and even clearly unbiblical, ones. The main focus of this article therefore will be on the redistribution of wealth via government, particularly to the poor and needy, which is usually the topic of debate in these conversations.
Common Biblical Arguments
It seems a bit insincere that scripture is invoked at all in order to defend socialism considering those who support that economic system rarely take the Bible seriously. Indeed a recent survey authored by Dr. George Barna found that 98% of American adults who prefer socialism over capitalism are opposed to a biblical worldview. This shouldn't be all too surprising considering the atheistic roots of socialism, but it should make any Christian who is flirting with Marxist ideas to take note. But just because an atheist developed the system of socialism and the vast majority who support it reject biblical truth, that doesn't necessarily preclude the possibility that scripture does indeed align with their view. So we must examine the proof texts used by socialists in order to see if their claims are valid or not. Below are the four primary texts usually cited in support of socialism.
1. The Gleanings (Lev 19:9-10)
Even in the Old Testament, the government of Israel was not socialist. Some may cite the Levitical law that farmers must leave a portion of their crops unharvested so that the poor may gather up the "gleanings," but you'll notice that the law did not insert the government as the collector or distributor of those crops. Old Testament Law simply instructed people to take personal responsibility to be charitable to their fellow man. Notice also that the poor had to work for their food. This was a not a handout—the poor would have to harvest their own grain, take it to a mill and grind their own meal or flour, take that flour home, and then cook and prepare those raw ingredients in order to produce bread. It was an honest day's labor in other words, reflecting the reiterated New Testament principle that a man must work if he wants to eat (2 Th 3:10) and had nothing to do with government-run socialism which simply takes the capital gains of the honest labor from one man and hands it to another who did not labor at all. In fact the biblical principle of work is so strong that even widows under the church's care were expected to serve and have a reputation of good works (1Ti 5:9-10), not simply receive handouts.
2. The Old Testament Tithe (Num 18:21-24, Deut 14:22-27, Deut 14:28-29)
The OT tithe was multi-faceted and actually consisted of three separate tithes: 1. The "sacred" tithe for the Levites to compensate them for their priestly functions and duties (Num 18:21, 24), 2. The "feast" tithe which was actually used on one's own family for vacations, travel and social functions (Deut 14:22-27) and 3. The "poor" tithe which was for the needy in their local community (Deut 14:28, 29). The sacred tithe can neither be labeled socialism nor welfare as it was payment for actual services rendered and was given directly to the priesthood without a government middleman. The feast tithe was simply a personal recreation fund (let's practice this one more often!), so this is clearly not socialism either. The poor tithe therefore is the only portion that could even be accused of being socialism, so let's unpack that tradition for a moment.
The poor tithe was actually only given once every three years and does seem to be collected or stored by the local community due to the wording of the text. The text does not explicitly state this tithe was collected or distributed by the government, but it is clear that these feasts were local community events, so if the government was involved at all it was likely at the local township level. Much more likely however is that it was a community-organized or religious event (as most festivals and feasts were) with absolutely no government involvement.
While the biblical text is vague on details, an apocryphal text (the book of Tobit) does seem to imply this third tithe was given directly to those in need by the individual, not by any government entity. The exact quote can be found in Tobit 1:6-8 and simply states, "And the third tithe I gave unto those to whom it belonged." Flavius Josephus also records this tithe briefly in "Antiquities of the Jews" and it seems to imply direct giving as well (book 4, page 240). So with the available information on this tithe and in light of other biblical customs, tithes and Levitical Laws, there isn't any evidence that this passage is advocating socialism—it's advocating direct personal charity.
3. The Church in Acts (Acts 4:32-37) Others might read Acts and see that members of one specific church were selling their land and goods in order to provide for the needy and claim that is support for socialism. Again, read closer. This was a single congregation first of all, not the entire Christian community in the early church age, and this text is a description, not a command—so we must not assume this is required of all Christians. Furthermore this community was voluntary, not mandated, the proceeds were given to the apostles to give to whomever was in need, not the government, and the recipients were other members of that specific church, not the general public. Conflating the role of the church and government is both erroneous and dangerous.
It's interesting to note that often the dramatic event recorded in Acts chapter 5 regarding the supernatural smiting of Ananias and Sapphira is also used to support the idea of socialism. The argument goes that God struck them down because they didn't give all the proceeds of the sale of their house to the aforementioned church from Acts chapter 4. But this is clearly not the case as Acts 5:3-4 explicitly states the reason they were slain by God was because they lied, not because they were unwilling to participate in socialism. Again, this passage describes a completely voluntary community where no one was under compulsion to give anything. Therefore, this is not socialism and this particular passage is communicating that God demands honesty, not wealth redistribution.
4. The Parable of the Laborers (Matt 20:1-16) Another passage which I've seen used to support socialism is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. In this parable Jesus tells a story of a vineyard owner who hired laborers to work his field. Some are hired in the morning and others later in the day, but all receive the same wages. This is clearly socialism according to some people, despite the fact the vineyard is privately owned and operated and government is neither mentioned nor implied anywhere in the text. Furthermore, it's not even a prescriptive text instructing privately-owned vineyards on how to structure their labor—it's a parable Jesus uses to describe a spiritual reality: The same reward for all who serve Him, regardless of when they began.
This passage is guaranteeing heaven for all believers regardless if they became a believer at age 7 or on their death bed—it has nothing to do with earthly economies, wages or government structure. Furthermore, for those who think this passage equates to equal outcome despite unequal work, they should read the rest of the New Testament, which clearly describes God rewarding believers according to their works and faithfulness. Heaven is guaranteed for all believers, but not equal reward in heaven—see 1 Cor 3:8-15, Mat 25:14-29, Rev 22:12 et al. In fact, the Bema Seat of Christ, where the lives and deeds of all believers are evaluated and rewarded based on performance is a major theological doctrine of the New Testament. For more information on this doctrine, see here.
The One Biblical Example of Socialism: Egypt
There is however one passage in scripture which does indeed paint a picture of socialism, and that can be found in Genesis 41 and Genesis 47. Here the story of Joseph and the famine in Egypt is told, and we often view it—and Joseph's part in it—in an overall positive light. The Bible states that seven years of famine would follow seven years of abundance and Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of the preparations for that coming famine. What Joseph did was shrewd, but ultimately disastrous for both the Egyptian people as well as the later generations of Israelites. Joseph's strategy was to dictate via law that 20% of all crops during the seven plentiful years would be given to the central government for storage. But rather than rationing the people's own grain back to them during the seven years of famine, he sold it back to them. This is more a system of fascism at this point, but it soon ends up at socialism as the famine continues.
As the people had to continue to buy their rations from the central government, but had no source of income due to being an agrarian culture in the middle of a famine, they eventually ran out of money. To avoid starvation, the people then bartered their possessions for food, then had to resort to surrendering their land to the government for food. Finally, with nothing else to trade with, they were forced to give themselves in slavery to the Pharaoh as payment for food. So what began as a thriving capitalistic society with private land and ownership, ended in socialism where everything was owned by the central government—including the very lives of its citizens. This story is a cautionary tale which begins in freedom and good intentions, but ends in slavery. Indeed, throughout the rest of scripture, Egypt is synonymous with slavery and the narrative of God's redemption as He brought Israel out of that bondage and back into freedom.
The Dangers of Socialism
But many argue that true socialism (whatever specific concept of socialism they personally have in mind when defending it) is about equality, and surely that isn't a unbiblical concept. Well, yes and no. Scripture certainly promotes equality in the value of people as members of humanity—sexism, racism, or any other idea which may lessen the value of an individual or group of people is certainly unbiblical. However throughout scripture, meritocracy is well established, even in heaven. Equal outcome simply isn't a biblical concept as it is unfair, unjust, and unproductive for society.
For example, Ferrari should not be forced to charge the same price for their product as Ford, because the Ferrari required more research and development, more expensive materials, more engineering, and more human labor to produce. If Ferrari could only price their product at the same level as a Ford Fiesta, Ferrari would either go out of business, or else reduce the quality of their product enormously. Likewise a doctor cannot be expected to be paid the same for their services as a fast food worker does for theirs. A doctor's skill sets and knowledge took many years to gain at a very high cost for that training and education—it is unfair and unjust for them to receive the same pay for their services which required more research and development, more expense, and more human time, capital, and energy to produce.
But as the Egypt story illustrates, the biggest reason scripture does not support socialism is because it is antithetical to freedom, not just fairness. Danish economist Otto Brons-Petersen stated it plainly in a recent interview discussing the fallacy of socialism saying, "As Friedrich Hayek (famous 20th century economist) pointed out, you cannot have a free society without economic freedom, so socialism would mean the end of a free society." This is a problem as scripture lauds freedom as a primary ideal. Galatians 5:1 states, "It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery." God's desire and design for mankind is freedom, both physically as well as spiritually. Socialism invariably ends in tyranny as so much power is concentrated in the hands of so few in a single sphere of society: government. This is particularly dangerous as government is the only sphere of society which scripture gives the power and authority to use deadly force (Rom 13:1-7 et al).
For this reason, it is extremely unwise to give government more power and responsibilities than God designed and intended for it. The potential for corruption, abuse, tyranny, and loss of human freedom and life is simply so great, it's essentially inevitable. Giving the government the power over the economy, healthcare, retirement, housing, education and social services is simply a recipe for disaster when mixed with the government's monopoly on the use of force via police, courts, and military. This is attested by the fact that in the 20th century, socialism killed more people than the deadliest war in human history—World War II (estimated 100 million deaths via socialism compared to 85 million in WWII).
Aside from the catastrophic outcomes on human life, socialism is one of the few ideologies to be able to boast a 100% failure rate. There are several reasons for this failure, but strangely the reason people keep returning to this bad idea is that they are under the impression that it hasn't properly been attempted. The reality is over two dozen attempts worldwide in vastly different countries and circumstances all ended with the same result: complete disaster. The socialism lite currently being attempted in Europe is also failing (with France leading the way), just not as quickly or dramatically due to the level of capitalism in those nations diluting socialism's poisonous effects. Meanwhile China which was founded as a communist state in 1949, began reforming and shifting to capitalism in 1978 and in the years after, reduced their poverty rate from 88% in 1981 to 0.7% in 2015. Worldwide, capitalism has cut global poverty rates by half since 1990 even by conservative estimates. Other estimates put the reduction from 94% global poverty rate in the 1800's, down to 16% today—the lowest in all of history. Indeed, the last decade (2010's) was the best decade of human existence ever.
Socialists Are on to Something But while there is no passage in scripture which supports socialism, that doesn't mean that scripture is 100% in favor of Western capitalism (which is actually creditism—a significant distinction both historically and biblically). The biblical description of the economic and governmental structure of ancient Israel is not congruent with our modern systems and models, but there are certainly some parallels and principles which have influenced our current structures. However, it can be difficult to isolate and implement one part of the biblical model as it is an intricate system that requires multiple other components to function properly.
That said, the Old Testament nation of Israel for the most part operated as a capitalist system—it clearly consisted of private land ownership (except for the Levites, who lived off the tithe brought to the temple in payment of their services rendered), a free market economy, and the private ownership of businesses. Taxes were pretty minimal (~10% depending how you define it) and the government's role was limited primarily to national defense and the justice system—it had little to no control or authority over the economy, education, or social welfare. But what many who support socialism are correctly recognizing is that greed is not a biblical principle and capitalism often seems to promote this evil. They are certainly correct that capitalism aligns with human ambition and self-interest in many ways but they fail to acknowledge that socialism is just as susceptible—often even more so as power is concentrated in those societies (George Orwell's famous book "Animal Farm" was written as allegory to demonstrate this fact). Capitalism has certainly run rampant in the modern world and many have become rich, powerful and uncaring of their fellow man as a result... But the same is true in every socialist system on earth, both past and present. The difference is that in capitalist societies, the rich are business owners while the politically powerful are politicians, while in socialist societies the rich and powerful are the members of the political class. This is not a more desirable outcome—it is exponentially more dangerous. As powerful as a multi-national corporation may be, they do not control national armies or police forces.
What happens in the heart of man is reactionary—when something isn't working correctly, we tend to become revolutionaries and want to burn the whole system to the ground and try something different rather than identify the problems and fix them. Socialism hasn't worked in the past, but because we are frustrated with capitalism, we throw the baby out with the bath water and start dreaming of a cure that history has proven multiple times over is worse than the disease. Because capitalism doesn't produce greed—greed is a condition of the human heart and will be present in any socio-economic structure implemented, including socialism. But while greed is certainly condemned in scripture, socialism actually is even less biblical as it utilizes envy to lure people into justifying government-sanctioned theft to take from one person and give it to another. So socialism cannot be argued as a moral alternative to capitalism—it breaks at bare minimum two of the Ten Commandments (thou shalt not covet, and thou shalt not steal). Potentially, socialism also strains a third (thou shalt not have any gods before me) by giving control of every aspect of people's lives (including the power of life and death) to a central government.
Conflating Biblical Roles So while Steven Crowder's approach and tone were questionable, I definitely agree with his challenge—let's search for and discuss the biblical principles and structures of government, economics, and the church. Scripture has a lot to say about the structure and role of each element that makes up a society and we need to both know what it says and what it means in order to utilize each of those elements to their full potential. To enjoy the full blessing of God we must be obedient to His commands and align ourselves and our society with His designs. But when we conflate the personal charity that scripture commands with government socialism, we are in fact shirking personal responsibility and obedience and passing the buck to a faceless secular entity. Like Joseph, Christians who support socialism mean well, but they're focused on the hypothetical ends rather than the actual means. The reality is however, that scripture is concerned with not only what we do, but how we do it and socialism is not the prescribed model for serving the poor and needy. Scripture puts that onus on the family (individuals) as the primary caretaker of societal needs, with the church being the sole fall-back option.
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever... If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. -1Ti 5:8, 16
At the root of this issue is the biblical concept of the family unity being the basic building block of society whereas socialism seeks to replace that traditional role with that of government. In fact, many of the policies and values pushed by the political left are directly aimed at destroying the family unit—from the institution of traditional marriage, to abortion and welfare programs which reward single parenthood. Dr. Paul Kengor details this reality in his book Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left has Sabotaged Family and Marriage. This is by design, not simply a side-effect or unintentional consequence. Friedrich Engels, co-author with Marx of the "The Communist Manifesto," explicitly described this outcome when he stated that the society he envisioned would be one where "the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair." This notion isn't just incompatible, it's antithetical to biblical Christianity.
Some may argue that the family has already largely failed and the church isn't doing its job, so government is our only option. This is terrible reasoning which fails with even a modicum of scrutiny. You can't fix a system by further destroying it and you can't right a wrong by committing an even greater wrong. The solution is to repair the family and correct the church, not abdicate their roles to the government. American Christians are also sharing their faith less and less and the American church is becoming less evangelistic, both at home and overseas, but no one proposes the solution is to mandate the government take over the responsibility of global evangelism. Yet this is exactly the line of logic used by Christians when advocating socialism.
When individuals give to the poor, it can encourage independence, work ethic and accountability. When the government gives other people's money to the poor, it encourages dependence on the state, laziness, and cycles of poverty while removing the incentive to work hard and contribute from the rest of society. This is why despite Lyndon B. Johnson's intention to eradicate poverty and the U.S. government spending over $20 trillion on his Great Society policies, the reality is according to every metric available, the poor are actually worse off today than before the so called "War on Poverty." Government welfare simply doesn't work and equal outcome is not more fair or just than equal opportunity—it is less. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and socialism is a poster child for that truism.