First, let’s define Socialism. One good definition is, “Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.” ("Socialism." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 25 Apr. 2010.) Another definition is, “A theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole.” ("Socialism." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 25 Apr. 2010.) What it boils down to is public vs. private ownership and/or control of property.
Let’s look at what the Bible says about the ownership of property. Starting with the Ten Commandments, we see that people have a right to their own property.
The Eighth Commandment states, “"You shall not steal.”(Exodus 20:15) Stealing is defined as, “To take (the property of another) without right or permission.” ("stealing." The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 25 Apr. 2010.) So, we’re seeing that there is property that one person has rights to that another person or persons does not. It’s not looking good so far for the socialists.
The Tenth Commandment says, “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:17) Coveting is different from stealing. Coveting is, “To desire wrongfully, inordinately, or without due regard for the rights of others: to covet another's property.” ("covet." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 25 Apr. 2010) The Tenth Commandment says that it is wrong to want something that rightfully belongs to another. This doesn’t help the socialist, either.
But, wait! That’s all Old Testament stuff. Didn’t Jesus talk about the poor? He sure did, let’s look at some of what He said:
In Matthew 5:3, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Here He is speaking of the spiritual poor, and not necessarily the materially poor, so we can move on.
In Matthew 6:1-4, Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Here He speaks of giving to the poor from pure motives, and not out of a desire to impress others. He does say “when” and not “if,” so there is an assumption that his followers will give to the poor. But any command here is implicit, not explicit.
Mark 14 tells the story of a woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume shortly before His crucifixion. Mark tells us, “But some were indignantly remarking to one another, ‘Why has this perfume been wasted? For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’” (Mark 14:4-5) John tells us (John 12:4-6) that Judas Iscariot was the one who raised the fuss, and that he did it not from any desire to help the poor, but so that he, as the groups treasurer, could have access to the funds himself.
Jesus’ reaction to this grumbling is very telling. He said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me.” (Mark 14:6-7 NASB) Did you catch that? He said, “(W)henever you wish you can do good to (the poor).” When and how a person helps the poor is up to their own wishes. He also indicates that no amount of human effort with ever eliminate poverty. “You will always have the poor with you,” He said.
“But wait!” I hear the Biblically knowledgeable socialist proclaim, “The early church was socialistic! They sold all their possessions and shared everything equally!” Well, that’s true to a degree. Acts 2:44-45 says, “And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.” And Acts 4:34-35 says, “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles' feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.” The question, however, remains; is this socialism?
Perhaps, if we examine the curious case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, we’ll have a clearer understanding.
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and kept back some of the price for himself, with his wife's full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the price of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control? Why is it that you have conceived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last; and great fear came over all who heard of it. The young men got up and covered him up, and after carrying him out, they buried him.
Now there elapsed an interval of about three hours, and his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter responded to her, "Tell me whether you sold the land for such and such a price?" And she said, "Yes, that was the price." Then Peter said to her, "Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out as well." And immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last, and the young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of land and did not give all the money to the apostles, and so God struck them down? Is that what happened? No! God struck them down for lying about not giving all the money.
Look at what Peter said to Ananias. “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” Ananias didn’t have to sell his property; it was not required of him. And, having sold the property, the money was his to do with as he wished. Peter clearly acknowledges Ananias’ and Sapphira’s right to do with their own property according to their own desires. One of Ananias’ and Sapphira’s sins was greed, sure, but it was coupled with pride to lead them to do what they did. They wanted to be “big shots” in the church. (See Matthew 6:1-4 again)
No, the truth is that the followers in the early church engaged in commerce, buying and selling privately owned property to raise needed funds. The fact that they shared their funds with those in need shows that they were caring and generous people, not that they were socialists.
While the Bible clearly teaches that we are to support our government & pay our taxes (Romans 13:6-7), Scripture also strongly supports the right to private ownership and control of property. Do I think we could (& should) do more to help the poor? Sure I do. But it should be up to the individual who owns the property to decide when, how, and how much they give. Will many people not give as much as they could? Sure. But that is between them and God, as it is God who gave them their wealth in the first place (2 Chronicles 32:29.)
(I highly recommend that everyone read Dr. Walter E. Williams' lectures on Economics For The Citizen. I took a year of economics in high school, and two semesters of economics at the University of Montana, but I've learned more about economics by listening to Walter Williams guest-host for Rush Limbaugh and by reading the materials on his website, then I ever learned in school.)