Friday, April 12, 2013

The Economics of Christ

In the United States, the more conservative elements of society tend to be much stronger proponents of capitalism with minimal restrictions imposed on free enterprise as compared to the more liberal elements. Also, there is a large overlap between these economic conservatives and conservative Christians in this country. Many Christians in the U.S. even seem to directly tie capitalism to their Christianity, while other economic systems like socialism are seen as inherently ungodly. Was Jesus a capitalist, a socialist, or something else entirely? If we desire to follow Christ, this is an important question to consider.

Fortunately, I do not think Jesus was vague on the issue of economics, and neither were His apostles. Before we go to the Bible though, let us consider for a moment what the implications of a capitalist mindset entail. The point of capitalism is the accumulation of wealth and/or possessions. The harder you work, the more money you are entitled to receive, to do with as you wish. The more wealth you can accumulate, the better off you are. If other folks are poor, they are probably just lazy and need to work harder. Giving them financial assistance will just make them into mooches. I understand these are generalizations, but I have encountered similar sentiments many times, especially from socially conservative Christians.

"God helps those who help themselves." Did Jesus say that? Absolutely not. That statement is nowhere found in the Scriptures. (I think it was Martin Luther who said that, actually.) However, the Lord did discuss financial concerns frequently. Let's look at what He taught briefly.

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
(Mat 6:21)

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
(Mat 6:24)

And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said, Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
(Luke 6:20)

Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.
(John 6:27)

These are just a handful of examples, but I think they summarize the views of Christ on the matter. They also seem to be forthright statements that do not require a lot of interpretation. Jesus opposed the storing of wealth, even if it was earned honestly, while calling the poor blessed. I am not suggesting that Jesus encouraged laziness. On the other hand, I also do not think He was in favor of putting the majority of your time and effort into making as much money as possible for your own use, which is the capitalist way. When the widow gave her last two mites, Jesus commended her sacrifice (Luke 21:1-4), although it was unwise from a capitalist standpoint. When the five thousand that had been listening to Jesus teach were hungry, the apostles wanted to send them away. Did Jesus suggest that they should go find work and not expect handouts? Hardly. He fed them.  

Am I suggesting that Jesus was a socialist? Let's think about this. Some of the principles Jesus taught have parallels in socialism, but what about the methods? In theory, socialism involves the redistribution of wealth by the government for the purposes of economic equality. Both capitalism and socialism have political components. By contrast, Jesus was completely apolitical. He went everywhere preaching about the kingdom of God and stayed out of earthly political affairs.  For example, after Jesus fed the five thousand, the crowds wanted to grab Him and make Him a king, but Jesus wanted no part of it (John 6:15). Rather than advocating a particular political or economic system, Christ was interested in influencing the hearts of His followers. Jesus never forced anyone to do things His way. So, how did the earliest Christians work out His teachings on economics?

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
(Acts 2:44-45)

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.
(Acts 4:34-37)

So, the first Christians in Jerusalem practiced a community of goods. Jesus did not specifically command this sort of communalism, but I believe it was consistent with what He taught. I suppose this could be called voluntary or Christian socialism. Its successfulness, I believe, was due to the common cause of its adherents. I do not believe socialism is effective when it is imposed on large groups of people who are not committed to helping each other. I think the reason that capitalism has prevailed over socialism in most of the world is because the former utilizes the inherent covetousness typical in unregenerate humanity. In any case, not all of the believers in Acts made exactly the same application. When the Christians in Antioch sent aid to believers in Judea, the Bible indicates that each man individually decided how much to send (Acts 11:29). As such, the community in Antioch must not have been holding all things common. But, like in the church in Jerusalem, the principle of providing assistance for those in need was upheld. At this point, I would like to address the idea I have heard proposed that these community applications were temporary emergency measures due to the dire situation that the early church found itself in. Many of the epistles speak to this issue.

For I mean not that other men be eased, and ye burdened: But by an equality, that now at this time your abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for your want: that there may be equality: As it is written, He that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack.
(2Co 8:13-15)

Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work... For the administration of this service not only supplieth the want of the saints, but is abundant also by many thanksgivings unto God; Whiles by the experiment of this ministration they glorify God for your professed subjection unto the gospel of Christ, and for your liberal distribution unto them, and unto all men; And by their prayer for you, which long after you for the exceeding grace of God in you.
(2Co 9:7-8, 12-14)

It seems clear that an important goal of the New Testament church was to provide for economic equality as much as possible, even if that required personal sacrifice. The early Christians were typically quite poor. I have read of a practice in the primitive church where food for the hungry was provided by fasting on the part of the believers. This equality was to be secured by giving that was voluntary, not a forced redistribution of wealth. Paul even suggests that supplying the needs of the saints constitutes evidence the church is obeying the gospel of Christ.

Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.
(Eph 4:28)

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
(Php 4:10-12)

And having food and raiment let us be therewith content. But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.
(1Ti 6:8-10)

Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
(Jas 2:5)

The Bible does not promise that Christians will be better off economically than others. They are to be satisfied with the fulfillment of their basic needs (Matthew 6:31-33). Extra wealth can easily be the downfall of a Christian, and by contrast the poor inherit the kingdom. If we somehow obtain a surplus of funds, I believe that the purpose for this surplus is to help others who are needy, and this is to be done out of love and not compulsion. In his farewell message to the Ephesian elders, I think Paul sums up nicely the economics of Christ.

I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.
(Acts 20:35)

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