The subject of socialism has again become prevalent in the current political atmosphere. Despite the recent ongoing events in Venezuela, and the numerous failed attempts at implementing socialism in the past, it seems that many politicians, celebrities and, especially, young people are now advocating socialism as a cure for society’s woes. We believe the Scriptures are divinely inspired and relevant to all areas of life. This means the Scriptures do not address only spiritual or theological issues, but also philosophy, ethics, law, biology, politics, and even economics. Therefore, the purpose of this article is not to debate or compare socialism and capitalism as to which is a better economic system according to human wisdom, but to look to the Scriptures as the model for God’s view of economics. First, we will look at what socialism actually is, examine Scriptures related to economic systems, and then consider how to view socialism as it compares to Christianity.
In order to understand socialism, it must first be clearly defined. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines socialism as, “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.” Businesses, therefore, are no longer run or operated by individuals or corporations, but instead are owned by the workers or the community (aka the government) and run by central planners such as academic elites, unions, government or political appointees. This idea comes as a response to an unequal distribution of wealth, and essentially involves taking from those who have it (by law, by taxes, or by force) and giving to those who do not. Socialism is, therefore, portrayed as the economic system of people who really care about less fortunate members of society.
Some proponents try to redefine socialism in order to make it seem less unpleasant. Two of these sub-categories of socialism are democratic socialism and Christian socialism. Proponents of democratic socialism present it as a limited, less oppressive form of socialism. Yet, even the website of the Democratic Socialists of America admits, “To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed….” While traditional socialism advocates for government bureaucrats to redistribute wealth and property, democratic socialism simply advocates for 51% of the voters to redistribute wealth and property. In democratic socialism, the rights of any minority can consequently be crushed. In either case, the result is still the same, and resistance is punished.
Christian socialism attempts to combine Christian theology with Marxist socio-economic theories. Advocates of this system see capitalism as idolatrous and rooted in greed while emphasizing social concern for the poor and the political liberation of oppressed peoples. With this view of the world applied to Scripture, the parable of the Good Samaritan is no longer an example illustrating who our neighbor is and how we are to love them… it rather becomes a story of oppression by rich, powerful elites, and the Samaritan unifying with the victim of violence in opposition to them. This ideology leads to the belief that any inequality in the world is the result of greed due to capitalism. Simply put, rich people are evil and poor people are righteous. Therefore, government intervention in the economy is justified to correct these inequalities by redistribution of wealth and property.
So, what do the Scriptures say about economic systems?
First, let us address some of the most common scriptures used in support of socialism. In the Bible these are found in Acts, chapters 2 and 4, and a similar verse in the Book of Mormon in 4th Nephi. Each of these describes a time and place in history shortly after the appearance of the risen Jesus. The events in Acts 2:44-45 occur immediately after the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Church. As a result, (44) “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; (45) And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” These new believers were experiencing an incredible outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and decided on their own to sell property and donate it to the Church.
Similarly in 4th Nephi 1:3-4 states, (3) “ And it came to pass in the thirty and sixth year, the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another; (4) And they had all things common among them, therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” Both of these texts use the phrase, “all things common” to describe the attitude the people had to their possessions.
Acts 4:32-35 also uses this phrase, but gives a fuller description of what it meant. (32) “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. (33) And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. (34) 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, (35) And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” This example illustrates that people still had possessions, but their attitude mirrored their willingness to share whatever they had with their brothers and sisters. This reflects a proper Christian attitude that everything belongs to God, and we are responsible for what we do with the wealth or possessions God has provided each of us. This includes caring for the needy and sharing what we have been blessed with.
Interestingly, immediately following these verses, the Bible gives an example of a couple who sold a possession and donated the money to the Church. In Acts 5:1-10, Ananias and Saphira sold a possession, but secretly kept back part of the money. When Peter is made aware of the issue, he confronts them, revealing their sin was actually lying to God. Apparently, they had indicated that they were donating the full amount, but then withheld a portion. Peter’s comment in verse 4 is interesting. He states, “Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” Here, Peter is acknowledging Ananias’ ability to own possessions, and even to do whatever he wanted with the money he gained when he sold it. There was not a compulsion or requirement to give the full amount of the sale, but Ananias’ sin was that he had lied about it. Later, when his wife Saphira is questioned about the sale, she continued the lie, and they both paid a horrible price.
While these scriptures do not seem to support socialism as it truly exists, there are many scriptures that do illustrate a different economic system. These scriptures can generally be combined into four foundational principles of economics, which are supported by the Bible and Book of Mormon.
- Scriptures support the principle of private property.
The passage previously referred to in Acts 5 supports the principle of private property, as well as two of the Ten Commandments recorded in both the Bible and Book of Mormon. The commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” clearly illustrates that other people can own property, and you do not have a right to take it away from them. Later, the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet…” gets to the heart of the matter by condemning even our attitude about the private property of another person.
Scriptures support the principle that individuals have a responsibility to care for the poor and needy.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus teaches about the judgment wherein the King divides the people based on their care for the hungry, thirsty, naked, the strangers and those in prison by explaining, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it to me” (v. 40). Similarly, Alma 1:40-46 records the attitude of members of the Church to the poor and needy. (45) “And thus in their prosperous circumstances they did not send away any which were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; (46) And they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.” Other verses which support this principle include Proverbs 14:31, Luke 14:13-14, and Jacob 2:22-24.
- Scriptures support the use of wisdom when giving aid; giving only when financially able, rewarding virtue.
In the second chapter of Mosiah, King Benjamin instructs his people in serving each other and worshipping God. In verses 28-45, he encourages his people to “impart of their substance” to those who stand in need, but also addresses the attitude of those who are poor as well. Verse 40 states, “And again, I say unto the poor, ye that have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain from day to day; I mean all you that deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts, that I give not because I have not; but if I had, I would give.” Later, in verse 44, he also illustrates the need for wisdom: “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order: for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” The Apostle Paul is much more blunt in his instruction, telling the Thessalonians, “For when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat” (2nd Thessalonians 3:10). If individuals have the ability to work, but refuse to, there is no obligation to support their indolence. In fact, it may even be spiritually damaging to them to enable their lack of obedience to scripture. In 1st Timothy 5:8, Paul comments on this disobedience, stating, “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” These verses show that wisdom is an important part of our care for the poor and needy. We should not neglect our own family, those whom we have a primary responsibility to care for, or threaten them with financial ruin in order to give to someone else. Nor should we enable those who intentionally neglect their own responsibilities.
- Scriptures support the principle of a fair exchange of goods and services (free market capitalism) without fraud, coercion or theft.
According to the Law of Moses, the principle of an individual exchanging their labor for some form of payment is supported, while condemning those who withhold or delay paying those who have been hired. This is found in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, (14) “Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren, or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: (15) At his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it; for he is poor, and setteth his heart upon it: lest he cry against thee unto the Lord, and it be sin unto thee.” This is also found in James chapter 5, verse 4. James also supports this principle in chapter 4, stating, (13) “Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: (14) Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. (15) For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live and do this, or that.” The idea of buying, selling and making a profit is not condemned, but the attitude of submission to God’s will in everything is encouraged. Other verses which support this principle include Proverbs 31:24, Helaman 2:127, and Ether 4:70.
In light of what the Bible and Book of Mormon both reveal about God’s view of economics, how should we view socialism?
We should concede that most of those who promote socialist forms of government probably have good intentions. I am sure this is not universal, but debating personal motives is not productive to how we should view socialism. Most seem to really care about the poor. So should we. We can agree that our political system may need reform… But, socialism is not the answer. Socialism can sound compassionate and even Christian, but in practice it is contrary to what Christianity teaches. This is the key point: socialism is contrary to Christianity.
Socialism is based on a purely materialistic worldview. Materialism is the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications. This includes mental states, emotions and consciousness. This means that there is no acknowledgement of spiritual issues. To quote Senator Bernie Sanders, “The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time.” Suffering, then, is caused by unequal distribution of stuff, and salvation is achieved by the redistribution of stuff.
Christianity sees both a material world and a spiritual world. There are things that are seen, but also forces and beings that are unseen. We each have physical bodies and an immaterial soul. It is in the spiritual realm that mankind’s greatest problems exist, even if those problems are manifest in a physical world. Suffering is caused by sin, and salvation is achieved through Jesus Christ. Our quality of life is not determined by how much stuff we have, but by our relationship with Christ.
Socialism essentially endorses stealing. It is not called that, but taking from one individual in order to give to another does the same thing. The tale of Robin Hood has been romanticized by “taking from the rich and giving to the poor,” but in practice it condones theft based on the wealth of the victim. In socialism this is usually done by government coercion, physically or legislatively.
Christianity condemns stealing. The Ten Commandments make that pretty clear (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19; Mosiah 7:122). Instead, assistance to the poor and needy must be given voluntarily and cheerfully. “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (2nd Corinthians 9:7). Similarly, Moroni writes, “For behold, if a man being evil, giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God” (Moroni 7:7).
Socialism rewards irresponsibility, and punishes the producers of goods and wealth. If an individual’s physical needs of shelter, food and clothing are met, there is no incentive to labor for them. Conversely, it discourages individuals from laboring and producing wealth from goods and services, since it will eventually be taken from them anyway.
Christianity gives the responsibility to labor if able (2nd Thessalonians 3:10), ethics in how wealth is obtained, and direction for use of accumulated wealth (Jacob 2:22-24). The Church has a special responsibility to her members. If a believer is in need, he or she should first seek help from members of their household. If they cannot find help there, they should seek relief from their local congregation.
Socialism encourages envy. It fosters divisions within societies along economic lines and then encourages selfishness. When the poor are shown what others have, they are told that it was obtained by unjust means at the expense of the poor. Therefore, they are encouraged to demonstrate and wage war, literally or philosophically, against those who are judged to have accumulated too much wealth.
Christianity teaches us not to covet. Again, the Ten Commandments make this pretty clear (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21; Mosiah 7:124). Christianity also teaches us to be content in all circumstances. In 1st Timothy, chapter 6, Paul writes, (6) “But godliness with contentment is great gain. (7) For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. (8) And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” (See also Philippians 4:11-13).
Socialism ultimately replaces God and the family unit with the government. In socialism, government provides all a person’s needs, including the care and education of children. According to the writings of early socialists, even marriage is discouraged because it is viewed as a form of female slavery.
Christianity sees God as the Creator of all things, the Provider of all needs and the Granter of all gifts. The family unit, when living in obedience to God’s commandments, is the best institution for raising children, and the responsibility for teaching them rests with the parents. In Christianity, marriage is intended to meet the physical and emotional needs of both the woman and the man.
It is for these five reasons that socialism is contrary to Christianity, and this is the key to how we as Christians should view socialism. A review of Scriptures related to economics supports the concepts of private property, individual responsibility to care for the poor and needy (with wisdom), and the fair exchange of goods and services without fraud, coercion or theft. In the day we live in we can expect to be challenged by many who attempt to extol the virtues of socialism as the answer to our nation’s and the world’s problems. We, as Christians, should stand firm in our faith that Jesus Christ is the answer to our nation’s and the world’s problems, and that socialism is contrary to Christianity.