Recently I was encouraged to consider voting for Dr. Cornel West for president. After looking him up online, I learned that he considers himself a Christian and a “non-Marxist socialist,” since he does not view Marxism and Christianity as compatible. This brought the question to my mind whether any form of socialism is compatible with Christianity. After some investigation I am inclined to think “no,” despite the fact that there has been a long history of people who consider themselves “Christian Socialists.” Why do I lean toward this perspective?
My primary reason has to do with one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not steal.” With this commandment God establishes the right to private property. Loving our neighbor includes respecting his right to own and control his property. The command applies not only to individuals but also to governments. Respecting the right to own property is thus the foundation of freedom—there is a sphere in which the government does not have a right to interfere, unless it is for the purpose of preventing us from using our property to exploit, steal from, or harm others.
Miriam Webster defines socialism as: a) a system of society or group living in which there is no private property or b) a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state. From this definition of socialism, it’s clear that socialism opposes or undermines the right to own and control private property. Socialism typically results in the confiscation or devaluing of private property either through outright seizure, excessive regulation, excessive taxation, or government-subsidized competition.
Another problem of socialism is that common ownership is typically (always?) coerced by force of law. But God’s goal is that His people should be voluntarily generous. He has poured His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. He sent Jesus as our hero and model who, “though He was rich became poor so that we through His poverty might become rich.” As followers of Christ, we are to follow His example and care for one another and for outsiders in need, often in ways that might seem extreme. One way this generosity overflowed in the early church is recorded in Acts 2:44-45:
“All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (ESV).
Yet it is important to realize that this generosity was voluntary, not forced or coerced, other than through the social pressure present because everyone else was doing it. Ananias and Sapphira (members of that early Christian community) sinned, not by withholding some of the proceeds of the property they sold, but by lying to God about it. Peter makes this clear when he says,
“While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God” (Acts 5:4, ESV).
When Paul was raising funds to help the poor in Jerusalem he followed this same model of compassion without coercion, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7, ESV). It is clear that God wants His people to give freely and generously of their “own accord” (2 Corinthians 8:3-4) and not through coercive force.
A third problem with socialism is that it can punish the industrious and reward those who aren’t, by giving the latter the fruits of the former’s labor. But God wants everyone who is able to work to do so to meet their own needs. He tells the Thessalonians:
“Work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one (1 Thessalonians 4:11–12, ESV).
Later he instructs the same church to:
“keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us (2 Thessalonians 3:6, ESV).
And again in 2 Thessalonians 3:10–12:
“For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living (ESV).
In the church, all who are able bodied must work to provide for themselves. Paul understood that people do not thrive or fulfill their calling as image bearers of God by being freeloaders. Many other places in the Bible affirm the principle that God desires that the industrious be rewarded with the fruit of their labor and that we are responsible to work to provide for ourselves if we are able.
I’d like to touch on one common accusation that socialists make against private ownership (capitalism). They say that capitalism promotes greed. Now, there’s no question that greed is a problem in our fallen world. Jesus warns us against it:
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15, NIV84).
Yet an alternate economic system does not have the power to reduce or eliminate greed. My knowledge of history inclines me to believe that greed is just as rampant, if not more so, in socialist systems than it is in capitalist ones. It is certainly government’s job to prosecute those who steal, cheat, and swindle. But collectivizing (stealing) everyone’s property is not the solution to the problem, as bureaucrats who control the collective property are no less capable of greed.
Jesus said that greed is a defect of the heart (Mark 7:20-23). Certainly, our sinfulness can be affected by our environment, but the root of the problem is our twisted hearts. Jesus came to change us from the inside out, giving us a new heart as we are born again to new life. The answer to greed is not a different system, but heart transformation.
In summary, I see socialism as incompatible with Christianity because:
- God has given us the right to private property.
- God desires voluntary generosity rather than forced coercion.
- Socialism punishes the industrious and rewards the indolent.
What do you think? Leave your comments below.
Below are some resources that I found helpful.