(1887–1961), American writer, artist and labor activist:
Chaplin speaks for many today who believe the answer to injustice toward people,
animals, and the Earth is to move from individual to collective ownership of
property—i.e. to “spread the wealth
evenly.” Never mind that to bring about
this massive transition and then to maintain the collective in a just manner
would be a difficult task, even with strong coercion and tyranny. Furthermore, based on the history of
socialism, how can we assume that those placed in charge of managing the
collective would be any more just and fair toward people, animals, and the
Earth than the so-called “social parasites” they now condemn? Ben Shapiro points out that socialism has
its own moral flaws:
Socialism violates at least three of the
Ten Commandments: It turns government into God, it legalizes thievery and it
elevates covetousness. Discussions of income inequality, after all, aren't
about prosperity but about petty spite. Why should you care how much money I
make, so long as you are happy?
On the other hand, capitalism offers the promise of freedom, but also a
two-edged sword. It depends upon
individuals owning private property which in turn motivates a strong work ethic
and entrepreneurial spirit which often paves the road to prosperity. But there is also the temptation toward greed
and unjust practices that earn some capitalists the name “social parasites.” As
Shirley Chisholm states, “When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom
that profit loses.”
Although capitalism invites injustice, it is also true that greed and injustice
thrive in both the private and public sectors.
It doesn’t matter whether the material resources of Earth are privately
or collectively held; corruption has no favorites. The source of trouble is not the material
resources or the sector of the economy in which they are managed. We must go deeper to find the cause. The trouble comes from the depraved human
heart. Two writers, one a prophet of God
and the other a Russian novelist and historian, expose the truth about the
nature of the human heart:
The heart is more deceitful than all else
and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?
-- The Prophet Jeremiah (17: 9)
…the line dividing good and evil cuts
through the heart of every human being. -- Alexander Solzhenitzyn
Reviving Our Concept of Private Property
Because moral depravity is rooted deep within the heart of man, if free market
capitalism is to be moral, I believe we must also dig deep to identify and extract
the cause of injustice; and then, revive the heart with a biblical concept of private property. In Scripture, we discover the basis for the
title of this article. According to
Scripture, “There is no such thing as private
property.” Although it is possible in
America and some other countries to hold legal title to property, Scripture
teaches that we do not own
anything. “The Earth is the Lord’s
(Psalm 24: 1) and He has given humans dominion over creation (Genesis 1: 26-28)
to manage it on His behalf as His servants or stewards (Genesis 2: 15). We are stewards but not owners of “private
property.” Therefore, biblically
speaking, private property is any portion
of the Earth over which an individual has responsibility to God to manage for
His glory. In this definition, “private”
refers to our individual responsibility. And although we may hold temporary legal
title, the property belongs to God.
The “stewardship view” of private property is a key by which humans can open
the door and allow intimate relationship with God. We can see this truth throughout Scripture from
Adam and Eve all the way to the Apostle John in Revelation. For example, Abel’s offering was a pleasing
aroma to God, but Cain’s wasn’t (Genesis 4: 3-5). This distinction rested at least partly on
how these two men submitted themselves and their “property” in their worship of
God. Later, Noah worshipped and obeyed
God; and God gave him dominion over the living creatures resulting in their
salvation from the flood by means of the ark he had built (Genesis 6-9). Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, was
a nomad. Although he had great wealth,
Abraham’s grasp upon it, even upon his beloved son Isaac, was very loose
compared to his tenacious pursuit of God (Genesis 12-25).
Remembering God Is Our Provider
Four centuries after Abraham, King David typified the same stewardship view that
he learned from the patriarchs, but adds an additional principle. King David not only understood that his
kingship or dominion was a stewardship granted by God, but he also understood
that even his ability to acquire
material wealth was from God. Listen as
David prays before the people at the dedication of the material resources for
the temple that Solomon would later build (1 Chronicles 29: 11b-14):
Yours is the dominion, O LORD,
and You exalt Yourself as head over all.
Both riches and honor come from
and You rule over all, and in Your hand is power and might;
and it lies in Your hand to make great and to strengthen everyone.
Now therefore, our God, we thank You, and praise Your glorious name.
But who am I and who are my people that we should be able
to offer as generously as this?
For all things come from You,
and from Your hand we have given You.
King David wanted his worship of God to be a picture of how all God’s people ought to exercise stewardship of
the material resources of Earth day in and day out—managing “property” as that
which comes from God’s hand and
which, by God’s grace, He enables us to give
back to Him or to our neighbor. The
Apostle Paul reiterates this principle in 1 Corinthians 4: 7:
For who regards you as superior?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you did receive it,
why do you boast as if you had not received it?
The Scriptural view of private
property means we view the “property” as God’s, the “private” as our individual
responsibility to work and manage it as unto Him, seasoned with an attitude of
humility that recognizes all we have is ultimately a gift from God. Elsewhere, in 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31, Paul
teaches us that having a continual awareness of the eminence of Christ’s return
will help us to “possess property as though we didn’t possess it” (emphasis
But this I say, brethren, the time has
been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as
though they had none; and those who
weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did
not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they
did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
Notice Paul cites the relationship of husbands to wives, and the relationship
of humans toward material property (ultimately the Earth) in a similar
sense. Husbands are responsible to love
and nurture their wives as unto the Lord; likewise, those who buy are responsible as stewards to act as “husbandmen” to
care for their property as unto the Lord.
Here, Paul teaches that God’s people are to undertake both
responsibilities with a “stewardship view”—a view that aims to glorify God as
Christ’s return draws near, rather than an “ownership view” that aims to
multiply wealth without regard to moral and ethical responsibilities toward God
and our neighbor.
Realizing Even Our Bodies Are Not
But there is a third principle that deepens the biblical meaning of private property even further. God’s redeemed not only do not own their spouses, cars, houses, and
land; they don’t even own their
bodies. The redeemed are bought by
Christ’s blood from the slave block of sin.
Paul wrote,” …you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price:
therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 19b-20). Paul summarizes the biblical responsibility
of the Christian toward God in a comprehensive manner in Colossians 3: 17:
Whatever you do in word or deed, do all
in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
But how do we know whether we are actually “possessing as though we do not
possess?” Thankfully, God has instituted
two routine tests by which we can check our attitudes and priorities when it
comes to our “property”—our regular responsibility to give back to God our
tithes and extra offerings; and, our weekly responsibility to set aside a day
in which we celebrate God through our worship and rest from routine labor. These observances provide a routine check on
the tightness of how unselfish we are with material resources and time.
Renewed Hope for the “Free Market?”
I have provided a brief sketch of a biblical definition of private property. Now, if free market capitalists were to adopt
this definition of private property, do you think they would still be
considered “social parasites” by many who are disgruntled with capitalism? The
second question is, does this “stewardship view” of private property address
the accusation by many that capitalism and its biblical roots are to blame for
our insensitivity to disenfranchised people and to the deterioration of planet
Earth? I believe the answer to both
questions is “yes” based on the account of the early church in Acts 4: 31-35
And when they had prayed, the place where
they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the
Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness. And the congregation of those who believed
were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything
belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were
giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was
upon them all. 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.
Although some who advocate social justice and socialism interpret the sharing
of property in common by the early church as an advocacy of socialism by
Christianity, the passage does not support that notion. Instead, notice first that these folks were
born-again believers on the basis of having trusted in Christ’s redemption from
their sins through His death and resurrection.
As “new creatures” in Christ, they submitted their wills in obedience to
His Word under the power of the Holy Spirit.
The resultant unity of Spirit enabled them to view their material
possessions as “common property to them.” From their perspective of “possessing as
though not possessing,” they were able to see with eyes of compassion the
physical needs among their number and therefore to voluntarily share generously. Many acted upon their concerns by selling their
“private property” and making the moneys available to the leadership to
distribute funds to those in need.
At the time of the events recorded in Acts, persecution and ostracism often
severely impoverished Christian converts and their families. Therefore, the outpouring of generous sharing
among these people of faith was nothing less than an essential, voluntary
expression of the compassion of the Risen Christ toward those in need. The expression of charity (agape love) by the 1st
century church has been reproduced in countless congregations throughout the
world, often going unnoticed except by the recipients. Note also that this “voluntary sharing”
distinguishes this biblical economy from a socialist model.
Yet, the Christian church is not immune from selfishness and greed as we have
noted previously in “Greed,
Charity, and Capitalism.”
Therefore, one of the challenges of today’s evangelical church is to
provide the setting in which God’s Word is taught under the direction of His
Holy Spirit to believers who are Spirit-filled and receptive to Christ’s
example as One Who had “nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9: 58). Christ lived as an example of “possessing as
though He did not possess” and cautioned against attitudes that would oppose
this “stewardship view” of private property.
For example, he warned against the love of money (e.g. Matthew 19: 16-25) and contrasted those who give out of their surplus
with the poor widow who freely gave all she had (Mark 12: 38-44).
Revival by Church and Civic Institutions
The evangelical church must function as a counterculture in which individuals
and families learn to implement biblical stewardship of private property. Local schools and the local community have
historically contributed to this lifestyle as I have explained in “Environmental Stewards
Are ‘Grown’ within a Moral Community.” Historian Thomas Woods comments on the
importance of individual responsibility and other virtues in a free market
One of the market's virtues, and the
reason it enables so much peaceful interaction and cooperation among such a
great variety of peoples, is that it demands of its participants only that they
observe a relatively few basic principles, among them honesty, the sanctity of
contracts, and respect for private property.
Arthur Brooks noted, “what America needs is not less capitalism but better
capitalists.” In my view, better
capitalists are those that adopt a “stewardship view” of material possessions, one
that is taught in the context of family, church, and community. But as explained in “Dominion
101 - Spheres of Responsibility” government has the important role of
maintaining the rule of law. Rep. Paul
Ryan makes this point well:
We believe that the government has an
important role to create the conditions that promote entrepreneurship, upward
mobility, and individual responsibility.
Our Founding Fathers understood the depravity of mankind and the danger of
power in the hands of one or a few.
Therefore, the U.S. Constitution calls for a system of checks and
balances, and includes a justice system to maintain accountability and rule of
law. Today, greed and corruption are
common at every level of both public and private sectors. Many
are asking, “Is capitalism moral”? Arthur
Brooks answers, “Of course not. Only people can be moral. We're not asking the right
questions." Instead, we should ask,
“What economic system will most likely encourage moral behavior in us?” For me, that system is capitalism in which
individuals have a “stewardship view” that sees private property as a temporary
trust to which God holds title. As
temporary title-holder, the “owner” is responsible to use it for the glory of
God and for the benefit of his or her neighbor.
A free market economy in the hands of such responsible stewards will
address both of the concerns of social justice advocates—provision of assistance
to the poor and disenfranchised that respects the dignity of human beings, and good
stewardship of the environment of planet Earth.
I welcome your comments. The following
questions may stimulate your thinking further:
1. How would the “Rich Young Ruler” in Matthew
19: 16-25 define private property?
2. Does Jesus’ condemnation of the “Barn
Builder” in Luke 12: 16-21 suggest that it is immoral to be rich?
3. What does the following quote from
Lewis Black tell you about Christianity versus
appeals to me. It's like imposed
Christianity. You've got to share.
4. In what sense do advocates of
socialism express a different view of humankind than advocates of capitalism?
5. Is a free market economy really a
better system to address the needs of the poor and disenfranchised than
socialism? Which one better addresses environmental
6. How would you grade your attitude
toward your “property” based on your material giving and your observance of “Sabbath