It is difficult to say where American society is headed in the near future, but it is likely not toward greater economic freedom. With each economic crisis, politicians and cultural elites preach about the virtues of state-controlled, collectivist-style economics and the unmitigated evils of free market capitalism.
Worse are calls within evangelicalism for Christians to address economic inequality through redistributive policies, calls which seem to grow louder by the day.
Christians who are serious about economic justice should be concerned about this move away from economic freedom, for it reveals a pervasive and fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible’s view of wealth and poverty. We need to respond to this shift by using sound biblical and philosophical arguments, but many Christians might not know how.
What does the Bible actually say about wealth, poverty, and economic inequality? What role should governments, churches, families, and individuals play in addressing economic problems? And is any economic theory compatible with a biblical worldview?
These are big questions, but let’s briefly try to answer them.
The Bible’s view of wealth is morally ambiguous. Wealth can be good or bad depending on how it is gained, valued, and used. As ethicist Daniel Heimbach explains,
“[Scripture] distinguishes valuing wealth the right way from lusting for it, earning it the right way from stealing it, and using it the right way from using it badly.”
Heimbach goes on to explain that, on the one hand, the Bible commends hard work and savings (Gen. 41:35-36; Prov. 6:6-8) and using wealth to honor God (Prov. 3:9; Acts 2:45). Wealth can be used to support the ministry and to care for those in need, both of which are commendable. On the other hand, Heimbach notes, the Bible condemns wealth if it is acquired through violence (Mic. 2:2; Jas. 5:6), oppression (Isa. 10:1-2), or deception (Mic. 6:11-12). For this reason, the Bible contains many warnings about the dangers of wealth (Prov. 16:8, 19) as it can lead to pride, self-sufficiency, and idolatry (Matt 13:22; Mk. 4:19; Lk. 8:14).
Wealth gained through sin is obviously not good, but poverty is also not good (Prov. 10:15; 19:6-7). Poverty can cause pain and suffering (Prov. 10:15), social isolation and shame (Prov. 14:20), economic dependency (Prov. 18:23), and even rejection of God (Prov. 17:5). None of this means poor people are sinful, but only that the condition of poverty presents many challenges and it is not how God originally intended human beings to live.
To see this, consider that a world of material abundance — rather than a world of poverty and starvation — is closer to the way God originally ordered creation. In the beginning, God created a good world that could provide material abundance for all human beings, but sin broke that world. From the scriptures we can see that wealth and righteousness are not inherently in conflict (Ps. 37:7-9), that many figures in the Bible were wealthy people (Abraham, Job, David, Solomon, etc.), and that God often blesses people with material prosperity (Eccl. 5:18-20; 1 Chron. 29:12).
However, sin broke the world, and now economic injustice, poverty, and oppression exist because the world is under the curse of sin (Gen. 3:17-19). Instead of rewarding righteousness with wealth, this world often rewards wickedness with wealth (Mal. 3:14-15), and wicked people often oppress the poor and vulnerable (Isa. 1:23; Ezek. 18:10-13; Amos 2:7; Mic. 2:1-2).
To restrain man’s bent toward evil, the Bible charges societies with the responsibly to administer justice, which they do by punishing theft (Exod. 20:15, 17), giving restitution for stolen and damaged property (Exod. 21:28-36; Deut. 22:1-4; 23:24-25), and maintaining fairness through laws and courts (Lev. 19:5). Societies are also responsible to reward honest work (Prov. 10:4), discourage laziness (2 Thess. 3:10), and enable the poor to achieve economic independence (Deut. 14:29; Lev. 19:9-10). And although governments have the authority to tax their citizens to maintain these systems (Matt. 22:17; Rom. 13:6-7), they have no right to steal from and oppress their people (1 Kings. 21:1-29).
For the Christian, there are additional factors regarding wealth in the fallen world. Christians are called to be stewards of their labor and money and to use them for God’s kingdom. They do this by first providing for themselves and their loved ones (1 Tim. 5:8; 2 Thess. 3:10-12) and also caring for those who are not able to care for themselves (Eph. 4:28; 1 Tim. 6:17-19). Moreover, the Christian’s attitude toward wealth must always be tempered by a love for Christ (Lk. 12:33; 14:33) and a willingness to follow Jesus no matter what (Matt. 8:20; Lk. 9:3). Whatever wealth Christians possess, they possess it temporarily as stewards of God.
Yet part of Christian stewardship is seeking economic justice, both by encouraging it in society and correcting it where possible. But none of this implies that Christians are to shun wealth as inherently evil or to cease from acquiring wealth or supporting economic systems that produce wealth. Rather, and in spite of the dangers that accompany wealth, Christians are called to work, to create wealth, and to use it for God’s Kingdom.
Thus, Christian obligations of stewardship presuppose an ethic of work, commerce, trade, saving, accumulation, and giving (Mark 7:27; Rom. 15:26; Gal. 6:10; 1 John 3:17). To see this, consider that the early Christian practice of selling possessions to meet needs in the church was only possible because of wealthy Christians (Acts 4:32-37). Moreover, it is no accident that Jesus often used entrepreneurship and business as symbols of Kingdom virtue (Matt. 13:35-46; 20:1-16; 25:14-30) or that several early Christians were wealthy business owners and craftsmen (Lk. 8:2-3; Acts 16:11-40).
Responsible wealth stewardship is clearly part of God’s created order, and hard-working, prosperous Christians are uniquely positioned to display this form of stewardship in the world (1 Tim. 6:10-18). Though wealth is dangerous in some respects, Christians can use it for good in God’s Kingdom.
For these reasons, Christians seeking a biblical worldview on economics should strive to understand the relationship between economic theory, wealth production, and human flourishing. What kind of politico-economic system should Christians support given our responsibility to care for the poor, needy, weak, and vulnerable while living in a fallen world where sin corrupts every part of human society (including politics and economics)? What kind of system is compatible with biblical principles of wealth and poverty, and under which system can Christians more easily fulfill their biblical obligations of stewardship?
Obviously, no perfect system can exist in the fallen world. We must be realists about our attempts to address issues of wealth, poverty, economic inequality, oppression, and exploitation. Economic theories that propagate idealist goals for society or perfectionistic assumptions about human nature are diametrically opposed to a biblical worldview and, therefore, destined to fail. No Christian should support them. Conversely, economic theories that account for human depravity, attempt to restrain evil and disperse power, promote human freedom, and enable human beings to exercise dominion (Gen. 1:28) should receive special consideration in a biblical worldview.
The two systems often juxtaposed to one another in this debate are capitalism and socialism. In Part 2 of this series, we will examine which system better approximates the presuppositions and principles of economic justice in a biblical worldview and which system does not.
Click here to read part 2 of this series.
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Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.