Some people have made the claim that the Bible teaches socialism, and the proper biblical view is that of some sort of socialist economic or governmental system. For example, writer Obrey Hendricks, Jr. has made a strong claim to this regard (see here).
Since this is a claim to the Bible, we can speak of it here. Before we respond, we need to be very clear in that the Bible does not promote one type of government or national economic system for the nations of the world. Whether a country is a monarchy, fully communist, a republic like the United States, or some other form of government, the Bible simply does not command that people hold one type of leadership structure for a nation. In ancient Israel, God commanded the leaders run the country a certain way. However, He made no commands upon any gentile nation, therefore we cannot hold that one type of government is more biblical than another.
In economic systems, such as socialism or capitalism, the Bible gives us more guidance. As we will see, the scriptures have a good bit to say about money and people. However, we again must be careful to go no further than scripture, and recognize that many of the competing economic theories are matters of degree and the Bible does not completely command one or the other. A call for charity in these discussions is in order.
For our purposes, we will hold to a definition of socialism as a central authority gathering resources, voluntarily or involuntarily, and distributing them for the common good. We contrast that to a system that allows more individual control of resources. Does the Bible promote one of these views over the other?
The supposed purpose of socialism is to have a distribution of wealth that is fair, especially to the poor. The Bible has quite a bit to say about taking care of the poor.
Old Testament Passages About Providing for the Poor
In the Old Testament, God has many passages that commanded Israel to take care of the poor, namely:
- When lending, not to charge interest to the poor (Exodus 22:25)
- To be fair to the poor when going to court (Ex. 23:3, 6, Lev. 19:15)
- Farmers were to leave part of their crops for the poor (Lev. 19:10, 23:22). Every seventh year, Israel was to leave the entire crop for the poor (Ex. 23;11)
- When giving sacrifices to the Lord, the poor were allowed to give less (Lev. 5:7, 11; 14:21)
- If a family member were to become destitute and indebted, the nearest family member was to buy back the debt. This was the “kinsman redeemer.” (Lev. 25:25, 47)
- Individuals were to take the poor into their homes and support them (Lev. 25:35)
- Israel was not to treat its own poor as bondslaves (Lev. 25:39)
- The leaders were to sometimes make allowances if someone was too poor to pay (Lev. 27:8)
- Individuals were to take care of the poor, even if they were not going to be paid back (Deuteronomy 15:7-9)
- If you owed something to a poor man, you were to pay it that very day (Deut. 24:12-15)
- God says He judges Israel for mistreatment of the poor (Amos 2:6-7)
- God commands that no one should oppress the disadvantaged (Zechariah 7:10)
- Israel was to give part of their tithes to the poor (Deut. 26:12)
Besides these, there are many Old Testament passages where God tells us His heart is with the poor and oppressed.
New Testament Passages About Providing for the Poor
- We should give to the needy without drawing attention to ourselves or taking credit for it (Matthew 6:2-3)
- Jesus commanded the rich young ruler, who loved his possessions, to sell them and give to the poor (Matt. 19:21)
- We are to reach out to those who cannot repay us and feed them (Luke 14:12-14)
- In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the poor and sick Lazarus is rewarded and the rich man punished (Luke 16)
- When the wealthy Zacchaeus encountered Jesus, he repents by giving half his goods to the poor, an act which he seems to be praised for (Luke 19:8)
- God rewards Cornelius, and one of the reasons was his giving to the poor (Acts 10:4)
- Giving to the poor was a regular part of the early church (Romans 15:25-26; Galatians 2:10)
- It is wrong to give deference to the rich over the poor (James 2:2ff)
- If we do not give to the needy, we have an empty faith (James 2:15)
- Those who have money are to be generous and share (1 Timothy 6:17-18)
Again in the New Testament, the Bible tells us that those who have the means are to give to the poor, to reach out to the poor, and not trust in riches.
Responsibilities of the Poor
On the other hand, God expects the poor to have responsibilities for what they get. This is clear from many passages;
- When farmers were to leave the edges of their field for the poor, and not go back and glean after a harvest, the poor had to go and get the food for themselves.
- Even though the poor were allowed to give less during sacrifices, they still had to give.
- In the many passages in the Mosaic law that require fair play, no allowances are made for the poor. For example, nowhere does God allow a poor person to avoid paying back double for stolen money (Ex. 22:7) or stolen property (22:4), or any breach of trust (22:9).
- A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. (Prov. 10:4)
- The census fee was the same for everyone, whether rich or poor (Ex. 30:15)
- Those who do not work are not to eat (2 Thess. 3:10). Instead of being a burden, people were told to earn their own living (v.12).
- The apostle Paul set an example by working and not taking money from new converts. Rather, he often worked and paid his own way (2 Thess 3:8)
Perhaps most telling is the way that giving is to happen. Throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New, while people were told to take care of the poor, it was the individual persons who were to take care of the poor. Nowhere does God give a command for a central government to collect money and resources then distribute them out to others in an attempt to create fairness. The primary giving is by individuals; the taking care of the poor is an individual responsibility. Nowhere is a government told to gather resources and give it out to increase fairness.
The one place in the Bible where a central government gathered all resources and distributed them was when Joseph was running Egypt in Genesis 47:20-21. The result was not a utopia, but rather the leader owned everything and reduced the people to servitude. It seems that the one example of gathering resources and distributing them out again did stave off starvation, but at the cost of impoverishing the entire nation.
One New Testament passage gives instructions to church leaders on how to collect money and take care of the poor. In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul goes into a good bit of detail on how the church should distribute money to help the poor. In speaking of helping widows, several qualifications are given:
- There has to be a real need, not a perceived need.
- If the widow has family, they are to take care of her and not burden the church.
- The church is to keep a list and organize the giving, not giving to just anyone and everyone.
- The person must be older, at least 60 years old. Younger people are not to be given support.
- The person must have done good deeds.
These detailed instructions are telling. Yes, the Bible teaches that we should take care of the poor, but the New Testament church is specifically not to give money to people merely because they are poor. Rather, they must be of good character and truly in need. Giving money to people merely because they have no income can “teach them to be idle” (v.13) and burden the community coffers, preventing the truly needy people from getting enough.
The Bible teaches a strong view of personal property. In Acts 5:1, a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold a piece of property and gave the money to the church. God judged them because they lied about how much money they made from the sale. In 5:4, Peter says “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” Therefore it is not the case the church or central government had the responsibility of gathering resources and redistributing them.
The Bible also makes it clear that while praising Jesus and doing good works to the poor are not mutually exclusive, praising Jesus is more important to us than good works toward people (Mark 14:7)
The Bible makes it clear that being poor per se brings no righteousness nor reward (1 Corinthians 13:3).
Finally, while Jesus did heal everyone, these were signs that spoke of His credibility (John 6:2). Jesus healed everyone as a sign of His messiahship. Apart from these miraculous signs, God never healed everyone (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). God Himself sometimes used sickness as a judgement (1 Cor. 11:30). Several of the people near Paul remained sick, including Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:26-27), Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), and Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23).
The vast majority of the passages in the Bible that speak of helping the poor and oppressed are commands to the individual. The central church is to give to the poor, but with several restrictions. Nowhere is a central government told to bring in resources and distribute out to increase fairness. Private property is always under the control of the individual, who is responsible to God for how it is handled. The poor, when they meet the test of truly needy, should be helped, but it is their responsibility to work. Nowhere in the Bible does it say for a government to take care of people’s debts.
Further, the primary place to take care of people is the family. In both Old Testament and New, the person’s immediate family has the responsibility to take care of their needs. This is why the family unit is so important, and breakup of the family is so detrimental to society. Families are critical to the neediest of society, and when the family breaks up or is redefined, the poor are the ones who suffer.
We can safely conclude that the Bible does not share the goals of socialism, even what is today called democratic socialism. It speaks nothing to universal healthcare run by a central authority, but rather commands individuals to take care of each other’s needs, using compassion and wisdom. The Bible does not command everyone be given a minimum income, but rather commands all to work and the family to take care of people’s needs.
God’s model is for all of us to have compassion on the poor, and therefore the common coffers will have enough resources to take care of the truly needy.