Christianity and the Economic Order

I visited Melbourne recently and popped into an op shop with an old friend. He pointed out a book titled Pros and Cons, which he’d already dipped into. For the bargain price of $2 the book became mine. It is the fifteenth edition, published in 1965. The first edition, written by J.B. Askew, was published in 1896. I later learnt that the latest edition, the nineteenth, was published in 2013.

I can’t speak of the first or latest edition but mine is a diverting read. It covers in the order of 150 controversies of the day against each of which the pros and an equal number of cons are set out. To give you a better idea, the first controversy concerns the pros and cons of total abstinence. The last concerns the employment of married women in industry and in the professions. In between are other dated controversies, like Britain’s entry into the Common Market and the introduction of decimal currency. Many are dated. However, some show no sign of losing relevance. One of these, which piqued my interest, is the relationship between Christianity and socialism.

Under scrutiny is whether Christianity points towards socialism as being the desirable way to organise economic affairs. There are three pros suggesting that socialism flows from Christianity, each countered by a con. I will condense the arguments as a prelude to considering various passages in the New Testament which can be taken to have a bearing on socialism and, by extension, on capitalism. I will not be exhaustive—there would be too much to cover—but will concentrate on a number of well-known passages. Apropos my opening quote, I will also bring in the insights of William Temple.

The great figure of the twentieth century was William Temple (1881–1944), Archbishop of Canterbury, who urged that the church must choose between socialism and heresy.
                                                                           —Dictionary of the Episcopal Church

The relationship between Christianity and the economic order has always been contentious, particularly so since the rise of industrial capitalism. I have no expectation of putting the debate to bed. Of course, you can pick and choose tendentiously from biblical passages or extrapolate inventively to try to “prove” whatever you want. But I don’t think it’s possible to be fair-minded and conclusive. Correspondingly, I intend to show that it is hard to place Christianity on either side of the economic divide. Why is that useful? Well, it steers the debate to secular territory and, by so doing, avoids the passions and the dogmatism that religion can sometimes provoke.

I will start with two of the three pros and cons, which I believe frame much of the debate. They query how the preparatory nature of this life, as taught by Christianity, impinges on the way we organise economic affairs. On the pro side it is argued that Christ’s teachings apply to this life and focus on the need for justice; that the brotherhood of man in socialism is a natural complement to the fatherhood of God; and that the Christian church will retain its hold on people only if it identifies itself with the highest aspirations of humanity. On the con side it is argued that socialism is solely occupied with this life and pays no heed to the afterlife and that no religion can win the day by embracing human doctrines.

The arguments pass each other by. Tellingly so, I think. The affirmative position is that Christianity supports socialism in the here and now. The counter is that socialism is exclusively worldly. It seems to me that the socialist prescription is not necessarily ruled out simply because it disregards the hereafter. At the same time, it is a separate question as to whether socialism is divinely ordained. We are left in no-man’s-land, which is why the debate has no likely end.

The third pro is more practically oriented. It is argued that the early Church established ethical business principles, including Thomas Aquinas’s Just Price and the condemnation of usury, and effectively practised communism in monastic communities. It is countered by the argument that Christ’s teaching applies to individual behaviour and that early Christian communities banded together for protection and lived according to the circumstances of their time and place rather than as providing a universal template for the future.

It goes without saying that ethical business principles, ethical behaviour generally, is at one with treating others as you would be treated. There is no contention about that. However, interpreted broadly, having “just prices” could be read as having competitive prices. Condemning usury could be read as condemning excessive (“loan shark”) interest. Both are potential aspects of well-governed capitalism. Equally, socialists might claim that socialism, at least in theory, rids the system of all unprincipled business practices. As to monastic communities being a precursor of communism or of socialism; that is an extremely long bow but serves as a good place to bring in Temple and also the Bible.

The stark choice facing Christians was posed by Temple in an article in the Economic Review in 1908 when he was just twenty-seven years of age: “The alternative stands before us—socialism or heresy.” Like most of us, he mellowed. His book Christianity and Social Order, written in 1941, a short time before he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, reflects a more nuanced view of the interplay between Christianity and economic affairs. To “clear the air”, as he puts it, he explains why he does “not simply advocate Socialism or Communal Ownership”. Basically, as I will come to, he did not believe that Christianity is fitted to determine the ideal solution for an imperfect world.

Temple also concedes that capitalism has brought about economic gains in Great Britain: “it has certainly given to the mass of the people a higher standard of life—a larger enjoyment of material goods—than any previous system”. And he adds, “it seems nearly certain that no other system would have developed so rapidly or so far the new powers conferred by modern science”. Mind you, in keeping with common views of his day, including those of John Maynard Keynes, whose help he acknowledges in his book’s preface, this did not prevent him from advocating wide-ranging government intervention and national planning. We are creatures of our time. Now to the Bible and to a rich young man approaching Jesus to ask what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The story is reported in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark (10:17–31) and Luke. Give away your wealth to the poor and follow me, Jesus replied, later saying that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. This is a terribly confronting passage for anyone of even modest wealth in Australia when faced with the plight of the world’s poor, as my own minister recently pointed out in a sermon. However, I am not qualified to discuss this or any other biblical passage from a theological standpoint. The question I will attempt to answer throughout my potted journey is what the passages say about socialism as against capitalism. So far as this passage is concerned, socialists can take some heart. It clearly links this life to the afterlife in keeping with the tenor of the pro case described above. At the same time, it hardly provides conclusive support for socialism as being a natural complement to Christianity.

Sharing wealth around and thus reducing inequality is a hallmark of socialism (in theory). Leave aside what has happened in practice whenever any kind of full-blown socialism has been tried. That is not to the point. The point is whether, as a theory, socialism is closer to the precepts of Christianity than is capitalism. With that in mind, you will notice that there is a rich man in the biblical story. Moreover, there is nothing in the story which condemns him for getting rich. Nor is there anything to suggest that his wealth means that he has unfairly exploited others. The story is after the fact of him getting and being rich. His private property puts him in position of being able to help the poor. The only question is the extent to which he will share what he has. Private property is not in itself brought into question. As a germane aside, even the so-called Red Dean (Hewlett Johnson, 1874–1966) was fond, so it is told, of building his private wealth. For a very brief account see “The Priest Who Thought Stalin was a Saint” by Charles Moore (Telegraph, December 25, 2011).

Temple quotes Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley, among others, in defence of private property. St Thomas gives three reasons (in Summa Theologiae, 2-2, Q.66, A2). To paraphrase: men are more diligent in procuring their own property; they are more diligent in its use; and, in a prescient echo of Robert Frost, good fences make good neighbours. Wesley puts it pithily: “Gain all you can; save all you can; give all you can.” Poor people can’t be helped unless others have acquired wealth. So, you can reach the conclusion that a system which throws up rich people is not necessarily bad. The message, in other words, is mixed when it comes to supporting one or other way of organising economic affairs.

My second biblical passage is from Acts (4:32–37). It concerns a group of believers, all possessors of land and houses, who sell them and pass the proceeds to those in need. This, as with the first passage, is part of a pattern of what today we might call redistribution. Nothing is said about how the people who had possessions acquired them. Nor is it suggested that the acquisition itself was misconceived or lacked morality. Moreover, the land was sold, presumably to private buyers. There is nothing in the story to suggest, even remotely, that the land would or should be run by a collective.

Jesus in Luke 12:33 warns against storing up ephemeral earthly treasure, susceptible to “thieves and moths” and advises that possessions should be sold and the proceeds given to charity. The message in Luke 14:12–14 is that the poor and disadvantaged should be invited to sup, rather than the rich and entitled. In Matthew 25:31–46 judgment is said to rest on the extent to which we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick and so on. There is a commonality in these passages and in numbers of others; and, of course, throughout the Old Testament too. This commonality is the virtue of the rich sharing with the poor.

Having robbed the rich, Robin Hood shared his booty with the poor. That’s mythology. Substitute the operative terms with progressive taxation, government and income redistribution and that is fact. At question is whether such forced sharing is ordained by biblical authority. Scott Rae (in The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets) argues that the biblical requirement to share is “purely voluntary … and not a pattern for any forced redistribution of goods characteristic of socialism”. Lawrence Reed (in Rendering unto Caesar: Was Jesus a Socialist?) makes the same argument, as have others. Temple makes a salient point, despite it not being specific to the question of forced sharing. His context is that of trying to do the best we can in this mortal life: “Before passing on it is worthwhile to notice how absolute was Christ’s respect for the freedom of personal choice. He would neither bribe nor coerce men to become followers.” It seems that free will is fundamental.

Where does this put the question? To my mind, the case for voluntary sharing, while powerful, does not extinguish the case for enforced sharing. You simply would not expect the Bible, by its very nature, to call for enforcement. You don’t need to be a theologian to understand that being forced to give misses the point entirely. Personal redemption demands that giving be voluntary. But does that necessarily count against forced giving being, in some circumstances, a Christian virtue? Temple refers to Christian tradition in noting that “the rights of private property, while perfectly legitimate … are subordinate to the general interest, and are a form of stewardship, rather than of ultimate ownership”. He refers again to St Thomas (in Summa Theologiae, 2-2, Q.66, A7): “In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.”

This theological licence to take another’s property seems confronting. One way of making sense of it on a secular level is to assume that two virtues are in play. One virtue is sharing with the poor. The other, complementary but separable, virtue is doing so voluntarily—being, in other words, “a cheerful giver” as it is put in 2 Corinthians 9:7. Socialism might not have the second virtue within its remit or ambit but it has the first. This is no small thing. And, socialism taps into this first virtue, which can be extracted from biblical teaching, even if it leaves a lot behind. After all, who would say that giving to the poor is not in itself virtuous however it comes about? Well, those opposed to confiscation at the point of a gun might well say that. I will therefore put it another way.

Take a society within which those of means allow the poor to die in the streets for want of food and shelter. Would it be more or less in keeping with Christianity to force those with plenty to share some of their riches with the poor? The Elizabethan Poor Laws did as much. So, forced sharing is not a novel product of the modern welfare state. In any event, I believe that it is upon this limited resort of claiming that forced sharing (from the rich to the needy) is a Christian virtue that socialism must make its biblical case. The virtue of voluntary and cheerful giving, central to the Christian message, is not a hallmark of socialism.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides additional insight. Its “social justice” provisions assert that the unequal distribution of physical and mental abilities and of wealth are part of God’s plan. Clearly, the inclusion of wealth in these provisions is an indicator that the Church accepts private property and that unequal reward will emerge from the workings of economic forces. However, this not the end of God’s plan so far as the Church is concerned. Inequality forms part of the plan “so that man can share his blessings with those in need”. This is the avenue, I think, to make sense of the term “sinful inequalities”, which is used in the Catechism to describe gross disparities between the haves and have-nots. Quite simply, in the view of the Church, those with plenty have a Christian duty to share with those who have little. Ergo, gross disparities of income and wealth are ipso facto sinful. It’s a leap of sorts but by taking this perspective at face value it’s not too hard to justify forced sharing.

To be clear, I think a view of economic life which emphasises the gulf between haves and have-nots is simplistic. Most of the disparity of wealth is reflected in paper claims among the rich to productive resources. Take this concentration of wealth away and we would all be poorer. The rich save and invest directly or indirectly in capital goods. This adds to overall prosperity and allows the poor to be helped. But there is, as well, a deal of conspicuous personal spending among the well-off. And, it is hard to mount an economic argument against redistributing some of the wealth which simply uses up resources to feed such spending as distinct from the most part which is deployed in generating goods and services. One way to do this, for example, would be to replace income taxes with a progressive expenditure tax. Such a tax has a long economics pedigree. According to A.P. Thirlwall, writing in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, it goes back at least to Thomas Hobbes in the mid-seventeenth century. Leave aside the challenge of implementing such a tax, “practically impossible” according to Keynes; it does sit well enough with Christianity. And it is in accord with one aspect of socialism. So, in this narrow context, I think that there is a coincidence of missions.

I use the term “one aspect of socialism” advisedly. It is difficult to pin down exactly what socialism encompasses; where it starts and finishes. It means different things to different people. Communism has an exactitude about it that socialism doesn’t. Here’s a good historical take on the difficulty, from John Martin writing in the American Economic Review in 1911: “Definitions of socialism are almost as numerous as the combatants for and against … So bewildering is the babel of voices that some people deny it can be defined at all.” Nothing has changed.

Sufficient to say that the term socialism is imprecise. It can be used to describe a continuum of state involvement in the economy all the way from varying degrees of aggressive income redistribution, tacked on to capitalism, to public ownership of most of the means of production and exchange. To keep it simple, socialism has two sides, an income side and a production side. So far, my focus has been on the income side, where I believe there is at least some limited basis for extracting support for socialism from the Bible. It is much harder to make the case on the production side.

The early Church gave alms to the poor but it did not contemplate handing over control of its production and exchange of worldly goods. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30) is instructive. First, there is a rich man with servants in the parable. Second, the servants did not start equally well off nor, distinctly, did they end equally well off. Capitalism comes to mind much more so than socialism in this story. But it is a stretch to hang your hat on it. Other passages underscore the virtue of work. For example, Paul (in 2 Thessalonians 3:9) warned against idleness: “If anyone will not work neither shall he eat.” But, again, to be fair, there is no part of socialism or communism which envisages a free ride for the able-bodied. Therefore, not much can be made of exhortations to work one way or the other.

What can be said is that the Bible is silent on the public ownership of the means of production. An imaginative leap is required to try to make an affirmative biblical case for this aspect of socialism. If a grounded case is to be made, it is only on the income-redistributive side of socialism. At the same time, this is not to say that capitalism wins out by default. It might depend on the character of capitalism.

This brings me back to the pro case concerned with ethical business principles and to the views of today’s leading churchmen; specifically, to those of Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Neither are fans of free-wheeling capitalism.

Pope Francis set out his disdain in a speech in Bolivia in July 2015:

The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society …

In the same year, Archbishop Welby participated at the second of two conferences held on “Making Capitalism More Inclusive”. He suggested that more inclusive capitalism requires a “generosity of spirit that doesn’t always seek the greatest return … that meets the needs of the poor and the excluded and the suffering”.

It seems to me that both the Pope and the Archbishop are on solid religious ground in railing against the unfettered pursuit of profit. As Paul wrote to Timothy (1, 6:10), “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”. What is less clear is their solution. If they came out in favour of stronger and more enforceable trade practices legislation and anti-corruption rules, and a concomitant encouragement of more competition, they would have a point. But, to be fair, economics is not their vocation. Temple makes the case: “It is very seldom that Christianity offers a solution of practical problems.” And he puts Christianity’s role into a broad perspective which is particularly insightful. Within it, I think, is an implicit put-down of communism and full-blown socialism, which depend for their success on selfless human behaviour not found in real life:

For it is sometimes supposed that what the Church has to do is to sketch a perfect social order and urge men to establish it. But it is very difficult to know what a perfect social order means. Is it the order that would work best if we were all perfect? Or is it the social order that would work best in a world of men and women such as we actually are? If it is the former, it certainly ought not to be established; we should wreck it in a fortnight. If it is the latter there is no reason for expecting the Church to know what it is.

I face the same challenge in talking about Christian theology as do theologians talking about economics. My resort is the simple one of going directly to the New Testament and looking at what is written. Therein, I have found no practical economic remedies to the excesses of capitalism. However, if my investigations are deficient, and such remedies are there, I would expect the Pope or the Archbishop to draw them out. They don’t. Plainly, this is because the Bible is silent on economics. We are left to our own devices, except for the call for the rich to help the poor.

Christian socialists have one theological sliver to hang onto. This is income redistribution. Clearly one way that the rich can show that they don’t “love” money is to give some of it away voluntarily. But it is at least arguable that helping the poor has such centrality in the Bible that enforced redistribution can be a virtue. To what extent is a pertinent question. Is there any guidance? Tithing is established in the Old Testament and mentioned in the New Testament, for example, in Matthew 23:23. Clearly progressive taxation has taken the game beyond tithing. This again illustrates that we are on our own. It is not a religious question. It is an economic one; or, more broadly speaking, a socio-economic one.

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?’” (Luke 12:13–14) We have to decide, without biblical imprimatur, how much it is proper to render to each other and to Caesar.

Peter Smith is a frequent contributor on economics and wider topics. He reviewed Les Hinton’s memoir The Bootle Boy in the September issue, and wrote on “Exorcising Marx and His Economics” in the October issue.


  • Doubting Thomas

    By now we ought to have a super-sufficiency of evidence that socialism is not the answer to any question that has been asked to date. While Pope Francis might rail against “the unfettered pursuit of profit”, he obviously has not assimilated the lessons so vividly taught in his native land and other South American states. Almost self-evidently, unfettered pursuit of profit is its own antidote, as competition brings prices down far more effectively than any totalitarian alternative.

    I’ve long since come to believe that Pope Francis is a fraud.

  • whitelaughter

    strange that no editions are on Gutenberg, would definitely be worth adding any that are out of copyright.

  • talldad

    Peter, some quick reactions to your article, so my apologies for any lack of “nuance”.

    I suggest that you look at the idea of limited government with a constrained mandate (Romans 13:4-7 says law and order, military defence and maybe civil defence) and then commandments against covetousness and theft (and the OT talks about non-fraudulent weights and measures, too).

    Government is not meant to “run the economy” or in Paul Keating’s infamous expression “get [its] hands on the economic levers”.

    Nor is government the dispenser of welfare – as your references to the rich young ruler show, welfare charity is a personal matter, and the nearest we get to institutional charity is in the descriptions in Acts 4-6 of the early church supporting the widows and the needy (NB: not necessarily the poor, just the needy, as established by close and personal knowledge rather than bureaucratic rules.)

    Finally, the worst form of government welfare is using Other People’s Money to provide income support and charity, as well as to “pick business winners” – almost guaranteed to promote boondoggles, business favouritism, and welfare fraud. The NT injunction “if you don’t work, then you should not eat” discourages “sit-down money”.

    There is actually quite a bit of economic wisdom spread throughout the Bible. Its just not organised as an economic treatise.

  • whitelaughter

    talldad – nice sum up.

  • Jody

    Trouble is we have too many nations with leaders who’ve graduated in Bible Economics; and their postgraduate studies are in Venezuela Envy.

  • Peter Smith

    Thanks Talldad. I looked up Romans 13:4-7, but I am not sure that it specifically limits government. But I often find that the bible is hard to interpret which is why we need theologians, I suppose.

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