Bible doesn't command wealth redistribution, presenters say at theological meeting
MILWAUKEE (BP) -- Scripture does not require governments to redistribute wealth to help the poor, presenters in a session at the Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting said this fall.
"Class warfare, wealth redistribution, and socialism can, at best, make people only equally miserable," Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Craig Mitchell wrote in a paper he presented during a session titled "Does God Require the State to Redistribute Wealth?"
Mitchell asked, "Is it surprising that free markets, which respect property rights, maximize both producer and consumer welfare, and create wealth (rather than dividing it) are far more compatible with biblical Christianity?"
The meeting, attended by more than 2,000 evangelical scholars in Milwaukee, included the election of two Southern Baptists as officers. Thomas Schreiner, a professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., was elected president-elect, and Gregg Allison, professor of Christian theology at Southern, was elected secretary.
Focusing on the theme "Caring for Creation," plenary session speakers at the Nov. 14-16 meeting included Russell D. Moore, senior vice president for academic administration and dean of the school of theology at Southern, and E. Calvin Beisner, founder of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.
In addition to Mitchell, the session on wealth redistribution featured Scott Rae, professor of philosophy of religion and ethics at the Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, Calif.; Art Lindsley, vice president of theological initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics in McLean, Va.; and Wayne Grudem, research professor of theological and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona.
Mitchell, chair of the ethics department and associate director of the Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said those who argue that the Bible requires governments to redistribute wealth often take Old Testament passages out of context. He told Baptist Press that the Land Center's website includes audio, video and printed resources on economics from a Christian perspective.
God required Israelites to leave a portion of their crops in the field after harvest for the poor to gather, Mitchell said, and He instituted the Year of Jubilee, when land was returned to its original owner every 50th year. But neither Old Testament requirement means that modern governments should redistribute wealth to the poor, Mitchell said.
"The laws concerning the gleaning of fields in the Pentateuch (Leviticus 19:9-10 and also Deuteronomy 24:21) require the poor to work by picking up the leftovers at the edge of the fields," Mitchell wrote. "Those who own the fields do not have their produce taken by the government and then given to the poor. Since the Old Testament extols the virtue of work and deplores the vice of laziness, the contemporary concept of wealth redistribution is alien to the Ancient Israelite conception of justice or righteousness."
The Year of Jubilee was intended only for ancient Israel and has no application to modern social policy, Mitchell wrote, adding that New Testament commands on economic justice are directed toward individual believers, not governments.
"The sin of covetousness all too often ends in the sin of stealing," Mitchell wrote. "Those who argue for class warfare call this stealing the redistribution of wealth. The most gentle way that this theft occurs is by taxation."
Rae, in his paper, said the Bible requires all communities to create an economic "safety net" for the poor but leaves open the question of whether that safety net should be built with government or private funds. Some use of tax dollars to help the poor is legitimate and not a form of theft, Rae wrote.
"Providing for those who cannot provide for themselves is certainly not a 'leveling' of wealth per se (though it is a form of redistribution), but providing a means of sustenance for those who cannot provide it for themselves," Rae wrote. "Thus I would not say that all redistribution is necessarily theft, but instead is part of the price paid for being a responsible member of the community, to which we implicitly consent by virtue of our membership in society."
Still, proponents of wealth redistribution are wrong to argue that economic inequality is evil in itself, Rae wrote. God hates injustice and oppression but not mere inequality, he noted, adding that the Year of Jubilee -- a favorite topic of redistribution advocates -- did not help the poorest members of Israelite society because they did not have any land to reclaim.
"It's not true to say that all inequality is the result of injustice, or that the inequalities that result from participation in the market system are necessarily unjust," Rae wrote. "Certainly when people are exploited so that someone else can make a profit, that's wrong, and we have grave problems with human trafficking and a good deal of sweatshop labor that goes on around the world. But be very careful that you don't fundamentally equate capitalism with exploitation."
Lindsley, in his paper, said the Bible does not require governments to redistribute wealth and answered scriptural arguments used by redistribution advocates. The Year of Jubilee did not mean forgiveness of debt, he wrote, and it did not abolish private property.
Under the jubilee system, an Israelite who owned land could sell the right to farm it until the Year of Jubilee, with the price based on the value of each year's crop and the number of years remaining until the jubilee, Lindsley said. When the Year of Jubilee arrived, the land reverted back to its original owner.
"This understanding of Jubilee as the payoff of a lease is common in Old Testament commentaries," Lindsley wrote, noting that the jubilee does not provide an argument for wealth redistribution.
In the New Testament, advocates of wealth redistribution refer to Acts 2-5 to support their position, Lindsley wrote, where early Christians sold their property to meet one another's needs. But such sharing did not eliminate private property and was entirely voluntary, he wrote.
"These early believers contributed their goods freely, without coercion, voluntarily," Lindsley wrote. "Elsewhere in Scripture we see that Christians are even instructed to give in just this manner, freely, for 'God loves a cheerful giver' (2 Corinthians 9:7). There is plenty of indication that private property rights were still in effect (remember Barnabas, Ananias, and Sapphira). This is neither communism (abolition of private property) nor socialism (state ownership of the means of production). This was not even socialism as defined as a community-owned or regulated system."
Grudem did not present a paper but distributed an outline of the Bible's teaching on wealth redistribution. He warned that "the power of government is great and therefore exceptionally dangerous."
Government should provide a "safety net" for meeting basic needs like food, clothing and shelter, Grudem affirmed.
"But there does not seem to be any justification in Scripture for governments seeking to attempt to equalize income or property between rich and poor, or to take from all the rich," Grudem noted. "I do not think biblical terms for 'justice' indicate such responsibility."
Property in the Bible normally belongs to individuals rather than societies or governments, Grudem wrote. The command not to steal assumes private ownership of property and 1 Samuel 8 warns against a king who would take too much from the people.
In the end, God's standard of "justice" requires governments to uphold His moral code, not ensure an even distribution of wealth, Grudem wrote.
David Roach is a writer based in Shelbyville, Ky. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).