In following the news of the presidential race, it is alarming to see how those on the left side of the political spectrum either fail to understand how economy works, or simply reject it in favor of a government controlled system. This is especially true of Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator running for president. His lack of understanding of how capitalism works is, at times, breathtaking.
While I favor a capitalist system, even I must admit that not everyone who practices capitalism does so in a right or biblical fashion. But this is the price of freedom. If a man wants to get rich but has no regard for his community, that’s the price of freedom. He is free to do so. But if a Christian wants to use the advantages of capitalism in a biblical way, then there are a few things he should know.
This article is not an exhaustive take on biblical capitalism. Rather, I’d like to provide just four points of understanding that a Christian in a capitalist system should understand. These are also a rebuttal to the left’s misunderstanding or rejection of the economic system that has created more wealth and opportunity than any other system in history.
First, it is important to understand what capitalism is; what is it’s purpose? The purpose of biblical capitalism is the acquisition of wealth by the means of creation (products and services to fulfill a need), expansion (to serve as many people as possible), and blessing (to provide for people’s needs through service and through gifting to the community and ministry). With this understanding, let’s move on to our four points.
The free market has possibilities for both blessing and cursing. The disparity of income between people of different skill, education, and marketability is often seen by the left as an unfair and immoral way of living. But in a free market system, people are free to pursue wealth, or philanthropy, or greed, or whatever it is they wish to pursue. A socialist system does not provide this. The more government control that is exercised the less income may be made, or freely appropriated. In a free system wealth may be used to bless by investing in better products or services or by using that wealth philanthropically to help others. But a free market system also has the potential for the wealth owner to curse or withhold.
Conversely, in a government controlled system, wealth retention is reduced, often dramatically, and the ability to bless is lessened, also dramatically. This hurts everyone, not just a few.
The Mosaic system in the Old Testament set initial values of money for Israel’s economy. This was done as the tribes were beginning to establish themselves as an independent nation for the first time. The ability to earn income was not restricted in any way. There were no caps on assets or income prescribed by the Law. Everyone was free to pursue whatever means they had available to them to earn income and provide for their needs. The only prescribed system for income generation was the levitical system of taxation to maintain the priesthood under the theocracy.
The Mosaic system did have a few controls placed on the economy. But these were minimal and were designed to prevent large scale economic collapses. Specifically, the jubilee system mandated regular intervals of debt forgiveness, and controlled interest rates in such a way that debt could be avoided and savings encouraged. I should mention that I’m not encouraging a jubilee system for our day and age. The jubilee system was designed for a tribal commonwealth in which certain assets, such as land, were required to remain under the control of tribal and family inheritances. We have nothing like this today. However, we can learn from the principals of the jubilee system how to create an economy that features more blessing than cursing.
A fair wage, not a forced wage. Today’s leftists would like to cap income and excessively tax both income and growth. At the same time there is a fight for dramatic increases in wages for workers ($15 an hour for flipping burgers, or $70,000 a year for a janitor, etc.). In one sense the motivation may be commended in that everyone wants what we all refer to as a livable wage. But what defines a livable wage is a matter of debate. Should a 19-year old, uneducated man earn as much as a 26-year-old graduate with a degree in marketing? Should the nurse in the hospital earn as much as a star quarterback? Leftists might use these examples to make the case that our economic system is immoral and advocate for laws forcing higher wages for workers and lower wagers for owners or managers. The left brands this as a fair wage. However, I see this not as a fair wage, but as a forced wage. It is forced because the wage policy has nothing to do with the reality of how investment and income is generated in a free market system. From my own experience I learned that a forced wage facilitates corruption and can even lead to fiscal collapse.
I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I once experimented with the socialist type of system in Mongolia where I ran a TV station for nearly 10 years. At the launch of our station we fixed salaries in departments according the work performed without regard for age, family status, experience, and education. The system was a complete disaster. While at first it kept our budget in check, in reality, it created division and corruption amongst the staff. People with degrees and experience felt cheated when those without those advantages were valued at the same level they were. People sought bribes to offset what they made. Hard workers worked less hard because there was no financial incentive to excel. Some people viewed their income as what was owed to them rather than what was earned through responsibility and hard work. We quickly dumped that system in favor of a system that awarded achievement, hard work, and family need.
The Bible does not prescribe anything like a prescribed minimum wage, earning caps, or redistribution of wealth. At no time did Jesus condemn someone for paying someone less than what the boss made, or for paying what someone might think of as not enough. Even the poor had to work hard under the biblical system rather than just take a handout. For instance, the Mosaic law required that farmers not glean the edges and corners or their fields, but to leave then unreaped for the poor and the sojourner (Leviticus 19:9, 23:22, Deuteronomy 24:21). There are two important thing to note about this. First, the poor had to work the field to get the benefit. It wasn’t simply handed to him. Second, the economic law of the Mosaic code encouraged generosity by the landowner as demonstrated by these examples in the law.
Wealth is a tool, not an achievement. The Bible does not condemn getting rich. In fact, God often blessed people with great wealth (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon, etc.). Leftists sometimes read the Bible and interpret a passage like James 5:1-6 as a condemnation of the rich for being rich. But this is not what the passage says. Instead, it condemns the rich person who uses greed and oppress his workers through fraud, and committed other acts of harm. In fact, nowhere in the Bible is wealth condemned. Note that when the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon, the richest king in Israel’s history who also enabled his people to earn great wealth, that she said, “Happy are your men!” (I Kings 10:8).
However, there is the tendency in America to view wealth as an achievement or a goal to be pursued. I think this is an error. Wealth is a tool, not an achievement. When we see wealth as an achievement, it facilitates selfishness, greed, and withholding of wealth that can be used to bless others. It is important to let the scripture speak to this itself. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9–10).
I believe that this passage is speaking of wealth as an objective for oneself instead of seeing wealth as a means to an end. We should systematize this passage with Ephesian 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” The point being made here is that wealth exists to meet needs, whether our own needs, or the needs of others, as demonstrated in this passage. Seeing wealth as a tool reveals that we are not slaves to wealth and that we have a balanced and generous character. But seeing wealth as an achievement turns the purpose of wealth on its head from a tool to be used to a mere possession that can be hoarded. If your income is growing but you are not giving, then you’re not living a biblical capitalism.
The Cultural Mandate is a framework for economic growth.
This is probably not something that most Christians, or even Christian business people have ever considered before. But I think it is important to understand if we are to have a right view of wealth and why God has given us the ability to earn it.
The Cultural Mandate is found in Genesis 1:28-30. Note as you read this passage that God bequeathed a kind of wealth to Adam and Eve. They were tasked with its management, and told to enjoy its use. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food. And it was so.”
Elsewhere in Genesis 2:15, God puts Adam in the Garden of Eden and assigns him the task of taking care of it. Implied in these passages is not only maintenance, but growth, along with use. In Genesis 2:19 we see an implication of management of resources like livestock.
These things demonstrate to us that God wanted man to not only have the resources of the earth for his benefit, but that he also wanted man to excel in their care and use. Adam was given broad powers with great resources and very little restrictions. It was up to Adam to care for and use those resources properly. This is the model for a biblical capitalism. The Cultural Mandate fits our earlier description of the purpose of capitalism. The purpose of biblical capitalism is the acquisition of wealth by the means of creation (products and services to fulfill a need), expansion (to serve as many people as possible), and blessing (to provide for people’s needs through service and through gifting to the community and ministry).
Our leftist friends suffer under a misunderstanding of the biblical purpose of wealth and those who gain it. Putting a person in national leadership who want to restrict earning wealth and punish achievement will do nothing but cause harm, and it won’t lift anyone out of poverty. If we want someone to lead our nation who will bring blessing to our people, then that person needs an understanding of the purpose of capitalism and a respect for its power.