Nothing is easier than to give Christian asceticism a socialist tinge. Has not Christianity declaimed against private property, against marriage, against the State? Has it not preached in place of these, charity and poverty, celibacy and mortification of the flesh, monastic life and Mother Church? Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.
These words of Marx and Engels (Communist Manifesto, 3:I:a) suggest that Christianity may be initially quite useful for the socialist cause. Even though the abolition of all religion is ultimately a necessity in their suggested system, Marx and Engels recognize the practicality of incremental progress toward their goals. Hence, they welcome a slight retasking of Christian ideas in order to facilitate societal drift toward socialism, and ultimately toward communism.
Marx and Engels perceive that all conflict is traceable to class struggle, and that class struggle is economic at its core. Redistribution of wealth is a key to neutralizing the conflict and liberating the oppressed from their oppressors. For Marx and Engels, class struggle is an economic issue that can only be resolved politically, hence their political efforts toward an economic final solution. Capitalism represents, for them, a system that enables continuing oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Capitalism is a great enemy to be conquered, and one that will naturally fall—if and when the proletariat realizes their great strength, unites, and acts in accordance with Marx’s and Engels’ designs.
For Christians, it is reasonable to wonder whether Marx’s and Engels’ drafting of Christianity as somewhat (and initially) useful is actually compatible with Christianity. If the Bible is the sole authority for Christian understanding and ethics, then is there a biblical discussion that should guide the church’s thinking on economics? If Scripture is God-breathed and useful for equipping us for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17), then we should expect some economic guidance in its pages. In that expectation we are not disappointed.
The first structured economic model we discover in Scripture is that given by God to Israel in the context of the Law, or the Mosaic Covenant. Israel was to enter into the land of Canaan, enjoy the fruit of the land, give a tithe (primarily of firstfruits) to the tribe of Levi in order to facilitate the Levitical system of worship (Levi was a tribe not given a land inheritance, thus each of the other tribes were commissioned, through the tithe, to help Levi subsist). The charging of interest was disallowed by law, and there were rules governing how debts and debt-enslavements were to be handled. Families within tribes were not allowed to sell their land outside of their families, in order to maintain a level of land ownership that could accommodate the families. In this context there was substantial economic freedom, but with legal limitations on greed.
In other words, certain specific manifestations of greed were illegalized within the community of Israel. Importantly, the overarching governing principle for Israel at that time was theocracy. God was with them, leading them, and ruling them. The Law was not designed to work in a non-theocratic context, and its purpose was provisional (see Gal 3).
In the church age (which began at Pentecost, a short time after Christ fulfilled the Law), there is not such a structured and regulated approach to the legal aspects of economics. Instead, there is a focus on individual character. For example, Christians are to be free from the love of money (Heb 13:5), to look out for the interests of others (Php 2:4-5), to give freely and not under compulsion (2 Cor 9:6-8), not to discriminate based on financial standing (James 2:1-4), and to understand that all we are given is for the purpose of good deeds (2 Cor 9:8-11).
In the church model there are no specific guidelines given for economic legislation. The church is not a national entity governed by legislation. Instead, it is a living organism—a group of individual believers existing and functioning together in and as the body of Christ. The focus of the Scriptures is that believers submit to a process whereby God works in them to conform them to the image of Christ. The expectation is that believers ought to demonstrate in ongoing fashion, that continual transformation in their thoughts, speech, and deeds (e.g., Rom 12:1-2).
So how should believers view private property, individual and corporate profits, commodification of labor, and the like? It is notable that Scripture doesn’t condemn these things—in fact, money itself is never described as evil. The Bible is specific, however, about the central economic problem: “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim 6:10). Literally, the phrase could be translated “a root of all the evils.” What is so wrong with a love (or affection, φιλαργυρία) for money that it could be described as a root of all the evils?
Jesus warned, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” (Lk 12:15). Greed takes the focus off of what life is really about, and emphasizes temporal things. Essentially, greed is a fantastically effective and attractive gateway to idolatry.
Paul warns believers that greed should not even be named among believers—there should be no hint of it among those who follow Jesus Christ (Eph 5:3). In fact, Paul adds that believers should consider themselves as dead to such things as greed—which he equates to idolatry (Col 3:5).
Peter observes that greed is a primary motivation for false teaching (2 Pet 2:3). So while greed often manifests itself in economic areas, it is not an economic problem. Nor is it a political problem. Paul describes in Romans 1:29 how greed is an inherent part of human depravity. It is not merely a class struggle or political issue, it is a spiritually rooted problem. It cannot be solved by political or legislative means—either with Marx’s and Engels’ system or even a more democratic one. Only by the internal and spiritual transformation of individuals by the power of God, is there progress in remedying the root problem. Of course that doesn’t mean that political systems are irrelevant or unworthy of Christians’ time and investment. But despite the proclamations of Marx and Engels, political and economic pursuits have no ability to fix the problem.
Whats’ wrong with capitalism? The same thing that is wrong with every other thing that human hands touch—it’s us. Changing the system or the governing party can’t fix what ails us. That doesn’t mean we ignore such things (thank God we can have some impact in these areas!), it just means that we need to adjust our expectations and our focus. Let’s focus on the core issue, deal with the symptoms where we can, and not confuse the root problem with its symptoms.