I had an acquaintance who tells me Socialism is biblical. As he put it, “Think about it, the Israelites were required to give up their income for the benefit of 1. the priests 2. Levites 3. poor 4. those in debt 5. those countrymen who were slaves and 6. the farmers were not allowed to pick their produce up from the ground in order to give to the poor. That is called socialism. Oh and on top of that, they had a free will offering.”
I have a difficult time equating God’s direction with Socialism. What do you think?
The email is signed by a Chaplain, though he doesn’t say where or in what capacity. Chaplains often cross social lines that pastors and other church officials do not (unfortunately). Chaplains often deal with military men, public officials, officers, wardens, and prisoners among others. These men need a clear understanding of where the Bible draws lines between private versus State functions.
Our reader’s acquaintance introduces his arguments for Socialism by saying, “think about it.” Unfortunately for him, he has not thought about it enough. The refutation of his points is simple: in none of these biblical instances was the alleged Socialism involved enforceable by the civil State. Thus, to talk of “Socialism” is misleading. The measures are socialistic if by socialism you mean private application of charity by individuals, families, and churches in order to benefit the poor and needy of society. It is emphatically not socialism if by that label you mean taxation and redistribution enforced by the State’s gun. Big difference.
Christian Socialists have employed this sort of equivocation for 120 years as an intellectual bait-and-switch. I present a good example in my book, God versus Socialism. A group of Boston social gospelers formed the Society of Christian Socialists in 1889 and immediately began publication of a monthly journal called The Dawn. Its mission statement read:
The Dawn stands for Christian Socialism. By this we mean the spirit of the Socialism of the New Testament and of the New Testament church. In man’s relations to God, Jesus Christ preached an individual gospel; accordingly in their relations to God, Christ’s disciples must be individualists. In man’s relations to man, Jesus Christ preached a social gospel; accordingly, in these relations, his disciples must be socialists.
Notice the squirrely switch between the use of the capital “S” “Socialism,” and the call for Christians to be lower-case “s” socialists. By the same logic, all humans are Humanists, all people who exist are Existentialists, all people who take communion are Communists, all rational people Rationalists, all people who eat cereal are Serial Killers, ad nauseam (OK, maybe the serial killers part was a stretch, but you get the picture). These guys knew Jesus didn’t call for state-Socialism, meaning government-power to redistribute wealth. Yet they could play off of the fact that Jesus called us to be hospitable and charitable in our social life among our fellow man—thus, we should all be good “socialists.” Once the Christians get on board with “socialism” and helping the poor in general, then the latent appeals for government Socialism start coming to the fore, as Christians are taught that all property should be socialized, “managed,” and receive “equitable distribution.”
Of course Christians are obligated by the Word of God to take care of the “priests” and “the poor,” but never does God’s Word authorize the civil government to tax people and redistribute wealth for these goals. Each of these measures was part of God’s law, but not part of the subset of God’s law that established and limited civil law. To make this point clearer, let us look briefly at each of the instances our Chaplain’s acquaintance argues:
1. the priests and 2. Levites: The Old Testament law required that a portion of yearly tithes go to support the priests and Levites. The priests and Levites were the temple workers and servers for the twelve tribes. No one else was allowed to perform these offices. The offices themselves came at a price: priests and Levites were not allowed to own land. In exchange for not having their own productive capital, God mandated they live off of the charity of those who did.
Yet God nowhere said that the civil rulers could use the force of the sword of the State in order to collect this tithe. The civil government had no authority to collect it by force, nor to punish those who did not pay up. It was for this reason that the prophet Malachi could complain about the people “robbing God,” for they were not paying their tithes (Mal. 3:8–12). The punishment was not to send tax agents knocking on doors or garnishing wages. The punishment was left up to God, who Himself could bring punishment in the form of historical sanctions: captivity, plague, etc. God would also pour out financial blessing upon obedience (Mal. 3:10–12). God was very serious about the tithe, but He did not empower the State to carry it out. No Socialism here.
An exception to this may appear in Nehemiah’s reinstitution of the law in Nehemiah 12:44 and 13:10–13. But this was Nehemiah’s solution to the problem, and not explicitly commanded by God. Even here, it does not say that the “rulers” and collectors mentioned were empowered with the sword to do the collecting or to punish those who may refuse. Further, they did not even have the knowledge of how much each household had in order to verify that what was given was a tithe. No IRS here. No Socialism here.
3. the poor: There were several “poor laws” in the Old Testament; none of them involved State Socialism. The yearly tithe went to the Levites at a national level, at a central national location. Every third year, however, the tithe remained locally, and was distributed locally to the resident Levites, aliens, orphans and widows (Deut. 14:28–29) (it says nothing of “the poor” in general). Again, nothing is said of government power to collect these tithes or punish those who did not give or give enough. The Israelites were expected to give voluntarily and they knew God would punish them if they refused, and bless them immensely as they obeyed (Deut. 12:19–21).
4. those in debt: Again this can only refer to certain poor laws, where God’s law allowed for poor brethren to receive no-interest loans for up to six years. In the seventh year any unpaid balance of the loan was cancelled. This was a measure designed to allow the poor brethren to borrow money to get back on their feet. Nevertheless, God gave the civil State no authority to regulate, monitor, or enforce these loans, nor to punish those who refused to lend. This law did not apply to foreign nationals living among the Israelites. Of them a lender could charge interest and continue to receive it indefinitely until payoff. See Deuteronomy 15:1–11.
5. those countrymen who were slaves: Jews who through debt, theft, or need were sold into slavery would face a six-year term. At the end of this term, they could decide whether to remain with their master, or return free into the marketplace. If they decided to return free, the master was obligated by law to give his former slave clothing and enough money to get going (Deut. 15:12–15). This income was indeed forfeited by the master, although the slave would have more than earned it through seven years of unwaged labor. Had he been a productive worker, the master would have profited greatly. The master would still be well ahead after giving him his freedom bonus. Had the slave been an “unprofitable servant” (Matt. 25:30), however, causing his master loss, then the master would surely be glad to see him go, and would surely pay to send him along and avoid any future losses. The aim of Old Testament slavery, of course, was to avoid such a situation. It aimed at reform and restoration of the unsuccessful individual. By spending six years working under a wise, successful, and productive master, a slave should learn the skills, mentality, and wisdom to succeed on his own once free. In this case, the six years of servitude and the payment upon release profited everyone involved.
All of this said, God’s Word adds nothing to this about the role of the civil State, nor of civil punishments for those who refused to obey the ideal. A slave who decided to walk free after his term could simply do so, and any master who refused to let him could then be guilty of kidnapping (Ex. 21:16). At that point, the civil government would get involved, but clearly for kidnapping and not for any alleged Socialism.
6. the farmers were not allowed to pick their produce up from the ground in order to give to the poor: By law, owners of property were to not harvest the corners of their field, nor pick up sheaves that fell to the ground during harvest. These were left for the poor of the land to come along and “glean.” The gleaning laws gave the poor an outlet, for a very limited time of the year, for a very limited amount, to get food for themselves. They would have to do the hard work of finding and harvesting the slim pickings for themselves, and they would have to do so in competition with all other gleaners. As part of the charity involved here, this was good practice for becoming productive in a competitive market place.
Note again: the State did not enforce gleaning. The State had no mandate from God to punish those who refused to leave their corners unharvested. The State did not collect the gleanings and the hand them out to the poor: the poor had to go pick them up themselves.
So, in none of these alleged measures of socialism, do we find anything that genuinely earns the name “Socialism.” In no instance did the State have the power to redistribute wealth. In each instance, the “socialism” depended entirely upon individuals obeying God’s mandate for charity towards the Levite, the poor, and the disadvantaged.
God kept the State out of the charity business. There’s a good reason for this. If the power of the sword ever mixed with the power to distribute bread, there would be no end to political corruption. The State would use its powers of distribution to control the people; worse, people who grew dependent upon the State’s bread would also then be dependent upon the State’s sword. Acquiring provisions would no longer be an issue of personal responsibility, but of institutionalized force. It would teach the dependent of all shapes and sizes that deriving food at gunpoint is legitimate. Thus, State socialism would be nothing short of legalized armed robbery.
When Jesus fed the 5,000, the people were amazed. But Jesus realized they were not following Him because of the miracle, but because of the free bread:
Jesus answered them and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you, for on Him the Father, even God, has set His seal” (John 6:26–27).
When Jesus knew that the people would try to make Him king because of His generous welfare, He fled:
When therefore the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, “This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus therefore perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force, to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone (John 6:14–15).
Jesus was wiser than to mix civil power with welfare. This reflects the wisdom of Old Testament law. Our Chaplains need to understand this. So do their acquaintances, and every other Christian out there, especially those in civil offices and those benefiting from the State’s redistribution of wealth.
For those who wish to pursue this further, read David Chilton’s Productive Christians in an Age of Guilt Manipulators, and my refutation of the New Social Gospel in God versus Socialism: A Biblical Critique of the New Social Gospel.