Christian Charity and the Welfare State
- Tuesday, April 19, 2011
This incident lends no support to the argument for government redistribution of property. Instead, the relationship between Jesus and the rich man was entirely voluntary. The kingdom of heaven operates on the basis of contract, not compulsion. The Savior offered the man a quid pro quo: You give away your earthly all, and I’ll give you everlasting life. The rich man was completely free to accept or refuse the deal and its terms. When, in fact, he declined the offer, Jesus let him depart in peace. If he had said to his disciples, “Let’s go to the governor and petition him to redistribute the young man’s wealth to the poor,” then the Christian redistributionists could cite this incident to substantiate their position. That is not, however, what the Scriptures record.
The gospels contain other clear accounts of Jesus approving of spiritually impelled (voluntary) charity, and rejecting materially compelled (involuntary) redistribution of wealth. When the diminutive tax collector Zacchaeus voluntarily announced, “The half of my goods I give to the poor” (Luke 19:8), he received the Savior’s unequivocal benediction, “This day is salvation come to this house” (v. 9).
By contrast, when a man asked Jesus to tell his brother to share his inheritance with him in Luke 12, the Lord emphatically declined, pointedly asking, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you” (v. 14)? The import of this response is momentous: If the only begotten Son of God did not feel qualified or justified to determine, much less command, how much of one person’s property should be transferred to another, then what should we, who profess to be his followers, believe: that we have the right, the wisdom, or the moral authority to advocate, approve of, or participate in government’s massive, complex, forced redistribution of trillions of dollars among millions of people?
Many Christians who claim that socialism is compatible with Christianity have cited Acts 4:32-37, Acts 5:1-10. This is the account of the apostle Peter’s Christian community sharing a common purse after Jesus’ ascension. There is a crucial difference, however, between the apostles’ arrangement and communism, which the Christian socialists overlook. The apostles practiced communalism, not communism. Communalism is entirely consensual. It includes only those members of the larger community who voluntarily decide to participate. The apostles’ communalism was radically different from socialism, fascism, or the democratic welfare state, in which membership is not optional, but compulsory, and everyone living within that political jurisdiction must pay into the common treasury.
The most vivid part of this passage is that a married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, fell dead after it was found that they had withheld part of their financial assets from the common purse. Some Christians construe this as a condemnation of private property. It is not. Far from denying the right of private property, Peter explicitly reaffirmed it, stating, “While it [your land] remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power” (Acts 5:4). The couple would have been entitled to keep their property if they had not voluntarily contracted to exchange it for full membership in the society of believers. By conniving to receive the benefits of membership without honestly paying for them, they had attempted to defraud the community. Peter clearly explained that the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was their dishonesty. They lied to the Holy Spirit, and this sin killed them.
Another important aspect of the communalism described in Acts 4 and 5 is that the experiment of communal ownership of property apparently did not last long. We can only surmise that the temptation to be a free-loader was too much for unredeemed human nature to handle, and the early church leaders found communal property not to be viable. Thus, the apostle Paul wrote, “…If any would not work, neither should he eat” (II Thess. 3:10). It should be added that Paul practiced what he preached. As he reminded the Thessalonians in his first letter to them, “We worked at our trade [tent-making] night and day, when we preached the gospel to you, so as not to be a burden to any of you” (I Thess. 2:9, James Moffatt translation).
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