Question: "What is Christian Socialism?"
Answer: Socialism is a system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange of goods are regulated by the community as a whole. It is often juxtaposed with capitalism, a system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are controlled by each individual. “Redistribution of wealth” is a key socialist concept, and it means that wealth is taken from the “rich” and redistributed to the poor so that it is spread out more equally.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Christian Socialism was interested in improving the plight of the poor by various social programs. Many of the reforms regarding working conditions came out of these efforts. In more recent years, Christian Socialism has come to refer to any system that combines the goals of socialism with the ethics of Christianity. Many Christians, especially among millennials, see socialism as a viable political option.
Socialism has long been associated with leftist politics. In recent years, there have been more and more evangelicals who advocate for some form of socialism in the society at large. Capitalism is rejected as unchristian because it is supposedly based on greed. Capitalism is seen to be the cause of inequality as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, which seems to go against biblical values. In contrast, socialism is seen as a system in which the less fortunate can be cared for in a compassionate way by the community.
A number of biblical passages are mustered to support the view of Christian Socialism. Many passages in the Old Testament speak of helping the poor and the weak, and some find an example of Christian Socialism in the early church:
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
“When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:19–22).
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need” (Acts 4:32–35).
Jesus said that, after loving God, the supreme commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself (see Matthew 22:25–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 10:25–28).
Christian Socialists, among whom are a growing number of evangelicals, seek to influence public policy so that society will become less capitalistic and more socialistic, and they see this as a means to live out the biblical passages mentioned above.
While it seems like a noble effort, there are some problems with Christian Socialism. The most glaring is that none of the passages mentioned above call for a socialist society or mandates a redistribution of wealth. In the Old Testament, when Israel was a theocracy, it was still a capitalistic society with private property rights and commerce whereby some people gained great wealth while others did not. The Law did not call Israel to redistribute wealth or censure people who gained wealth; rather, there were programs in place to prevent generational poverty (e.g., limitation of debt slavery and the Year of Jubilee). The rich were forbidden to take unfair advantage of the poor (Deuteronomy 24:15; Proverbs 22:22), and certain practices (like the partial gleaning mentioned in Deuteronomy 24) were instituted so that the working poor could still get enough to eat.
The New Testament does not call for the church to embrace socialism within the church, much less in society at large. The one example often referred to, in Acts 4, specifically rejects any kind of mandatory socialism. The donations given in Acts 4 were completely voluntary. In the next chapter, Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, sold some land and contributed money to help the poor, but they kept back part of it for themselves. Peter condemns them not because they kept part of the money but because they lied, misrepresenting their gift and the extent of their generosity. “Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God’” (Acts 5:3–4).
The early church demonstrated a pattern of generous giving as the Lord had blessed individuals and as He led them to give to help the poor. There is no mandated redistribution of wealth, and the example of the Jerusalem church was not meant to be taken as a model for national governments. Paul regularly collected offerings from churches to help believers in other places, and he asked them to give generously, but the gift was not mandated. In writing to the Corinthians to remind them that he will be taking a collection for poor believers, Paul says, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). The pattern in the New Testament is voluntary, joyful generosity (see also 1 Timothy 6:17–19).
It may be that Christians in the United States have not been generous enough and have selfishly focused on building wealth and living in luxury. It is possible that this self-indulgence has pushed a younger generation toward Christian Socialism as a political philosophy. However, socialism, when applied on a grand scale, has never worked to create wealth or to enrich the lives of people. Far more is accomplished by robust capitalism accompanied by generosity. Unfortunately, generosity cannot be legislated, and the redistribution of wealth usually causes a decrease in the activities that produce wealth, leaving generous people with much less to be generous with.