Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

More Biblical Principles of Law and Regulation

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How should Christians think about regulation?

An earlier post described a few biblical principles that can guide our thinking about regulations. Today’s post explores a couple more of these principles.

Within the Ten Commandments, five of the six commandments dealing with human relations begin “Thou shall not…”. In explaining these and extending them into application, God has made it clear there is more to keeping these commandments than refraining from doing evil. There are requirements to do good as well.

Protect Property

The law says “Thou shall not steal,” and that is very clear. Stealing can take many forms, and we are commanded to take positive action against it in some cases. God commands the use of fair weights and measures in Deuteronomy 25:15 and elsewhere. We are also told to care for and return found property, in Deuteronomy 22:1-4. For a more detailed and excellent treatment on the biblical teachings on property, see Walter Kaiser’s paper, Ownership and Property in the Old Testament Economy.

Beyond the prohibition on stealing and similar activities, God cares for private property in general. Exodus 22 deals with a number of issues, including rules that apply to livestock. The passage provides a provision that requires restitution if an animal wanders off and grazes in someone else’s field. This reads more like a penalty rather than a regulation, but the concept here is that private property is to be protected and any extension consistent with that is acceptable. We see the same thing in Exodus 23, where we are commanded to return a lost animal (verse 4) and help a struggling animal (verse 5) even if belongs to our enemy.

Modern applications are reasonably straight-forward: private property should be protected and returned. It belongs to someone and is not to be destroyed, confiscated, or stolen.

Interestingly enough, this extends to the government as well. What is wrong for an individual to do is wrong for the government. In attempting to dissuade the Israelites from seeking a king, Samuel issued this dire warning in 1 Samuel 8:14-18:

He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

Samuel wanted the Israelites to realize that the authority that they were choosing would devastate and oppress them by taking their personal property. He spent more time on this part of his warning than on any other part, which may be the most concise and earliest public choice statement ever made (Public Choice Theory is a school of economic thought that weaves together politics, economics, and human nature to explain the behavior of governments and politicians, among other political and economic phenomena).

Protect the Less Powerful

God expresses his concern for groups that are at some sort of disadvantage, such as minorities, women, and children.

In Exodus 22 and 23, as well as in several verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God instructed the Israelites not to oppress the stranger–the non-Israelite–who lived among them. Presumably this meant to live peacefully and do commerce with foreigners.

Scripture also sets out principles that provide safeguards for married, unmarried, divorced, and widowed women. Children and slaves, the least powerful of all, receive protection as well (Colossians 4).

Workers comprise another protected group. The employer is free to pay whatever he and his employees agree upon (Matthew 20:1-16). While the workers are to be content with that to which they agreed (Luke 3), they are to be paid and treated properly. Employees are to be paid promptly (Leviticus 19) and fairly (Malachi 3, Romans 4).

The modern applications of this are far too broad to discuss in a single blog post. Some areas where these principles could spark discussion include issues such as minimum wage, pay schedules, incomes taxes, and union strikes.

Protection is the guiding principle to regulations. Laws restrain us and regulations extend the spirit of the law into positive action to carry out that protection. But as we will see later in this series, this requirement for action can be abused and turned into a tool for greed and selfishness far beyond protection.

How can we use regulation as a means of justice today? Leave your comments here.

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  • Jim Price

    In regard to private property, I certainly hold to the old standards of being honest and not stealing. But in our modern real world, things do get complicated. The Hebrews got their land by waging war. Andrew Jackson, saw to it that thousands of white men got free homesteads by either killing are driving out the Indians. Certain rich men are now buying up thousands of acres in strategic areas, lands that have precious water supplies and mineral rights. Even fishing regulations concerning where nations can fish and what they are allowed to catch get more complicated by the day.

    • Brian Baugus

      Jim,

      Thanks for reading and taking time to participate in the conversation. You
      certainly make a good point. As for the Hebrews, they of course had a direct command by God and that land had been promised to them since Abraham’s time andthe various Canaanite tribes were temporary residents in God’s eyes.

      As for other historical episodes there is certainly a number of unfortunate and tragic incidents. Long before, and after, Andrew Jackson, there were many many atrocities, and it can raise the question of who owns the property. This can be tricky. It may be that the best we can do is work from this point forward, as unsatisfactory as that might be.

      Just to clarify, when I say property, I mean much more than land. I am also referring to things like labor and investment and so forth as well. These are vital extensions consistent with the language in the original command not to covet.

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