The Bible upholds the importance of owning and being able to use private property. It is especially wrong to steal or to covet someone else’s property. Strictly speaking, all property is owned by the Lord.
Private Property in the Old Testament
The Old Testament speaks a great deal concerning private property. Regarding the above statement that all property is owned by the Lord, Scripture says:
- Exodus 19:5 declares that “all the earth is mine.”
- Exodus 9:29: “the earth is the Lord’s.”
- Leviticus 25:23: “the land is mine.” God is the ultimate owner but has delegated stewardship to his image bearers. He has called them to dominion or rulership over all he has made (Gen. 1:26-28). He carefully preserves the rights of individuals to keep and use their land and property.
Two of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not covet,” imply and entail private property (Exod. 20:15, 17, KJV). Stealing involves taking something that is another’s. Coveting involves desiring what is another’s. Minimally, the prohibition of stealing means that it is wrong to take someone else’s property without his or her permission. This prohibition is underlined throughout both the Old and New Testaments.
Divine prohibitions against moving boundary markers occur five times throughout the Old Testament.
- Deuteronomy 19:14 says, “You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary stone which the ancestors have set.”
- This injunction is repeated in Deuteronomy 27:17: “Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark.”
- Proverbs 22:28 says, “Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set.”
- Proverbs 23:10 warns, “Do not move the ancient boundary or go into the fields of the fatherless.”
- In a list of those that do evil, Job 24:2 includes: “Some remove the landmarks; they seize and devour flocks.”
In 1 Kings 21, the story of the prophet Elijah’s rebuke of Ahab and Jezebel for the murder of Naboth and their acquisition of his vineyard is a classic biblical story of theft. Elijah pronounced severe judgment on Ahab and Jezebel for this wicked deed.
Private Property in the New Testament
This prohibition against stealing was not, of course, unique to the ancient Jews. Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser notes that “Rome made this crime one that was punishable by death, so seriously did they view such an action.”
Christianity inherited this prohibition:
- In the New Testament, Jesus reiterates some of the Ten Commandments to the rich young ruler, including “Do not steal” (Mark 10:9; Luke 18:20).
- After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus promises fourfold restitution to those he has defrauded (Luke 19:8).
- In Romans, Paul argues that the eighth commandment is part of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself (Rom. 13:9).
- In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul lists habitual thieves as those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Paul clearly states, “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need” (Eph. 4:28).
Christians have accepted the biblical prohibition against theft and have continued to work out its implications. According to Kaiser, “John Calvin found removing the boundary stone to be an act of double deceit, for it was both an act of theft and one of false witness.” It is evident that the New Testament restates emphatically the prohibition of theft, which clearly implies the upholding of private property. Moreover, the controversial passage in Acts 2-5 does not constitute an exception to this, as the early believers retained private property while being generous with their possessions. They voluntarily shared what they had through what seems to have been a temporary arrangement.
The biblical respect for the property and possessions of others has been key in establishing human well-being throughout the modern world, and societies that have heeded these principles have been one step closer to experiencing prosperity and growth for all.