At Work & Economics 101 & Theology 101

New Essay by Dr. Larry Reed Asks "Was Jesus a Socialist?"

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Have you ever heard the argument that Jesus was a socialist? I have, often.

As I’ve studied the economics of income redistribution, many of my colleagues in secular academic circles point out the seeming discrepancy between two of my main disciplines of focus: faith and economics.

How, they ask, can I reconcile my recommendation that government programs be downsized with my belief that we are to care for the poor and those in need?

Restricting government involvement seems heartless, and denying the call to care for others is sinful. How can we accurately read Scripture in this case?

If you have struggled with this question, let me recommend a new resource from the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). FEE’s president, Dr. Larry Reed, recently published an excellent essay, “Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus a Socialist?,” which unpacks this very topic.

As Dr. Reed finds,

The fact is, one can scour the Scriptures with a fine-tooth comb and find nary a word from Jesus that endorses the forcible redistribution by political authorities. None, period.

Dr. Reed goes on to delineate a key nuance in the common understanding of the term, “socialism”:

A reader may object to [his description of the term “socialist”] by insisting that to “socialize” something is to simply “share” it and “help people” in the process, but that’s baby talk. It’s how you do it that defines the system. Do it through the use of force, and it’s socialism. Do it through persuasion, free will, and respect for property rights, and it’s something else entirely.

Legitimate wealth – the kind that does not come about at the expense of others – is earned through voluntary exchange. It is the result of mutually beneficial, free exchange, the observation of property rights, and genuine care for others.

Helping the poor should not come about through violence.

Neither should it come out of a heart filled with envy of the rich or reckless, shortsighted generosity, and it most certainly should not harm the very people it intends to serve.

Ultimately, the heart attitude determines our effectiveness.

Close study of scripture reveals that there isn’t a discrepancy between faith and economics, nor between diminished government involvement and helping the poor.

In fact, all economics comes from God’s creation of man, our anthropology, and what God has given us to fulfill his glory. Those who have faith in Jesus share the imperative to help the poor, and they are called to do so in a way that aligns with the economic realities which are woven into the very fabric of creation.

Understanding what the Bible says about the government’s role in poverty alleviation is essential to our ability to help others effectively while on earth.

When we spend our energy in ways that counter God’s design, we are ineffective and our efforts are fruitless. But when we seek to act in harmony with God’s desires for us, we find ourselves instruments used to bring about flourishing.

Want to read more about what the Bible says about wealth redistribution? Check out Dr. Art Lindsley’s writings about Jubilee and Acts 2-5 as well as IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty.

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  • Amarah

    There is a balance in the ideal society. People should care and choose by their own kindheartedness to help the poor. The poor would be grateful, and strive to be better people. But unfortunately our society is far from perfect. Therefore, our only choice is following God’s calling in our lives.

  • DennisAFRet

    When I wore a younger man’s clothes, I attended a denominational meeting in the Dayton, OH area representing 30+ upper middle class churches from the area. A young black pastor who had been brought into the denomination to help pastor a church in a changing neighborhood asked to speak at the meeting. President Reagan had been elected and had given his State of the Union message earlier, looking to reduce welfare programs. The young pastor told us all how horrible this would be and his main message was for us to write our congressmen about this problem. After the meeting, I had one of those “I wish I had thought of that at the time!” moments. Here we were, Christians all, by profession, representing a large body of believers, and instead of praying for God to give us wisdom and to lead us as the Body of Christ to address the problem, we were told the correct response was to write our congressmen! If we had been challenged to find a way to work with the Methodists, the Baptists, the Lutherans and other Protestants in the area, taking four or five families from the group and assigning them a family in poverty to support short term for one-three years while teaching about scripture, economics, training, and budgeting, with technical, financial and expertise support from the church infrastructures, we could do more than the government to reduce the poverty being discussed. It would not be easy, but with prayer, sharing experiences, etc., I am sure this would work much better than most government programs. Perhaps the hardest part would be to get all the different denominations to work together – but God would be in it…and that would make all the difference.
    The church has abdicated its role to the government, believing the lie that the problem is too big for the church. So we have people today looking to find ways (tax) to finance the government doing the church’s work, and even trying to justify it from scripture. In the extreme, we have some in the government trying to move us to the forcible redistribution of wealth in the name of social justice that says any income inequality is wrong (sin).
    This is idolatry, trusting government to do what God has called His people to have Him do through them, with Him receiving credit and glory, and using it to draw others to Himself.

  • anarchobuddy

    I hope this question does not go too far astray from the subject matter at hand, but how would you respond to the argument that we are to obey the state because many have determined that that is what Romans 13 tells us to do, and if the state determines that it must redistribute wealth, we must obey it?

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