Why have some societies seen so much human suffering? One foundational reason for the collapse of so many of these countries has been the lack of respect for private property in all forms. The reality is that private property laws have been key—maybe even the key—to the economic flourishing of the West. Why is this? Can the Bible help us understand why private property is so important to human flourishing?
The Old Testament
Two of the Ten Commandments implicitly uphold private property. “You shall not steal” and “You shall not covet” prohibit both the desire to steal and the actual theft of private property (Ex. 20:15; 20:17). Minimally, the prohibition against stealing means that it is wrong to take someone else’s property without his or her permission.
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 mark 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.”
- Note also Job 24:2, which includes in a list of those that do evil: “Some remove the landmarks; they seize and devour flocks.”
God also addresses theft in 1 Kings 21. In this classic example, King Ahab saw Naboth’s vineyard, which was close to his own, and coveted it. Ahab offered either to exchange another vineyard for Naboth’s or to buy it from him. Naboth firmly refused, saying, “The Lord forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers” (1 Kings 21:3).
Ahab’s wife Jezebel devised a plan to kill Naboth and steal his land. The plan was executed and it succeeded. The prophet Elijah, however, pronounced severe judgment on Ahab and Jezebel for this wicked deed.
Naboth’s concern to preserve the inheritance of his fathers is underlined again in Leviticus 25:23: “The land, moreover, shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine.” In the broader biblical picture, God is, strictly speaking, the owner of all of the land. He appoints believers as his stewards and expects them to exercise creative rulership or dominion with the land they are given. (Gen. 1:26-28).
In the context of Leviticus 25, the Promised Land was divided among the tribes and among families within the tribes. The original plots of land were to remain perpetually with the original owners. The Jubilee laws set out by the Old Testament mandated that no matter how irresponsible a family member might be, the land would come back to the biological family every fifty years. The Jubilee laws underscored the sanctity of private property in that time in an agrarian society where land was crucial for prosperity.
The New Testament
The 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.”
The New Testament Christians inherited this prohibition:
- In the New Testament, Jesus reiterates some of the Ten Commandments including, “Do not steal,” to the rich young ruler (Mark 10:19; 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).
- Even the controversial passage in Acts 2-5 is no exception. In this instance, the early believers retained private property while voluntarily sharing what they had through what seems to have been a temporary arrangement.
From this, it is evident that the New Testament restates emphatically the prohibition of theft which clearly implies the upholding of private property.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Art Lindsley’s new booklet, Be Transformed: Essential Principles for Personal and Public Life, now available in English and Spanish. Get the booklet to continue reading about what these biblical principles mean for poverty alleviation today.
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