Economics 101 & Public Square

What the Bible Says about Property

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Why have societies like the Soviet Union or present-day Zimbabwe led to 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. Can you imagine living in a world where, if you were too successful, someone came and took what you had worked so hard to earn?

From an economic standpoint, private property is one of the foundations of a free society. But is it biblical? It turns out that the Bible has a lot to say about private property, both in the Old and New Testaments.

Old Testament Law

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. Of course, without private ownership, there can be no stealing. Minimally, the prohibition of 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 stone which the ancestors have set.”
  • Deuteronomy 27:17 repeats, “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.”
  • Job 24:2 includes in a list of those that do evil, “Some remove the landmarks; they seize and devour flocks.”

A History Lesson

1 Kings 21 reinforces the importance of ownership. It is a story that recounts how King Ahab coveted the vineyard of Naboth, one of his subjects. 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”

Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, devised a plan to kill Naboth and steal his land. The plan succeeded. Ahab acquired his coveted vineyard. 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 owns all of the land. As his stewards, we are to exercise dominion over the land that God has given us.

What about Jubilee?

In the context of Leviticus 25, the Promised Land was divided among the tribes and among families within the tribes. The setting was, of course, the largely agrarian and tribal culture of ancient Israel after the Jews settled in the Promised Land. 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. Jubilee laws are no longer applicable today since our economy is neither tribal nor agrarian, but they do underscore the sanctity of private property in that time.

Private Property in the New Covenant

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.”

Christianity inherited this prohibition:

  • In the New Testament, Jesus reiterates some of the Ten Commandments including the command, “Do not steal,” to the rich young ruler.
  • After meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus promises to return four times what he took from the people he defrauded.
  • In Romans, Paul argues that the eighth commandment is part of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
  • 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.”

It is evident that the New Testament restates the prohibition of theft which 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.

Christians have accepted the biblical prohibition against theft and have continued to work out its implications. And the implications are enormous. 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.

This post is adapted from Dr. Lindsley’s most recent white paper. You can read the paper in full here

Is private property consistent with biblical principles? Leave your comments here.

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