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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  • ritchie11zw

    Being Zimbabwean, I have been compelled to comment here by the mere mention of my home country in the introduction of this article. I do not necessarily agree with the notion that, lack of respect for private property is one of the foundational reasons that led to the collapse of our economy. I maybe wrong but I assume that this comment was made with reference to the land reform initiative that was undertaken by our government in the year 2000. It is my humble submission that this initiative was motivated by the strong need to create equal access to the country’s means of production, land in particular, thus empowering the majority. While I do not necessarily agree with the approach that was used in the process, I am still convinced that this kind of reform was necessary. I still find it difficult to imagine how this process could have been possible without one or all the parties involved experiencing some ‘necessary pain’. In the same way I fail to imagine how the Israelites could have settled in the ‘promised land’ of Canaan without causing pain to the other nations that were already occupying this land, some of these nations had to be destroyed if the Israelites were to enjoy the promise! I also believe that our present suffering cannot be compared to the glory that shall be ours in this nation after all this confusion is over. I believe the nation is in a transitional mode which will lead us back to our original status as the bread basket of Africa!

  • I guess it depends on what you want to focus on. Certainly the Soviet Union was horrible. It eliminated a lot, but not all, of private ownership of property and there was tyranny. Nazi Germany, on the other hand, didn’t eliminate private property and it was tyrannical too. So we might want to ask if there were other things they had in common besides private property.

    And there was, there was elite-centered rule. For the Soviet Union, elite-centered rule hijacked the revolution and destroyed the worker councils, or the soviets, while keeping the name. Elite rulership was passed off as a vanguard. This enabled the Marxist revolution to make a right-hand turn rather than continuing left. We should also note that not all private property was not abolished in the Soviet Union.

    For Nazi Germany, the Hitler was helped into office by business elites. Then Hitler fulfilled his promises to destroy democracy and give the Germans the right, or command, to conform. Again, we had elite-center government.

    We have a form of elite-centered government today. This government, regardless of which party is in control, has, for the most part, taken its orders from corporate elites who fund the campaigns and, in other ways, buy the gov’t. And yes, we have private property. But, despite our democracy, we don’t have self-rule. Elite-centered government is what the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had in common. Not that we will have the same kind of elite-centered gov’t that they had, but our gov’t is out of control because we have spent too much time enjoying our private property and too little time participating in self-rule so that those with money now control government.

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