There has been much written about threats to the United States. When I was a boy, the Soviet Union and the communist threat there was thought to be the biggest danger to life as we know it. Now, some are more worried about China, but from an economic standpoint, it seems that many believe that there are horrible things waiting for the United States as it hurries down a path leading to “Socialism.”
Inherent in all of these discussions is the basic belief that Capitalism and the Free-Market Economy are Biblical. Any country that strays too far off of this path of rectitude is headed for disaster.
I like capitalism. I don’t like paying high levels of taxes which seem inherently a part of instituting socialism, but that says more about me than what the Bible says about what sort of economic theory should influence how churches function in society.
I wonder if people who feel strongest about capitalism understand what the economy was like in Bible times and what God commanded for the state of Israel.
People Didn’t Have Money in Ancient Israel
It may be surprising to some, but the first coins weren’t minted until around 600 years before the time of Christ. Those coins were made in the Kingdom of Lydia in what is modern day Turkey.
Prior to that time, when people paid for something in silver or gold, they did so based on the weight of the silver or gold. So, a silver shekel was a lump of silver weighing around 9.6 grams.
The common people who lived in ancient Palestine were very poor. They didn’t have lumps of silver lying around and so most business was done via bartering. Crops, produce, and livestock were the “money” of the day.
Even the wealthy farmers did not have an overabundance of silver and gold and since the Palestine area is prone to droughts, it was not unusual to have years where the land simply didn’t produce. Stories like the one in the beginning of the book of Ruth, tell of a farmer who had to emigrate, simply for the possibility that he could support his family better in Moab, where it was rumored that there was a little more rainfall.
With this in mind, it is hard to compare Israel in the times of Joshua or even King David to our modern economies. It was probably more like rural Africa, than the modern United States. More than that, the people were asked to do things by God, not because they were wealthy, but because they were His people and wanted to serve Him. When they gave, it was not out of abundance, but out of need, with hearts of love.
Tithing was Required
In the Old Testament times all the people were to tithe from what their crops produced. While we think of a tithe as being ten percent, the Israelites were expected to give a little more than 20 percent of their income.
These tithes went to support the Levites, to provide a social net for the poor, and to help with the yearly feasts.
As mentioned before, most of the Jewish people were quite poor by today’s standards. They were scratching out a living, from their land.
Lest we think that they had no taxes, their rulers also expected them pay a chunk of their income in taxes to the crown – and often there was a foreign kingdom, like Assyria, Babylon, or Persia, that also required tribute.
The Israelites weren’t always faithful with paying these tithes, but God stated firmly that tithing was important to Him and that judgment would come for those who did not pay them (Mal 3:8,9).
The Israelites had Slaves
Slavery was codified in the Old Testament law. It seems, based on these laws, that servanthood typically happened when Israelites became poor enough that they were unable to pay their debts. We probably can’t imagine it, as today people just declare bankruptcy, but there was no other path for the ancient Jews to be free of their debts.
Once again, this is very different from modern societies. As mandated by Old Testament laws, slaves needed to be given the Sabbath Day as a day of rest and if a slave was harmed in a significant way, he was to be granted his freedom. More than this, slavery was to be temporary – lasting only six years at the end of which time, not only was the slave to be freed, but the master was to give the slave resources to help him have a new start again (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).
This was very different from the type of slavery practiced in the rest of the world at that time. It also seems that the Israelites did not obey these laws very well and this (among other things) was a reason for the Babylonian Captivity (Jeremiah 34:8-24).
By bringing this up, I do not mean to say that I think either that slavery is good or that was beneficial. I simply want us to understand a little bit of how their economy was supposed to function.
God’s People Weren’t to Charge Interest
The Old Testament law was very clear regarding the charging of interest. The Jews weren’t to charge interest on any loans to other Jews (they could charge on loans to non-Jewish people). Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy all had specific rules against charging interest and even rules about what assets could be used to secure loans.
The Prophet Ezekiel spoke of charging interest as an “abomination” and something that was worthy of death (Ezekiel 18:13).
Part of the issue was that most Jews took out loans due to their poverty and lacked the resources to survive without such a loan. This loan might be the last step before having to sell one’s self or one’s family into slavery. The Israelites were not to take advantage of such a person. They were to loan money to help such a person, not to push them into bankruptcy (slavery).
It wasn’t that people hadn’t figured out the concept of interest in ancient economies. Most ancient societies did charge interest – usually 15 or 20 percent. The fact that the Jews did not charge interest meant that God wanted something different for the people that was called by His name.
Certainly, our society would look pretty different if interest wasn’t charged or if it was capped at certain levels.
Debts Were Temporary
Under the Deuteronomic Law, debts were to be cancelled at the end of seven years. (Deut. 15:1-3) Once again, this allowed the poor to achieve a “reset” of sorts. It wasn’t that at the end of seven years they suddenly became wealthy, but at least they no longer had debts hanging over their heads and they would get their freedom back, if they were forced to sell themselves into slavery.
I find this interesting, in light of current discussions about college debt. Many seem to think that “you borrowed it, you pay it” is the policy that is in order and of course, in a capitalistic society, barring bankruptcy, that is what happens. Maybe God did not see this as the ideal situation for His chosen people. Maybe, He saw true capitalism as having too much potential for oppressing the poor.
Changes in the Early Church
Jesus came long after the Jewish Kingdom had been conquered. Except for a brief time, during the Hasmonean period, a long list of foreign rulers dominated Jewish politics. Jesus still had much to say about finances.
In Matthew 5:42, He told His disciples to give to the needy and not refuse those who wished to borrow. Matthew 6:1-3 indicates that His followers should give secretly, whenever possible and Luke 6:38 indicates that God’s rewards for giving will be in proportion to the gift.
Regarding amounts of tithing, it is no longer specified. Maybe it seems like ten percent is a reasonable amount, but I Corinthians 16:2 says only that each is to give as the Lord has prospered him.
On the subject of accumulation of wealth, Jesus told a parable in Luke 12 of a man who had an exceptionally good harvest and decided that he would save all his money and retire. Jesus finished the parable saying that the man never lived to see his retirement but received divine judgment. God told Him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus finished with this statement as a way of explanation, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
If this wasn’t enough, when we read about the early church in the book of Acts, we see a strong tendency towards communalism (not communism). People helped each other in every way possible. Acts 2:44, 45 says that the early church had “all things in common” and that “they sold their possessions and goods and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
This brings us up to the present. We live in societies that have some mixture of capitalism and socialism. Other than some small groups, Christians aren’t interested in communalism. At least in North America, many of them seem to be very much against communism and pro-capitalism.
The real question is how Christians honor God within the society we find ourselves. We won’t change the style of economy of our country, but we should be able to serve God – wherever we happen to live.
Capitalism Isn’t a God Thing
For some reason, many Christians have gotten fixated on the idea that God blesses in capitalistic societies and in none other. They are ardently against socialism, welfare, and government supplied health care.
Nowhere in the Bible does it say anything about capitalism. Clearly, as was mentioned earlier, the Jewish theocracy wasn’t a capitalist society and God didn’t intend it to be such.
I would say that if we simply got rid of interest payments and had debt forgiveness every seven years, our society would look quite different from the way it does now.
I will add that the reason why the government in many countries got involved with taking care of poor people and providing healthcare is that the church wasn’t fulfilling its mission. There are too many of us Christians who are good at accumulating wealth (we have excellent work ethic and good stewardship skills), but not much skill at using that wealth for caring for those in need around us.
If there is a New Testament economic theory, it would be love based ministry.
Wealth is not a Sign of Divine Favor
In the Old Testament era, many times God revealed His blessing on individuals. We see in the lives of Solomon and Job that God gave wealth to men who served Him. On the other hand, the story of Job revealed that the loss of wealth doesn’t always point to divine judgment on a sinful life.
In the New Testament, it seems that poverty among the Followers of Jesus was more the rule than the exception. Jesus had no permanent dwelling place and when it came time to pay the temple tax, it took a miraculous event to provide the coin necessary for that tax.
“God sends His rain on the just and on the unjust,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. Quite simply, it is impossible to judge someone’s relationship with God by the amount of money they have in the bank.
Capitalism Can Be Dangerous
“Greed is good,” so goes the mantra of a materialistic age. Many times, capitalism allows Followers of Jesus to make a lot of money. They work hard and rise in their companies due to their honesty and virtue. Just like Joseph in Egypt, they become trusted, important parts of the businesses they work in.
The problems with capitalism are two-fold. First, focusing too much on work is not healthy and could detract from a good relationship with God. If we spend the majority of our time getting good at business, we will achieve that goal, but maybe other parts of our lives will suffer. There are many successful businessmen who are poor husbands and Christians.
Second, wealth is apparently detrimental to being a Follower of Jesus. Jesus said that it was harder for a a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Paul, in I Timothy 6:17-19 told Timothy to warn his people that riches were dangerous and that wealthy people need to focus themselves on using their wealth to help others.
Societies where the government takes most of what people earn or where it is simply hard for Christians to get ahead financially do not offer the same temptations that our materialistic society does.
It is wonderful to have opportunity. It is awful when that opportunity distracts us from what our real goal is, glorifying God.
Applying Biblical Principles
All of this leaves us with a big question. How do we put these sorts of things into practice in our lives and businesses? Should a Christian businessman charge interest? Should he forgive loans where people can’t pay?
There are not easy answers to these questions. For much of church history, it was illegal to charge interest on loans given to other Christians. The First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) forbade clergy from collecting interest on loans. The Third Council of Lateran broadened this to say that no one who charged interest on loans could receive sacraments or a Christian burial. This remained the Catholic church’s official policy until the 16th century.
I have a hard time applying laws that come from the Old Testament theocracy to our present day, but certainly the principles remain. The Apostles didn’t restate these laws against interest and in favor of debt forgiveness, but then again, for the most part they were writing letters to poor people who were more likely to be asking for loans, than giving them to others.
There are some very big principles that we can see in both the Old Covenant laws and in the early church.
Love is More Important than Wealth
Jesus said that His followers would be known for one thing. It wasn’t their big churches, their sharp business practices, their phenomenal work ethic, their amazing potlucks, or even their praise and worship team. People would know Christians by their love for one another (John 13:35).
It appears this has been forgotten. There should not be members of Christian churches who need to question where their next meal will come from. There should not be Christian widows who wonder if they will have a place to live this time next year. James says, “Pure religion and undefiled before God the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”
That’s it. Showing love to the needy and living a morally upright life is what glorifies God. If we come to the end of our lives and have many material things to pass on to our families, but we have not ministered to those in need along the way, then we have missed out on our true calling.
No One Should be Impoverished Because of Our Business Methods
We can’t take responsibility for other people’s poor choices, but the way we do business should not be forcing others into bankruptcy.
Perhaps this starts with the way in which Christian employers treat their workers. Figuring out what is an appropriate level of pay and benefits to provide for workers is important. Obviously, funds are limited, and small businesses have to be able to at least break even in order to survive but seeing workers do well is more important than becoming wealthy.
More than that, as businesses deal with customers, it seems that charging higher rates of interest because that’s the market rate, or moving to foreclose on someone who is struggling, but trying, is not a Christian way of dealing with this. Honesty and mercy should be things that we are known for – not for cutting the hardest deal around.
Government Involvement Doesn’t Take Away Our Responsibility
In many societies, the government offers a variety of services. These could be things like subsidized health care or food assistance. There are still many needs that the government doesn’t meet that Christians should help meet.
Poor people need help with transportation and getting healthy food. They often grew up with poor role models and need men and women who are willing to step in and take the time to be a mentor, teaching and modelling skills and behaviors that will help them to improve both their lives and the lives of their children. There are many other things that these individuals need that no government agency can help with and Christians can try to meet these needs, as well.
It seems to me that many Christian people are good at giving money to Crisis Pregnancy Centers but aren’t so good at giving their time and talents to make a difference. We can do better.
Christians Must Serve God in Any Economic System
I like the (somewhat) capitalistic system that we have in the United States, but it is also the only one that I have really known. I would argue that the US doesn’t even have “true” capitalism, because the government taxes its citizens to fund roads, schools, and some degree of subsidy for the health care of older citizens and poor citizens.
Knowing what I know about human nature, it doesn’t matter what economic system we live in, there will be challenges when it comes to serving God within that system.
Maybe the challenges will simply be the desire for material things and the conflict that results when we need to decide if we will buy something for ourselves or minister to the need of someone else. Maybe the challenge will be in our need for personal security and the conflict that results when feel like we don’t have enough money in the bank to really feel secure and yet, there are needs around us.
In a communistic society (there aren’t many true communistic economies left on earth), there is a challenge of how to meet the needs of others when you simply don’t have enough yourself. In such a scenario, you probably end up giving time, abilities, and effort to others, because you don’t have anything else to give.
What is certain is that Satan will try to do whatever he can to keep Christians from glorifying God and ministering to the needs of those around them. He will get us to rationalize away reasons that we should help others and get us to be self-focused and self-absorbed.
Some things have changed since Old Testament times, but God’s expectations of His people hasn’t changed. He sent them into captivity because of their oppression of the poor and today, He tells us the same thing.
“What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8)
I pray that we could do better. That the church, as a whole and us as individuals within it, would act with justice, humility, and mercy all our days. For that, is what the Lord requires of us.
And let it begin with me.