The Ten Commandments of Economics
God communicates His creational intent to us through the Bible, His written word for Christians. As we search the scriptures, we find ten “commandments” regarding the production and distribution of scarce resources: people should be free, work is good, don’t steal, don’t covet, use honest measures, trade is good, love your neighbor as yourself, take care of widows and orphans, be a good Samaritan, and honor those in power.
In this paper, we select for study ten important biblical principles for proper economic behavior. We then consider how students of comparative economics can use these principles to evaluate the appropriateness of economic systems. While not endorsing a particular economic system, the Bible has important principles regarding human nature, private property rights, and the role of government. We assert that biblical principles of economic activity are consistent with political, economic, and religious freedom (Lindsley, 2016). These can be used to evaluate economic systems (Anderson, 2016).
Perhaps it is better to speak of certain key biblical principles relevant for economics than to speak of a “biblical economics.” The best we can do is to evaluate particular economic systems as being more or less consistent with biblical teaching, (Bolt, 2013) which is our intent in this paper. It must be conceded that in the mind of God at least there is a set of principles for the social and economic life of his creatures. Furthermore, the whole point of revelation is to give us an insight into his purposes for men (Hay, 1989). If the New Testament told us more about Jesus’ activities before his ministry, we would learn a lot about economics from his behavior. Jesus produced and distributed scarce furniture for about 15 years before his ministry began.
- People Should be Free
“I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.” Psalm 119:45
The crossroads of Christianity and Economics is freedom. We believe that God, the greatest being we can envision with our finite, human minds, gives us the choice to accept or reject His invitation of salvation. That’s a big concept to understand and accept. It’s a great deal of freedom. The predominant note of the New Testament is not political freedom, but freedom in Christ from bondage to sin, the Law, Satan, the old man, and death. It is not that political freedom or freedom from slavery was unimportant but that there was an even deeper bondage that had to be overcome first (Lindsley, 2016).
The famous painting of Jesus standing at the door is based on the scripture from Revelation 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (KJV) The main point of the famous painting is this: There’s no door handle on Jesus’ side of the door. We are free to open the door, or keep it closed. If God gave us the freedom to accept or reject His invitation, we have to believe He wants us to have as much freedom as possible in our economic lives. As Christians, we are not free to seek any end that satisfies our individual need. We make a free, conscious decision to be guided by a “multitude of advisors” in making free choices. Don’t miss the point: We make a choice to limit our own freedom, and take direction from other Christians whom we choose to give power to.
The argument of Christians ranging from Augustine to Aquinas is that humans flourish in the process of free choice (Gregg, 2016). In economics, we often ask the question about the degree of freedom people should have. We believe people are fallen, so we have to institute some rules. But how many? And which ones? This is the road we travel as Christian economists, trying to determine what level of freedom the Bible commands us to enact. But we’re pretty confident that God wants us to have as much freedom as possible, because He gave us the freedom to accept or reject His offer of salvation. That is an important and recurring theme for us in Christian economics. Jay Richards lists as one of his ten rules for the Christian economy: Encourage economic freedom: Allow people to trade goods and services unencumbered by tariffs, subsidies, price controls, undue regulation, and restrictive immigration policies (Richards, 2009).
Free market capitalism refers to an economic system with rule of law and private property, in which people can freely exchange goods and services (Richards, 2009) to enrich themselves and others. Since our impulse is to be as free and independent as we can, (Denison, 2019) freedom is the last thing that should be taken for granted. Because of the fall, we are in bondage to sin. True freedom necessitates the Spirit’s work to change our heart and redirect our lives, which will otherwise give way to entropy (Lindsley, 2016). Freedom is an important building block leading to economic flourishing.
In Defending the Free Market, Rev. Robert Sirico writes about the important freedom to own private property, “Every scheme of redistribution that has defied the right to private property has created more poverty. The right to private property is not absolute, but it is a basic human right. When and where that right is respected, people and whole societies flourish.” (Sirico, 2012). They flourish because they are rewarded for expressing the creative image of God to create greater value for their neighbors.
Religious freedom was the stalk from which political freedom grew in Colonial America. It caused the US Revolutionary war in 1776. Just 13 years later, the French revolution did the opposite: It threw out religion. The difference between those two revolutions is chronicled in Last Call for Liberty by Os Guinness. “At the core, the deepest division is rooted in the differences between two world-changing and opposing revolutions, the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, and their rival views of freedom and the nature of the American experiment.” It is easy to tie France’s disdain for religion in their revolution to the political and economic upheaval they are facing today. Without a religious rudder, the country embraces a relativism that threatens both their economic and governance systems.
Human freedom and human flourishing are thus not just associated with each other; they are intimately connected with doing good and avoiding evil (Gregg, 2016). One of the ways we exercise our freedom in doing good is through work and that is the subject of our next commandment.
- Work is good
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Genesis 2:15
As creator, God has made us with the awesome power and responsibility to create…. Work itself is part of God’s original blessing, not his curse after the fall. The way in which we work, then, should reflect the fact that we are a unity of matter and spirit, of heaven and earth, neither pack animals nor angels (Richards, 2009). Work is not a product of the fall but is actually part of the creation order. While it is true that work was deformed by the fall, so that there is now toil and drudgery (Anderson, 2016). Work is not a curse, but a Gift from God. By our work we employ useful skills to glorify God and love our neighbors (Whelchel, 2012).
According to Ann Bradley (Bradley, 2016), 39 of the 40 parables in the New Testament are about work. In Genesis, God works to create humans, then gives humans the command to work. In the creational garden, before the fall, humans had work to do: Naming the animals, and tending the garden. Work was perfect and produced perfect results. After the fall, work became toil, and hard. But, we are still commanded to do it. Work remains essential to human dignity, and integral to man’s nature (Hay,1989).
In the first century, creating wealth was difficult because the vast majority of the population was employed in subsistence farming. The most common way of accumulating riches was through oppressing the weak, leveling heavy taxation, and exploiting slaves. For this reason, it is not surprising that the New Testament contains many denunciations of rich people from that time but still encourages honest work and diligent labor (Kotter, 2014). Should we work for common ownership as it was practiced in the early Church in Jerusalem? Even though his book is titled, All Things in Common, Roman Montero admits that the passages from Acts 2 are “Limited to the first century and Jerusalem.” (Montero, 2017)
Work is worship. The words are very similar. In The Call, Os Guinness tells the wonderful story of a woman considering suicide by drowning, when she gets distracted by the perfect plowing of a farmer with a mule. The distracted woman turns away from suicide to become the author’s great grandmother (Guinness, 1998). It’s a unique and intense example of the power of work to distract us from the fallen world we live in.
For the Christian, life without work is meaningless; but work must never become the meaning of one’s life (Whelchel, 2012). So what comes before work? Our primary call is to be followers of Christ. Our secondary calling is to do something to build the kingdom (Guinness, 1998). Calvin taught that every believer has a vocational calling to serve God in the world in every sphere of human existence, lending a new dignity and meaning to ordinary work (Whelchel, 2012).
John Calvin’s claim on Colossians 3:23 “Whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord,” was called “The Protestant Work Ethic” by Max Weber in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The created universe that God brings into existence then provides the material of human work—space, time, matter and energy. Within the created universe, God is present in relationship with his creatures and especially with people. Laboring in God’s image, we work in creation, on creation, with creation and—if we work as God intends—for creation.”
In Every Good Endeavor Timothy Keller writes, “Think of the cliché’ that nobody ever gets to the end of their life and wishes they had spent more time at the office. It makes good sense, of course, up to a point. But here’s a more interesting perspective: At the end of your life, will you wish that you had plunged more of your time, passion, and skills into work environments and work products that helped people?” (Keller, 2012). In the classroom, we follow this with a video clip from the end of the movie Schindler’s List, where actor Liam Neeson portrays Schindler crying over his failure to save more people. “I could have saved more,” he anguishes. The point is: Schindler wished he has spent more time at the office. This is an example of the integration we find in the Christian worldview: Our work is our worship. Why would you hope to spend less time at your worship?
- Don’t steal
“You shall not steal.” Exodus 20:15
Our students don’t want us to redistribute their grades. They say they have a private property claim to their grades. One of us redistributed a grade once. In an online class, a student wrote an effective argument for redistribution of wealth. So, he awarded her the full ten points, then redistributed three points each to students who did not participate in the discussion board. That’s a 60% tax, which is actually pretty low in a socialist system. The student accused the professor of theft. She claimed she had a right to the full grade based on her convincing argument that redistribution was a proper policy. The students who did not complete the assignment but received some credit for it did not protest. Similarly, those members of society who receive the redistributed wealth are not likely to protest on behalf of those whose wealth is taken away. We should be warned by the words of Benjamin Franklin, who keenly noted “When the people find that they can vote themselves money that will herald the end of the republic.”
“Thou shalt not steal,” presupposes the validity of private property. You cannot steal something, after all, if no one owns it (Sirico, 2012). Does Acts 2 call for common ownership of property? It is this ancient notion of voluntary action or freedom that we speak of when we say that the informal communism of the early Christian community was voluntary (Montero, 2017)? Yes, because, the disciples voluntarily “sold a piece of land,” to give to the community.
There is a meaningful assumption in socialist institutions like police and fire departments. There is an assumption that the tax being expropriated from the home and business owners is used to protect the taxpayer, not someone outside the taxpayer’s jurisdiction. This is what Christian Economists support: The forcible extraction of wealth from citizens to provide services for them. That’s not stealing. But, when a taxing authority forcibly extracts tax from its citizens to use on a project that cannot be traced to creating value for the taxpayer, that’s theft.
In Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt writes, “When your money is taken by a thief, you get nothing in return. When your money is taken through taxes to support needless bureaucrats, precisely the same situation exists.” Notice, he didn’t say all taxes are stealing. Only those taxes that “support needless bureaucrats.” This is consistent with our assumption, that taxes are a payment for services rendered. When a reasonable argument can be made that the person being taxed is in some general way rendered a service, we consider that within the Biblical guidelines, and that’s not stealing. Notice two “wiggle words” in that sentence: “Reasonable” and “general.” We do not expect a perfect argument for a specific service. This is consistent with our Christian worldview of imperfection. We’re after the same thing Hazlitt is: Intention. If the government bureaucrats are enlarging their realm, just so they can have more bureaucrats employed, we find that a violation of the Old Testament sixth commandment and our third commandment of Biblical economics: Don’t steal. If they enlarge employment to provide more services, that’s not stealing, and it’s Biblical. So, we’re going to posit that the government is there to serve others. When they use money that is extracted by taxes to serve others, that’s Biblical. We assume here that the amount of tax is reasonable, and the services rendered would not be provided otherwise. When they use extracted tax money to serve themselves, that’s not Biblical. In 1978 Hazlitt wrote, “More and more people are becoming aware that government has nothing to give them without first taking it away from somebody else – or from themselves. Increased handouts to selected groups mean merely increased taxes, or increased deficits and increased inflation” (Hazlitt, 1962).
- Don’t Covet
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant or female servant, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Exodus 20:17
Nearly every discussion about income inequality is a violation of the Old Testament tenth commandment, which is our fourth commandment. Desiring what others have is a violation of that commandment. As Christians, we are taught to care about the poor, not the rich. When you worry about the distance between the rich and the poor, you’re being covetous.
Thomas Sowell said, "Envy was once considered to be one of the seven deadly sins before it became one of the most admired virtues under its new name, 'social justice.'" He’s right. There is no end of “repackaging” old ideas under new banners that make them sound better, but they are still a violation of the rule against coveting. Karl Marx summed up socialist theory in the single phrase, “Abolition of private property” (Sirico, 2012), in a book his publisher copyrighted! Marx wanted to abolish it because he knew he was striking at a nerve among the working classes: Jealousy. It’s not surprising that Marx, an atheist would do this. We’re surprised when respected Christian thought-leaders do it.
If we try to run the economy for the benefit of a single group or class, we shall injure or destroy all groups, including the members of the very class for whose benefit we have been trying to run it. We must run the economy for everybody, not just for covetous groups who want what others have (Hazlitt, 1962).
We will propose that everyone has an equal chance to accept Christ as their personal savior, but there will not be equal economic outcomes. We believe that special revelation allows some humans to be presented with the gospel in specific terms: From a copy of the Bible, a sermon, or from a friend or missionary. General revelation via creation enables everyone the chance to accept. That’s where “fair” ends. Fair is an annual celebratory event (Arnott, 2000). Christ never promised fair outcomes. As a matter of fact, He promised the opposite, “In this life you will have trouble.” If life were fair, why would he promise trouble? He was preparing us for a world of economic unequal outcomes.
“The earliest Christians held all things in common not claiming anything as their own,” writes Roman Montero in All Things in Common, a book to which he owns the copyright (Montero, 2017). It’s not covetousness that caused Montero to defend the copyright to his book. It’s his private property, and you can’t steal it, any more than a student in our classes can steal grades from a fellow student. Christians must guard against the effect of wealth on their spiritual lives. There is nothing wrong with owning possessions. The problem comes when the possessions own us (Anderson, 2016). Or, when we want to own what others have. That’s covetousness.
The hostility to the market and the prosperity it has produced is a mark of ingratitude, a refusal to give thanks to the Giver of his gifts. Ingratitude also fuels envy, one of the capital sins. Is it possible that our zeal for social justice encourages deadly sin? And is it not the church’s task to counter deadly sin rather than contribute to it? (Bolt, 2013). In his powerful five-minute video on the subject, Dennis Prager says there is one thing that separates happy from unhappy people: Gratitude. And as a Jew, he doesn’t believe Jesus died for him! Christians should be the most grateful people on earth. But we’re not, when we notice income inequality.
“If I obsess about the disparity and lay awake at night thinking about how unfair this all is, then my problem is not the disparity but the illness of discontent and envy in my soul. I have become ungrateful. What is true for us as individual Christians is also true for us when we consider the disparities in our world. We should pause to note that “fairness” is often a code word used by those who want to manipulate feelings of envy and resentment into a political force.” (Bolt, 2013).
- Honest measures
“You shall not have in your bag differing weights, a large and a small. You shall not have in your house differing measures, a large and a small. You shall have a full and just weight; you shall have a full and just measure, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 25:13-16
There are 11 verses about honest measures in the Old Testament, this is just one of them.
It was not for idle reasons that Aquinas stressed that the very word for money was derived “from monere [to warn], because it warns against fraud (Gregg, 2016). There is fraud in every industry. We’ve heard too many diatribes against fraud in the financial system, from the media, who is just as corrupt. We’re all fallen. There is no greater level of fraud in banking than in the media, education, or the ministry. To assume the opposite is to deny the fallen nature. Everyone is fallen, and everyone is tempted to use dishonest measures.
Justice is served when promises are kept, contracts are honored, goods and services are of high quality, workers provide an honest day’s labor and are rewarded with a fair wage (Bolt, 2013). “Fair” is determined by the most democratic process every invented: The market. That’s where everyone has a chance to vote on how products and services are manufactured and distributed.
What about different levels of taxation for the rich and poor? Those who favor progressive taxing systems claim that treating rich different from the poor is just. The assumption is the rich got that way by taking from the poor. Which brings to mind the famous Milton Friedman statement, “Most economic myths grow out of a misunderstanding of the zero-sum fallacy.” Can greater income and social equality including genuinely progressive taxation for the rich and greater income support for the poor, be achieved consistent with biblical justice, which requires impartial treatment of rich and poor? For instance, Deuteronomy 1:17 says, “You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone” (Beisner, 2017).
Absent in many poor countries are honest, efficient and responsive governments at all levels (Claar & Klay, 2007). Corruption and crony capitalism are not fair measures. Bribes are not fair measures. When economic goods and services are traded on an open, free market, the equilibrium price determines what should be made and what should not be made. That’s an economic definition of a fair measure.
Many currencies still bear the name “Crown,” but in different spellings. The Danish Krone, the Swedish Krona, the Czech Koruna, and the Brazilian Real are just a few examples. These derive from the time when a sovereign’s crown was imprinted on the currency. It was supposed to be a reliably honest measure. But the king had great power. “Money, was called up or down, according as the king was creditor or debtor” (Gregg, 2016). This enriched the King at the expense of his servants. That’s not an honest measure.
Economics is replete with dismal statements of malfeasance. When dissecting those statements, the Christian economist will ask “Ignorance or malfeasance?” In a March, 2019 interview by Dallas Fed president Robert Kaplan, Harvard Economist Gregory Mankiw said, “Politicians ask us questions we can’t answer, like “What’s the economy going to do?” They don’t ask us questions where we can provide good answers, like rent control.” We have to wonder, when the legislature of Oregon instituted statewide rent control in March of 2019, were they practicing ignorance or malfeasance? If it’s ignorance, that’s not a violation of the commandment about honest measures. We find it hard to believe that no one in the Oregon legislature knows what Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute said in a PragerU video, “One economist said rent control is the most effective way to destroy a city, other than bombing” (Gelinas, 2014). The Journal of Economics reported that 93% of economists agree that it results in a lower quality and quantity of housing. It appears as though the legislature of Oregon was not using honest measures.
- Trade is good
“And if you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” Leviticus 25:14
Jesus was involved in the production and distribution of scarce furniture.
Jesus worked with his Dad in the furniture making business from about the age of 15 until he was 30. His ministry was about three years. Thus, he spent five times more years in free market trade than he did in ministry. What do you suppose was the nature of his work? Our graduate students have surmised that he probably produced high level furniture of the best quality and workmanship. And, it’s also a good assumption that he sold it and made a profit. If he didn’t make a profit, how did he keep the command to give? Some of our students have guessed that he charged only enough to live a subsistence life. Then, where did he get the money to give?
In Be Fruitful and Multiply Anne Bradley calls profit “left-overs” (Bradley, 2016). After paying the expense of operating a business, there are “left-overs.” These must exist for us to follow the command to give. Trade enables these left-overs to exist. You only get richer when you trade what you have, for what you don’t have. It’s that simple.
From the beginning of the first forms of capitalism in northern Italy, Flanders, and other parts of medieval Europe from the eleventh century onward, many of the merchants involved in increasingly sophisticated forms of finance wrote inscriptions such as Deus enim et proficuum (Gregg, 2016), meaning “For God and Profit.” We think that’s a good description of free trade.
Markets bring about new ideas, create jobs, and grow incomes that help others. The inherent freedom, creativity and ability to coordinate collective action are made possible in market economies and are imbedded in the freedom we explain in the first commandment. Free trade makes both parties richer.
Markets are perhaps the world’s greatest example of diversity. People with diverse talents to provide products and services bring them to the market. Imagine what the world would be like if we were all identical replicas. There would be no trade, because we would all be equally talented and equally impoverished. Perhaps it would be more effectively written “Equally un-talented, which would make us equally impoverished.” Our differences bring us together to serve one another, largely through market trade (Lindsley & Bradley, 2017).
A market doesn’t just distribute goods and services. It’s a highly sensitive network for gathering and disseminating information that would otherwise elude us. It leads to specific prices for the goods and services of interest (Richards, 2009). The old game show “The Price is Right” is a great example of this. If there was not a “right price,” the game would not exist. There IS a right price, it’s the equilibrium price, where everyone votes.
The movie Black Panther depicts the mythical African country of Wakanda, where they have carefully guarded their scarce supply of Vibranium. It’s a powerful movie, with stereotypically good guys and bad guys. And, true to the Christian Worldview, the good guys win. But the assumption that the Wakanda society developed and became rich without trading their valuable Vibranium is not consistent with economic reality. It’s like living on top of a gold mine, and assuming you’re the richest guy in the world. What are you going to do with it, eat it? Build a house of it? Take a vacation on it? You’re going to trade what you have (Vibranium for the Wakandans), for what you don’t have - food, a house, a vacation. That’s how people get rich. That’s what we all do when we work. We trade our skills for money.
Thus, we will assume that since Jesus did it, and that both parties to a free market exchange get richer by doing it, we should do it. The idea of “both getting richer” in economics is called consumer surplus and producer surplus. We explain it in more detail in the next section.
- Love your neighbor as yourself
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Matthew 22:39
Consumer Surplus - If you love your neighbor as you love yourself, you will care for both yourself and your neighbor. Capitalism is the best chance we have ever had to love our neighbor and to serve strangers (Bradley & Lindsley, 2017). This is an interesting concept that we show in class by asking students on the amount they would pay for an offer from an internet site called Groovebook, to have up to 100 photos printed and mailed to the consumer each month. The students typically make guesses ranging from $10 to $25. Then we show them the real price: $3.99. Admittedly, Groovebook is probably losing money on the deal and trying to build market share, instead of making profit. But the point is still made. The students expect to pay $25, but the website offers the service for less than $4. That means their consumer surplus is $21. The cost is only $4 for what they are willing to pay $25. That’s quite fascinating to students, as it is to lots of people who don’t understand free market economics.
Adam Smith said it correctly in The Wealth of Nations: “Each person, while seeking his own interest, provides for the interest of all.” Jay Richards says it effectively in Money, Greed, and God: “The market is, as Hayek said, “probably the most complex structure in the universe.” It deserves our admiration. And yet very few Christian critics… have fully understood it. Fewer still have thought of it as a stunning example of God’s providence over a fallen world…. It is just what we might expect of a God who, even in a fallen world, can still work all things together for good.” What’s best for your neighbors is also best for you, in a free market.
How does this affect the poor? They are made rich when they are allowed to make exchanges with their neighbors in a free market. The poor must be given opportunity to create wealth. Put that way, we can see what is so troublingly wrong about using coercive redistribution as the primary means of alleviating poverty. Redistribution assumes that wealth is a given and that it is only a matter of cutting up the existing pie. Poverty is caused by greedy people who take more than their fair share. But that is to turn things on their head; it fails to ask how the wealth pie was created in the first place and by whom. Wealth is created because of the value that God and human beings place on things (Bolt, 2013). Since God values humans, he values their freedom (expressed in Economic Commandment #1) to make exchanges with their neighbors. It’s hard to imagine how a redistributionist would justify the taking of goods as moral.
Producer Surplus - Everyone understands that Wal-Mart buys a box of tissues for about $.60 and sells it for about $1.25. That’s called producer surplus, and you don’t need an economics lesson to understand that. But if you interviewed customers leaving Wal-Mart, most of them would say that, in the exchange they just made, Wal-Mart got richer, while the consumer got poorer. That’s not economically accurate. Both parties get richer, when both parties make arms-length trades in a perfectly competitive environment. Now, all environments are not perfectly competitive, and that’s called market power, which is a subject for another paper.
Anyone who sells anything profitably in a market is in some sense making money off the “dis-ease” – the lack or insufficiency – of others. The home builder is making money off the homelessness of home buyers: clothing manufacturers off the nakedness of clothing buyers; restaurants off the hunger of diners (Sirico, 2012). Students pay their University for information that leads to a college degree, which enriches them. Professors pay to attend the Christian Business Faculty Association conference, in anticipation of increasing their knowledge about the integration of faith and learning. We ask the students at our Christian University, “If tuition is too high, why are you here?” It’s not too high. Students are seeking a cure for their “dis-ease.”
At this point, we make this very common sense conclusion: If both parties get richer during trade, we should do more of it. Here’s the Christian economic suggestion from the producer’s (Wal-Mart) point of view: If you love your neighbor as you love yourself, you will participate in economic exchanges where your neighbor gains consumer surplus, while you gain producer surplus. Both parties get richer. This works only in competitive environments, which lead us to our next commandment.
- Take care of Widows and Orphans
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27
In some versions, this includes immigrants. The reason the church is commanded to take care of these three groups is because in the ancient world, these were the people who didn’t own land. In an agrarian society, if you didn’t own land, you could not create value for yourself, and someone needed to take care of you. In the first century, it was the job of the church to do so.
Donald Hay says the message of his book Economics Today is, “Work, and the obligation on the rich to help the poor” (Hay, 1989). We are commanded to care for the poor. But how? And, by whom? Art Lindsley has a clear answer, “The government should punish evil, but not do good. The church should do good, but not punish evil” (Lindsley, 2016). We wish it was that clear. There are examples of the early church punishing evil. And there are multiple examples of the government doing good. Or, at least trying to do good. But Lindsley was talking about normative economics, not positive economics. He was stating how things should be, from the Biblical perspective.
Paul gave specific instructions to Timothy to provide aid only to widows who were “really in need.” And included criteria for those worthy of receiving aid such as being “well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds” (Kotter, 2014). The requirements are quite stringent. Some of those requirements were that the widows on the list were to have been long-term members of the community and that they themselves were known to have aided others in need in the past (Montero, 2017). The judgment task for the providers of care for widows and orphans is much different than the entitlement that takes place in present day government programs.
It's Biblically clear that taking care of widows and orphans is a job for the church, not for government. Fiscal issues like smaller government size and the monetary issue of stabilization from inflation disproportionately benefit the poor, by raising the share of income accruing to the bottom quintile among income earners. Indeed, social spending is negatively related to the income share possessed by the poor, which reminds us that public social spending is not necessarily well targeted to the poor (Bandow, 2017).
It is our contention, from Biblical study, that the government should not try to do good. We believe the church has either forfeited its role, or the government has assumed it. In this section, we’re not going to argue about causality, we’re only going to conclude that the outcome has not been Biblical. While the rise of government programs may have exacerbated the church’s retreat, they were not the primary cause. Theology matters, and the church needs to rediscover a Christ-centered, fully orbed perspective of the kingdom (Corbett & Fikkert, 2009). In the socialist’s vision, widespread government redistribution replaces private charity by ensuring that the working classes and the poor do not have to depend on benevolence (Sirico, 2012). That robs Christians of our commandment to care for widows and orphans.
Are we saved by joining God in his identification with the marginalized and oppressed? This would be, we should note, a salvation by works and not by grace alone (Bolt, 2013). Our statement is Most religions believe you behave to be saved. Christians believe we are saved to behave. Thus, we care for widows and orphans, not as means to be saved, but because we are saved. We hope Christians already have a heart for the poor, as many do. But do you have a mind for the poor? Unfortunately, that’s in rather short supply (Richards, 2009). This famous quote from Jay Richards became the theme of the video series Poverty Cure by the Acton Institute.
On this point, we take a radical departure from current day political events. Our study of this Biblical command seems to indicate that the church is responsible for taking care of widows and orphans. We find very little space for the government in “doing good.” If the government is not supposed to “do good,” who is? The Good Samaritan story provides a Biblical answer.
- Be a good Samaritan
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Luke 10:36
Notice the words in bold in the following passage from Luke 10:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
If we attempt to “go and do likewise,” we help people with our own money, as the Good Samaritan did. Jesus could have told the story in the following manner:
But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He roused some Roman soldiers and they went door-to-door extracting taxes from the citizens who had earned money in their business pursuits. They put the money into public coffers, and used it to buy public bandages, public oil, public wine, and public donkeys. They built public hospitals with public denarii and reimbursed the medical staff with public denarii.
That’s not how Jesus told the story. Why didn’t he? Certainly the Roman government was strong enough to institute such a tax. Those who argue that “it was a different context,” support our argument. They certainly are not suggesting that the current U.S. government, has, or should have, more power over its citizens than the Roman government did. Much of the New Testament contains complaints about the power of the Roman government. That it’s too much, not that there is not enough. So, in a context 2000 years ago, of a more powerful government than we have today, Jesus didn’t say, “You know those Roman government officials you’ve been complaining about? This is how their power should be used, to help those in need.” He didn’t say that. As a matter of fact, he purposely avoided saying that. We have come to believe that the government bureaucrat is a Good Samaritan (Sirico, 2012). It’s not.
Let’s think more carefully about the Samaritan in this story. We’re not told where he obtained his money, but there is a good assumption, that if he was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, he was a merchant, salesman, or trader of some kind. He is clearly not identified as a government official, because that would have been worth mentioning in the story. So, we’re left with a for-profit merchant using the money he made in a free market endeavor, using his own money to care for those in need. Let’s go and do likewise.
A significant advantage of programs administered through local churches compared to governmental programs is that relief is voluntarily provided and personally administered (Kotter, 2014). Based on what we know from the first Commandment of Economics, this type of freedom is consistent with the Christian intent.
- Honor those in power
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” Romans 13:1-2
These authorities are established by God, but they are staffed by fallen humans. Thus, it is the Christian’s difficult task to know when to follow the governing authorities, and when to subvert them. In the fascinating book, Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas explains how Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his group of subservient spies overcame this scriptural mandate during the evil reign of the Nazis. In general, we are going to assume that we should follow the rules made for us. Very few circumstances are as dire and extreme as the Hitler situation in Germany from 1932-45.
From the beginning of the Christian church, its view of government has not been negative. Despite the often brutal persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities, nowhere does one find in Scripture or the Church Fathers any claim that government is an essentially illegitimate institution, let alone the suggestion that any form of state coercion whatsoever is wrong (Gregg, 2016).
Romans 13:15 says we are to obey civil authorities in order to avoid anarchy and chaos, but there may be times when we may be forced to obey God rather than men (Anderson, 2016). Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail provides a good middle point for this consideration.
“There is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the Early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.”
MLK found this middle ground quite successfully. But he didn’t say that civil disobedience should go unpunished. He did not mind spending his time in jail, and Bonhoeffer was willing to die for his disobedience.
Alexis de Tocqueville made many fascinating observations about the American experiment in his book Democracy in America, published in 1835. Perhaps his biggest contribution is the idea of “mediating institutions” that occupied the space between individuals and government. He noticed a number of philanthropic organizations to care for the ills of society. Before he wrote the book, the term “individualism” was seen as a social dysfunction. He explained the American concept as a positive term. The Americans honored those in power, but built voluntary mediating institutions to operate alongside the coercive governmental system. What he called “individualistic”; it is in fact properly characterized as a form of “associationalism” (Bolt, 2013) via these mediating institutions.
The result of U.S. Congress’ failure to clarify immigration rules is a sub-category of Americans called “illegal immigrants.” We are confused by statements like, “Most illegals have committed no crimes.” When interviewed, illegal immigrants say they want to be in the US, because it’s a law-abiding society. They are not honoring those in power, so they can live in a country that honors those in power.
Romans 13: 1 “There is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God.” This is a strong endorsement of the intrinsic goodness of government, in its proper role, (Lindsley, 2016) which is to maintain competition and fairness in all dealings. As a consequence, governments can contribute to the health of an economy, in large part, by establishing fundamental rights and rules that promote both competition and fairness (Claar & Klay, 2007). When economic maximizers honor those in power by following these rules, fair competition ensues, and all parties get richer. The Romans 13 scripture seems to endorse changing laws, but not breaking them.
We conclude that the Bible provides Ten Commandments of Economics for us to follow when producing and distributing goods and services. As we stated in the introduction, we must be humble about adopting specific commandments, and perhaps seek principles for interpreting God’s intentions for our behavior. It is our intention to continue to study and refine these commandments as we develop and study macroeconomic issues that affect our economic lives.
Further study in this discipline should produce a more refined set of Commandments or principles. We have adopted ten as a match for the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament. But, just because God wrote Ten Commandments for human behavior does not mean there should be exactly ten Biblical commands for economic behavior.
We believe God has a perfect plan for our economic lives, but as fallen humans, we struggle to align ourselves with His perfect plan. More study, review, and counsel from other believers will make His plan for our economic lives more clear.
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