Friday, January 22, 2010

Is Socialism More Christian?

More thoughtful Christians often ask, "what political or economic system is more Christian"? Less thoughtful Christians (in the West at least) often assume that democracy and/or capitalism is inherently more Christian. Too often this is simply an assumption, meaning it is an idea they hold without having critically analyzed it or feel analysis is not needed because they think it is obviously true. But as Christians we must be supremely concerned with truth because we worship and follow the One who claims to be THE Truth (Jn 14:6).

This topic is exceedingly relevant today in 2017 because the political scene in the United States is one of upheaval and tension largely between two schools of political and economic thought. One school of thought is capitalism coupled with the belief that a smaller, less involved central government is most desirable. The other school of thought is socialism coupled with a belief that a larger, more involved central government is most desirable. The differences couldn't be more plain and profound between these schools of thought. While it is absolutely true that a Christian's (and therefore the Church's) primary concern should be the glory of God as seen in the face of Christ (2Cor 4:5-6) AND it is absolutely true that much damage has been done to the cause of Christ in America because too many Christians have forgotten this core concern and become much too focused on politics, it is also true that Christians must take their citizenship seriously (Rom 13:1-7). One way we glorify God is through our humble obedience to His word and His word clearly calls us to a stewardship of His earthly creation. One element of that creation is "the governing authorities". So we must take politics and questions such as capitalism vs socialism seriously but always remember it is never primary.

That said, what is the right answer? Is capitalism and democracy (vis a vi the United States) "more Christian" than socialism expressed through a large, controlling central government? Before we can answer that we need to establish some definitions - what is "capitalism" and what is "socialism"? While we could get very nuanced and embark on many pages simply to articulate a definition for each it will be more productive to give a commonly accepted, concise definition for each. The American Heritage dictionary does a good, fairly even handed job in providing such definitions. Here are the definitions as contained in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language online version:

Capitalism: "An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market".

Socialism: 1. Any of various theories or systems of social organization in which the means of producing and distributing goods is owned collectively or by a centralized government that often plans and controls the economy.

2. The stage in Marxist-Leninist theory intermediate between capitalism and communism, in which collective ownership of the economy under the dictatorship of the proletariat has not yet been successfully achieved.

Since the definition for socialism references communism it is helpful to include that definition as well:

Communism: 1. A theoretical economic system characterized by the collective ownership of property and by the organization of labor for the common advantage of all members.

2. A system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single, often authoritarian party holds power, claiming to make progress toward a higher social order in which all goods are equally shared by the people.

3. The Marxist-Leninist version of Communist doctrine that advocates the overthrow of capitalism by the revolution of the proletariat.

Again, we could go on and on giving more detailed and refined definitions especially in regard to how these theories have been expressed in particular historical contexts. But these are reasonably accurate and helpful definitions of the various terms. So which system is more Christian? Let's examine the definitions and then establish a biblical principle to guide us to our conclusion.

First, notice the key elements of each definition. For Capitalism we notice the term "privately" which could be also stated "individually" as in individual person (citizen). The definition mentions, "or corporately" in regards to ownership but private individuals or group of individuals comprise the corporation. The point here is one of private ownership NOT government or collective ownership. Thus the rewards of economic production are returned to the individuals proportionate to their level of investment of time, energy, money etc. The economic rewards (wealth or profit) are not returned to a central government representing the entire collective of people to then be distributed back on an "equal" basis. The theory states that if "Bob Smith" works harder, invests more time, energy, money and more risk, he will get more reward than John Doe who chose not to work as hard or risk as much. In capitalism the emphasis is clearly on private ownership therefore on the individual. The individual or private citizen is primary over the state or collective (central government) in a fundamental way. This is why capitalism is typically coupled with a political system such as democracy or a representative republic as in the United States because such political systems also emphasize individual rights and liberties over and above the state or central government.

As for Socialism (and we will consider Communism together with Socialism) notice the terms, "collectively" and "centralized government". These terms indicate the emphasis of socialism and communism. The essence of socialism is the collective ownership of all means for producing and distributing goods. The idea is that it is best for everyone if private or individual ownership is given up in favor of a collective or communal ownership. Of course there must be some mechanism for overseeing the collective ownership, production and distribution back out to the people so a strong central government must be in place. In a socialistic and communistic environment a strong centralized government owns everything and allocates back to the citizenry the goods and services deemed appropriate. This is why socialism is typically coupled with dictatorships or very strong, authoritarian central governments often referred to as "the state". In this system "the state" takes precedence over the individual and all things belong to the state and not to the individual. The state is the highest virtue and claims ownership of all goods and services to the point that children are even considered owned by the state as a "resource" for the common good of the state.

Now to answer our original question, what system is more Christian - socialism and its attending political manifestations or capitalism and its attending manifestations? I believe the biblical answer is that capitalism and its attending political manifestations are inherently more Christian...if by that we mean that it inherently creates an environment in which Christianity is more appreciated and supported and its character is more consistent with Christian principles but we do NOT mean that it is specially ordained of God. But such a conclusion must be defended and substantiated by scripture.

The primary biblical defense for the above conclusion (that capitalism and its attending political systems is inherently more Christian) derives from the fundamental creation theology that humans are created in the image of God and are commissioned by God to be His stewards of the earth (Gen 1:26-30). This in fact is the foundational principle that we see worked out in the founding documents of the United States of America. The assertion that all men (people) are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights derives from the fundamental truth that God creates each human in His image. Therefore, the individual person is precious and immensely valuable. He or she is immensely valuable NOT because of personal economic or social standing, NOT because of potential for productivity, NOT because the state deems him or her so, but strictly BECAUSE he or she reflects the glory of God. God is the greatest treasure and mankind is the greatest element of creation reflecting the glory of that treasure. Therefore, the individual must be esteemed, respected, protected and supported - thus the inalienable rights flow from the fact that we are His image bearers therefore flowing from God Himself. These rights are NOT given by the state therefore cannot be taken away by the state.

The implications of this truth are profound and provide the defense for the assertion that capitalism and its attending political systems is more Christian. The generalization can be stated like this: any economic and political system that esteems, protects, and supports the individual and his/her free pursuit of fulfilling God's stewardship mandate (Gen 1:28-30) is to be preferred. The Founding Fathers of the United States referred to it as a "more perfect union". It was their desire and endeavor to strive for that more perfect union based on the foundational truth that we are all created by God in His image and therefore have rights that cannot be denied by the state to pursue our "happiness" (18th century language indicating our meaningful stewardship of life). Economic freedom is critical to that pursuit and essential to the realization of a more perfect union. Political freedom is also essential. The two work hand in hand and that's why capitalism is typically attended by a form of political government that encourages freedom for the individual. Inherently (and this is validated by history) socialism leads to the suppression and repression of the individual and his/her rights to the free pursuit of earthly stewardship.

America chose capitalism and a constitutional form of a representative republic in order to secure the "more perfect union" as the environment in and through which our God-given call to glorify Him could be expressed. I believe, based on the reasons above, this American system is a "more perfect" union to that end and therefore "more Christian". No, it is not perfect. No, our form of government is not specially anointed by God. And no, the Church should NOT throw its focus and resources at political solutions to our national and social ills. BUT, we should recognize the truth. There is a difference between capitalism and socialism, between a constitutional republic and communism with its attending authoritative central government. From a Christian perspective one is certainly better than the other. Capitalism and our representative government is to be preferred over socialism so we can more freely and completely reflect the glory of our Lord. If we lose our economic system and our representative government we will have lost something valuable. However, (and this is MASSIVELY important) we will NEVER lose the power and ability to glorify our great God and savior Jesus Christ. The Church is built on the rock of that confession and the gates of hell cannot prevail or stand against it (Mat 16:18). No matter the form of government or economic system the Church has one primary mission and the infinite power to complete it - Glorify Him! (Eph 1:5-6)

Nevertheless, be informed, pursue the truth, speak and vote in support of what is inherently more Christian.


  1. Great work Bruce.

    I agree with your Biblical premise that God desires men and women to be free to seek and glorify Him. However, the problem with socialism is not that it is a bad idea. In fact, philosophically it is similar to the activities of the early church in Acts. The problems begin when it ascends to the level of national government and is directed by those who are not believers. Thus, in a fallen world, capitalism and representative democracy are certainly the best means for preserving the ability of a believer to best live out God's Word.

  2. You're exactly right Brent. That's why to be completely accurate we have to qualify "Socialism as expressed through a large, controlling central government" because socialistic ideas aren't necessarily less Christian - example in Acts as you indicate. What is "less Christian" is the socialistic ideas as implemented in socialism.