Would Jesus Promote Socialism?
by Sheryl Young, TICW Editor This article was previously published in the Intelligent Conservative Woman.
The question "WWJD?" does not include socialism in its answer.
The idea of “democratic socialism” is currently being championed by some political candidates as the best alternative to the free enterprise system the United States currently uses. Socialism advocates consider Western “capitalism” as a sort of bully, because some people can get wealthy but everyone won’t.
The people promoting democratic socialism will try to appeal to Christians by asserting that Jesus favored socialism or employed socialistic ideas. They equate socialism with “social justice” which is heavy on the lips of many new church leaders today. They say today’s socialism is not the tyrannical socialism of Karl Marx (the creator of the original Socialist party blueprint, 1818-1883), whereby the government ends up taking control of everything. The new socialists just want to place more taxes on the wealthy to do “redistribution of money,” to create more programs, to make life better for those less fortunate.
Here’s the irony – Marx was a self-admitted atheist who proclaimed religion was for the oppressed – the “opiate” of the people. 1 Most individuals or groups who have fought for socialism are generally the same ones fighting against Christianity. They don’t want the Bible to have any influence in society because it will put people on unequal footing spiritually, just as capitalism does economically - yet, they use Bible verses when they believe it suits their purpose. And yes, there are Christians who may favor socialism, but even though they appeal to Jesus' teaching to argue for government redistribution, they no longer dare to apply his teaching on marriage, divorce, or adultery to society because they consider those to be "outdated concepts."
The problem is, history proves that no matter which way you use socialism’s principle of “common ownership for the common good,” it has never succeeded in its intent to create a Utopian (perfect) society. On the contrary, it has caused some of the worst poverty, oppression, violation of human rights, and disastrous government control over every aspect of daily living – but that’s another article.
A rose by any other name still doesn’t fit Jesus’ ministry
It is a myth that Jesus would recommend the "new" socialism any more than he would recommend the old. He and his apostles never did or said any such thing even closely resembling it. The basic principles of socialism should not only be rejected based on their past failures, but because both the Old and the New Testament stand against it (the Old being the Jewish Holy Scriptures from the Torah and Christian Bible, and the New being the Gospel part of the Bible).
Before we get to Jesus let’s look at the Old Testament, because as a Jewish boy and man, this is what Jesus would have studied. Of the Ten Commandments, the eighth and tenth commandment both pre-suppose that people will own things. They will not be forced to share, and people shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to them.
Exodus 20:15: “You shall not steal.”
Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
The next Old Testament verses are from Proverbs, written by King Solomon who is widely quoted both inside and outside the theological world.
Proverbs 12:24: “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labor.”
Proverbs 14:23: “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”
In other words, we (assuming able-bodied, able-minded people) aren’t supposed to ask for material things while doing nothing to earn them. Those smart enough to be able to give it to you will end up reigning over you and forcing you to work - and a government big enough to give you everything for free can also take it all away.
In the New Testament are many passages attributed to Jesus and his disciples that lead to an association with socialism. In actuality, they prove that he wasn’t in favor of such a thing, and didn't teach it.
Matthew 19:16-24 is often cited to claim Jesus would have favored a socialistic society. This is the account of how Jesus answers a wealthy young man who asks him how to gain eternal life in Heaven. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him.
The first thing to note is that in every translation of the Bible we checked, Jesus tells the man to sell his possessions and to give to the poor in that order. He did not tell the man he needed to just give everything away, or that any government would force the man to give his possessions away. It needed to be his own choice. Isn’t this the most popular American idea – to have your own choices?
But more importantly, Jesus didn’t tell the man to do this because he detested rich people. He wasn’t telling everybody to do this. He was either testing the man to see what he would do, or knew this man was wrapped up in his love of money.
Money is not the root of all evil according to the Bible. The root of all evil is the love of money. We have people who are very jealous of those wealthier than themselves, and are therefore in favor of “taking from the rich to give to the poor.” And yes, we have wealthy people who are stingy with their money. In both cases, it is the love of money that causes problems (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
Socialism hopefuls will also use 1 John 3:17-18: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”
This verse is an “easy sell” when trying to convince Christians that socialism might be a good direction. It appeals to feelings of guilt and the need for social justice. However, in this verse, it's still a personal choice for a person whether to give or not. Does it say “If anyone has material possessions and holds it back from the government…”? No. It is a personal decision.
The apostle John wasn’t speaking to governments. He was speaking to individuals. In fact, all of these verses are based on people giving out of their individual hearts, of their own free will.
Jesus said people should pay their taxes (Matthew 22:17-21) – but never said a government should just take peoples’ money or material possessions to give to the poor. In fact, he also said there will always be poor people (Matthew 26:10-11, John 12:7-8). This is within the story when a woman poured perfume all over Jesus’ feet to show respect. Judas Iscariot (the one who would later betray Jesus) asks Jesus, why not tell the woman to let us sell her perfume and give to the poor?
But Jesus explains that the woman gave the perfume of her own free will – i.e., no government official or government regulation forced her to save it or sell it. When Jesus says “the poor will always be among us” within this story, it is not an excuse to ignore the poor, but it does mean that this is a fact of life. We’ll never be able to help everyone. Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, which tells people “Since there will never cease to be someone in need, open your hands and give” – but that verse still doesn’t say to hand it over to the government or that the government should take it from you. No matter what we do, someone will always be poorer. Socialist governments, because of their nature and what needs to be done to create the illusion of “equal wealth,” historically end up putting more people in poverty – not less.
In Jesus’ parable of the talents (also known as bags of gold, Matthew 25:14-30), the main character is a businessman who tells his workers to invest his money wisely while he is away. The property was his own and not the state’s. The man rewards the workers who put his money to the best use. Although this is not the exact biblical point of the parable, he is doing what he wants with the money from his businesses, which are not controlled by the government or redistributed by the government to the poor. And he rewards the first two workers for increasing his money. The workers were not given handouts for doing nothing. The third worker, whom he did not reward, had done nothing with the money he received. (Able-bodied, sound-minded people should work. We aren’t talking about the physically or mentally challenged who cannot.) The event of Pentecost in Acts 2:38-47 is also often used as an example of Jesus-built “socialism.” The incident was after Jesus has died, been resurrected, and gone to Heaven. Peter was the leader of this event, and one of Jesus’ main disciples. In this passage, many people are baptized into the new faith and they begin sharing their possessions with each other so they could stay there and be further taught by the disciples.
If we look back to Acts 2:5: “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” (see 2:1-5). Keep in mind:
Some of the people were from right there in Jerusalem, but many were from various regions and countries and didn’t know when they were going home. They hadn’t brought many possessions with them. Everyone willingly shared their goods and property among each other after accepting the Lord as Messiah. They didn’t give their goods and money to just anyone walking by with their hand out. Again, this was from the heart and not because some government made them do it.
In Acts 5:1-4, we have the couple Ananias and Sapphira. They pretended to give everything they had, but held some back in secret. People will also use these verses to support socialism in the Bible. But no government was forcing Ananias and Sapphira to give everything, and they weren't required to give everything. They were only punished because they lied to God about it – not because they didn’t give everything.
When Jesus or his disciples told people to be generous, they were not referring to setting up a form of government that would force citizens to do it. As stated in our Student Topics article, "What is capitalism, what is socialism? " -- "Socialism" is a controlled government state. “Social justice” is being free to directly give of what you have to help others, out of the goodness of your heart. They are not one and the same.
To understand more about evangelical Christian conservatives' viewpoint of Jesus' exhortations on individual giving as opposed to government mandates, see apologist Neil Shenvi's excellent article, Understanding Evangelical Conservatives.
Footnote: 1 Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction (1843).
Bible verses cited are NIV. Top photo: "The Sermon of the Beatitudes," James Tissot, courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, public domain.
Writer: Sheryl Young, Editor of TICW, recently former Media Outreach Coordinator and Newsletter Editor for Ratio Christi Campus Apologetics Alliance. Ms. Young has 16 years' previous experience as a freelance writer for magazines, newspapers and websites including the Tampa Tribune, and was previously a Florida spokesperson for Concerned Women for America (CWA).
© 2019, The Intelligent Conservative Woman. Reprints only by permission.