Q Is it true that the Bible endorses free enterprise capitalism? I read that this is because it assumes private property and rewards a good work ethic.

A I would hesitate to suggest that the Bible “endorses” any economic system. It is true that the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” for instance, as well as Old Testament laws regarding property (such as Ex. 22:1-15) assume private ownership. However, God also stated, “The land must not be sold permanently because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Lev. 25:23). The land was the most important resource in an ancient agricultural economy.

Private ownership of land in ancient Israel, therefore, may be closer to lease-holding from God, for “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1). In fact, every 50th year, the year of Jubilee, all lands sold were to be restored to their original families, and every Israelite slave freed (Lev. 25:8-55). Jubilee was essentially an economic reset button. It ensured that families who were poor never stayed poor forever by allowing them to regain their homesteads. It also prevented wealthy landowners from accumulating ever more property.

God’s command to keep the year of Jubilee alone should give us real pause from any wholesale endorsement of capitalism. We must be careful not to cherry-pick biblical teachings to endorse either capitalism or socialism. Instead, we need to study the Bible’s teachings as a whole and gain a biblical worldview with which to humbly approach economic issues, knowing we may never arrive at a perfect economic system.

About the Author

 Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

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Appropriately (and as generally) defined, I think it is pretty clear that Scipture does indeed "endorse free enterprise capitalism."  Yes, Israel was told to live under rules that "allowed private people to engage in economic activity with minimal governmental interference."  And nothing in the New Testament would seem to even possibly contradict that.

Of course, the existence of "free market capitalism" doesn't eliminate a role for government.  Government must regulate the ownership of land and other property (it can't not, and still be government) but that simple and obvious reality shouldn't keep us from concluding that Scripture provides no support whatsoever for socialism, which by definition means that government, by the power of its sword (threat of death) owns/controls the means of production and decides the distribution of which is produced.

It is only the current fashion in political thinking that would make us shy to say that Scripture does not support one side in the "capitalism (free market) vs socialism" debate.  Indeed, it is remarkable that we have gotten so shy about staking out a position on that question.

I would think the correct answer is that God does not "endorse" any human social arrangement. Iinstead, what God asks for is that these arrangements in their particularlity be just. In large measure we do not get to choose the sort of system we live under, be it a parliamentary democracy, a republic or for that matter a kingdom. God can and has worked through all of these. In the same manner, the economic arrangement in society can have a wide variation.

On the specific question, "free enterprise capitalism" is a rather flexible term, meaning different things in say the sociology, the political science, and econoimics department. What we do know is that however defined, the result of the system must still safeguard the poor and the weak from the all too easy actions of the wealthy and powerful. This caution is spelled out over and over again in the Psalms and Prophets.