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Is Capitalism Christian?

Capitalism both reflects and defies Biblical teaching on economics.

A new poll demonstrates a certain amount of ambivalence on the part of Christians concerning our capitalist economy.

Conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, in partnership with Religion News Service, this new poll found, according to Nicole Neroulias (USA Today, 4/21/11), that disparities exist among members of different Christian groups on the question of whether or not capitalism represents a Christian approach to economics. Christians are by no means unanimous on the question, one way or the other.

And that's a good thing, too. Because capitalism contains facets that reflect a Biblical view of economics and facets that defy that teaching.

I cannot be exhaustive here, but let me mention a few things.

Where capitalism defends private property and the right to profit from it, the importance of fair contracts, and the necessity of just wages paid in a timely manner, it reflects the teaching of the Law of God and the Prophets.

But there are areas where capitalism either ignores, goes beyond, or simply defies Biblical teaching concerning economic activity. Chief among these is the centrality of debt and credit. These are central components of a capitalist economic system. Biblical Law, however, strongly discourages debt and puts serious constraints on what might be construed as the use of credit.

Where capitalism - particularly an Ayn Rand version - lets the rich get rich and everybody else do the best they can, even if this means they fail, Biblical Law enforces community compassion for the needy through the use of tithes, workfare, and family obligations - all enforced by government (civil in the Old Testament, ecclesiastical in the New). Biblical Law requires government involvement to enforce just economic activity; capitalists differ on just how much government is too much.

Land, the basis of capitalist economics, is held in trust by the Lord according to Biblical Law, and can only be bought and sold within certain strict parameters. Prices are fixed in Biblical economics; they are not allowed to fluctuate based on demand.

In the Old Testament economy a kind of indentured servitude form of slavery was permitted, although the New Testament was already beginning to point to the day in which all forms of human slavery would be eradicated.

Biblical Law also enforces guidelines on caring for the environment which would preclude reckless capitalist exploitation of resources.

So while the system of free market capitalism reflects Biblical guidelines for economic activity in certain ways, in others it simply strikes off in a different direction.

But what does this mean for Christians living in a free market economy?

Certainly, at the very least, the fact that there are differences and disparities between current practice and Biblical teaching ought to lead Christians to a more careful examination of the economic system taught in Scripture. Obedience to God's Law is incumbent on believers if they are to love God and neighbor properly, and this includes all our economic activity as well. But if we're ignorant of what the Bible teaches, or if we simply choose to ignore it in favor of whatever the spirit of the age commends, how can we expect the blessing of God on our use of the resources and opportunities He provides?

The study of Biblical economics can be daunting, since so much has changed from the days of ancient Israel until now. But that fact should not keep us from studying relevant texts, understanding their contemporary applications, and seeking principles for our economic practice today.

The Bible is sufficient to equip us for every good work and that, presumably, includes the work of economics.

Additional related texts: 2 Timothy 3:15-17; Psalm 24; Matthew 22:34-40

A conversation starter: "A new poll questions whether capitalism has Biblical sanction. What do you think? Should Christians be concerned about this?"

T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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