Sermon title:

Does the Bible Teach Socialism?

Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, September 6, 2020

 

 

 

 

This Labor Day weekend

seems to be an appropriate time

to talk about socialism,

because it has been advocated

by some labor movements.

In recent sermons we’ve also been looking at

the birth of the Christian Church

in the opening chapters of the Book of Acts.

 

And some who call themselves “Christian Socialists”

point to those chapters of Acts

and claim the Bible teaches socialism.

 

If you lived in Europe, you’d be familiar

with the term “Christian Socialist.”

 

A number of European nations have had

political parties and/or labor movements

that featured “Christian Socialist” in their name.

 

And here in America, socialism has now become

part of the national political scene,

more so than at any other time in recent history.

 

Some who call themselves Christians

have publicly identified themselves with socialism.

 

It has even become popular, in some circles,

to claim that Jesus advocated socialism

and that the Bible teaches it as God’s way

for mankind to live.

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What is socialism?

 

The dictionary defines it as

a political and economic system

where the means of production and distribution

are owned

by the community or the government,

as opposed to private ownership.

 

It can take many forms,

ranging from local workers committees

owning and running factories and farms,

to the central national government

owning and running factories and farms.

 

Marxist communists view socialism

as a temporary thing—a transitional phase—

as a society leaves capitalism behind

and moves in the direction of communism,

where the state owns everything,

and private enterprise

is totally forbidden.

 

But socialism can also be a temporary thing

in democratic countries,

depending on which political party holds power.

 

For example, when the Labour Party held power in England,

they nationalized the coal industry in 1947,

when 800 coal mines were taken over

by the government.

 

The following year

the British government also took over the railroads.

 

And the year after that, they seized the steel industry.

 

But all those industries were returned to private hands

within a few years.

 

Actually, the British steel industry

went back and forth—

from private to public ownership,

and back again to private ownership

over couple decades,

as elections put the Labour Party

in and out of power.

 

Worldwide, many of those who advocate socialism

are anti-religious atheists.

 

They follow the philosophy of Karl Marx,

the father of communism,

who viewed religion as “the opium of the people.

 

He rejected all religion—including Christianity—

as a drug that the rich use

to keep the poor under control.

 

And that anti-religious philosophy played a big part

in the U.S.S.R.—

the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—

the Iron Curtain government

that persecuted Christians and other religions

in Russia and Eastern Europe.

 

But there are many others

who try to combine socialism and Christianity.

 

As I mentioned,

they claim that Jesus advocated socialism

and that the Bible teaches it as God’s way—

the way God wants mankind to live.

 

When Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected leader

of the British Labour Party in 2016,

one of his first duties was to appear at a special

Sunday morning church service

organized by a group of self-styled leftists

who considered themselves Christian Socialists.

 

You’ll also find in England groups named

“the Socialist Christian League” and

“the Society of Socialist Clergy and Ministers.”

 

And former British Prime Minister Tony Blair

was prominently involved with Christian Socialist

organizations.

 

Here in America, Socialism of any form—

so-called “Christian” or otherwise—

has never been as popular as in Europe.

 

But it is finding growing acceptance today.

 

However, it’s not really anything new.

 

American history includes a number of attempts

to organize towns or communities along socialist lines.

 

The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620

left England so they could more freely

practice their faith in Christ.

 

When the Pilgrims first established Plymouth Colony,

the plan was for the land to be owned in common

and for everyone to share the work

and share the produce.

 

It turned out that everyone was glad to claim

a share of the produce,

but many failed to share in the work.

 

And so, the work didn’t get done.

 

The result was

that the colony nearly perished from starvation.

 

After trying socialist common ownership for a couple years,

and seeing it to be a total failure,

Governor Bradford divided up the land,

with each family assigned its own field to farm.

 

That immediately resulted in a turn-around for the colony,

and their fields became productive,

and the colony as a whole became a success.

In 1848 the Oneida Community was established

near Oneida, New York,

as a supposedly Christian socialist community.

 

They cited Scripture, but they

also held strange doctrines

and practiced free love that bordered on pedophilia.

 

The community fell apart after about 30 years.

 

Another experiment in Christian Socialism took place

much closer to home.

 

The Hopedale Community was founded in Milford, Mass.,

in 1842 by Adin Ballou.

 

He and his followers purchased 600 acres.

 

But the community went bankrupt after just 14 years.

 

The town of Hopedale, Mass., is all that’s left of it today.

 

Another experiment in Christian Socialism

was Brook Farm, set up just outside Boston

in West Roxbury in the 1840’s.

 

It failed and fell apart in just 6 years.

 

Similar things happened

to socialist and communist experiments

in other parts of the world.

 

When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

was falling apart a few decades ago,

I recall the saying that went around

among workers in government-owned industries:

 

“We pretend to work,

and they pretend to pay us.”

 

Without the personal profit motive,

people didn’t put their best efforts into their work,

just like in the Plymouth Colony.

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So, if socialism is so impractical,

why do some people claim the Bible teaches it?

 

And how can we answer their claims?

 

A poll taken 4 years ago found that 24% of Americans

believed Jesus would prefer socialism,

rather than the economic system

we find in America.

 

But other polls show that large numbers of people

don’t know what socialism is.

 

So, some folks are confused by the Bible’s advice

to be charitable toward the poor,

and to care for widows and orphans.

 

They confuse charity with socialism—which it is not.

 

Socialist and communist ideologies

do away with private property,

while the Bible encourages

the charitable use of private property.

 

And that is true throughout the Old and New Testaments.

 

For example, the laws God gave to ancient Israel

required that farmers who harvest their grain

allow poor people to come into their fields

and to follow behind the harvesters,

allowing the poor to pick up

ears of grain the harvesters missed.

 

We see that elaborated on in the Old Testament book of Ruth

where the widow Ruth

was allowed into the field owned by Boaz,

to follow after the harvesters.

 

Whatever she picked up from that gleaning,

she would take home to feed herself

and her widowed mother-in-law.

 

Boaz, the owner of the field,

instructed his workers to drop some of the grain,

intentionally leaving more behind,

so that Ruth would find more to pick up.

 

That was charity by a property-owner, not socialism.

 

But I’ve seen socialists quote that passage,

insisting that it supports socialism.

 

It doesn’t.  It supports charitable giving.

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The Old Testament is full of laws God gave to Israel

outlining the ownership and inheritance

of private property.

 

The first instance of state ownership of farmland

is found in the book of Genesis.

 

And it was found in Egypt, not among God’s people Israel.

 

While Joseph was serving as Prime Minister

in the government of Egypt’s Pharaoh,

there was a severe famine

that forced people to buy food

from Pharaoh’s storehouses.

 

When the people of the nation had no money left,

they sold their livestock to buy more food from Pharaoh.

 

And, when the famine persisted,

the people ended up selling their land

to Pharaoh’s government.

 

We read at Genesis 47:20,

Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh. All the Egyptians sold him their fields because the famine was so severe, and soon all the land belonged to Pharaoh.

 

So, the government of Egypt owned all the farmland,

as is the case in some socialist or communist countries

in modern times.

 

For example, communist China has “collective farms,”

as they also did in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

 

But that was not the case in Old Testament Israel.

When Moses’ successor Joshua led the Jews

into the Promised Land,

God told them how to divide the land

among the tribes of Israel,

and each tribe divided the land

to each family.

 

Socialism calls for the means of production to be owned

by the community, rather than individuals or families.

 

But, God’s arrangement for Israel

was for the means of production

—the productive farm land—

to be owned by individual families.

 

At Deuteronomy 19:14 God told them,

“Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land”

 

And God’s arrangement was for that land

to remain in private ownership,

generation after generation.

 

Proverbs 22:28 says,

“Don’t cheat your neighbor by moving the ancient boundary markers set up by previous generations.”

 

Family-owned farms were the norm in Israel—

not socialism—not collective ownership.

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Moreover, the Bible book of Proverbs is full of advice

to work hard at private enterprise

to provide for oneself.

 

Proverbs 10:4 says,

4 Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.

 

Proverbs 14:23 says,

23 All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.

 

It’s not some evil capitalist scheme

that those who work hard make a profit

and that lazy people end up in poverty.

 

It’s the way God meant for mankind to live,

ever since he expelled Adam and Eve

from the Garden of Eden

and told them,

“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”

[Genesis 3:19]

 

God arranged things in his creation

so that the need for food and shelter

would motivate people to work.

 

And failing to work would bring its own penalties:

poverty and hunger.

 

Proverbs 20:4 says,

4 Sluggards do not plow in season; so at harvest time they look but find nothing.

 

And Proverbs 19:15 says

15 Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless go hungry.

 

Poverty and hunger are legitimate motivators

to make strong, healthy people go to work.

 

Of course, there are people who are poor and hungry

due to illness, injury, or other circumstances

beyond their control.

 

And, in those cases, the Bible is full of encouragement

for those who do have material things

to give charitably to those in need.

 

James 1:27 says,

“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.”

 

Orphans and elderly widows need help

that they can’t provide for themselves,

and the Bible encourages us to be charitable

and give them that help.

 

Proverbs Chapter 31 outlines how Christians should live

when it describes a capable woman like this,

beginning at Verse 15.   It says,

 

15 She gets up while it is still night;

she provides food for her family

and portions for her female servants.

16 She considers a field and buys it;

out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.

17 She sets about her work vigorously;

her arms are strong for her tasks.

18 She sees that her trading is profitable,

and her lamp does not go out at night.

19 In her hand she holds the distaff

and grasps the spindle with her fingers.

20 She opens her arms to the poor

and extends her hands to the needy.

 

The Bible approves of hard work, to make a profit.

 

And it also encourages charity to the poor,

but it does not encourage us to set up an economic system

where able-bodied, healthy people

are provided for equally by the government,

whether they work or not.

 

And that’s what Socialism is about.

 

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But proponents of so-called Christian Socialism

do have an instance

they can point to in the New Testament,

where early Christians lived for a while

in a shared economic environment.

 

That was during the days immediately following Pentecost,

when the new Christian Church was born

through the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.

 

We read about it in Acts 2, beginning with Verse 42.

42 They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and prayer. 43 Fear came on every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 All who believed were together, and had all things in common. 45 They sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need. 46 Day by day, continuing steadfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart, 47 praising God, and having favor with all the people. The Lord added to the assembly day by day those who were being saved.

 

Advocates of socialism point to

Verses 44 and 45,

where Verse 44 says    

 

44 All who believed were together,

and had all things in common.

 

So, they shared with one another

whatever they possessions they had with them.

 

And Verse 45 adds that

45 They sold their possessions and goods,

and distributed them to all,

according as anyone had need.

 

Yes, this was a sort of socialism that they were practicing,

by sharing all their goods together.

 

In fact, Karl Marx the father of communism

adapted the wording of this passage of Scripture

in his communist slogan

“from each according to his ability,

to each according to his needs”

although he rejected all religion

as “the opium of the people.”

 

But the evidence in Scripture shows that this arrangement

was a temporary, emergency response

to a temporary situation they found themselves in—

not a permanent philosophy of Christian living.

 

Jews from all over the world had come to Jerusalem

to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Pentecost,

and thousands of them suddenly became Christians

when they saw and heard the miracle of tongues

and the other miracles the Apostles performed,

and they heard the Gospel message.

 

These new converts were just visitors to the city,

having originally planned to return home

after the Jewish holiday was over.

 

Instead, they were caught up in the excitement

of this new work of God,

and their role in it

as followers of the risen Christ.

 

They remained in the city,

listening to the teaching of the Apostles,

so they could grow in their new faith

before returning home.

 

So, they needed to be housed and fed,

while they spent their days

listening to the Apostles before returning home.

 

To meet this emergency need—

almost like providing shelter for evacuees

after a hurricane destroyed a town—

to meet that emergency need,

they temporarily shared their possessions.

 

Just days later, we read further in Acts Chapter 4,

beginning at Verse 32,

32 The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul. Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all. 34 For neither was there among them any who lacked, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet, and distribution was made to each, according as anyone had need.

 

So, again, they renounced their own personal possessions

and, instead, “had all things in common.

 

That’s definitely what socialism calls people to do,

or even communism.

 

But, there is plenty of proof in the rest of the New Testament

that this was just a temporary, emergency situation.

 

Here we read that

as many as were owners of lands or houses

sold them

but later on we read of Christians continuing to own

their own lands and houses—not selling them,

but living in them,

and even opening their private homes

to host house churches.

 

For example,

the small book of Philemon in the New Testament

is addressed

“To Philemon our beloved fellow worker, 2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets at your house:”

 

At Colossians 4:15 Paul wrote,

“Please give my greetings to our brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church that meets in her house.”

 

So, at this later period in the early Church,

a few years after the time in Acts Chapters 2 & 4,

Christians kept owning their own property,

keeping their houses, rather than selling them.

 

And churches in each city

met in those privately-owned homes.

 

In two of the Apostle Paul’s letters,

written some years apart,

he mentions the church that was meeting

at the private home of Prisca and Aquila.

 

At Romans 16:3, Paul wrote,

3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who have risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5 Greet also the church that meets at their house.

 

They kept owning their own home over a period of years,

as we can see from the fact that Paul wrote

at a different time in 1 Corinthians 16:19

“Aquila and Prisca greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.”

 

So, the communal living described

in Acts Chapters 2 & 4

was just an emergency response

to a temporary situation.

 

It was not meant to establish socialism

as the permanent way of life for Christians,

and the early Christians did not take it that way.

 

It was certainly not a model for future Christian life-styles.

 

Rather than looking to socialist communal living,

to provide for the needs of believers,

the Apostle Paul wrote at 1 Thessalonians 3:10,

 10 ... even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

 

So, Paul indicated Jesus’ way is for each individual

to work to provide for themselves and their families:

to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

 

The Bible teaches charity,

voluntarily caring for the poor from our wealth.

 

Proverbs 14:31 says,

“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

 

That’s charitable giving, not socialism.

 

The Bible teaches private property ownership,

each one working to provide for their own needs,

and giving charitably to those who can not.

 

The Bible does not teach socialism.