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What Does the Bible Teach in Regards to Property Rights?

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The Bible is pro-private property rights. There are many passages that support this. Accordingly, all Governments — throughout the world, nationally, and locally — should protect private property rights. God knows that personal ownership of private property is fundamental to every individual's ability to express his best possible self as a reflection of his being created in God's image (I will unpack that idea in this study). In addition, private property rights are fundamental to personal and national fruitfulness (we will see examples of this in what follows also). So read on, my friend, and learn more about how you can justify such beliefs based upon what God has said in His Word.
Ralph Drollinger

I. INTRODUCTION

The biblically-based political ideology of private property ownership stands in absolute and distinct contradiction to the political ideology of Communism. As Karl Marx said in his Communist Manifesto, "the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: the abolition of private property." If the ideology of private property rights is the main difference between Capitalism and Communism, how can you rest assured, and form deep convictions for the former from Scripture? What passages come to mind so as to substantiate that God is pro private property? Another way to look at this is the opposite: It is one thing to say you are "anti-communist" but can you reason why from Scripture?

It follows that you should be able to give a basis for being pro private property rights (and therein Capitalism in general) via the use of God's Word. This study is designed to aid you in that quest and help you to form personal and political convictions that are riveted upon God's guidance as explicated in and from His Revelation.

Before building a scriptural case for private property and Capitalism, let us first begin by investigating the precedent that God is the ultimate owner of everything.

II. PASSAGE ON GOD'S ULTIMATE OWNERSHIP OF ALL PROPERTY

Scripture teaches that God is the ultimate owner of the earth and all that is therein — not communist Governments — and that He desires individuals to be His stewards of it. Note this first point in Psalm 24:1 and Deuteronomy 10:14 respectively:

The earth is the Lord's and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it. Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the highest heavens, the earth and all that is in it.

In granting man stewardship responsibilities of that which He ultimately owns, He has specifically entrusted the managerial responsibilities of that which He owns to the top of His creative order: Man, whom He created in His image, unlike all other aspects of His creation. This fundamental idea is conveyed in Genesis 1:26-28:

Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."

Incumbent in man's stewardship role over all of creation, God uses the descriptive word subdue (kabash) to encompass what he specifically desires for man to do: This Hebrew word, kabash, specifically means, "to bring into servitude." In Numbers 32:22-29, and Joshua 18:1 this same word is used in a parallel contextual meaning: Israel is to subdue the land of Canaan so that the land would serve Israel. Importantly, the contextual usage of kabash as used here in Genesis 1 pertains to God instructing those in His creation who are made in His image to discover, understand, develop, utilize and enjoy all the earth's over-abundant resources. Importantly and implied in God's command to man is this: Man is to carry out His God-appointed stewardship responsibilities with respect and thanksgiving to Him. Having first established this principle of God's ultimate ownership, the following point need now be made: Even though God is the ultimate owner of everything, Scripture repeatedly communicates — it is said — that the property belongs to His stewards: individuals.

Notice the word individuals. This is in opposition to the idea of God conveying property ownership to government, society or a nation as a whole. This conveyance of ownership by God to man in specificity is evidenced in the following passages:

III. PASSAGES ON PERSONAL PROPERTY RIGHTS

There are a myriad of passages that evidence God's expectation of personal ownership of His property — versus implications of governmental or societal ownership of His property. Here are some of those.

A. THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT
"You shall not steal."

Exodus 20:15 presumes that people own something that can be stolen. For instance, I cannot take my neighbor's donkey because it belongs to my neighbor. Or as a modern example you cannot search through my email files and give them to whomever you choose unbeknownst to me; to do so is to steal another's property.

B. THE TENTH COMMANDMENT
"You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor."

Exodus 20:17 above, addresses the heart. Covet (chamad) in this Hebrew passage and epithumeo in Greek (cf. Rom. 7:7) means "a strong desire; wantonness." As used in this context, it is the desire to take from another what rightfully belongs to him. Note specifically that the passage does not say those things belong to the community or the government; three times the passage uses the word neighbor (rea) meaning "a person, friend or fellow." Again, the passage reveals that the ox or donkey is not owned by a government, but by a person, friend or fellow: that is to whom God says it belongs.

C. IRRESPONSIBLE OWNERSHIP
"If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death."

Exodus 21:29 above, uses the word owner (baal) in relation to (in this case, being an irresponsible owner) the bad behaving ox. Further and important, this passage reveals that to own something means you are legally connected to it, to the extent that one can be found personally liable for damages caused by something he owns. Such laws today, stemming from the Torah — the first five books of the Bible, Genesis Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy — and its assumption of personal property rights, prove to be very motivational to owners: they lead to being a good manager! Such laws breed personal asset management skills and its upside: the creation of excellent value-added products. Such ensuing motivations for creating excellent products and services are not achieved in communist nations where personal property rights and personal property liability do not exist. Just this past week I toured my friend's value-added fresh corn packaging facility. Every night a crew comes in to sterilize the plant to eliminate e.coli and other possible bacterial contaminates — all of which could harm a consumer. I wager to say he would not be so motivated if he did not himself own the corn, nor ultimately be liable for the product's safety.

D. MOVING A LANDMARK
"You shall not move your neighbor's boundary mark, which the ancestors have set . . . ."

Deuteronomy 19:14 above, speaks to the sin of moving the boundaries of land. What infraction is there if it is not owned by another person? Proverbs 23:10 adds in this regard:

Do not move the ancient boundary Or go into the fields of the fatherless.

Each of the two stanzas of this Proverb serves to give insight into the meaning of the other. Private ownership is in view here: It is wrong to attempt to steal another person's property because you figure that person is unable to defend what is rightfully his.

E. THE YEAR OF THE JUBILEE

Now our subject of study becomes increasingly interesting. Even Capitalism and personal property ownership is not a perfect national economic system in a fallen world: Always keep in mind that no economic system is perfect in a fallen world! Churchill once quipped, "Democracy is the worst form of Government, except all the others!" It is only when Christ returns and sets up His rule as the King of Kings that there will be a perfect government on the earth.

The OT Book of Leviticus informs us that every 50 years Israel's people were to hit the restart button on their personal property/capitalistic-based economy. Akin to playing Monopoly today wherein one or two players in time will monopolize all the properties, in a fallen world some people inevitably become economic juggernauts while others less gifted or competitive can and will fall to the wayside. Some are not as strong or able as others and cannot compete or gain wealth even though they live in a personal-property-based culture.

Personal property ownership is not a perfect cure-all in a fallen world but nonetheless is a better basis for economic prosperity than all other alternatives. Relative to this week's study, the point to be underscored from Leviticus 25:10 is not how this should or should not apply in America today, but this: "each of you shall return to his own property." As in the other aforementioned passages, God's endorsement of his own property (even with its faults) is in view here.

F. SUMMARY OF PASSAGES ON PERSONAL PROPERTY RIGHTS

The Bible speaks repeatedly regarding the economic creation and well-being of a nation, and how that best occurs in what will always be until Christ returns, an unfair, disproportionately talented, fallen world. The best system, says God's Word is via a Government being based upon and allowing personal private property rights. With the caveat of the Year of the Jubilee, it is safe to say that God is a Capitalist not a Communist. The aforementioned five passages illustrate and affirm that one of God's fundamental principles for Government is that it is to grant private ownership rights to individuals.

The economic principle that stems from the Torah is this: necessary for achieving a proper functioning, fruitful and prosperous nation in a material sense is personal property ownership (The Bible does not deem material things as evil; such thinking is a faulty dualism and the subject of other studies). To violate God's principle of private ownership, that is, to enact some form or level of Communism in a state is patently unbiblical and will ultimately lead to the demise of a nation's motivation, economic engine, growth and overall material well being of its people.

IV. THE NATURAL TENDENCY OF GOVERNMENT TO OVERREACH

In a greater-than-just-material-concerns sense, God has ordained four other separate institutions that He intends to function simultaneously and independently of Government in order to best achieve His purposes and herald the riches of His grace (cf. Eph. 2:7) in a fallen world prior to His Second Coming. Government is only one of five co-equal institutions. And within that five institution spectrum of each institution's God-given respective responsibilities, Government does what it does better than the other institutions: in two words, what Government does best is to suppress evil. But keep in mind the other four institutions, Marriage, Family, Commerce and the Church, do what they do better than Government! Government cannot accomplish for a nation what the other four can and do achieve much more expeditiously and efficiently: Marriage promulgates; the Family cultivates; Commerce invigorates; and the Church translates. Those theological pillars of institutional understanding are fundamental to a biblical worldview and serve to qualify the role of Government. What is also in view, given this contextualization and the focus of this study is this: The Institution of Government is always on the prowl desiring to play in the sandbox of every other institution. But it makes a mess of things whenever it does! Left to roam, it soon wanders outside its God-designed purpose: it perverts Marriage; it stymies the Family; it encroaches on the Church; and left to its self-centered ways it begins to overstep Commerce — by eroding or attacking private property rights! Government, it seems, finds the physique of Jabba The Hutt to be attractive! Left unchecked, Government will eclipse God's separate Institution of Commerce, which must possess personal property rights in order to flourish institutionally and materially invigorate a nation.

The preponderance of Government is nothing new. The Prophet Samuel spoke to Israel about the increasing pervasive nature of Civil Administrations when Israel first mentioned the idea to him that they wanted their own King. Notice his sage response to the nation Israel in 1Samuel 8:10-18:

So Samuel spoke all the words of the LORD to the people who had asked of him a king. He said, "This will be the procedure of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and place them for himself in his chariots and among his horsemen and they will run before his chariots. He will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and of fifties, and some to do his plowing and to reap his harvest and to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will also take your daughters for perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your seed and of your vineyards and give to his officers and to his servants. He will also take your male servants and your female servants and your best young men and your donkeys and use them for his work. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day."

When Government goes unchecked it begins to take from the people, confiscating more and more for itself. The word take appears six times in this passage! Be on guard: Runaway Government is normative in a fallen world! Therefore, as exegetically substantiated in the previous point . . . . It is God's blueprint for a nation's people — not its Government — to possess the bulk of property and wealth of the nation. It follows that Government — according to the Bible — must be kept in check lest it begin to think it can achieve for its people tasks that are better suited for fulfillment by God's other ordained institutions.

The role of Government is limited to and most efficient when rewarding those who do good (i.e. in part those who provide jobs for others due to their giftedness should be rewarded and not penalized so as to encourage them to create more jobs and wealth for the nation) and punish those who do evil (provide a strong judicial system internally and a strong military force externally) (cf. Romans 13:1-8; 1Peter 2:13-14).

When Government begins to step outside of its biblically specific purposes it becomes vast, ghastly and monstrously inefficient, resulting in the eventual if not immediate eclipse of its citizenry and their liberties, thereby lessening their personal abilities and resourcefulness to reflect the attributes of God to others.

V. PERU, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND POVERTY

Peru is a good example of how the violation of private property principles entraps a nation in poverty. The denial of private property rights does not always rest on the shoulders of communist ideology; sometimes it results in supposed capitalist countries such as Peru (what I call CINO countries: "Capitalist In Name Only").

The brilliant work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto serves to substantiate the aforementioned biblical principle of private property, and its absence being the root cause of poverty. When Governments hoard private property by making their attainment next to impossible, they stymie the creation of wealth in their own nation. Such policies are extremely short sighted. The root cause of poverty is this: with no ability to gain working capital due to a lack of collateral from property ownership, one cannot enter the capital market and germinate a product or service. Desoto's team attempted to build a house in Peru. Here is what they went through:

To obtain legal authorization to build a house on state-owned land took six years and eleven months requiring 207 administrative steps in 52 government offices . . . . To obtain a legal title for that piece of land took 728 [additional] steps.

States Grudem regarding DeSoto's similar attempt to obtain a permit to build a small garment workshop on the outskirts of Lima:

They worked at the registration process six hours a day and it took them 289 days! The cost was the equivalent of $1,231 US dollars, or thirty one times the monthly minimum wage equivalent (approximately three years salary) for the ordinary person living in Peru.

Desoto has documented similar roadblocks in the countries of Egypt, Philippines and Haiti. Property ownership is next to impossible in many third world countries, thereby trapping its citizenry in poverty! It is as if these country's citizens are living in a communist country. This is not God's design for Government! Such backward, biblically negligent manifest governmental ideology serves to illustrate the wisdom of God's ways. As with the American Government land giveaway of 1889, as the individuals prosper from private property rights, so does the whole of the nation and its administration.

Unfortunately however, as America jettisons its trust in the Torah, it follows that there would be and are increasing threats to, and the erosion of private property ownership:

VI. AMERICAN ENVIRONMENTALISM, PRIVATE PROPERTY AND POVERTY

After taking ten years to develop and after only 25 years of operation, the San Onofre nuclear power plant in San Clemente, California closed due to incessant lawsuits and subsequent delays caused by environmental groups. The executive of Southern California Edison, the utility company championing the project, concluded that would be their utility's last sortie into the nuclear power arena. As a result, the utility has not attempted to build another power plant on its own private property.

When Environmentalist and their choking, imbalanced regulations descended on the logging industry in the Northwest, claiming the Spotted Owl was an endangered species (an owl that is a facsimile to the California Spotted Owl which is in abundant supply), they greatly diminished the industry; 50,000 jobs later, owners can no longer harvest lumber at will.

In Santa Cruz, California, environmental policies make it impossible to trim the trees on one's own private property even when their overgrowth becomes a serious fire threat.

These three cameos serve to illustrate the encroachment of Government on private property. In California, where our family has resided for three generations, there has been a huge stagnation in development (especially compared to Texas) since the adoption and requirement of Environmental Impact Reports. The bottom line is that even though private property rights exists in the United States, the economic benefits God intends from private property ownership have been greatly diminished — similar to those of Peru. Viewed through the lens of the ability to develop one's private property, it is the Government that in essence has become the owner of the land! What a huge philosophical about-face from the days of the Great Oklahoma Land Rush wherein the American Government gifted land to its citizenry! The present overly regulatory policies of our nation's government, biblically speaking, are and represent the recipe for the road to poverty.

Additional erosion of private property rights occurred under President Clinton when during his tenure he issued executive order 13061 whereby 10 additional rivers per year will become federal property even if they flow through private land. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama have enacted orders that confiscate millions of acres of private land that will be effectively removed from private use forever.

In summary of this point, it is the private ownership of land that best serves the continuing prosperity of any nation! One only need study or visit regressive Russia or inalterable India, both being lands of plentiful natural resources but yet stuck in the plight of poverty due to the fact that their cultures are not informed by what the Torah teaches concerning private property rights! Therein lies the difference between nations of similar resources. No wonder Thomas Jefferson said that the United States would be different, stating "The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and property, and in their management."1 It is hard to imagine that our nation would ever even contemplate changing horses after having ridden an Old Testament stallion for so long — and having experienced the absolute incomparable thrill of riding it for so many years!

VII. BIG GOVERNMENT, PERSONAL LIBERTY AND REFLECTING THE IMAGE OF GOD

As Government grows it eclipses personal liberty which in part includes private property ownership. And as personal liberties diminish, so does an individual's ability to reflect the glory of God to others. What do I mean by this? One example is personal wealth. When an individual prospers he has more to share with others: He has the opportunity to reflect, in this case, the grace of God by giving to the needs of others who are less fortunate, reflecting God's attribute of care and compassion. Often such expressions of love lead to the gospel and another's salvation! This is in juxtaposition to Government taxing the wealth of individuals thereby denuding them of their personal resourcefulness with the belief that it can meet the needs of others more effectively. But in truth, God did not ordain Government to play this role, and it is woefully wasteful, impersonal and inefficient when it attempts to meet the real needs of individual citizens — especially their spiritual needs for regeneration, new life and victory over sin in Christ!

When Government sticks to its God-ordained job description it achieves what other institutions cannot, and it simultaneously empowers its citizens with individual liberty to reflect the glory of God to other people.

VIII. SUMMARY

The right to personal property, also known as Free Enterprise or Capitalism, is the governmental economic system supported by Scripture. Scripture does not support Communism. Whereas the former leads to a prosperous nation, the latter leads to a poverty stricken nation. Historic America serves as a wonderful illustration of this biblical axiom. Accordingly, as lawmakers, do not make an ideological shift at this point in our history. Do not jettison our prosperous past that has been so beautifully informed, and made possible by adherence to the Mosaic Law contained in the Torah regarding personal property rights!

Ralph Drollinger Signature
 

1 Merrill D. Peterson, Jefferson: Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984), 1398. [Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval ( July 12, 1816)]

 

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