The Role of Government in the Economy
In the contemporary world, political ideas often develop into ideologies, or "isms", such as capitalism, liberalism, socialism or communism etc. The economy is often at the centre of these "isms", as they often revolve around the question of individual vs. common ownership and access to means of production.
The illusion that a perfect economic system can be created which is able to root out sin and evil in this world has always been around. From a Christian perspective, it can be stated at the outset that no human system will entirely root out evil, sin and greed. Therefore, every political economy and ideology needs to be approached with the necessary care and pragmatism. Nonetheless, political choices have to be made also in the economy. Fortunately, the Bible can guide our thinking and reflection on specific political choices.
A note on interpretation may be in order at the outset: the Old Testament and the New Testament were written during rather different periods. This is also true as regards political authority (self-governed or exiled Israel vs. subjected to Roman rule). Initially, following the redemption from Egypt and the promise of own land, God had intended his people to live directly under his authority as a self-governing community, in mutual solicitude. In economic terms, the harsh agricultural life made mutual assistance necessary for survival. Early Israel was thus intended to be an egalitarian and caring social community.
Israel repeatedly failed to self-organize itself and demanded a king, a wish that was granted by God. During the monarchy, military expenses and massive building projects (especially of Solomon) imposed a heavy burden on the people, and changed the nature of the economy (introducing new taxes and forced labour). Eventually during exile, socioeconomic conditions for the people of Israel deteriorated even further, providing the context for the prophets to speak out against (primarily economic) injustice. In the end, Israel had distanced itself considerably from the egalitarian ideal.
The New Testament in turn needs to be read yet in another light. Jesus and the apostles had yet higher standards as regards equality and unity for the people of God, to be lived out in a closely knit community governed by love (koinonia). The general socio-economic importance of this koinonia was and remains however less evident. While God remained sovereign over all reality including the economy, living under pagan rule became normality and many exhortations of NT authors were therefore directly intended only for the church, the Body of Christ, a spiritual reality. In the spirit of Hebrews 13:14, Christians continue to have no "lasting city" on earth, but await the heavenly city of New Jerusalem. This takes the edge off much of the theocratic socio-economic legislation of the Old Testament.
It is in this context that the Body of Christ remains until today: the economy is not directly subjected to OT law. In the absence of literal application, extracting socio-economic principles that are pleasing in God's sight is necessary. It is against the context of all of the above that the following arguments on the role of the governing authorities in the economy has to be read and interpreted. Below, OT and NT references are quite often mixed and (due to the brevity) presented out of their proper context. In diligent Bible study with the help of the passages, it is up to the reader to "connect the dots".
Government has been ordained by God to enforce justice and promote welfare
1. Legitimacy and attitudes towards political authority
- In the OT, God's people should be concerned about the peace and prosperity of any city they inhabit, whether the majority of the population is God-fearing or not (cf. Jeremiah 29:7); Joseph and Daniel also worked actively for the welfare of their (pagan) cities and countries.
- The locus classicus of NT teaching on the state: submission to (secular) authorities and law as these have been appointed by God and are always preferable to anarchy, Romans 13: 1-7"Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established..." (similar teaching in 1 Peter 2:13-14, or in the OT in terms of God demanding an accounting, Gen. 9: 5-6);
2. Enforcing justice and general welfare is pleasing in God's sight
- Administering justice by mandate of God (Deut 16:18, 2 Sam 8:15)
- Ensuring general welfare and the common good by helping the poor and needy when they are victims of oppression and injustice (Ps 72:4, 82:3, Ezek. 22:29, Am. 4:1, Zech. 7:10).
3. (Economic) restraints on those in authority and the limited nature of political power
- Despite good purposes and motives, there is spiritual warfare also in politics. Rulers and authorities may succumb to evil forces, and cease working for the common good (Eph. 6:10-13).
- Rulers should not enrich themselves in the way Samuel warned they would be inclined to do (1 Sam 8:11-18).
- God also ordains limits on rulers personal wealth accumulation (Deut 17: 14-17).
- Positive examples of rulers who did not use political power to enrich themselves include Moses in Num 16:15, Samuel in 1 Sam 12:1-5.
- Even pagan/secular rulers deserve respect in social/public areas of life. However, they do not deserve worship - “Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's” - Matthew 22:21;
- Similar idea is to be found in Isaiah 45:1-5 with Cyrus as an instrument of God's purpose.
- Political authority should organize itself in a diffuse and subsidiary manner. Moses appointed elders to oversee and judge over matters while maintaining overall leadership (Num 11:16-30).
Task of government 1: guaranteeing a high degree of economic freedom
1. The fruit of hard work should be rewarded
- The Bible has a positive view of labour and work as one liberating force allowing individuals and families to flourish and provide for themselves.
- Prov. 10:3-4: The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked. Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth.
- 2 Thess. 3:10: For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat."
2. The authorities should respect and protect property
- Exodus 20:15, 17 "You shall not steal"; "You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour."
- Micah 4:4: Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (see also Zechariah 3:10)
- However, private property is not absolute nor is it an end in itself, but managed in stewardship for God:
- Deut. 26: 10. The Israelite farmer speaks of ‘the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given to me’ (not to us).
- Psalm 24:1: The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it.
- Lev. 25:23: 'The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.
3. Material prosperity is welcome but also bears dangers
- Deut 8:11-14, 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
- Abuse warning: In Matthew 25:14-30 or in Luke 19 we find the story of the talents (or minas in Luke). One talent was worth approximately 20 years of labour, or 400,000 euros. The master rewards those workers who multiply the money they have been trusted with. It speaks of profit and productivity. However, this is a parable about the kingdom of God using the economy as an illustration, and not the real economy as such! Consequently, it should not be used as a proof text for the economic system.
Task of government 2: ensuring right frameworks for solidarity and equality
1. All ownership is a gift of God that calls for solidarity
- Ensuring that wages are paid in time was codified in the OT (Lev. 19:13). No (excessive) interest should be charged on lending (Deut 23:19-20). Sometimes repayment should not even be expected (Luke 6:34-35).
- 2 Corinthians 8:13-14: 13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.
- Matthew 19:23 "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Similar ideas: Eph 5:5, Mt 6:24).
2. Tithing and taxing as legitimate government activity
- God's people had to tithe in the OT (Lev 27:30 'A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD)
Even though this religious tithing for the temple is not directly equivalent to modern taxation, due to the theocratic nature of Israel it can be partly seen as functionally equivalent to taxation. The functional equivalence is reflected inter alia 1) in the presence of enforceable obligation to give up a fixed part of income, 2) the existence of a central pool of resources, and 3) the corresponding provision of public goods (e.g. construction of temple).
- Selected mentions of OT tithing/taxes: Tithing existed before the law was given (Gen. 14:20). Moreover, Joseph interprets Pharao's dream which involves a tithe to the ruler (Gen 41:34-6). Also, 1 Sam. 8:11-18 is an example of a tax for the benefit of the ruler. Solomon's extensive building programme (1 Ki. 5) also required extensive taxation, and saw public good infrastructure provision in return.
- The tithe also had a social function: the triennial tithe was gathered in towns to the benefit of those without land, foreigners and the disadvantaged (Deut. 14: 28-29).
- In NT times, the temple tax had to be paid annually by Jewish males over 20 years of age (around March, month of Adar). Jesus respected the temple's right to tax and thus commands payment, even though he questioned the temple's ultimate significance (cf. Mt 17:24-27).
- The legitimacy of taxing is confirmed in the NT (Rom 13:6). However, how much and at which level is a matter not prescribed by the NT.
3. Notes on economic equality and common ownership
- Enforcing equality of opportunity among people, modelled along the spirit if not letter of the Jubilee (Lev 25:8-12, 23-24) is a challenging subject. In the OT, the year of Jubilee every 50th was a deeply economic institution, with two main objectives: equitable distribution and inalienability. Each plot of land initially assigned to it became a family’s inalienable patrimony. The laws guarded against its being sold or lost through indebtedness.
- In Matthew 20:1-11 in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the landowner rewards all with the same wage, independent of how much they have worked. However, this is a parable about the kingdom of God using the economy as an illustration, and not the real economy as such. The passage should therefore not be abused to imply absolute equality of wages.
- Acts 2:44-47: All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people.
Some have taken this to argue that the Bible endorses a socialist system of common ownership of everything, in other words, the abolishment of private property. After all, communism can be summed up in a single sentence: "Abolition of private property". (Marx, Communist Manifesto). However, as was shown above the Bible clearly mandates private property in stewardship (with moral restrictions). This passage may reflect a voluntary arrangement within the NT church.
Derivative social principles (DSPs)
The Bible is not a social policy manual. However, this does not mean the Bible is useless for economic policy and the government's role therein. Often, "relative endorsements" can be derived from the Bible that can be seen as timeless principles, just as valid in OT Israel as today. These principles reflect a good social/economic order that is pleasing in God's sight.
Taking the above evidence into account, the following principles can be derived:
- Government is legitimate, it should be subject to law and upholding the law, be diffuse (respect subsidiarity) and hold those in power accountable.
- Political authority is always limited and never total. Those in power need restraints and accountability in order to prevent self-enrichment and corruption. They are not to be worshiped and idolized.
- Private ownership comes with rights but also responsibility; and as such it is never ‘absolute’ in the sense of existing in a vacuum: responsibility exists to God, to one’s family, one’s neighbours and foreigners, albeit in differing degrees.
- Governments can be tasked to provide the social and justice framework for meaningful private economic activity for the common good (property rights, effective justice system, absence of usury).
- Taxation by government is warranted as long as it leaves sufficient room for productive activity of the tax payer.
- Equality and solidarity are pleasing in God's sight. They are at least as much (if not more) a task for citizens among each other (civil society) as it is of the government. Nonetheless a community/state can also be judged on the basis of how well it ensures that care of the poorest and weaker members of society.
- Equality of opportunities and access to means of production for all should be ensured by government and periodically reviewed (in the spirit of the Jubilee).
- Neither the state nor the market is to be worshipped. There is an apparent and often abused contrast between sections C and D above in terms of systemic endorsements derived from the Bible (social redistribution vs. freedom, or socialism vs. capitalism). However, this is a false dichotomy. The Bible places both the state and the market under God's authority and ultimate purpose in stewardship.
[Arttu Makipaa 2016]
Political ideas often develop into ideologies, or "isms", such as capitalism, liberalism, socialism or communism. The economy is often at the centre of these "isms", including questions of individual vs. common ownership, markets vs. state driven economy etc. The illusion that a perfect economic system can be created has always been around. However, no human system will entirely root out evil, sin and greed. Every political economy and ideology therefore needs to be approached with the necessary care and pragmatism. The Bible can guide our thinking and reflection on specific political choices.
1. The legitimacy of political authority
Read: Romans 13:1-7, Eph. 6:10-13, Mt. 22:15-22, Rev. 13:1-8
Optional: Jeremiah 29:7, 1 Peter 2:13-14
Questions for discussion:
- Why should Christians submit to (pagan) secular authority?
- Is there an apparent contradiction between the messages of the readings in this respect?
- How might modern political authorities legitimize themselves? Do you see a contradiction with the Biblical message?
- Is there a limit and end to political authority on earth?
2. Wise leadership
Read: Deut 17:14-17, 1 Sam 12:1-5, Romans 13:1-7 (as above)
Optional: 1 Sam 8:11-18, Num 16:15
Questions for discussion:
- What are key characteristics of a good political leader according to the passages read?
- What are main temptations that leaders face? Has anything changed in this respect?
3. Guaranteeing property rights
Read: Exodus 20:15-17, Micah 4:4, Psalm 24:1, Lev. 25:23
Optional: Acts 4:32-5:6
Questions for discussion:
- The Bible establishes private property as legitimate but what kind of limits to private property does the selection of readings imply? Do you think this is recognized by modern societies?
4. Prosperity and enjoying fruit of one's labour
Read: Genesis 1, Prov. 10:3-4, 2 Thess. 3:10, Deut 8:11-14
Questions for discussion:
- Why do you think God has such a high view of work and productive capacity of human beings? (Genesis 1).
- Under which conditions do other people (e,g. government) have the right to claim parts of this fruit?
5. Tithes and taxes
Read: Lev 27:30, 1 Sam. 8:11-18, Rom 13:6
Optional: Mt 17:24-27 and Mt 22:15-22
Questions for discussion:
- What is the main difference between OT tithes and modern taxes? Are they comparable in any way?
- The OT tithe was usually 10%, and as a result some argue that translated to today, this should mean that government is only allowed to tax its citizens at 10%. What would be points speaking for and against such a suggestion?
- The readings in Matthew provide two different occasions where Jesus speaks of taxes in different ways. What can we learn from this as regards his attitude towards taxes?
6. Solidarity with the poor
Read: 2 Corinthians 8:13-14, Deut 23:19-20, Luke 6:34-35
Questions for discussion:
- What kind of responsibility comes with ownership and riches?
- Discuss the reasons why it is unrealistic in social exchanges that we lend "without expecting anything back" (Lk 6:35)? What was Jesus talking about here?
7. Equality in the economy
Read: Lev 25:8-12, 23-24, Matthew 20:1-16, Acts 2:44-47
Questions for discussion:
- What kind of equality does the selection of readings describe?
- Do you think the Year of the Jubilee described in Leviticus 25 could function in a modern economy in a fallen world? Even in the absence of applying the law literally, which underlying principles could be transferred to the modern day?
- The reading from Acts describes a situation in the early church where believers voluntarily shared everything they had. Could this realistically be applied in your church? Why would it be unlikely to work in a wider environment e.g. your whole country?
8. Finally, based on what you have read and discussed, to conclude...
If you were in charge...
- What if anything would you change in your country's economic system?
- Would you copy elements of principles/ rules/policies you found in the Bible? If yes, which ones? If none, why not?
Even if you were not nor ever will be "in charge"...
- Very few of us actually become high level political leaders. It is important however to be clear that all of us are however called to political responsibility on some level, sometimes very basic things: e.g. when we sign citizen's initiatives, when we insist on paying VAT taxes on cash payments etc.
- Finally, some of us might be pondering formal political involvement also as a form of Christian vocation. How can we identify, encourage and best support these people?
You may have recognized from the variety of readings and the diversity of contexts that the Bible is not a social policy manual. However, this does not mean the Bible is useless for economic policy. There are "relative endorsements" in the Bible that are very valuable as they reflect a good social/economic order that is pleasing in God's sight.
The answer to what kind of economic policies should be implemented involves some absolute principles, but also degrees of freedom that can differ according to "public choice". While totalitarian extremes (communism, anarchy) should be avoided, there are many possible outcomes along a continuum of government-market balance. The outcome can be a social market economy such as Germany or Nordic countries, or a more purely private enterprise oriented market economy such as New Zealand or the US.
The general conclusion from the Biblical evidence is that free markets are good, but these are prone to failure as a result of human sin. The same is true for the state. This is the reason why we should not centralize economic control in the hands of the few, but distribute economic power to the many. A free market economy distributes power to multitudes of workers, inventors, investors, and consumers. A government can be used to correct undesirable outcomes in this.
Points for prayer
- Pray for a renewed sense of God's purpose for your economic decision-making, your investment, consumption, and especially your giving to the poor and God's work.
- Pray for wisdom for the leaders in your country (+ EU, IMF etc), specifically the ones making important economic decisions (government ministers, central bankers etc.)