Mapping the Terrain—Economic Systems
Does the Bible give us any indication of the way we should order our economic affairs? Whilst the gospel itself is essentially concerned with personal salvation and personal ethics, and other parts of the New Testament give guidelines for the behaviour of groups of believers, the Old Testament has a wealth of teaching that embodies principles of social ethics of everlasting value. Careful examination of this can point to the sort of economic systems that seem most in accord with the will of God.
First, there is the guidance from the story of the Creation and Fall. We are told that man was made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27) and given dominion over the resources of the earth (Gen. 1:28-29). Like God, then, we are creative beings, with a natural desire and duty to work, and so we need economic and political systems which will give us the freedom to give expression to this creativity. As a result of the Fall, however, God made work part of His curse on man: it is no longer simply a creative joy, but a struggle to meet our needs in the face of scarcity (Gen. 3:17-19). The central issue of economics—the study of the production and distribution of scarce resources—is a consequence of the Fall. We may struggle to overcome scarcity, but economic systems which promise that by changing certain structures we may achieve some sort of utopian paradise on earth (as does Marxism) are doomed to failure.
Second, there is the guidance to be drawn from the instructions God gave the nation of Israel for the ordering of their society as laid down in the Mosaic law. From this a complex pattern emerges which, in our terms, fits neither a fully socialist nor a fully capitalist model. God clearly sanctioned private ownership of property to support family units. But in order that each family should have a permanent stake in economic life, a limit was put on any downward spiral into poverty. Every fifty years (the Jubilee) all slaves were supposed to be freed, all debts cancelled, and all land returned to original owners. In addition the Israelites had to pay tithes on their output (similar to a fairly low rate of proportional taxation) and to leave harvest gleanings so as to support the poor. The relief of poverty, not pursuit of economic equality, seemed to be the guiding principle.
Third, there is the guidance offered by prophets like Jeremiah, Malachi, and Amos who thundered against cheating of all kinds, exploitation, and forced labor. In our own day, most injustices of these types stem from monopoly power (both of capital or labor), lack of property rights, inadequate or corrupt legal systems, and heavy-handed governments.
For these reasons we believe liberal democracies with diffused ownership of capital, a strong rule of law, and welfare provision for the poor are more in accord with God-given principles than other systems we see around the globe today. This does not mean that any system is perfect, nor does it absolve God’s people from speaking out against particular cases of greed, injustice, or oppression.