As on so many issues that divide left-wing and right-wing Christians, the Bible seems frustratingly pliable when it comes to the issue of property rights. Conservative Christians like to assert that the Bible takes private property for granted, that the Eighth Commandment demonstrates it to be a “divine institution” or a “sacred right,” and that the many examples of wealthy patriarchs prove not only private property, but large accumulations of it, have divine sanction. Those more inclined toward some kind of Christian socialism like to point out Jesus’s very harsh strictures on the accumulation of wealth and the assertion of private property rights, and the early Jerusalem community’s practice of “having all things in common.” As so often happens, we seem to be faced with something of an Old Testament/New Testament divide, in which the Old Testament bolsters a conservative agenda, and the New Testament a liberal one. Is the Bible thus divided against itself?
On closer examination, though, conservative appeals to Old Testament support of private property prove hopelessly vague. Is the point to prove that private property is direct divine institution, universally mandated, or merely that is is legitimate or useful? Does it have its origins in nature or in human law? Is private property is an imprescriptible right, or merely one “right” among others, which under various circumstances should be constrained or even abolished in favor of other considerations?
The eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” often invoked to answer “the former” to the above questions, in fact tells us nothing of the sort. All it establishes is that, in a society where there is a settled system of property rights, it is wrong to take it upon oneself to violate such rights, unilaterally appropriating for oneself what is considered the property of another. There is nothing in the eighth commandment that makes private property a natural right rather than a product of society. Some may draw parallels to the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” insisting that unless marriage is a social construct, property must not be either. But this simply draws attention to the difference between the two in Scripture. We know that marriage is a divine institution rooted in creation, because we are told this in the creation account. Yet the eighth commandment, well along in the Scriptural narrative, is the first normative statement on property. We simply do not find in Genesis 2 the sort of account that a theologically-sensitive Lockean would want us to find: “And God saw that it was not good for man to be propertyless. So he took Adam to a plot of land, had Adam mix his labor with the soil, and presented the plot to Adam. And Adam said, ‘Sweat of my brow and labor of my hands! You shall be called “Manland” for you came out of man’s labor.’”
Moreover, while marriage may be a divine institution, the Old Testament law and the examples of the patriarchs is proof enough that it is subject to a great deal of variation depending on human social and political arrangements, in a way that many capitalists today refuse to countenance for private property. Indeed, many of these practices (such as polygamy) would be considered unacceptable today. Just as “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” then, can only give us the barest start toward a theology of marriage, it would be rash to expect the prescription of a divinely authorized economic system from “Thou shalt not steal,” or from the fact that the patriarchs owned property.
The New Testament’s teaching on property certainly does seem to strike a different tone. The teachings and practice of Jesus often appear to be deeply hostile to private property, both in his condemnation of the wealthy and in his own example, as one who “had nowhere to lay his head.” The practice of the early Church reiterates this, in seeming to favor a sort of communal property arrangement: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). But just as we cannot derive a universal mandate for private property from the eighth commandment, it is equally difficult here to derive a universal mandate against it. Indeed, as conservatives frequently point out, even within this context of the early Acts community, we find Peter apparently affirming the legitimacy of private property, when he says to Ananias and Saphira, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Nor, as we see other New Testament examples of wealthy believers using their resources for the community, does it seem to necessarily involve an abandonment of private ownership as such.
The Bible clearly does then allow for property rights, protects them, and perceives their benefits. While there may be little Biblical support for a natural-rights, Lockean understanding of private property, neither does Scripture, even in Luke and Acts, seem to call for a legal abolition of property. But we might wonder, in light of prophetic condemnations of wealth, Jesus’s own words, and early church practice, if we are to view private property as morally sub-optimal, and communal ownership as the ideal. Conservatives like to brush the early Jerusalem church example aside as a voluntary one-time experiment, quickly abandoned and rarely imitated. But this won’t do— in Acts 2-4, we have the first example of the the Gospel at work as it was meant to be, the formation of a Christian community of love and sharing, clearly intended by Luke to represent the fulfillment of Christ’s message and a model for the Church. Indeed, this appears to be how it was taken by the early Church, which frequently articulated its aspiration for such a life of “all things in common.”
The Thomistic model of private property, which defends it as a human institution ordered toward the common good, can help us to make sense of these seemingly conflicting testimonies. Aquinas distinguished carefully from the right of private administration and the right of common use—private ownership is justified, and even good, then, so long as individual owners manage it for the best use of all, particularly those who lack any of their own. If private property is a good, but only so long as it serves the common good, then it is no wonder that Jesus and the prophets attack situations of inequality so viciously. If the rich are unwilling to use their goods for the benefit of all, making sure that others around them share in the fruits of their prosperity, then they may need to sell all that they have and give it to the poor. However, other wealthy saints in the New Testament use their resources to support the fledgling Christian communities in their midst, opening their homes for worship, and sharing with those in need, but without legally forfeiting their property to the collective. On closer inspection, the model of Acts 2 and 4 probably describes not so much an actual collectivization of property, as a transformation in the way the Christians in the community viewed their wealth—no one thought of his property as his own but treated it as if it was common, at the disposal of the needs of the whole community.
Understood this way, there is no need to play off the New Testament against the Old. Although the communal element is certainly intensified in the New Testament church, the basic posture toward property–the usefulness of private administration, but the importance of common use–appears in the way the Pentateuchal laws deal with property. Israelite families are expected to each hold their own plot of land as a gift from God but are repeatedly encouraged to share its fruits with those who do not have adequate property of their own. Israel’s laws and customs provide several measures to ensure a large element of common use, including the gleaning laws, tithing laws, sabbath-year laws, and the Jubilee ordinance. Nowhere do we find the concept that private property is free from any constraints and conditions but the will of the individual property-owner, as in the modern libertarian ideal. A full-orbed look at biblical teaching on property may then help provide a model around which Christians of left and right can begin to come together.