How should Christians respond to Socialism? A response to John Piper

In his latest ask pastor John podcast, John Piper answered a question in relation to the ongoing political campaign of Bernie Sanders. I suppose it was inevitable that a renowned evangelical pastor, in a country noted for its links between evangelicalism and right-wing politics, would eventually be asked a question about a high profile politician, currently in the public spotlight, who identifies as socialist (of one sort or another). 

Socialism has always been something of an uncomfortable political bedfellow for a country close to a rabid phobia of state involvement in anything. So an American evangelical answering the question ‘how should Christians think about socialism?’ was never likely to end in unmitigated endorsement. And whilst it is true that no political system will ever be perfect, and certainly no political system will ever fully align with scripture (and scripture was never intended to make one do so), let me explain why I disagree with pastor John.

Before I go on, I should point out that I have been here before. In response to a post by John Stevens, National Director of the FIEC, some years ago I outlined why I disagreed with his position on socialism (and, therefore, by extension with Wayne Grudem and Barry Asmus). You can read that article here. I am an FIEC pastor and I really like John. I often read his blog and find his posts quite insightful and helpful. Likewise, I’ve found much of what Wayne Grudem has written highly valuable and helpful. And, in the same vein, I like John Piper too. I find his writing and preaching usually very helpful, he is theologically excellent and he is a huge asset to the church (as are these other men too).

First, let me highlight where I agree with Piper. His opening salvo regarding the church – “in the church no one should go hungry. In the church no one should be without a place to stay…” etc – is spot on. His closing line in that very same paragraph, that within the church all this should be without compulsion, is absolutely correct. Nobody should be under any doubt that the church ought to be generous and giving without coercion and force. I can also agree that Acts 2:44-45 is not an example of the early church being demanded to give to those in need. There was no compulsion, just a heart changed by God’s Spirit. Beyond this, Piper is quite right that “thou shalt not steal” does indeed indicate the ability to keep what is yours and Paul does emphasise cheerfully giving, freely and not under duress (cf. 2 Cor 8-9). I basically agree with Piper’s view on funding state churches (if not entirely for the reasons he intimates).

Here, however, is where I think Piper goes astray. He argues that socialism either (1) establishes legal, government or military coercion to establish social ownership at the expense of private ownership; or, (2) uses coercion to establish social control — if not ownership, at least control of the means of production in society. He goes on to state “And thus, through control, you effectively eliminate many of the implications and motivations of private ownership.”

Now this errs in presuming that scripture demands private ownership. Yes, scripture presumes the existence of private ownership, but it never suggests that it is inherently good or the fundamental basis of state economics. Equally, Piper errs in presuming that socialism stands against all forms of private ownership. I see no reason to believe either of those presumptions are necessarily true. 

A further problem with Piper’s answer is that his application of the above verses rule out taxation and state funding for just about anything. If giving freely is the driving principle then, by definition, all forms of taxation and state intervention are out of the question. This means no governance, no military spending, no forms of revenue. The logical conclusion renders the national coffers the equivalent of a charity living on sporadic handouts at the whim of the people. All giving must be free and not done out of compulsion. Even the right-wing social conservative Peter Hitchens recognises this principle (see here at 4:40 as an example). As he says: “every state has to intervene in something. Once you’ve decided you must intervene to create a navy, then you’ve pretty much sold the principle”.

Moreover, whilst I agree with Piper’s view on the giving in Acts 2:42-43, it is a category error to apply it to politics and economic systems. It is interesting to me that, when the Spirit is at work amongst a true community of believers, things appear very much more socialist than capitalist. However, that is not a basis for arguing these verses represent some sort of socialist manifesto. These verse clearly describe the Spirit at work within a community of believers and we cannot simply apply it to political and economic systems on the world stage. For exactly the same reason I do not think 2 Corinthians 8-9 can be applied to world economic systems, the principle of generous, free giving would be a similar category mistake. Paul is talking about giving within the community of believers. He is talking about what should happen amongst those who have been made regenerate toward other Christian people in need. He is not talking about what should happen at a governmental level or within economic systems.

Piper moves on and takes aim at the economic system of Denmark and others in Europe, arguing that over half those who live in such places live off the state in some way. He simply states this as negative without giving any grounds for why this really represents a problem biblically (save his spurious logic outlined above). By all means make a case – as he goes on to imply – that there are economic problems with socialism (such as you believe them to exist). What seems specious is to suggest that biblical descriptors of what ought to happen within the church should define what happens at a state economic level.

Now, there are some biblical principles and doctrines that ought to be brought to boot on this discussion. First, as I argued here, tax is not inherently unbiblical. It does not amount to state theft and it is not akin to sin. Both Jesus (Mk 12:17) and Paul (Rom 13:6f) make that clear enough. If tax amounts to state theft and/or sin, then Jesus and Paul are clearly encouraging all believers to participate in sin. It is evidently not the case that is what they are doing. To quote Peter Hitchens, if you take Jesus’ and Paul’s points, “then you’ve pretty much sold the principle”. Ergo, far from being sinful, taxation can indeed be a force for good.

Second, let’s refer back to Piper’s reference of Acts 2:42-43. It is clear enough that this is what happens when the Spirit is at work in God’s people. Free, generous giving without the need for compulsion. The question is, what do we do for those who are not so indwelt by the Holy Spirit? Are we likely to see widespread, free giving without compulsion. Years of Western capitalism, which allows the rich to keep much of their money, rather suggests not. Even in America, where there is more of a culture of charitable giving, even the slightest probing makes clear enough this is to avoid losing more money through taxation! It is not charitable like Acts 2, it is a selfish bid to avoid such charity!

It is theologically and empirically obtuse to presume that making a few people very rich will work for the benefit of all. James 2:6f makes the case clearly enough. The doctrine of total depravity also speaks against the idea that the unregenerate would likely give their money away simply out of the generosity of their own hearts. If James, along with the doctrine of total depravity, suggest individuals may need some encouragement in helping their fellow man, and it be not sinful to implement taxation, it follows that taxation as a means of helping the poor is a thoroughly biblically consistent position. Moreover, if scripture obligates the believer to care for the poor and needy (e.g. here and here) and the above means are not sinful, it strikes me as thoroughly reasonable to campaign for a high tax, redistributive system as an excellent means to care for the less fortunate. The Christians, campaigning for higher taxes on themselves as a means of achieving these ends, seems to be perfectly consistent with these biblical imperatives.

Free market capitalism makes no credible allowance for total depravity and inculcates greed as its very motivating force. It allows the rich to remain rich and does nothing, ultimately or inherently by the very nature of the system, to help the poor. Indeed, untrammelled free market capitalism uses sin to motivate and does nothing to encourage the biblical imperatives to have an eye for the poor, needy and less fortunate. If nothing else, socialism at least attempts to address the very problems the bible considers problems. It, contrary to popular belief, actually takes better account of total depravity than does the capitalist system. It is no coincidence that the Socialism of the British Labour movement was started by a Scottish lay preacher and built on the back of Welsh Methodism. Free market capitalism can hardly be said to have been borne out of any adherence to biblical principles. 

As Piper rightly notes, “every economic and political system will eventually collapse where there are insufficient moral impulses to restrain human selfishness and encourage honesty and good deeds even when no one is watching.” It strikes me that capitalism makes no effort to address either of those issue. It rather hopes for a ‘trickle down’ effect (or a work of the Holy Spirit to give them a heart to share aright). A presumption that the rich will try to hoard their money necessitates a system that redistributes their wealth (total depravity nigh on demands it for the unregenerate). Given that politics cannot instil a work of grace, you tell me, dear reader, how Christians ought to respond to socialism.