Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Biblical View of Property Rights

For my Christian Ethics class here at Asbury, I've written a paper discerning a Christian view of property rights. Here is the slice of my paper (most endnotes removed, but emphases added) dealing with what the Bible has to say on the subject:


There are four central principles to property rights in the Christian context. The first is the moral prohibition against theft, enshrined in Ex 20:15 “You shall not steal.” The second is that the whole world belongs to God, as exemplified by Ps 24:1 “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it.” The third is that humans are temporary tenants upon God’s property, as King David said in 1 Chr 29:15 “For we are but sojourners before You, and tenants, as all our fathers were; our days on earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.” The fourth guiding principle is that Christians must give their property freely to those and need and that the personal property of Christians is held in common for the Church, as seen in Acts 2:44-45. When synthesized into a concise ethical statement, the conclusion is that humans are stewards of God’s property in a rental relationship and are accountable to him alone for the disposition of that property. He holds them accountable not to abuse their property, or devour that of others so that people suffer needlessly. It is a laissez-faire system with strong moral checks against abuse.

We shall examine each of these principles individually in depth. The first of these is that theft is morally wrong. Ex 20:15 and Lev 19:11 state these rules directly. Jesus repeats them in Mat 19:18 as a valid commandment in his encounter with the rich young ruler who sought eternal life. Paul argues in Rom 13:9-10 that those who steal lack love for their neighbors. One particular form of theft which the Bible addressed specifically was withholding wages from workers who had earned them. Lev 19:13 establishes that doing so constitutes robbery. Deu 24:15 and Jam 5:4 describe this heinous act as one that infuriates God.

Of the books of the Mosaic Law, Exodus 22:1-15 most directly addresses propertarian relationships. It describes violations of property rights and legal remedies thereof. Violation of property rights is a crime, but not a terrible one, given the scaled and varied penalties levied against perpetrators. For example, if a person steals an ox or a sheep and kills it, s/he must make restitution in the amount of four to five times the value of that stolen and destroyed property (v.1). If the thief is caught with the property alive, s/he shall compensate only double (vv. 4,7). If a person accidentally damages the field of another due to neglect, s/he shall only make restitution (v.5-6). If a person holds the property of another in safekeeping, and it has been stolen from him/her, then s/he shall make restitution (v.12). If a court determines that the trustee has actually stolen the property, s/he shall compensate double the value (v.8-9). If the property is destroyed through natural causes, s/he shall not make restitution (v.10, 13). If the property dies in the presence of the trustee, s/he shall make restitution (v.14), but if in the presence of the owner, s/he shall not (v.15). The two variables determining penalties are the degree of criminal intent and the amount of harm absorbed by the victim.

Of particular note is the limitation on the right to defend one’s property. One may kill an intruding thief in the confusion of the night (v.2), but to kill a thief in the clarity of the day is an act of murder (v.3). A thief has not necessarily forfeited his/her life as a result of the crime of theft. The right to defend one’s property is far from absolute.

So we may discern that if theft is a crime, by logical necessity, there must be a right to property. Where is there is no property, there can be no theft. These passages place limitations on how severe a crime one may describe theft and therefore a diminished rather than absolute importance of the right to property.

One of the limiters on this right to property is the second principle of property rights: the whole world belongs to God. A secular libertarian view of property rights begins with self-ownership and personal ownership of both physical and intellectual property. A Christian view, however, must begin with God owning the entire world, as this is clearly and repeatedly established in Scripture. Ps 50:12, Ps 24:1, and Ex 19:5 quote God directly as making this assertion. Deu 10:12-14 quotes God as claiming that his authority to make moral demands on the Israelites rests on his personal ownership of the entire world. In 1 Cor 10:26, Paul quotes the Psalms passages above and argues that Christians shouldn’t worry about whether or not the meat that they purchase in the marketplace has been used to make idolatrous sacrifices because the whole world belongs to God, including the meat presented to idols. Therefore the statement that God owns the world has theological implications beyond the deed claim.

The third principle is that humans are tenants upon God’s land or stewards of his property. King David (1 Chr 29:15) describes humans as “tenants”. This Hebrew term is synonymous with sojourner or temporary resident. This concept is how the first two principles are reconciled. How can there be thievery against other people if God owns all property? The tenant relationship between people and property establishes that there are two levels of property ownership in Christian ethics: God at the higher level and humans at lower level. Both can possess the same property simultaneously.

How can these two claims not conflict? We may discern that God owns all property – the whole world belongs to him. This principle can and has been misinterpreted to say that there are no property rights. This is clearly incorrect by the many injunctions against theft and requirements for compensation for lost and stolen property. These would be pointless if there was no property. Rather, the Christian view of property is somewhat like leasing. All property is leased from God, who owns all property at the higher level. The human in leased possession owns the property at the lower level. God may step in and lay claim to his property, but humans other than the lower-level owner may not. Because God is the sole owner of property, he alone may determine and object to how leased-out property is used.

Here is a practical example: a person has rented an apartment from someone else. The rental owner may enter at will as the ultimate holder of the property. Any other person, however, cannot enter without the consent of the rented owner. This tenant relationship is a close parallel to God’s claim on property and the leasee’s simultaneous claim on the same property.
This relationship is explained in the complex sacred and legal event known as the Year of Jubilee. There is no historical record of Israel ever fulfilling this command. Nor is it an event that we can directly translate into public policy today, as no nation lives under the land-based covenant that God established with ancient Israel. But the moral character of God described in the text can and should be applied by Christians today.

The Year of Jubilee, outlined in Leviticus 25, is a limitation on laissez-faire property transactions. It is a highly complex series of legal obligations between various parties that fluctuate with different conditions. The whole land belongs to God (25:23), who distributed it according to his will. The human legal owners are really “aliens and sojourners with me” lacking a total legal claim. At the end of fifty years, whatever exchanges have taken place must be reversed (25:10-13), but must include compensation for the temporary owners of the land (25:15-16). The relative relationships of authority over the property are substantially akin to the modern real estate practice of sublet. God does not evict the present resident of the land without requiring compensation (25:24-28). Should complete compensation not be provided to the present resident within one year, then the property is permanently deeded to the present resident (25:30). This is the sole exception to the demand that land revert to the prior owner. In the Year of Jubilee, the tenants switch roles, but God remains the ultimate property owner (25:23). A person cannot sell property permanently anymore than a person renting an apartment can sell the apartment outright to a third party.

The fourth principle of Christian property ethics is that Christians should give freely to those in need and that the distribution to those in need should be governed by the Church, who holds Christian property in common. On the surface, these may seem to be two different principles, but the primary account of them is in Acts, which establishes that they are complimentary – that the Church holds goods in common for the purpose of meeting the needs of the less fortunate. This was a core value of the early Church. The followers of Jesus shared freely and allowed the apostles to determine how this common property would be distributed (4:34-35). God’s punishment for those who attempted to deceive the Church about giving is death (5:1-10). This passage supports the claim that Christians are to be generous about their property and to give freely for the common good of the family of God.

This passage must be read in the context of the non-coercive nature of Christian ethics. That a person is morally obligated to give to others does not entail that others are right to take from the person who refuses to give generously. Gordon Graham:

It is to be observed first of all that claims of justice (and consequent claims of “rights,” which share this rhetorical value) justify the involvement of third parties in the way that charity and the duties of benevolence (more properly, “beneficence”) do not. For instance, if a wealthy man passes a drunk who, entirely as a result of his own indolence and folly, is desperate for a few cents to get himself a little more of the satisfaction he can now appreciate, charity or beneficence may be thought to dictate that the wealthy man should give him something. But, if so, the man’s charitable duty does not generate a right on the drunkard’s part. From the fact, if it is one, that the man ought to give him something it does not follow that he has a right to what he ought to be given. Should the rich man pass by on the other side, the fact that he has not done what he ought to do does not imply that he has violated the drunkard’s right. Consequently, we as third parties might think him heartless or simply very mean, but the truth of our judgment upon him does not give us the right to interfere. We would not be entitled to seize his wallet forcibly, for instance, and extract something from it for the drunkard. He has done wrong, we might say, but he has not done a wrong.(1)

Despite the moral imperatives of God upon people, the individual is sovereign to dispose of his/her property as s/he wishes. God may judge and punish the parsimonious (e.g. Acts 5:10), but we humans may not interfere in individual property decisions. We may use persuasion, but not coercion. Graham continues:

Suppose the rich man does give the drunkard a couple of dollars and someone else, on the true but inadequate ground that the money will go on more drink, takes it away again. He believes that the rich man did wrong to give it, no doubt, but even if he is correct in this belief, he does not have the right to take it away. The money, for good or ill, has now been given to the drunkard and is his. It is his now, by right…The point is: though it was not his by right before he was given it (even though he ought to have been given it), having been given it, it is his by right. Third parties, when they insist upon the rights of others, act justly. But they do not act justly when they try to bring about the same material result (two dollars in the pocket of the drunkard) without that right.

This principle of non-coercion is clearly present in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He preached at length about living a holy, virtuous life and unhesitating rebuked sinners. But at no point did he force people to be virtuous. Christ commanded the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give to the poor. But he did not rob the rich man’s house and distribute its goods to the poor. Jesus never used coercion in order to force people to give up sin. The Apostolic-era church which he established never forced people to acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

Likewise, nothing in these passages in Acts 2-4, however, suggests that the Church used force to take property from those unwilling to give, nor that the state has the right to do likewise. Christians must live out the virtue of generosity, but we see nothing to suggest that the Church or the state has the power to enforce this virtue with coercion. Therefore this passage does not undermine the right to property, but supports it.

With this clarification established, let us continue to explore this fourth principle. There are numerous passages in both Testaments addressing charitable giving of property, but this principle may be summarized with Deu 15:7-8:

If there is a poor man with you, one of your brothers, in any of your towns in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and shall generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

The poor are a permanent feature of earthly life (Mar 14:7, Mat 26:11, Joh 12:8, Deu 15:11). God promises rewards to those who care for the poor (Prov 19:17, 28:27, Lu 6:38). But the stated rationale for caring for the poor is to reflect God’s own generous character to people in need (Deu 24:19-22, 15:12-15, Lev 19:9-10, 23:22, Ps 68:10). The New Testament writers expand upon this theme. Those who have wealth but refuse to share it with those in need lack the indwelling love of God (1 Jn 3:17) and are, in fact, not saved (Ja 2:15-16, Mat 25::31-46). Humans should give generously because God has given generously to us (2 Cor 9). Open charity to all is a holy and penitent act (Mat 19:16-24, Lu 19:8). This is so because the Messianic promise is that God has a preferential option for the poor (Mat 11:5).

These, then, are the sum of Biblical teaching on property rights: all the world belongs to God, who establishes tenant-based covenants with his people. These tenants hold a legitimate claim to their leased property, therefore one may not steal from them. But the tenants can and should give generously of God’s property to the needy, for God loves and cares for the poor.

These property rights can be abused, and God will pour out his wrath on those who do so. For example, a person may charge excessive rent (Amos 5:11, Mic 2:1-5) thereby brining on God’s anger. Those who drive the poor into starvation and homelessness are attacking God’s own children (Mic 2:9). God prefers that people have economic self-sufficiency, rather than fear of destitution (Mic 4:4). These proscriptions indicate than an absolutist (moral, not legal) view of property rights is incompatible with the character of God, and therefore Christian ethics.

(1) Gordon Graham. “Justice and Christian Charity.” From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics. Wayne G. Boulton, et al., eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) 262.


Dan Trabue said...

VERY very interesting work here. I'm still pondering upon it. Thanks for the great thoughts.

One initial comment: I certainly agree with the notion of God owning it all and the suggestion of a landlord/renter relationship is not a bad analogy. I'd have liked to have seen some commentary along those lines about the "tenants" responsibility to take care of the landlord's property.

Renters are welcome to live in a landlord's house. They are not welcome nor legally allowed to destroy the house. There is the context of responsibility in that analogy that I think highly appropriate.

I'm thinking on the rest still...

Dan Trabue said...

I think I'd add that I appreciate your four central principles to property rights - I think that's a fairly good way to break it down.

A question I've been wanting to answer for myself but haven't yet: It is clear to me that the Bible talks about money/property/greed/wealth/poverty more than just about any other topic. Do you have any numbers attached to that idea?

Are economic issues discussed X number of times - surpassed only by talk of Love, which is talked about Y number of times...those kind of figures?

John said...

I don't have those numbers. But of the four principles, the amount of text to support #4 is massive, as are related texts decrying greed (particularly by Jesus). So if we can say that if the amount of text gives the relative weighting of a moral value (a potentially flawed method), then God takes human greed very seriously. As he should.

But the moral teachings of Scripture are generally responsive, not normative. That is, God writes in response to the sins of the people of the day. But the prevalence of particular sins may change in different societies over time.

So Christian ethical decision making can get really hard. But I find it a fascinating topic.

Dan Trabue said...

Me, too. Have you read any of Ched Myers' work on economics? He has a fascinating, easy-to-read, brief-yet-dense little booklet called Sabbath Economics that is very interesting.

You can easily find some of his writings on the topic online by googling ched myers sabbath economics.

I agree that one can't accurately measure God's interest in a topic based on the number of times it appears in the Bible, but I think you can easily gauge God's interest in a topic.

And certainly, greed, oppressive economic systems, wealth and poverty issues remain central and critical problems today.

One other question I have for you: I've seen several attempts by self-identified libertarians to call taxation a form of theft. It seems to be hinted at in your essay, as well.

I'd really like that clarified - there certainly may be and have been unjust taxations, but to call an agreed-upon-by-the-people taxation "theft" is to divert the argument, seems to me.

Where are all your commenters? This is one meaty, biblically-vital topic that I'd like to see some discussion upon.

John said...

Yes, taxation is a form of legalized thievery. It is on rare occasions necessary. One should only tax under extreme circumstances, just as one should only burn down an orphanage under extreme circumstances.

I alluded to this perspective in the Christian principle of non-coercion because I think that many conservative and liberal Christians do not have this firmly established in their worldview. I saw this in my vaguely liberal ethics professor. There are protected civil rights which in fact violate moral commandments. For example, it is immoral to worship false gods. But at no point should it be illegal.

Also, taxation is not charity. There is no virtue in being robbed and the proceeds of that robbery being given to the poor. The poor may be helped, but the individual is not living out God's generous character by choosing of his own free will to hand over his property. Forced virtue is no virtue at all.

Where are all your commenters? This is one meaty, biblically-vital topic that I'd like to see some discussion upon.

They come for the rabbit videos, zombie-fighting tips, and caption contests.

Dan Trabue said...

"I think that many conservative and liberal Christians do not have this firmly established in their worldview."

Nor should they. Taxation may be terrible, but it is not "thievery." Words have meanings. To steal something is to take something that does not belong to you without permission.

Taxation is an agreed upon giving of funds to keep a society or group going. WITH permission. We give our permission to be taxed when we choose to live in a certain society. If you wish to live tax-free, all you have to do is move somewhere where you can get everyone to agree to not tax one another.

Now, you may object to certain taxes or certain uses of taxes (I certainly do), but it is not stealing. Words have meanings.

John said...

I'll respond later today, Dan. Unfortunately debating you generally requires more brain power than I can summon at this moment.

DannyG said...

To add a note on taxation: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's" seems to cover that territory fairly well. The need for legit. Civil authority is recognised in both old & new Test. as is the need to fund it. Again, when this authority is abused (as was the tax collection system in Judea and Isreal under the various occupations)it then falls into the category of evil and sin.

John said...

To add a note on taxation: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's" seems to cover that territory fairly well. The need for legit. Civil authority is recognised in both old & new Test. as is the need to fund it. Again, when this authority is abused (as was the tax collection system in Judea and Isreal under the various occupations)it then falls into the category of evil and sin.

In this passage, Jesus engages in a rhetorical trick that evades the question. If we take him literally, then we should give our pennies to Lincoln, our quarters to Washington, and dimes to Truman. Jesus does not establish the legitimacy of civil authority. He simply dodges the question because he has priorities beyond petty human political disputes.

John said...


You argument that consent is given by residence has merit. But this consent can be vastly overstated.

The text of this blog post was part of my paper. Another part addressed how property rights are threatened in America today. Due to space limitations, I restricted my arguments to two: asset forfeiture and eminent domain abuse.

By your definition of consent, we could argue that people consent to have their cars stolen if they live in America. Or their houses stolen and given to corporate developers.

We could further argue that they consent to being gunned down in their living rooms. Or you could argue that the Jews in Nazi Germany consented to being gassed because they reside there (remember, the Holocaust was completely legal).

The latter, of course, is an extreme example and an exaggeration of what you are arguing. But consent must be more than mere residency.

It must be actual consent. If a person says "I refuse to pay income taxes" that person is not consenting, proven by his mere statement. He may be a hypocrite by taking advantages of services for which he does not wish to pay, but he is nonetheless not consenting.

A proper government must be something more than 51% of the population voting to exterminate the remaining 49%. Along with the principle of majority rule, a proper (human rights-respecting) government must embrace the principle of limited government -- that there are things which it cannot do regardless of how popular they are.

Which is not to say that a government must or may not tax, but to say that when it does so, it is still wrong. Government is a necessary evil. There are certain things which a society needs. At minimum these are protection from invasion, protection from crime, and enforcement of contracts. These involve money, and money means taxes, and taxes means taking money from people without consent. This is a necessity, but as it violates consent, it is still evil.

Government, then, can be seen as an inherently criminal enterprise, but a necessary one. The inherently criminal nature of government is even recognized in the Bible:

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."

Dan Trabue said...

"By your definition of consent, we could argue that people consent to have their cars stolen if they live in America. Or their houses stolen and given to corporate developers."

I'm not saying that some taxes and policies aren't bad - I'm right there with you on eminent domain - I'm saying that it's not theft. If you want to make such a statement in a metaphorical sense, I'm okay with that.

"Every penny that we spend on the military is a penny stolen from the poor" might be the kind of statement that I would make. But I wouldn't mean that it is literally stolen but rather in a larger sense of justice.

I think that, in general, some libertarians have overplayed this card, though. How many societies do you know that don't tax?

A necessary evil? On either the "necessary" or the "evil," I'm not sure that I agree there, maybe.

John said...

Dan, how do you define 'theft'?

Dan Trabue said...

As Websters does, "an unlawful taking (as by embezzlement or burglary) of property"

John said...

So then the confiscation of Jewish-owned property by Nazi Germany was not theft because it was not illegal?

The confiscation of Native American lands by the US government in the 19th Century was not theft because it was legally authorized by the federal government?

Dan Trabue said...

Not technically. It was wrong, certainly and in a greater sense, a "theft."

As I said, taxation can be wrong, sometimes terribly wrong. But it's not generally the same thing as theft or stealing.

And Libertarian types are wrong to classify it that way because when they do, they are not REALLY saying "all taxation is stealing," but rather "MOST taxation is stealing...when they use the money for things I don't agree with. It's okay (and not stealing) to use taxation to raise money to buy bombs, but it's not okay (and IS stealing) to use taxation for education..." for instance.

John said...

Ah. Here is our difference. I have a broader definition of theft -- taking without consent.

Dan Trabue said...

But we give consent when we live in a society whose laws allow taxation or whatever.

That is why we are morally culpable if our society is spending too much on a military, or on education or taking land away from folk unjustly (not illegally).

It's why all citizens -Christians being no exception - should keep a close eye on our policies.

I'm sorry you've moved so far past this topic (economics, not taxation) already.

I'd love to discuss the Jubilee Laws and implications. I'm with you that we can't really implement them today our societies being apples and oranges - but that we CAN and should implement policies (individually, locally and nationally) that are in their spirit.

I think the notion of the Jubilee Laws are sufficient reason to dismiss the notion that we ought not institute policies on a societal level to assist the poor. What were the Jubilee Laws and some of the other Levitical laws (leaving behind some of the field to be gleaned by the poor) if not a form of taxation?

Enforced not by a military but by a God?

All of these economic issues are of such importance. Ched Myers says that the Bible can be viewed as primarily an economic document and makes quite a good case for it.

John said...

I fully approve of God implementing policies to compel us to help the poor. It is all, after all, God's property. He can and should compel us to be more generous.

But we give consent when we live in a society whose laws allow taxation or whatever.

And the Jews of Nazi Germany consented to be killed by residing in Germany.

Dan Trabue said...

"I fully approve of God implementing policies to compel us to help the poor."

And God did so, in the nation of Israel whose people implemented such a policy. God merely recommended it (commanded, actually).

Ought we not stand ready to do as a people - a Christian people - what the Israelis did? Not that we can force an issue in and of ourselves, we are only one voice in a nation of many.

But we can advocate for rules that mimic the Jubilee Laws and Levitical laws (the reasonable ones in our society) and, if our reasoning is sufficient to sway the masses, those policies may be implemented and there would be nothing at all biblically wrong with doing so.

Dan Trabue said...

"And the Jews of Nazi Germany consented to be killed by residing in Germany."

Allow me to clarify myself, then: In our context, we give consent when we live in a society whose laws allow taxation. If we don't like it, we are free to leave and find or create that utopia where there is no stealing-by-taxation.