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.