Of Property and Charity
Being immersed in our cultural heritage as we are, we often fail to appreciate just how many ideas which we take for granted are directly derived from biblical principles. Take for example, the idea of property rights: the idea that you have a right to own property and the right to use the property you own as you see fit. While many in our society simply take for granted that this is the way it should be, the concept is not one derived from nature nor universally agreed upon.
In the natural world, animals only control that which they are strong enough to possess. Might makes right, not ownership. In systems such as communism, you have no right to own anything individually, rather you only have that which others, typically the government, tells you that you are allowed to use. The very notion of private property is, for many, quite controversial and history is full of examples of cultures and peoples that don’t recognize the concept.
But the Bible speaks to property, and the doctrine of the Scriptures has helped inform and shape the manner in which our culture has come to understand it.
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, the eighth commandment was, “You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20:15) The New Testament repeats this injunction against theft in several places, and Paul admonishes the Ephesian church, “Let him who stole, steal no longer, but rather work with his hands, that he might have something to give to him who has need.” (Ephesians 4:28)
The carnal, animal behavior of taking whatever you are strong enough to take, is not a behavior God wants men to emulate. Such behavior is called theft, or stealing. The very concept of stealing as a sin denotes the counter concept that the thing being stolen rightfully belongs to another. Hence, the idea of private property.
The concept is further elaborated on in Acts 5, where Ananias and Saphira get in trouble for lying to God about money matters. Prior to Ananias being struck dead by God, Peter chastises him, saying concerning the land and money: “While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control?” (Acts 5:4a, NKJV) That is, Peter clearly lays down a principle that when a man has been given property by God, it belongs to them, and is under their control.
So, again, the whole concept of private property and property rights is one derived from Biblical concepts and Biblical passages. Which is an interesting sort of fact. However, the point we really want to make is this: with rights come responsibilities, and just as the rights are God given, so are the expectations of responsibility.
Notice again what Paul tells the Ephesian church: God wants men to do honest work for honest pay… so that they can then turn around and make the choice to help others with that which is under their control. God gives us property not merely for our own amusement and desires, but so as to allow us to learn the concept of generosity, another concept somewhat foreign to the carnal, animal nature of the world around us.
In the Old Testament, God heavily encouraged generosity, telling his people that they needed to be mindful of the poor, the foreigner, the widows, and the orphans (cf. Leviticus 19:10; Exodus 22:21-22). Likewise, in the New Testament, we are told that pure and undefiled religion before God must include caring for the widow and the fatherless. (James 1:27)
We read this reminder in the Bible: “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.” (1 Timothy 6:17-19; NKJV)
The early church was marked by their generous nature. As brothers and sisters had needs, others went and sold possessions and property to help those who were in need. (cf. Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37) Some have tried to equate this to communism, but it was no such thing. This was not a forced charity, rather it was something far more noble and selfless. It was the rational choice to take that which was in the complete control of the owner and use it entirely for the good of another without expectation of worldly compensation or reward. It was, in short, an act of love.
The Bible has quite a bit to say about generosity and charity. It is one of the traits that defines God, who sends gifts to all men (cf. Matthew 5:45) and it is a trait that God desires in His children. This is the real reason God gives us property. Not just so that we can take care of ourselves, but so that we can learn to give away that which we have for the good of others. Hopefully it’s a lesson we are all striving to learn to the fullest, knowing that by being ready to give, and willing to share, we are storing up for ourselves a greater treasure in heaven.