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Ananias and Sapphira, and Private Property

Ananias and Sapphira, and Private Property

            Recent Christian history has been cluttered by an odd combination of Socialism mixed with Christianity.  Socialism is a political/economic theory that replaces the private ownership and control of property with ownership and control by the society at large.  By mixing Socialism with Christianity, Christian Socialists conclude that private property, the free market, financial profit, and other aspects of Capitalism, are sinful and that the teachings of Jesus require their rejection. 

            The following quote is typical of Christian Socialism:

If we are serious about our desire to share space, share life together, and participate in God’s new creation, then we must seriously reconsider our understanding of and relationship to private property.  Indeed, the more I study the Bible and economics, the more I am convinced that private property is at the core of many of the problems we face and is, itself, a fundamentally anti-Christian belief and practice (from jesusradicals.org).

Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)

            Primarily a story that (i) elevates the selflessness of Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37), (ii) decries lying, and (iii) illustrates God's swift and sever punishment in other ages, the story of Ananias and Sapphira also (iv) affirms the right of private property.  Asking  "Before you sold the field, it belonged to you, right? And even after you sold it, you could have used the money any way you wanted" (Acts 5:4), Peter challenged Ananias' lie.  In so doing he confirmed private ownership and personal control of property.

Private Property before Ananias and Sapphira

            Private ownership is well-entrenched in the Old Testament.  Following Lot's capture by a marauding king, Abraham rode to the rescue.  What did he rescue?  In addition to returning Lot, "Abram (also) brought back everything the enemy had stolen, as well as the women and servants...and everything Lot owned" (Gen. 14:16). 

            Establishing foundational religious and moral law, Moses said, "You must not steal anything" (Ex. 20:15), and "You must not want to take anything that belongs to another person" (Ex. 20:18).  All kinds of property ownership and use are elsewhere confirmed in the Old Testament (Lev. 25:10).  Even Solomon's worthy woman "looks at land and buys it. She uses the money she has earned and plants a vineyard" (Prov. 31:16).

            Jesus included property ownership, enterprise, and fair profit in several Parables.  For example, seed was sown (Mt. 13:3-23), fish caught (Mt. 13:47-50), money was fairly lent (Lk. 7:41-43), barns built (Lk. 12:15-21), property was managed (Lk. 16:1-8), workers were hired (Mt. 20:1-16), and lost property recovered (XLk. 15:3-10) all without any rebuke whatsoever.

After Ananias and Sapphira

            James 4:13-16 provides another affirmation of the right to private property, and to profit - so long as God is honored and prideful boasting is avoided.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and...trade and make a profit...Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will...do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance.

            If God means for us not to "trade and make a profit," He here missed a perfect opportunity to condemn conscientious Capitalism.  Instead, arrogance and failing to honor God are condemned.  We do more than cover our tracks with "If God wills."  We also honor Him as he blesses us in our enterprises. 

            Similarly, I Timothy 6:17-18 warns, but does not condemn the most effective Capitalists, but channels their pride and their profits.

Command those who are rich with the things of this world. Tell them not to be proud. Tell them to hope in God, not their money...Tell those who are rich to do good—to be rich in good works. And tell them they should be happy to give and ready to share.

Conclusion

            Nothing about any of these passages should be misconstrued to justify, much less demand, a "Wild-West" economic system that is free from reasonable controls, or that allows the poor to free-fall without safety nets.  In fact, the many other verses that call for the protection of the downtrodden (see Is. 1:17) suggest that enlightened and compassionate Capitalism should be preferred over laissez faire. But nothing about these passages is consistent with Christian Socialism.  It is simply not the case that God opposes private ownership or private control of property.