Calling a political candidate a “socialist” used to be a political slur. In almost every U.S. election over the past hundred years there have been conservatives who have claimed a major political party candidate running for president was—whether they admitted it or not—a socialist. But our latest presidential race includes someone who calls himself a socialist, Bernie Sanders.
Faced with the prospect, albeit unlikely, that an avowed socialist may actually become the Democrat’s nominee for president, many apolitical Christians are asking what they should think of socialism. Is it compatible with Christianity?
For Catholics the answer has been rather straightforward. Since the mid-1800s every pontiff—from Pius IX to Benedict XVI—has forthrightly condemned socialism. But Protestants don’t have a single leader to make that judgment call. Instead, we have to turn to Scripture to determine whether socialism is compatible with biblical principles.
Theologian John Piper attempts to answer the question by considering what the Bible has to say about property and coercion:
When Luke writes in Acts 2:44–45, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need,” what he means is that every need was being met by other believers, even if they had to sell things that they owned in order to help meet them — and this was done freely. It didn’t remove but rather presumed the ownership of private property. Indeed, all of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament, assumes both the legitimacy — and, I think, the necessity — of personal ownership.
“Thou shalt not steal” makes no sense where no one has a right to keep what is his. The reason I stress that all of this is uncoerced, free, not forced, is because of a heavy emphasis that Paul puts on giving to the poor in 2 Corinthians 8–9. Freely, cheerfully, not under compulsion.
I remember I had a big debate when I was in Germany with a professor and other students because of the way they fund the state church there through taxes. I said, “That just doesn’t fit.” Without compulsion, cheerfully and freely. In other words, there is built into the Christian faith an inner impulse by the Holy Spirit through the gospel to make sacrifices so that others have their needs met. And there is no such impulse built into human nature or the human heart apart from God’s grace. It is so vital that this kind of love and mercy and sacrifice be free and uncoerced that this is laid down as a principle by Paul in 2 Corinthians 9 and by Peter in 1 Peter 5 as he instructs the elders.