The Biblical Case for Private Property
Private property is receiving a lot of attention these days. I guess you could say there is a renaissance of thinking and appreciation for, as Tom Bethel puts it, “the blessings of private property.” In fact, Bethel is one of many brilliant and competent men who have recently tackled this topic. His book, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages is well written and informative. It also is encouraging that one of the last chapters deals with the rediscovery of private property and looks ahead to the trend of acknowledging and strengthening property rights in our country and around the world. Another author, Harvard professor Richard Pipes, has written a marvelous book called simply Property and Freedom.
I am very thankful that there are rising up all around us men who are taking up the intellectual defense of private property after years of conceding the battle to socialists, Marxists, Darwinists, and statists. However, there is one great need within these useful works that must be addressed, and that great need is to present the theological foundation, for without a theological basis on which to ground freedom and rights, there is nothing other than toleration. There is a huge difference between freedom and toleration.
Freedom is security based upon the unchanging laws of God which all men must obey. It eliminates the uncertainty of arbitrary changes in opinion, pragmatic opportunism, or state control. Tolerance only grudgingly allows for the continuation of a “privilege” that the state may grant today, yet withdraw tomorrow, based upon new thinking, different circumstances, or power politics.
Unfortunately, almost all the books I’ve read mistake tolerance for freedom. For instance, Bethel states:
[T]here are four great blessings that cannot easily be realized in a society that lacks the secure, decentralized, private ownership of goods. These are: liberty, justice, peace and prosperity. The argument of this book is that private property is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for these highly desirable social outcomes.1
In other words, society in general, intellectuals in particular, and the state specifically should tolerate private property, not as an inherent right in regard to itself, but only to the extent that it contributes to liberty, justice, peace, and prosperity.
Now, everyone would agree that liberty, justice, peace, and prosperity are good things and highly desired. It could also be argued that as long as these terms found their meaning and expression in God’s Word, the Bible, there would be no problem; for all these words or terms are clearly defined and elaborated upon in the Bible. In fact, one theologian points out that when God’s property laws are followed, there will indeed be blessings. “There is also continuity; the promise of posterity, of continuity of possession and security therein, and, with these things, peace and prosperity, is a consequence of freedom and continuity under the Lord.”2 But there lies the crux of the problem I’ll set forth: Today, we are a lawless people, or perhaps a better way to express it is that we are not a people under one law any longer, but rather we have come to a point in time where everyone creates his own law, or his own standards of right and wrong. Judges on a regular basis make up “law” on the spot, making every court appearance a crapshoot. We live in what is called “postmodern times” where each person determines what is good and what is evil. All definitions are blurred; there is no objective reality. Ask ten different people how they define those terms, and you’ll get ten different answers.
In France, Robespierre and the French Revolutionaries rallied the masses under those very words — a revolution that later came to be known more honestly as “The Reign of Terror.” Karl Marx had his own definitions for these as did Stalin and Mao. I guarantee you that President Clinton, while using the same words, meant something totally different than you and I do when we talk about these things.
So the problem is this: If private property rights are tolerated only as they contribute to liberty, justice, peace, and prosperity — tell me, who is going to be the official arbitrator of definitions and levels? Consider, for instance, peace. There’s no peace between Microsoft and Sun. There are times private property creates not peace, but conflict as people attempt to maximize their assets in a free market. If private property is simply tolerated because it contributes to the “peace process,” it is open to attack when peace is defined on these terms, especially because there are times when “peace” and “freedom” conflict.
Private Property and Justice
Justice is also a hazy place to hang your private property hat in today’s world. Again, because today there is no objective law standard to measure ourselves against, justice to the large land-owning farmer or rancher is different from the justice demanded by the so-called “environmentalist.” Prosperity suffers the same fate, for what is prosperity and who has it? Does redistribution of wealth fall under “prosperity” and “justice” as in calls for “economic justice”? Ron Sider, who masquerades as a Christian teacher, is a regular contributor to Moody Monthly, and calls for a radical redistribution of wealth in the name of fairness and justice. I dare say that none here would want to have his definitions imposed upon them.
Professor Pipes, despite an otherwise excellent book, also comes up short in this area. His four arguments set forth are truly historical arguments, but he totally misses the most important one that changed the history of the world. He gives these four arguments for private property:
- The political argument in favor of property holds that (unless distributed in a grossly unfair manner) it promotes stability and constrains the power of government. Against property it is claimed that the inequality which necessarily accompanies it generates social unrest.
- From the moral point of view, it is said that property is legitimate because everyone is entitled to the fruits of his labor. To which critics respond that many owners exert no effort to acquire what they own and that the same logic requires everyone to have an equal opportunity to acquire property.
* The economic line of reasoning for property holds that it is the most efficient means of producing wealth, whereas opponents hold that economic activity driven by the pursuit of private gain leads to wasteful competition.
* The psychological defense of property maintains that it enhances the individual’s sense of identity and self-esteem. Others assert that it corrupts the personality by infecting it with greed.3
He then goes on to state:
These four approaches fairly exhaust the range of arguments for and against property articulated during the past three thousand years.4
Now that is an amazing statement, because it omits the most important, persuasive, and influential argument for private property that the West has set forth: God’s private property laws. It was the proper understanding and implementation of God’s property laws that allowed the Christian West to flourish and prosper.
God’s Private Property Laws
This universal truth that flows from God’s property laws is rooted and grounded in the objective fact that, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). The Biblical idea of property comes up right at the beginning of Genesis where man was created in the image of God and commanded to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it. “Not only is it man’s calling to exercise dominion, but it is also his nature to do so…. Man was created to exercise dominion under God and as God’s appointed vicegerent over the earth.”5 Rushdoony points out, “An aspect of this dominion is property.”6 The Biblical teaching is that “the earth is indeed the Lord’s, as is all dominion, but God has chosen to give dominion over the earth to man, subject to His law-word, and property is a central aspect of that dominion. The absolute and transcendental title to property is the Lord’s; the present and historical title to property is man’s.”7
God’s declaration that man is entitled by His law, a law which transcends all man-made laws, arguments, and philosophies, to own private property is highlighted by at least two of the Ten Commandments: the Eighth which says, “You shall not steal,” and the Tenth which strikes at the heart of the entire matter, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
A case could be made for private property rights being outlined and protected by God in every commandment, as reflected by James’ insistence that if a man is guilty of breaking one commandment he is guilty of breaking all commandments. But we can clearly see the principle of private property set forth and confirmed in the Fourth Commandment, where a person and his personal property were required to rest; in the Sixth Commandment which restrained a person from stealing the ultimate personal property, another’s life; in the Seventh Commandment which, by outlawing adultery, set personal boundaries which had to be respected; and the Ninth Commandment which prohibited one from robbing a person of his reputation, which is a very important and valuable form of personal property.
The fact is, God created the world and then delegated it, in the form of personal property, to man. The right to own and control private property, therefore, transcends any political, moral, economical, or psychological basis and rests in God’s revealed and declared law.
Let me point out that God takes the issue of private property very, very seriously. For instance, God’s law of securing and maintaining landmarks that define a person’s property is stated and reinforced on at least five occasions. That law, stated in Deuteronomy 19:14, reads like this:
You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.
It is cited also in Deuteronomy 27:17; Proverbs 22:28; 23:10; and Job 24:2.
When you look at the Tenth Commandment, you’ll see that this is one powerful assertion of private property rights. This commandment deals with both the intents and actions of men to manipulate or control property that does not legitimately belong to them. Martin Noth, in his commentary on Exodus, writes:
[Coveting] describes not merely the emotion of coveting but also includes the attempt to attach something to oneself illegally. The commandment therefore deals with all possible undertakings which involve gaining power over the goods and possessions of a “neighbor,” whether through theft or through all kinds of dishonest machinations.8
Another scholar writes:
[T]he corresponding Hebrew word [for covetousness] has two meanings, both to covet and to take. It includes outward malpractices, meaning seizing for oneself.9
What we’re seeing is the positive assertion of private property rights with boundaries established by God Himself, with a negative condemnation of every attempt to gain by fraud, coercion, or deceit that which belongs to our neighbor.
Let me point out the obvious right here. If God Himself establishes private property rights and “if all desiring and taking by force or by law what is your neighbor’s is strictly against God’s law, [doesn’t it also follow] that the organization of such covetousness into a system is the creation of an anti-God society?”
Let me put it even plainer. Outside of God’s laws governing property use, all attempts to control, manipulate, and dictate what a person can do with his property is antichrist to the core. Therefore, all public planning commissions and zoning boards that meet to consider anything other than what God does or does not allow on property is a lawless example of stealing and covetousness in action. To reiterate, it is antichrist to the core.
This does not mean that we are free to ignore planning commissions and zoning boards because God’s laws are meant to be an expression of faith as well as a rule for life, and today’s Christians are not people willing to put their faith in God. They ignore God’s laws and put their faith in government to solve their problems and meet their needs. The civil government that we have is a direct expression of our society’s faith. It’s not a full-scale rebellion against these commissions that we need, but rather a revival of the true Christian Faith in the hearts and minds of those who call themselves Christians.
Far too many Christians reject God’s laws and declare themselves as god and, therefore, declare themselves able to ignore the Eighth and Tenth Commandment. They actively engage in stealing and coveting and love every minute of it. They seek to manipulate and control their neighbor’s property, specifically through non-Biblical zoning laws. In effect, these Christians show that they hate God’s plan for the future and they seek to impose their own version of predestination on property owners, arbitrarily telling them what can and cannot be done with their property. You get Christians thinking righteously about these things and you would be amazed at how soon we would see the dismantling of Satanic institutions, all without any civil disobedience or rebellion.
By the way, I don’t mean that these zoning decisions have to be just quietly accepted. We have civil recourse through our court system that is designed to be appealed to. It’s true that it’s no longer the law-based system that seeks and upholds the justice that our Founders had envisioned, but by God’s grace it is a restraining force against many true evils. Until the time comes that people no longer feel able to covet openly through zoning boards, we have a responsibility to pray for God’s grace, mercy, and righteousness to prevail in our courts.
There are, in fact, limits to what a person can do with his private property, for ultimately it is owned by God and it is He who sets the parameters for use. But let me stress that property use is governed and regulated by God, and not by those who are neither owners nor the stewards of the property.
- Tom Bethel, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages.
- R.J. Rushdoony, Systematic Theology, “Theology of the Land.”
- Richard Pipes, Property and Freedom.
- R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1, “The Eighth Commandment.”
- Martin Noth; Exodus, as cited in the Institutes of Biblical Law, Vol. 1, “The Tenth Commandment.”
- Gerhard Von Rad; Deuteronomy, A Commentary.
Article from Chalcedon.edu