The best introduction to a talk I have ever heard was when I heard an African American at the Twin Lakes Conference begin his talk with the following words: “Well, here I am. A black guy. With 200 plus mostly white guys. In Mississippi. In the woods. It ain’t looking good!” I thought it was funny. As did, as far as I could gather, most of the people there. But what surprised me was that there were those who were not pleased. I’m not sure why. Did they not want to be reminded of the not too distant racist past of much of their culture? Did some of that still remain? Whatever the reason it was clear that the speaker had touched upon a still deeply sensitive issue. Over the past couple of days I have been reminded of that.
It is a cultural thing. Most people in Europe would regard the article on The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals which stated that ‘Socialism was evil’ as being right wing American hyperbole – see for example this reaction from Saints and Sceptics in Northern Ireland.
But here is the surprise. There are many American evangelicals who are fed up with this kind of nonsense, and most of the reaction I have had from the US has been really positive. Those evangelicals who continue to identify evangelicalism with American Capitalism need to take heed that they are losing their own people. They need to understand that they are not losing them because of liberalism but because of this distorted view of religion and politics.
However I thought I would finish this mini-series by asking, not “Is Socialism evil?” but “Is Capitalism evil?” As with Socialism let’s make sure we define our terms correctly.
Capitalism [noun]: “An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”
This is the mirror opposite of the definition we gave for Socialism where the state controls the means of production.
Socialism [noun]: “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”
Just as there are those who argue that Socialism is evil, so there are those who argue that Capitalism is evil. They cite the greed, the reliance on interest rates, the worship of mammon and they have no problem in identifying the commerce of today with the Babylon of the book of Revelation. Like those who argue that Socialism is evil, there is more than a grain of truth in what they say. But they are wrong, because the question is meaningless.
I am not going to go into the various merits of these two particular economic systems, because that is a political, not a moral or theological argument. Evil is what is in the human heart, not the economic system.
To put it another way, I think that the capitalist system, if perfect human beings ran it, would be a perfect system. If perfect human beings ran the socialist system it would also be a perfect system. Neither system is per se evil. Neither system will ever save us. For Christians to put their faith in a particular political/economic system or, when that system is criticised, to act as though blasphemy had been spoken is, to say the least, an unbiblical distortion. At a practical level I personally don’t care if the State is running the train company, or a private millionaire, as long as the trains run on time, the workers are well paid, health and safety are taken care off, and the opportunity to travel is given to all.
In reality most countries are run on a mixed economy; government does some things better, and private companies do others. Where the balance lies is in biblical terms ‘adiaphora’ (things indifferent). It is the job of government to ensure that there is justice and peace; a level playing field, provision for the poor, protection for the weak and limits placed on the powerful.
So lets come back to the main issue here; the identification of one system with Christianity.
I could of course write about those who identify Christianity with Socialism but since that is not the article I am responding to, please take it as a given that the same standards apply on the other side. I am not writing in defence of Socialism. I am arguing in defence of the Gospel.
And this is the really important issue. I am convinced that there are sections of the American church who have got caught up in the whole culture wars thing and as a result they read the Bible through the eyes of their culture, rather than read the culture through the eyes of the Bible (a danger that all of us can fall into).
An example of this is the way that some Christians are for government restrictions on abortion but are fanatically pro-choice when it comes to money. The pro-choice feminists argue for human autonomy when it comes to the human body – “It’s my body and the State does not have the right to tell me what to do with my body!” Christians rightly point out that God forbids murder of human beings and the child in the womb is a human being and look to the government to restrict the practice. However, those very same people will then be pro-choice when it comes to money – “It’s my money and the State does not have the right to tell me what to do with my money!” Do you see the inconsistency?
Just as God has ordained the body, the family and the church, so he has ordained the State and he has commanded us to pay our taxes to support that State. This is the teaching of the Bible.
It is also the teaching of the historic Reformed faith, which is why it is astounding that even Reformed historians like DG Hart, who seems to have a profound dislike of me (Although he seems to have a profound dislike for most people so I don’t take it personally!) and Reformed theologians like RC Sproul Junior, seem to be quite happy to overturn both Scripture and history in defence of their political views. Once again I am indebted to Dr John Ross for weighing in with a wider more balanced historical theological perspective. John, who in no circumstances could be described as left-wing or socialist, writes the following (it is lengthy but well worth reading!):
Rick Phillips and R C Sproul Jnr. and those who follow their line of argument, demonstrate an anarchic spirit totally alien to historical Calvinism. In the Institutes (4. 22. 20: Of Civil Government) Calvin argues that taxation is necessary for the public good, but enters a caveat that the prerogative ought not be abused by rulers for personal aggrandisement.
“Lastly, we think it proper to add, that taxes and imposts are the legitimate revenues of princes, which they are chiefly to employ in sustaining the public burdens of their office. These, however, they may use for the maintenance of their domestic state, which is in a manner combined with the dignity of the authority which they exercise. Thus we see that David, Hezekiah, Josiah, Jehoshaphat, and other holy kings, Joseph also, and Daniel, in proportion to the office which they sustained, without offending piety, expended liberally of the public funds; and we read in Ezekiel, that a very large extent of territory was assigned to kings (Ezek. 48:21). …Princes, however, must remember, in their turn, that their revenues are not so much private chests as treasuries of the whole people … which they cannot, without manifest injustice, squander or dilapidate; or rather, that they are almost the blood of the people, which it were the harshest inhumanity not to spare. They should also consider that their levies and contributions, and other kinds of taxes, are merely subsidies of the public necessity, and that it is tyrannical rapacity to harass the poor people with them without cause. These things do not stimulate princes to profusion and luxurious expenditure (there is certainly no need to inflame the passions, when they are already, of their own accord, inflamed more than enough), but seeing it is of the greatest consequence that, whatever they venture to do, they should do with a pure conscience, it is necessary to teach them how far they can lawfully go, lest, by impious confidence, they incur the divine displeasure. Nor is this doctrine superfluous to private individuals, that they may not rashly and petulantly stigmatise the expenditure of princes, though it should exceed the ordinary limits.”
Similarly, John Knox had no inhibitions regarding the legitimacy of taxation (called Tiends in Scotland). He not only approved the use of parish tiends for the support of the poor, the upkeep of parish schools and the ministry of the church, but also sheltered the poor from heavy demands passed on by landlords in increased rents to cover their own tax obligations. He approved the principle of progressive taxation of the rich and argued for the removal of tax exemption bestowed on some of the wealthy by favour of the Queen. Knox’s approach to taxation laid the foundation of Scottish Calvinism’s historical commitment towards social and political justice.
Rev Dr John S Ross
I have been stunned at how otherwise intelligent people have reacted to my statement that some people regard all taxation as evil. I was exaggerating to make a point. So I was astonished when otherwise intelligent people wrote me and said that they agreed! Not only is this illogical but it is profoundly unbiblical and goes directly the teaching of Paul in Romans 13 “6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.”
It fits the populist philosophy of Donald Trump, ‘only a fool pays taxes’, but it is not the teaching of Christ. Are we Christians or Trumpians?
As I indicated, this is a serious issue facing the American church. If we do not deal with the heresy of associating Christ and his Gospel as being synonymous with free market Capitalism, then the US is going to go down the tubes even faster than the UK did. People have to see that the choice is not between political/theological liberalism and political/theological conservatism but that there is another way; Biblical, Christ centred theology at the centre with varied political views at the periphery.
You cannot be a Christian and hold to a liberal theology because the liberal Christ is no Christ at all. However, you can be a Christian and hold to a conservative, socialist etc. politics. What is needed here is not just quiet agreement (“We agree but we have to keep quiet because there are wealthy people in our congregation/network who will get upset and withdraw their support if we dare to challenge”) but robust, Christ-centred challenge. It’s all very well denouncing the heresies from the past and the heresies in other churches and groups but it just becomes hypocrisy if we don’t have the guts to deal with the heresies in our own midst.
David A Robertson
St Peters Free Church
Feb 25th 2016
An Appendix: Reactions.
One reaction I received to my first article intrigued me. My American correspondent wrote:
Thank you for this. I was amazed at the article as well–and it was obviously designed as a slap at one of our Presidential candidates. What was ironic is that Rick had a day previously written an article on the Ref 21 web site on the spirituality of the church as a way of countering some in the PCA who have been vocal on the issues of racism in the PCA.
This sent me back to Rick’s two earlier articles, written in response to the current attempts by some in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) to deal with the racism of the past. Rick wrote:
“To this end, sweeping generalizations should be avoided and the temptation to exaggeration should be resisted. If sins are charged, they should be clear biblical sins rather than transgressions we have constructed out of our social context. –
We should show care and respect to all sides.
the mission of the church – which its organization and activities should reflect – is evangelism, discipleship, and church building. This is the great work of all history to which we are privileged to be called. There is no evident biblical basis for the church to add other missions, such as social justice, to the commission given by our Lord himself.
If only Rick had heeded his own advice! As it stands it looks as though he is telling the church to stay out of politics, social justice, etc when it comes to racism, but when it comes to Socialism the church should be denouncing it as evil and praying against it. It is, at best, a somewhat skewed message and it does not read well for the PCA or for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. ACE have not only allowed this on their website, but as they have also not allowed any corrective to it (I am quite happy for them to post my articles if they wish!), then they are implicitly endorsing this distorted message.
Read the other articles in this mini-series here: