Tag Archives: wealth redistribution

Are You Interpreting the Bible with a Secular World View?

In the book of 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to the church at Corinth about an offering. He is collecting the offering for Jerusalem, and he invites the Corinthians to give the way Christ has given to all humankind. He shares the example of other churches, who gave more than expected, because they gave “beyond their ability.” Paul challenges the Corinthians to give in the same spirit. Close reading of the two letters to the Corinthian church suggests that the Corinthians actually suggested that Paul collect this offering, but at the time of this letter, they had not themselves contributed as expected. Paul writes:

8   And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. 5 And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. 6 So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7 But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

10 And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. 11 Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. 12 For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.  2 Corinthians 8:1-12 NIV84

 

I do not ordinarily expect my readers to wade through such a long passage, but in this case, it is important that you read the whole thing in order to see the way Paul prepares the church for his request. Paul is explaining what wealth is. He distinguishes between wealth in the eternal and infinite sense and wealth in the time/space sense. Christ was wealthy in the eternal and infinite sense, yet he gave it all up and accepted the poverty of time and space in order to pass on eternal and infinite riches. Paul holds up these two contrasting forms of wealth in order that his readers not confuse the two. Paul intends for the church at Corinth to see clearly that time/space wealth is not something to cling to.

In case they still have any concerns about the request, Paul elaborates on the way God uses time/space wealth:

 

13 For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 NIV84

 

Paul is talking about the means by which God provides for our needs in time and space. He has already pointed out that earthly wealth is nothing to compare with the riches of eternity. He has held up the example of Christ who did not cling to the riches of eternity in order that he might share them human beings. Then he clinches his argument, still appealing to the importance of our trust in God’s provision, by looking back to the experience of Israel in the wilderness. The wandering Israelites were totally dependent on God to provide for their every need. God taught them to trust his daily provision by enforcing the experience that if people gathered too much manna for their needs, nothing was left over, while those who misjudged and gathered too little nevertheless had enough. They might attempt to override their need to trust God, but it was to no avail; they had to trust him, because he simply did not allow them to pre-empt his work.

Paul says that this is the way things will work out if the Corinthians are willing to share what God has given to them. They have more than enough at the time of this letter. Instead of saying, “We need to keep this surplus, because some day we will need it,” Paul encourages them to give it to the Jerusalem church, which is seriously in need. The implication is that God has provided the Corinthians a surplus precisely because Jerusalem needs it. Like the ancient Israelite who did not gather enough for himself, the Jerusalem church is falling short. Just as God graciously made up the difference for the ancient Israelite, God is making up the difference for the church in Jerusalem, and the overage in Corinth is the way he has chosen to do it. Both churches are asked to remember that God is the one who provides for all of us.

Secular thinkers have infiltrated Christian thinking to such a degree that there are actually Christian professors and scholars who interpret this text as an example of the socialist mantra of the redistribution of wealth. In 2009, the Barna Group surveyed American adults asking questions designed to reveal those who had a Christian world view; only 9% of all American adults gave answers that expressed a Christian world view. Extracting from the total number surveyed the subset that self-identified as born-again Christians, only 19% of them expressed a Christian world view. (You can read the survey here.) It should, therefore, not be surprising that even among biblical scholars, there are those who do not interpret the Bible according to a biblical worldview.

For example, in the Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg, 2009), David E. Frederickson explains in his notes on 2 Corinthians 8:13-14, “Paul sought to create unity among diverse and geographically separated congregations through the redistribution of wealth.” Marx’s birth was 1800 years in the future when Paul wrote his letter, and twentieth century socialism had not even been thought of. No Christian of that day, especially not Paul, would have entertained the idea of the “redistribution of wealth” for one second. If such an idea had been proposed to the first Christian missionary, he would almost certainly have reacted to it the same way Peter reacted to the attempt of Simon Magus to buy the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:9-24). Paul constantly wrote about the way God provided for him and for all Christians, and Paul was adamant that the riches of knowing Christ are not to be confused with the wealth that exists only in time and space. When he called on the Corinthians to get their priorities in order, he was not trying to assure that each church had the same amount of money as all the other churches. To reach such a conclusion requires twisting Paul’s words severely.

This is a good example of what not to do when reading the Bible. It is important that readers not project onto biblical text contemporary political and social issues that did not even exist in biblical times. It is important to read the full context of every idea expressed. It is important to look at the text from a Christian world view. (If you don’t know what a Christian world view is, you can read the report of the 2009 Barna Survey.)

Read in the context of the entire 8th chapter of 2 Corinthians, it is clear that it does not make sense to read these verses as an advance revelation of the gospel of socialism. Where or when have you heard a pastor or other Christian leader declare that the Bible teaches some philosophy or political agenda that is fundamentally unbiblical?

Income Redistribution is not Christian Teaching

English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...
English: Jesus Christ – detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Commentators, economic analysts, and even some pastors are using a term lately that has sent me scrambling for understanding. The term is “income disparity.” I recently undertook some research on that term and l learned that it refers to the gap between the individuals who are statistically identified as the highest income earners and those identified as the lowest income earners. Apparently, the amount earned at these different levels in the USA has been widening for several years, and the trend has roused panicked concern in some circles. What led me to do the research was a growing trend in public discourse to speak of “the rich” as if they were evil because of their ability to earn so much. The scorn usually morphs into allegations that rich people ought to pay more in taxes simply because they are rich. The rhetoric hinges on a concept labeled their “fair share” in taxes.

In all the discussions I have read and heard, few people seem to take note that history shows that income gaps have widened and narrowed over and over throughout history. In the material I was able to find, there was no credible evidence that the disparity was due to selfish or wicked behavior by people with high income. To say that is not to say that all rich people are good, but there is no evidence they are all bad, either. I concluded long ago that you could not assume anything about the moral character of an individual by knowing his income.

What baffles me is to hear pastors talk about income disparity as if God wanted the government to fix it. It baffles me to hear pastors suggest that the government ought to fix anything. It baffles me profoundly to hear pastors say that, just like the politicians, they think rich people ought to pay an even higher tax rate than they pay now. Pastors are entitled to their own political views, of course, but they are not entitled to appropriate the gospel of Jesus Christ to serve their political agendas. It baffles me still more to try to figure out how taxing rich people at a high rate will result in higher income for the poor. I don’t see any theological justification for the idea, and I don’t see any logical justification for the idea. History records that something similar was the basis for life in the former Soviet Union. If that experiment is any evidence, the idea of income redistribution by a government will do nothing but impoverish a whole nation.

Christ did not teach anything remotely like income redistribution by the government. If he had believed in that idea, he lived under the perfect government for it. The Roman government was a model of administrative genius. In an age without electricity, telephones, or the internet, Rome ruled a huge empire, and it did that job so well that Roman law is still a model for all of us to learn from. If Christ wanted a government with the will and the power to take the wealth of the richest people and divide it up among all the other people, he could hardly have found a better choice. But Christ did not suggest any such thing. Not then. Not now.

Christ taught that people should give thanks to God for what they had and live in grateful stewardship of their possessions. Christ did not teach that people should camp out on the estates of the wealthy and call the property owners vulgar names and express their vile envy of those who happen to have more of the world’s goods. Christ taught that his followers should put the kingdom of God ahead of self-aggrandizement, in fact, they should deny self altogether, and be like him. Being like him means to love God above all and to love people. Being like him means to spend your time and energy doing what God created you to do, not envying and maligning other people who happen to have more money.

Christ taught that everyone is valuable to God. He did tell his followers to be givers, not takers, which pretty much undercuts participation in a movement to besmirch the character of people who are wealthy and steal their wealth from them. Being Christ-like means that his followers will not support an autocratic and tyrannical attempt by the government to take half or more of the income of some citizens simply because they have large incomes. This is an outrage and an insult to the gospel.

Christ did teach loving charity. He taught his followers to be servants. But he also taught his followers to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. Serpentine wisdom informs me that government is a devious manipulator of all the money it receives. The more money the government receives from the people, the more money simply disappears from any accounting. The government is not a good steward of the people’s money, which is why people who are wise as serpents will give the government the least amount of money it needs to do its legitimate jobs. The task of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, or the task of attempting to make us all believe that is what it is doing, is not a legitimate job of government. Christians who take Christ’s teachings seriously are already busy about helping the poor and the hungry and the sick. The more the government takes, the less is available for those charitable endeavors. As a matter of fact, the government has recently intruded into those institutions with the consequence of first taking from them money that should serve their charitable endeavors and second forcing them to use that money to do things inimical to their faith. This is only one example of the reason government must be kept within the boundaries of its legitimate roles.

Christians always want to do what Jesus would do. Jesus would not give to Caesar anything that did not belong to him. The income of the citizens does not belong to the government, and the government has never been awarded by God or by the Constitution with the authority to tell any citizen how much income is “enough” for him. Christians must beware of false prophets who try to look like cute little lambs when under that innocent mask they are ravening wolves who will take everything all citizens have, not just the rich, and then bite off the hand that gives it.