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Ask A Pastor: Why Is Capitalism Looked Upon So Favorably By Reformed Christians?

Question:

Why is capitalism looked upon so favorably by reformed Christians? This seems to be such a widely accepted and dearly held view by all reformed denominations, but seems to have no basis in scripture. I find it extremely painful to see Christians supporting capitalism, eager to earn at the expense of another, while the atheists and agnostics I know are bent on helping society’s most downtrodden and supporting those who need it most. Do we really believe Jesus could have supported capitalism? And if we don’t, why do our churches support it?

Answer:

To begin, your obvious concerns for the downtrodden is admirable and scripturally warranted. Likewise, your concern with those who live greedily is also admirable, good and scripturally warranted. You have opened a massive debate which has been ongoing for hundreds of years and continues to be written about today. So, obviously this answer cannot deal with the topic in any comprehensive manner but will give a few biblical principles for consideration.


Definition

Your question intimates that capitalism is a problematic system which results in greed and exploitation. So, a definition of capitalism is a good start.  

Capitalism is “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”.

Is an Economic System Biblical?

Well economics deals with how we produce, distribute and consume goods and services. First, the Bible certainly speaks to how we produce: “six days shalt thou labor” (Ex. 20:9) The result of labor is productivity or profit. “Wealth [gotten] by vanity shall be diminished: but he that gathereth by labor shall increase” (Pro 13:11).  


Second, the Bible speaks to how we distribute that profit: provide for your own (1 Tim. 5:8), give liberally to the poor (Acts 20:35), pay fairly (James 5:4), tithe (Matt 23:23), pay taxes (Matt. 22:21).  


Third, the Bible also speaks to how we consume: store not up treasures on earth (Matt 6:19), what doth it profit to gain the world and lose your soul (Mark 8:36), do not be gluttonous (Pr. 23:20). Clearly the Bible gives some basic economic principles which can be used to develop an economic system.  


Is Capitalism a Christian Economic System?

One of the main things that makes capitalism unique is private/individual ownership of thingsand a free market generating profit.  Turning to the Bible we notice first, the fact that the Bible states one person may not steal from another reveals that private ownership is assumed and protected. Second, as mentioned already, the call to labor necessarily generates profit. The fact that Jesus endorsed the moral law and said not one bit of it shall pass away (Matt. 5:18) reveals that Jesus would be in favor of both profit and private ownership.


Now is that to say Jesus would endorse the manner in which capitalism is carried out? Obviously not! The important thing is to remember that we are also accountable for what we do with profit and the things we ‘own’. Jesus would never endorse the greed, covetousness and oppression we see around us.  However, here it is important to realize that capitalism is not a person. Thus, cannot perform these types of activities. It is the sinful men and women who use the system which covet, steal and oppress. The problem is not so much the system as the morality of the people using it. This is what makes Christianity so worthy of sharing. The gospel of Jesus Christ is what changes people NOT the forceful implementation of some social system (2 Cor. 9:7).


In Sum:

Q: Why do many Reformed Christians view capitalism favorably?  

A: Because several of its fundamental principles align with Biblical principles.


Q: Could Jesus have supported capitalism?

A: It would seem Jesus would approve of capitalism’s fundamental principles. However, it is better to recognize that capitalism (as well as any other economic system) is defined by manand the Christian, rather, seeks to live by the Word of God. Capitalism’s definition is changing and uncertain. John Temple argues that Christians are neither capitalists nor socialists and“should not be pigeonholed into any man-made stereotype… Perhaps, if we do accept any label for our view of economics, it is that we believe in free enterprise within the boundaries set by Biblical principles.”


Several other things to keep in mind when contemplating economic systems are, first, that no country operates a purely capitalistic system but rather a mixture of systems. Second, to date there is no economic system which has been able to achieve better results than a form of capitalism. Third, even a society with a perfect system, with all Christian people would continue to sin and suffer because we will not reach perfection until Christ comes again, which is another reason why we eagerly expect His coming on the clouds!


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