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Inequality of Possessions
November 01, 2008
The American presidential election is almost upon us (even those of us who do not live in the United States). One of the fundamental issues in this election regards distribution of wealth. Many people have become alarmed at Obama’s statements about the redistribution of wealth. I think it is useful to provide a Christian perspective on inequality of wealth. To that end, I am posting the seventh chapter of Wayne Grudem’s book Business for the Glory of God (Used with permission of Crossway Books).
Some inequality of possessions is fundamentally good and provides many opportunities for glorifying God, but also many temptations to sin; and some extreme inequalities are wrong in themselves.
It may seem surprising to us to think that some inequalities of possessions can be good and pleasing to God. However, although there is no sin or evil in heaven, the Bible teaches that there are varying degrees of reward in heaven and various kinds of stewardship that God entrusts to different people. When we stand before Jesus to give account of our lives, he will say to one person,
“You shall have authority over ten cities,”
and to another,
“You are to be over five cities” (Luke 19:17, 19).
Therefore there will be inequalities of stewardship and responsibility in the age to come. This means that the idea of inequality of stewardship in itself is given by God and must be good.
In a similar teaching, Paul, speaking to believers, says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). This implies degrees of reward for what we have done in this life. Many other passages teach or imply degrees of reward for believers at the final judgment. Even among the angels, there are differing levels of authority and stewardship established by God, and therefore we cannot say that such a system is wrong or sinful in itself.
Inequalities are necessary in a world that requires a great variety of tasks to be done. Some tasks require stewardship of large amounts of resources (such as ownership of a steel mill or a company that manufactures airplanes), and some tasks require stewardship of small amounts of resources. And God has given some people greater abilities than others, abilities in artistic or musical skills, abilities in mathematics or science, abilities in leadership, abilities in business skills and buying and selling, and so forth. If reward for each person’s labor is given fairly and is based on the value of what that person produces, then those with larger abilities will naturally gain larger rewards. Since people are different in abilities and effort, I don’t think there could be a fair system of rewards for work unless the system had different rewards for different people. Fairness of reward requires such differences.
In fact, God has never had a goal of producing equality of possessions among people, and he will never do so. In the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25), agricultural land returned to its previous owner and debts were canceled, but there was no equalizing of money or jewels or cattle or sheep, and houses inside walled cities did not revert to the previous owner (v. 30).
Some people have seen an argument for equal possessions in 2 Corinthians 8, but there Paul did not say that God’s goal was equality. For example, he did not tell the wealthy Corinthians to send money to the poor Macedonians mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, but only that they should contribute their fair share in helping the famine-stricken Christians in Jerusalem:
…as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness (2 Cor. 8:13- 14, ESV; the Greek word isotΣs also means “fairness” in Col. 4:1, where it cannot mean “equality”).
Nor does the book of Acts teach some kind of “early communism” when it says that believers had all things in common. It is important to look at the passages carefully:
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. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts … (Acts 2:44-46).
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need (Acts 4:32-35).
These texts certainly show an amazing level of trust in God, generosity, and love for one another, all as a result of a remarkable outpouring of the Holy Spirit’s power in a time of great revival. But it is a great mistake to call this “early communism,” for (1) the giving was voluntary and was not compelled by the government, and (2) people still had personal possessions, because they still met in “their homes” (Acts 2:46), and many other Christians later still owned homes, such as Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Jason (Acts 17:5), Titius Justus (Acts 18:7), many Christians in Ephesus (Acts 20:20), Philip the evangelist (Acts 21:8), Mnason of Cyprus (Acts 21:16, in Jerusalem), Priscilla and Aquila in Rome (Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19), Nympha (Col. 4:15), Philemon (Philem. 2), and other Christians in general to whom John wrote (2 John 10).
Immediately after the description of such amazing generosity in Acts 4, there is in chapter 5 the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied about the sale price of some land. But Peter tells them there was no need to do this:
“While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:4).
It is significant that this story occurs immediately after the paragraph that says “they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). It reminds us that all of that generosity in Acts 4 was voluntary and was not intended to nullify the ideas of individual ownership or inequality of possessions. When Peter says,
“While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?”
he reaffirms the idea of private property and keeps us from the mistaken idea that the church was establishing a new requirement that Christians give up all private property, or that Christians all had to have equal possessions. Acts 5:4 guards against such misunderstandings.
Later in the New Testament, when Paul gives specific instructions to those who are wealthy, he does not tell them to give up all their possessions, but to be generous and to set their hearts on God, not on their wealth:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
So we should not think of all inequalities of possessions as wrong, or as evil. In fact, inequalities in possessions provide many opportunities for glorifying God.
If God gives us a small stewardship with regard to material possessions or abilities and opportunities, then we can glorify him through being content in him, trusting in him for our needs, expecting reward from him, and being faithful to our commitments. In fact, those who are poor often give more sacrificially than those who are rich. Jesus saw a poor widow put a penny in the offering, and he told his disciples,
“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44).
And James tells us,
Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5).
Thus, the Bible does not teach a “health and wealth gospel” (at least not until heaven!). In this present age, there are inequalities of gifts and abilities, and there are also evil, oppressive systems in the world, and because of these things many of God’s most righteous people will not be rich in this life.
As for those who have large resources, they also are to be content in God and trust in him, not in their riches, and both James and Paul suggest that they face greater temptations (see 1 Tim. 6:9-10; James 2:6-7; 5:1-6). Those who are rich have more opportunities and also more obligation to give generously to the poor (1 Tim. 6:17-19) and to the work of the church (Luke 12:48; 1 Cor. 4:2; 14:12b).
Inequalities in possessions, opportunities, and abilities provide many temptations to sin. There are temptations on the part of the wealthy or those who have other kinds of large stewardships to be proud, to be selfish, to think too highly of themselves, and not to trust in God. On the other hand, those to whom God has entrusted less have temptations to coveting and jealousy and not valuing their own personal position and calling in life, to which God has called them, at least for the present time.
In addition to this, there are some extreme kinds of inequalities in possessions and opportunities that are wrong in themselves. Poverty will not exist in the age to come, and so Jesus’ statement, “the poor you always have with you” (John 12:8) is best understood to mean “always in this age.” It does not mean that poverty will last forever, even into eternity. Poverty is one of the results of living in a world affected by sin and the Fall, and by God’s curse on the productivity of the earth after Adam and Eve sinned (Gen. 3:17-19).
We should seek to help the poor and seek to overcome their poverty. John says,
If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17).
And when Paul went to Jerusalem to confirm the validity of his teaching in conversation with the apostles there, he found that they were in agreement, and then added,
they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do (Gal. 2:10; see also Matt. 25:39-40; Acts 2:45; 4:35; Rom. 12:13; 15:25-27; Eph. 4:28; Titus 3:14; Heb. 13:16).
The emphasis in the New Testament is on helping poor Christians, especially those who are near us or who come to our attention (see 1 John 3:17; Matt. 25:39-40; Rom. 15:25- 27; 2 Corinthians 8-9). But it is also right to help non- Christians who are poor and needy, as we see in the parable of the Good Samaritan who helped someone in need from a different religious background (Luke 10:25-37). We also see it in Jesus’ teaching, where he told us,
“love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35; compare also Jesus’ practice of healing all who came to him, not just those who believed in him as the Messiah).
So the New Testament emphasis on helping the poor shows us that there is an extreme kind of inequality that is not good, a point where people are in poverty and should be helped. (Just what “poverty” is will vary from society to society and will also vary over time within any one society.)
But is there an opposite extreme of having too much wealth? In contrast to many admonitions to help the poor, there is no corresponding command in the New Testament to take some wealth away from the very rich, and there is no teaching that a large amount of wealth is wrong in itself. But there are strong warnings against spending too much on oneself and living in self-indulgent luxury:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you… . Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days… . You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter (James 5:1, 3, 5).
James does not here imply that all those who are rich are evil, for in this same passage he speaks of the fraud and murder committed by these rich people, implying that he is speaking about the rich who are wrongdoers (James 5:4, 6). Paul says that Timothy should tell “the rich in this present age” that they are “not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” Paul does not say that the rich are to give away all their wealth, but that they are “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:17-18).
Yet James clearly warns against a kind of “luxury and self-indulgence” that is wrong, that shows little or no concern for others, and that does not take seriously the stewardship obligations that God bestows along with great wealth. It seems that those who are wealthy can too easily slip beyond a level of spending on themselves that is appropriate to their place in life and spend excessively and ostentatiously on themselves while neglecting to give generously to others.
But the distortions of something good must not cause us to think that the thing itself is evil. The evils of poverty and excessive, self-indulgent wealth must not cause us to think that God’s goal is total equality of possessions, or that all inequalities are wrong. Inequalities in abilities and opportunities and possessions will be part of our life in heaven forever, and they are in themselves good and pleasing to God, and provide many opportunities for glorifying him.