C. The economic foundation of a free market: private ownership of property

It is widely recognized that private ownership of property is the foundation of a free-market economic system, in distinction from communism (which has no private ownership of any property) or socialism

(which has no private ownership of the means of production). But what is the justification for a belief in private property?

We find one justification for private property in the teachings of the Bible on this topic. We find other justifications in recent economic studies that have demonstrated how crucial private ownership of property is for successful economic development.

The justification of private property from the Bible

In the Ten Commandments, the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15), assumes that there is something to steal—something that belongs to someone else and not to me. I should not steal your ox or donkey—or your car, cell phone, or iPad—because these things belong to you and not to me. Therefore, the command “You shall not steal,” assumes private ownership of property.[1]

Other passages in the Old Testament show that God was concerned to protect the private ownership of property. Property was to be owned by individuals, not by the government or by society as a whole. For instance, God told the people of Israel that when the Year of Jubilee came, “It shall be a jubilee for you when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan” (Lev. 25:10).

Many other laws defined punishments for stealing and appropriate restitutions for damages to another person’s farm animals or agricultural fields (see, for example, Ex. 21:28-36; 22:1-15; Deut. 22:1-4; 23:24-25). These were properties that belonged to individual people, and the Israelites were to honor the rights of those people to their property.

Another commandment protected property boundaries: “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess” (Deut. 19:14). To move a landmark was to move the boundaries of a piece of land, and thus to steal land that belonged to one’s neighbor (compare Prov. 22:28; 23:10).[2]

The Old Testament also shows an awareness that governments can wrongly use their immense power to disregard property rights and steal what they should not have. At the urging of wicked Queen Jezebel, King Ahab wrongfully stole Naboth’s vineyard, and had Naboth killed in the process (1 Kings 21).

The prophet Samuel warned the people of Israel of the evils of a king who would “take” and “take” and “take”:

So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

(1 Sam. 8:10-18)

God later spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, prohibiting exactly this kind of confiscation of property by a ruler:

The prince shall not take any of the inheritance of the people, thrusting them out of their property. He shall give his sons their inheritance out of his own property, so that none of my people shall be scattered from his property. (Ezek. 46:18)[3]

Sometimes people claim that the early church practiced a form of “early communism” because it is said in the book Acts, “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). But this situation was far different from communism, because (1) the giving was voluntary and not compelled by a government, and (2) people still had personal possessions and owned property, as we see from the fact that they continued to meet in “their homes” (Acts 2:46), and that many other Christians after this time owned homes (see Acts 12:12; 17:5; 18:7; 20:20; 21:8, 16; Rom. 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Philem. 2; 2 John 10). Peter even told Ananias and Sapphira that they did not have to feel any obligation to sell their house and give away the money, because it belonged to them (see Acts 5:4).[4]

  • [1] This paragraph and the following seventeen paragraphs are adapted from Barry Asmus and WayneGrudem, “Property Rights Inherent in the Eighth Commandment Are Essential for Human Flourishing,” in Business Ethics Today: Stealing, ed. Philip J. Clements (Philadelphia: Center for Christian BusinessEthics Today, 2011), 119—34. See notes 20 and 22 for earlier sources of some sections.
  • [2] The previous two paragraphs have been adapted from Grudem, Politics—According to the Bible, 262.
  • [3] For further discussion of private property, see ibid., 137-39, 261-68.
  • [4] The previous paragraph was adopted from the ESV Study Bible, Wayne Grudem, gen. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), note on Acts 2:44, 2085.
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