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)
It’s common for leftist to quote the scripture above to justify their assertion that the “Christian” form of government is Socialist or Communist. There are several major problems with this, the first being that there is no real connection between what a group of people who share an association do—in this case the believers of the nascent Christian church in Jerusalem—and a biblical mandate of how civil government should be ordered. The fact that the believers in Jerusalem lived economically communally for a short while (there is no indication that this economic situation persisted in the growing community of Christian believers as the church spread outside the confines of Jerusalem) in no way advocates for secular government to be established on this template. And in reality the stories that Jesus told to illustrate his message of God’s kingdom were filled with examples of private property ownership, market economics, division of labor, and a hierarchy of pay based on merit, loyalty and productivity—all essential features of what we now call Capitalism. (I prefer to call it free market enterprise.) Furthermore, in the few New Testament references to civil secular government the almost sole role of that government is defined as maintaining civil order via the punishment of crime, what we might today call the criminal justice system.
Jesus, for instance, mentions civil courts deciding monetary disputes and warns the believer to
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:25&26)
Also, early in Jesus’ ministry, when soldiers asked him what they should do he replied,
Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. (Luke 3:14)
In other words, he did not tell them that their role as enforcers and protectors of state power was illegitimate but rather instructed them to carry out those duties in an ethical manner.
The Apostle Peter identifies the role of secular government this way:
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” (1 Peter 2:13&14)
And the Apostle Paul gives the most comprehensive definition of the role of secular government—which please notice agrees perfectly with what Peter said:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3&4)
Of course these statements are neither comprehensive nor absolute: both Peter and Paul were to find out that a time would come when those same rulers and governors would indeed punish good behavior since both men would be executed by Rome for being followers of Christ. My point is to show that both defined the central role of secular government—not as a provider for the needs of the poor or as a social equalizing force—but as the arbiter and enforcer of criminal justice and to maintain civil order.
The inevitable question then is, who is to provide for the poor, if not the government? And the answer is, the church. What seems intolerable to the political left about this answer is that church has always allocated its charitable provisions based on biblical principles, conditions and categorizations. Two categories of people are consistently presented as worthy of immediate help in the Bible: widows and orphans. Why? Because they were truly helpless, unable to provide for their own needs. However, for the able-bodied the Apostle Paul had this to say:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12)
As Marvin Olasky points out in his book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, this biblical principle governed Christian charity in America from colonial times until the advent of the Progressive movement in which socialist—often atheist—advocate journalists such as Ida Tarbell and Sinclair Lewis began calling for government to take over the charitable roles formerly the province of church, fraternal and other private benevolent charitable organizations. They were remarkably successful in these calls ultimately leading to the New Deal, the Great Society and the leviathan welfare state that we now know.
The result of this has been the destruction of democratic republicanism (supplanted by a pure democracy the nation’s founders so feared and worked so hard to prevent), the end of states rights, and the nullification of the text and original meaning of the Constitution replaced by the caprice of an activist majority of the Supreme Court. It has led to the defenestration of every limit on government once imposed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the swallowing up of an ever growing percentage of national wealth devoted to financing government, a level of personal and corporate confiscatory taxation literally unthinkable by those who risked their fortunes and their lives to cast off the tyranny of an English tax rate of about 3%.
But it has also led to a condition in which the welfare state competes with private charity. First it consumes funds through obscene levels of taxation that would otherwise be available for donation. Then it debases and degrades the rules and principles by which private charities operate by offering monetary assistance without any of the categorization, accountability, or even the goals that historically governed private charity, and either forcing or pressuring those charities to drop all such qualifiers and goals themselves.
Fortunately we don’t yet live in a totalitarian state. So far we can still speak out, we can still vote. I find it an incomprehensible disgrace that roughly 50% of Evangelicals in this country don’t vote. This must change if we are to have a chance of renewing the republican form of limited government our founders created, and under which we as Christians will be able to enjoy—not the freedom of “worship” that president Obama wishes to define down as the standard—but rather the “free exercise” of religion that the Constitution guarantees us.
I’ll end with Paul’s word to Timothy:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)