income-inequalityIn his recent State of the Union address, President Obama has signaled that income inequality will be his domestic focus during the remainder of his term in office. The fact that the president considers income inequality, rather than employment or economic growth, to be the most important economic issue is peculiar, though not really surprising. For the past few years the political and cultural elites have become obsessed with the issue.

But what should Christians think, and how should we approach the issue? Should we also be concerned? And if so, what should we do about it?

Here are ten points about income inequality that every Christian should understand:

1. Incomes are measured in money — and money is not wealth.

Income inequality is not in itself an economic problem. The simplest way to illustrate this point is to provide a simple “solution”, for there is a simple method that would lead to perfect income equality.

The first step is to calculate the number of earners and rank their incomes from lowest to highest. For example, let’s say a country has 100 million workers, with the lowest workers paid $10,000 a year and the highest earning an annual salary of $1 million a year.

The second step would be for the government to print enough money to equalize all the incomes. For instance, a worker who was making $10,000 a year would get a check from the government for $990,000 while the person making $1 million would get no check at all. Everyone else would get a check for the difference between their income and $1 million dollars.

The result is that all 100 million workers would then have an income of $1 million – the problem of income inequality would be solved!

If that seems a bit too easy, it’s because (a) income inequality is not in itself an economic problem, and (b) incomes are measured in money, and money is not wealth. A country’s primary economic goal is not to make sure everyone has an equal amount of money, but to improve people’s standards of living.

“The money itself is not wealth,” says Don Boudreaux, “Otherwise the government could make us all rich just by printing more of it. From the standpoint of a society as a whole, money is just an artificial device to give us incentives to produce real things — goods and services.”

2. The existence of income inequality is generally a sign of a fair distribution of incomes.

Would it be fair if, as in the example above, every worker earned $1 million? Most people (except perhaps committed Marxists) would admit that it would not be fair to pay everyone the same despite differences in such factors as experience, productivity, and work ethic. The existence of some income inequality is therefore a sign of a fair distribution of incomes.

While this may seem obvious, it’s necessary for understanding that discussions about income inequality are never really about equalizing some or even most incomes. Rather they are, as we’ll discuss in #8, an attempt to justify wealth redistribution.

3. Both low and high rates of income inequality can be signs of unfairness.

Income inequality is usually measured by the Gini coefficient, which measures the inequality among values of a frequency distribution for various levels of income. A Gini coefficient of zero expresses perfect equality, where all values are the same (as in our first example where everyone has the same income). A Gini coefficient of one (or 100%) expresses maximal inequality among values (for example where only one person has all the income).

As we’ve shown, it would be as unfair (and counterproductive) for everyone to make the same income as it would be for only one person to make all the income. So what would be the ideal Gini coefficient? There isn’t one, for that number alone tells us nothing about the living standards of a country.

For example, in 2010 both Bangladesh and the Netherlands had an income Gini index of 0.31. Yet while they had the same level of income equality, there is a vast difference between their per capita incomes: $1,693 in Bangladesh and $42,183 in the Netherlands. By itself income inequality doesn’t tell us anything about economic flourishing. A country’s Gini coefficient could fall and yet the poor get poorer, or the Gini coefficient could rise while everyone is getting richer

4. Income inequality is not the same as economic inequality

Some people confuse these two terms but they are not interchangeable. As economist Scott Sumner explains, you could have no economic inequality and still have enormous income inequality.

5. Measures of income inequality are meaningless because incomes are not zero-sum

At the popular level, almost all discussions of income inequality are based on the zero-sum fallacy.

“The Zero Sum Game is one of the great economic fallacies,” as Samuel Gregg explains. “It assumes that if one person gets rich, it must mean that someone else gets poorer. That’s reliant upon a static view of wealth. It’s like a pie; the idea that there’s just one pie, and the pie can’t grow.”

“In market economies and dynamic, open economies what you’ll find is that the pie grows. This is very important, because what that means is that everyone can start to get out of poverty.”

Imagine a country in which in Year #1 100 workers made $50,000 a year. In Year #2, however, 99 workers made $50,000 a year and 1 worker – let’s call him Bill Gates – made $1 million a year. For zero-sum income inequality thinkers, this is not possible. For Bill Gates to make $1 million, the 99 other workers would have to earn less since the economic pie is static.

Of course, that is not the way it works in the real world. Bill Gates didn’t take income away from other people, he created new wealth for both himself and millions of other people.

Unfortunately, many people base their opposition to income inequality on zero-sum thinking. Even worse, though, many economists and politicians exploit this particular form of ignorance for their own purposes (mainly #8).

6. Income inequality and poverty are separate issues.

The most charitable interpretation for why Christians believe that income inequality is an important issue is because they assume it is a proxy for poverty. If this were true, Christians would indeed need to be concerned about income inequality because concern about poverty is a foundational principle of any Christian view of economics.

Fortunately, there is neither a necessary connection nor correlation. A country could have absolutely no poverty at all and have extremely high-income inequality. The reason is because income inequality (measured by the Gini coefficient), measures relative, not absolute, income.

There are many Christians, however, who are committed to alleviating poverty who think income inequality is a non-issue (see point #10). While a high level of income inequality might (in theory) tell us something about the level of poverty, it more often than not tells us nothing at all about the material condition of the poor.

7. No one in America is really concerned about absolute income inequality.

If your income is $50,000 a year, you are making twice the level of income of a family at the poverty threshold. If you were to redistribute $12,500 to the poor family, you would then achieve a level of income equality between the two families since you both would have $37,500. Why then don’t more middle-class earners ask the government to redistribute 25 percent of their annual income to the poor?

The reasons are numerous and varied, but they reveal that most people are not truly interested in reducing absolute income inequality – or even income inequality relative to themselves. What they want is for the income of earners who make more money than they do to be redistributed.

8. Discussions of income inequality are almost always about redistribution of income.

Redistribution of money from the vaguely defined rich to the poor has always been a standard feature of egalitarian-based politics. That has been particularly true in America from the mid-1940s to 2014. Until about 1975, though, it was common for political liberals to propose both the problem (income inequality) and the solution (income redistribution) together.

However, after 1975 we see a shift in the rhetoric. While talk about income inequality continued to increase, discussing the solution — income redistribution — was significantly downplayed. The likely reason for the shift, as we see in point #7, is that the idea of having the middle-class income redistributed to the poor is very unpopular. But if income inequality is a problem, what other possible solution remains?

As we’ve found on the issue of taxes, there are not enough “rich” people to take money from. So income inequality is really a stalking-horse for policies that money away from worker on the middle and upper ends of the economic spectrum and redistribute them to those on the bottom (or, more often than not, to the middle-man: the government).

9. The only real threat caused by income inequality are problems caused by envy

Income inequality is increasingly described as a threat both to our country’s economic well-being and to democracy itself. But you rarely hear explanations for why exactly it’s perceived as a threat. The reason is because concerns about income inequality are primarily driven by envy. Envy is generated by positional concerns only when the individual’s current situation is below his or her own aspiration level. That is a fancy way of saying that the “threat” of income inequality derives from the fact that some people want what other people have.

Christians, of course, should recognize this is a problem that is rooted in the human heart and not the Gini coefficient. Even if we reduced the level of income inequality it would not reduce the level of envy for our neighbor’s wealth.

Here’s a thought experiment to prove the point. Imagine you are presented with two possible worlds. In world A, you earn $110,000 a year while colleagues earn $200,000. In alternative world B, you earn $100,000 a year but your colleagues earn only $85,000. Which would you choose?

World A seems to be the better option since, in absolute terms, you have more money to spend. But studies have shown that about 50% of people prefer world B. Relative position in a social group proved to be more important than absolute income.

As long as we think we deserve more, we will become envious of those who have what we want.

Since concerns about income inequality are generally motivated by envy, it’s not surprising that the group who are most envious of the “rich” are the “near rich.” For example, a study found that of the Occupy Wall Street protestors — a group obsessed with inequality — over a third had household incomes over $100,000. Said one of the authors of the study, Ruth Milkman, “It’s a pretty affluent demographic and highly educated. Many were the children of the elite, if you will.”

10. The focus on income inequality is at best, useless, and, at worst, immoral.

Because it is often rooted in personal envy or based on concerns about what will happen if envious people don’t get what they want, Christians should be very hesitant about legitimizing the issue of income inequality. Our primary economic concerns should be for the well-being of the poor and for the creation of conditions that lead to greater human flourishing for all our neighbors. Focusing on income inequality does neither. In fact, the focus on income inequality has become a distraction that has hampered our search for solutions to our true economic problems.

As with every aspect of economics – and indeed in all areas of life – it is not enough to support issues because they make us feel good about ourselves or acceptable in certain social circles. As followers of Christ we must champion economic policies and principles that are rooted in biblical virtues and beneficial to the flourishing of our fellow man. To do that we must refocus on what matters and stop becoming distracted by envy-driven concerns that some people are earning more money than we are.

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  • Bill Hickman

    This post absolutely should not be linked to The Gospel Coalition website. I get that Acton includes conservative economics in its mission. TGC’s name implies a narrower mission based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Has it recently broadened its goals? Or does it actually believe the particular viewpoint of the economy reflected in this post should be bundled with the Gospel?

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      Or does it actually believe the particular viewpoint of the economy reflected in this post should be bundled with the Gospel?

      That depends. Do you think the Gospel has anything to say about economic issues, such as poverty? Personally, I do. While I’m not saying that my position is the only legitimate Christian view, I do think that it is a Gospel issue.

      • Bill Hickman

        Sure, the Gospel lots to say. Let’s debate and try to persuade each other. But the post says:

        “Income inequality is not in itself an economic problem.”
        “[C]oncerns about income inequality are primarily driven by envy.”
        “Christians should be very hesitant about legitimizing the issue of income inequality.”

        When you write these statements in a post called “What Every Christian Should Know…” and link it to TGC, the implication is that Gospel-believing Christians should not hold differing views.

        • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

          Let’s start with my first statement: “Income inequality is not in itself an economic problem.”

          I think this one is rather obvious since Jesus used a positive example of income inequality in his parable of the talents. (Matthew 25:14-30)

          “[C]oncerns about income inequality are primarily driven by envy.”

          Assuming that a person truly grasp what income inequality is and how it comes about, what do you think drives concerns for eliminating it? The Bible doesn’t oppose income inequality so it can’t be based on some overriding biblical concern, such as care for the poor.

          “Christians should be very hesitant about legitimizing the issue of income inequality.”

          I think this is obvious. When Jesus favorably refers to income inequality in one of his parables I think we should be very, very hesitant in about legitimizing the issue of income inequality, much less implying that a lack of concern about income inequality is immoral. It’s my view that Christians should be hesitant of making any claim that would make Jesus out to have advocated immorality.

          • Bill Hickman

            Those three statements aren’t obvious, and Christians may certainly disagree with them.

            Yes, Jesus told a parable in which three people receive unequal amounts of money from their employer. I suppose we could infer from this that at least some small quantum of income inequality is permissible in society. No one really disagrees with that point.

            Even so, it doesn’t follow that extreme levels of income inequality must also be permissible, and it makes little sense to say that people are driven by envy or enabling envy if they don’t also make this dubious logical leap.

          • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

            Even so, it doesn’t follow that extreme levels of income inequality must also be permissible,

            But in his parable, Jesus uses extreme income inequality. To one person he gives 1 talent (6 years wages) and another he gives 5 talents (30 years wages). That’s a huge difference.

            and it makes little sense to say that people are driven by envy or enabling envy if they don’t also make this dubious logical leap.

            What reason, other than envy, can we say that some people have more money than we think they deserve?

          • Bill Hickman

            1) That’s a 5 to 1 ratio. The income disparities I’m referring to are orders of magnitude greater. But it occurs to me that I probably conceded a point earlier that I shouldn’t have – is the parable even about income in the sense we use the term? I’ve always thought the servants were acting as custodians of their master’s wealth, in which case it wouldn’t be right to draw an inference about income inequality.

            2) As I’ve tried to express above, one can worry about income inequality for distributive justice reasons that have nothing to do with envy. The economy is a man-made system of laws and rules that distributes the wealth we create. It didn’t come down to us from Heaven, and if you think about it, it doesn’t do a great job of reflecting any coherent natural theory of economic desert. Therefore, when I see gross income inequality, I’m not inclined to presume the outcomes are just. To me, the gross inequality is ipso facto unjust. Since the economy isn’t a morally neutral arbiter, I think the burden of persuasion should rest with those who don’t think anything needs to be changed.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            To me, the gross inequality is ipso facto unjust.

            A thought: Solomon’s wealth was probably orders of magnitude greater than any of his subjects. In fact, it was promised to him that he would have more wealth <a href="http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Kings+3%3A13&version=ESV&quot;than any other king on Earth. Was that ipso facto unjust?

          • Bill Hickman

            I think the key is the “I give you” in 1 Kings 3:13. I think the social arrangement in which Solomon was extremely wealthy was just because God specifically commanded it. Today’s super rich can’t make the same claim, so the market mechanism that produces extreme inequality shouldn’t escape our scrutiny.

            I’m certainly not an OT historian, but from what little I know, the economy of ancient Israel was quite unlike modern capitalism and didn’t implicate all of the same ethical concerns. So I’m also hesitant to draw inferences from the OT and apply them neatly to the modern economy.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            I agree with you that the “I give you” is a key point. I draw a bit of a different inference from it, however, in that I think it implies that God, in His sovereignty, sometimes may choose to grant great wealth to an individual. He may, as in Solomon’s case, grant fantastic amounts of wealth to a person, orders of magnitude beyond what the common man of the time might expect to see. The implication of that would be that possession of great wealth is not, in and of itself, immoral or unjust.

            We could also look at Matthew 19, the story of Jesus and the rich young man. When the young man asks Jesus what he must do to to have eternal life, and Jesus responds by engaging him in a dialogue about keeping the commandments. The young man proudly proclaims that he has kept all of the commandments that Jesus listed, and asked what he lacked. Jesus, knowing the condition of the young man’s heart, hit him where it hurt: in his pocketbook. He told the young man that he should sell his possessions, give all that he had to the poor, and follow Jesus. The young man went away sorrowful, “for he had great possessions.” The young man’s problem was not that he possessed great wealth; his problem was that his wealth had become more important to him than God.

            So if wealth, even great wealth, is not ipso facto immoral, than I would say that the burden of persuasion of which you spoke earlier is on you to show on what Biblical basis you ground your belief that inequality – even gross inequality – is ipso facto unjust.

          • Bill Hickman

            I agree that extreme inequality is God-ordained because he’s sovereign, but I think we could still consider it the product of an unjust system. Take poverty – it’s unjust, but it’s not outside God’s sovereignty.

            To be clear, I think an economic system that produces extreme income inequality is probably an unjust system, but I don’t think being an ultra-wealthy individual is immoral per se. A billionaire hedgefunder can do his work morally by obeying legal/ethical rules and stewarding his wealth well. For me, the fact that he may be reaping the rewards of an unjust financial/economic system does not necessarily mean he’s personally in the wrong.

    • JohnM

      Bill, is it that you believe no viewpoint of the economy is relevant to the Gospel in any way, or is it that you object to the one presented here? That’s an honest question, will you provide an honest answer?

      • Bill Hickman

        I disagree with the substance, but that’s not really my complaint. I disagree with the link to TGC, which in my mind implies that disagreeing with the content of the post puts the Christian at odds with Christian orthodoxy.

        • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

          Do you seriously believe that, Bill? Do you think that every link on TGC means that the editors think that disagreeing with the content of the post puts the Christian at odds with Christian orthodoxy? I pretty sure you know that’s not true.

          I don’t mind you saying you don’t like this post and don’t think I should have linked to it. But let’s be honest and realistic about your concerns.

          • Bill Hickman

            That is my honest concern. I think the we should raise the minimum wage. But I would not think it appropriate to write a post on TGC called “What Every Christian Should Know About the Minimum Wage” that said the minimum wage should be higher and then said that people who disagree are generally motivated by greed.

          • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

            I’m certainly open to hearing a rationale for how a Christian should be concerned about income inequality in a way that is not motivated by envy. Just because I don’t think it’s possible doesn’t mean I’m not wrong. (I’m wrong about a lot of stuff, I just try not to write about those topics.)

            The reason I made the claim I did was because I do indeed think that discussions about income inequality generally are motivated by envy. Some issues seem to be rather clear-cut. Others, however, are not. I think the minimum wage is an issue where both sides are (generally) driven by noble intentions.

          • JG

            Joe – do you think the term “inequality” is really a misnomer? Would it be better for the discussion to be about whether companies are currently distributing their revenues/profits in an equitable/inequitable manner? I get the sense that people are more concerned with the issue of justice/fairness rather than pure equality (in the US, at least). People get frustrated when a CEO makes 300 times the average employee, but rarely are those same people asking for the CEO and employees to be paid equally.

            Discussions of “inequality” may very often be motivated by envy; I won’t argue for or against that now. But I think it’s very easy to show that concerns about inequity can be held in a way not motivated by envy. In fact, when most people ask for a raise (whether a manager or an average employee), I think they are asking for a more equitable distribution of the company’s income (they’re saying “I’m delivering more value than I’m being fairly compensated for”…which also happens to mean, “someone else is going to get paid more than what they should fairly be compensated for”). That is, unless they are truly being either greedy or envious.

            So, I think it’s right to have discussions on whether the current distributions amongst management, employees and stakeholders are equitable. And if someone says that they are not equitable, that does not automatically equate to their being greedy and/or envious.

          • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

            do you think the term “inequality” is really a misnomer?

            It certainly good be, but I think a lot of people who use the term to mean it in the sense of an inequitable distribution of incomes.

            Would it be better for the discussion to be about whether companies are currently distributing their revenues/profits in an equitable/inequitable manner?

            If that is the case, then I think it really limits the applicability of income inequality. For starters, the only people that should be concerned with the distribution of profits in a firm are the primary stakeholders — employees, management, and shareholders.

            In most cases, employees and management agree to work for a particular salary that is not tied to profits. I know some companies give employees more money if the profits are high (e.g., revenue sharing) but I don’t know any that expect employees to take less of a salary if the profits are lower than expected (usually they’d just layoff some workers to prevent the entire firm from having to take a pay cut).

            So in most cases, employees are paid a salary to create a profit. And unless they make it a condition of their employment, there is no reason to assume just because a firm made a lot of money that they should be paid more.

            Profits essentially belong to shareholders. So why would they give CEO so much more than the average employee? Are they being irrational? After all, the more money they give to a CEO, the less they can keep for themselves. Why then do they pay CEOs so much money? I suspect that they believe it is because the CEO provides value equal to their compensation. In almost every field, there are few people who have the talents and skills to do what a Fortune 500 CEO can do. That is why they tend to be paid so much money.

          • Roger McKinney

            Who defines what is fair? The great Catholic scholars of the school of Salamanca, Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries discussed inequality and min wages. They unanimously argued against min wages because they hurt the poor more than they helped. They insisted that any wage agreed on without coercion, not considering poverty coercion, was fair and just. If people want to help the poor, they should give of their own wealth to do so. Those scholars of the Church cared far more for the poor than anyone today. And they opposed forced redistribution of wealth on the grounds that it was not moral.

            Who today can determine what is a fair wage better than those great scholars?

  • Simon

    Yeah, yeah we get it.. evangelical tea party ideology being bundled up with “the Gospel”. The view expressed here are simply an ideology (based on poor theory might I add). It trumps out the old “envy” argument against those who are simply concerned about the poor (no mention of greed and other economic sins – just that people concerned about income distribution are “immoral”, as if unbridled wealth worship isn’t a bigger problem in the West, especially the US). Deeper questions about what kind of philosophy the author is espousing would be useful. Is he either an Austrian / Ayn Rand type or a Chicago / Efficient Market / utilitarian type? What philosophy is informing his view? We can then have a meaningful discussion about the Christian response to poverty (noting that income of the very poor are obviously not equal to the super rich, which is why there is poverty).
    I will say that labelling people as Marxists is not useful. You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that some level of govt intervention is desirable. Similarly, those of us who think that there is a place in society for government, not only based on private property protection (I wonder what St Peter and St Paul would have said about this argument given the communal life of the Church described in Acts), but in also ensuring that basic human dignity is afforded to the poor. Obviously the charity of those who are more fortunate in the world is also part of the Christian response. But I don’t there is any Scriptural or historical warrant for subscribing to an essentially libertarian economic philosophy. In fact, I’d say that the overt individualism of this is in stark opposition to the life of the Christian faith, which is primarily about communion. In Christian history, we have Christians building hospitals in the Byzantine empire in collaboration with the Empire (i.e. government). We didn’t hear Chrysostom decry “socialized medicine” or anything like that. The views expressed here are, sadly, another example of the Evangelical Right fusing libertarian philosophy, which is anti-Christian at its core, with the Gospel. This is an impossibility. It is part of the “Evangelical Enterprise”. Evangelicals in North America is an industry, these kinds of articles are about protecting that industry in the exact same way other lobby groups and think tanks try to protect their respective industries and ideas.

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      The view expressed here are simply an ideology
      (based on poor theory might I add).

      Well, I guess this could be true if you consider the
      parables of Jesus to be an “ideology.” This view is based on Jesus’ parable of
      the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), a passage that those who worry about income
      inequality must want to rip out of their Bibles.

      It trumps out the old “envy” argument
      against those who are simply concerned about the poor

      I’m not judging people’s motives, only pointing out that income
      inequality has nothing to do with poverty. Those who are really concerned about
      the poor should focus on policies that would actually help the poor, not make
      the upper middle class Occupy Wall Street types feel better about themselves.

      no mention of greed and other economic sins – just
      that people concerned about income distribution are “immoral”, as if
      unbridled wealth worship isn’t a bigger problem in the West, especially the
      US

      Greed is definitely a problem. Income inequality may even be
      a symptom of the effects of greed. But it isn’t necessarily, so there was no
      reason for me to mention it.

      Deeper questions about what kind of philosophy the
      author is espousing would be useful. Is he either an Austrian / Ayn Rand type
      or a Chicago / Efficient Market / utilitarian type? What philosophy is
      informing his view?

      The philosophy that is informing my view is the Gospel of
      Jesus Christ. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it’s true. I suppose people are
      so accustomed to assuming that some other philosophy is driving a discussion
      that they don’t recognize actual Christian arguments.

      The Bible has quite a lot to say about economics. Care for
      the poor is one example. If I had written a post about poverty would you still
      asked if I were an Austrian? Of course not. So why is it when we question the
      modern, envy-driven concept of “income inequality” do you assume that I must be
      being influenced by something else?

      noting that income of the very poor are obviously
      not equal to the super rich, which is why there is poverty

      No, it’s not obvious as I pointed out in my very first
      point. We could make the incomes of the poor the same as the super rich and yet
      we’d still have poverty.

      I will say that labelling people as Marxists is not
      useful.

      Labeling someone a Marxist is useful if it is accurate. The
      idea that all incomes should be equal is antithetical to almost every economic
      philosophy, including any that are rooted in Christian thought. The only one
      that I know of in which absolute income equality is a goal is Marxism.

      You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that
      some level of govt intervention is desirable.

      You should go back and read my post against, for you seem to
      have missed my point. I said nothing either for or against government
      intervention.

      Similarly, those of us who think that there is a
      place in society for government, not only based on private property
      protection

      As do I.

      (I wonder what St Peter and St Paul would have
      said about this argument given the communal life of the Church described in
      Acts)

      I think they would say two things. First, voluntary
      distribution of wealth within a Christian community is certainly an option,
      though it’s not mandatory and certainly not something that should be compelled
      by the force of a secular government. Second, I suspect they’d say it’s not a
      long-term workable option since they themselves abandoned it.

      But I don’t there is any Scriptural or historical
      warrant for subscribing to an essentially libertarian economic philosophy.

      I don’t either. I’m not a libertarian. (It’s say that so
      many people seem to think that arguments based on Biblical principles are
      “libertarian.” It’s a sign of how we’ve begun to confuse rhetoric that favors
      the poor for principles and actions that actually help the poor.)

      In fact, I’d say that the overt individualism of
      this is in stark opposition to the life of the Christian faith, which is
      primarily about communion.

      Have you noticed that you have yet to explain how income
      inequality is a problem, much less that it is something Christians should be
      concerned about?

      In Christian history, we have Christians building
      hospitals in the Byzantine empire in collaboration with the Empire
      (i.e. government). We didn’t hear Chrysostom decry “socialized
      medicine” or anything like that.

      Christians build hospitals in the U.S. in collaboration with
      the government and we don’t call it socialized medicine either. “Socialized
      medicine” is when the government tries to usurp the role of the private sector
      in medicine by controlling the means of production, distribution, and
      financing.

      The views expressed here are, sadly, another
      example of the Evangelical Right fusing libertarian philosophy, which is
      anti-Christian at its core, with the Gospel.

      No, actually, it’s not. The principle is based on the Bible
      alone. Go read Jesus’ parable of the talents and then come back and tell me how
      God thinks income inequality is “anti-Christian at its core.”

      Evangelicals in North America is an industry,
      these kinds of articles are about protecting that industry in the exact same
      way other lobby groups and think tanks try to protect their respective
      industries and ideas.

      Rather than insulting evangelicals, why don’t you try to
      make the Biblical case for why income inequality is something that Christians
      should be concerned about (and I mean make the case for concern about income
      inequality, and not just use it as a proxy for some other concern)? That would
      be a far better use of our time.

    • john8

      (I wonder what St Peter and St Paul would have said about this argument given the communal life of the Church described in Acts). I know you had this in parentheses but I’m guessing it’s a foundation point for you. The problem is the the Church is not secular government. In the Acts people voluntarily lived communally. Governments don’t enact income equality by volutary means. Have you volunteered to give some of your money to the government to redistribute – paid extra in your taxes? Why not?

      Also, most all of the giving to the poor in Scripture is to God’s people – either to the Jews or other Christians. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give to the poor outside of our Christian community, just saying what the Scriptures say. Any idea that secular government should somehow promote wealth redistribution or income equality to fulfill a Christian idea of charity in not in the Word. If you think that is what a secular government should do fine but it’s not on a Biblical basis. You are confusing Ceasar’s and God’s.
      ‘My kingdom is not of this word’, ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’, ‘if anyone is not willing to work he should not eat’, ‘but if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content’, ‘keep your life free from the love of money and be content with what you have’, ‘be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’, ‘do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on’, ‘where your treasure is there will your heart be’ – do these (and many others) fit in anywhere in your theology of poverty? Greed is wrong, but so is sloth. I am sure that workers should be paid a fair wage is on your list, which it should be, but this is a much more complex issue than ‘give money to one guy b/c he doesn’t have as much as the other guy’. Our huge and growing welfare society demonstrates. And if you are interested in the secular implementing Biblical principles they you must be a loud proponent of ‘workfare’, correct?

    • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

      Your statement is anachronistic in the extreme. Of course Chrysostom didn’t “decry’ socialized medicine because it didn’t exist. It was the Church that created hospitals, hospices, orphanages and special bakeries for the poor. Many of the monasteries, male and female, were organized through foundations and with property rights. Yes, the emperors favored some with gifts, when they weren’t persecuting certain Church Fathers (Chrysostom et al.) with exile, torture and even martyrdom. And what about the Byzantine emperors “collaborating” with the Church during the Iconoclast persecution in the 8th and 9th centuries? Not exactly your typical Faith Based Initiative.

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  • Tim Jenkin

    There is an assumption hidden in there that I query – that the pie can just keep getting bigger. The New Testament seems to assume precisely the opposite – ie that the rich get rich at the expense of the poor. Read James for a start.

    • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

      That’s an excellent point. When applying biblical principles we must consider the context and how the context of the biblical times differs from our own.

      In the age of the New Testament, the rich often did get their wealth at the expense of the poor. The Roman Empire was very crony-driven. If you were friends with the government you could gain all sorts of economic advantages. For example, you could find a way to take the property of the poor with the government’s blessing.

      Compare that to our own day. While it is still possible for the rich to exploit the poor, it is much harder to gain wealth at the expense of the poor. Why? Because the poor rarely have resources that the rich want. I’m not saying, of course, that the rich in America are more moral than the rich in New Testament times. I’m sure if it were generally possible to get rich on the backs of the poor that people would do that. But the incentives of our current system makes that less necessary. What generates wealth today is more often coming up with an innovative idea rather than taking land from a poor sharecropper.

      • Aaron

        Tell that to Monsanto ;)

      • Tim Jenkin

        Yes, helpful observations, thankyou. However, perhaps true at a ‘national’ level, but maybe not so clear on a global scale?

        • http://Culture11.com Joe Carter

          Oh yeah, I think if we look on a global scale we find that the poor have things the rich want to exploit (land, cheap labor). We do certainly have to keep a watchful eye on how Americans treat those outside our own borders.

          • Bill Hickman

            Agreed

        • Roger McKinney

          Outside the US and Europe the rich get rich primarily through theft. The Biblical attitude toward the rich applies to them.

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  • George Clifford

    The parable of the talents is not about income inequality
    but about using one’s gifts for God’s work. Jesus does talk a great deal about
    money, but not everything the gospels report him as saying is related to
    wealth. Parables, in particular, tend to have one point each; attempting to
    wring more from a parable quickly becomes eisegesis. Some income inequality is
    acceptable from the perspective of Christian ethics, but extreme income
    inequality in which some people work multiple jobs and still earn less than a
    living wage while others earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per week is
    wrong. Furthermore, the problem of inequality is not simply disparities in
    income but also an underlying disparity in wealth. For a fuller development of
    this argument, cf. my Ethical Musings post, Economic
    inequality (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/2014/01/economic-inequality.html).

    • Roger McKinney

      “extreme income inequality in which some people work multiple jobs and still earn less than a
      living wage while others earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per week is wrong.”

      On what grounds is it wrong?

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  • Roger McKinney

    The odd thing is that everyone wants to go from the problem, inequality, to the solution, redistribution, without stopping to for a diagnosis. How do you know redistribution will work if you don’t know what causes rising inequality?

    Some of the rise in inequality comes from the increase in homes headed by single mothers. Some of it comes from increased immigration from poor countries to the south. Some of it is the result of more people living by themselves so they have just one income while most in the top income brackets have two or more incomes.

    Some of the increase in inequality is due to reductions in personal income taxes for the wealthy that allows them to take more of their wealth as income instead of keeping it tied up in the business.

    But a lot of it comes from the inflationary policies of the Fed. People in financial services, who gained the most out of all professions, get the Fed’s new money first before prices rise. The working poor get the new money last after prices have risen. Fed policies are literally a tax on the working poor and the retired on pensions and living off savings for the benefit of those in financial services. We should be concerned about that.

  • Jos

    Number 5.
    “Of course, that is not the way it works in the real world. Bill Gates
    didn’t take income away from other people, he created new wealth for
    both himself and millions of other people.”

    False,
    Gates did take some real income away from some people. Yes he did create
    some, but also took some. Writer talked about the pie getting bigger,
    yes, but in the real world expanding the pie does not mean others people
    slice always remains the same size in real terms – the poorer people are
    getting poorer, means their slice is shrinking in real terms.

    Also do you justify a companies CEO/President receiving a 10 million dollar plus salary while workers on the floor receive minimum wage?

    • Roger McKinney

      How did Gates take income away from people? BTW, poor people are not getting poorer in absolute terms. See the reports from the World Bank and IMF. All poor people in the US and most in the world have become much wealthier over the past 50 years, just not as much wealthier as the top %.

  • Michael

    I would argue that both Ananias and Sapphira and the early Church leaders did think the communal life was voluntary. Ananias’s and Sapphira’s sin was lying. They wanted to give the impression they were giving everything when they didn’t have to. Peter even said, “And after it was sold, was it not under your control?” That is what is so amazing about the grace of God. If they had dropped off a percentage with Peter and said, “We’re taking the rest to go on vacation to Cyprus,” They would not have dropped dead. It was the appearance of great generosity that got them in trouble.

    • Simon

      It’s very clear that the basis for life in the early Church described in Acts was communal. Ananias and Sapphira dropped dead for not participating in this. They wouldn’t have felt the need to misrepresent their position if it were simply voluntary. Clearly there was an expectation that all property was to be shared. And the text says this very transparently. So I don’t buy your explanation.

      • Marc Vander Maas

        But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 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 man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last.

        Ananias and Sapphira sold some property and tried to make it look as though they had given all of the proceeds to the church while keeping some for themselves. The sin was lying, not refusing to participate in a mandatory communal living situation.

        • Simon

          Marc and Michael, Again, why would they have felt the need to lie if it was only a voluntary requirement? It appears that everyone was making their property available for the common good of the community “All the believers were together and had everything in common.” Notice the phrase “EVERYTHING in COMMON”. Now if this isn’t a clear statement, I don’t know what is. At the very least, there would have been an expectation that everyone in the community should do this. It may have been mandated by the Apostles, Scripture doesn’t say. If as you say, sharing property wasn’t mandated, then why should they feel the need to misrepresent their finances?

          • Marc Vander Maas

            If as you say, sharing property wasn’t mandated, then why should they feel the need to misrepresent their finances?

            Simple: self aggrandizement. They thought that they could gain the esteem that sacrificial giving would earn them from the community without actually doing the sacrificing.

          • Simon

            Possible. But considering that Scripture says that everything was held in common, I think it is more likely that they felt that this was expected of them. If it wasn’t directly mandated, then there seems to have been a expectation that this was required of them. In any case, this is a kind of arrangement that would make any modern conservative recoil.

      • Michael

        Actually, it’s very clear that mandatory participation was not what was required in the early church. The text about Ananias and Sapphira is clear. Their sin was deceit. The property was their own to do with what they wanted. Peter says as much twice. I would agree that voluntary communal living went on for a brief time in Jerusalem due to the nature and beginnings of the early church. But these points must be kept in mind: 1) From a practical standpoint, that kind of life is not sustainable. There’s only so much property to sell, after all. 2) Why was that not preached by Peter and Paul as they went out from Jerusalem? There is no indication that this took place in other locales. Sure people were generous when needs arose, but it was certainly voluntary (2 Corinthians 9). 3) If everyone sold their property, where did people live? Clearly some people didn’t sell. There surely wasn’t that much rental property available in Jerusalem at the time. With thousands of people coming to Christ, did potentially hundreds of houses suddenly flood the market? The text is not as transparent as you might think, Acts 4:32–27 not withstanding. No, a more likely scenario is that many people didn’t sell but instead opened their homes and didn’t consider them their own (they shared what they had) so that the many pilgrims who were in Jerusalem for the feast— who then stayed to be a part of the church and be taught under the apostles—needed food and shelter and were thus housed and feed by Jerusalem believers. And some people were sacrificial enough to sell property to care for these new brothers and sisters in Christ.

      • Roger McKinney

        Ananias and Sapphira did participate. They did give to the community. Peter told them that giving was strictly voluntary. That’s why their lying was so bad. And as Paul made clear, God does not like giving that is not voluntary. I doubt the early church felt differently.

  • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

    Not even close. Besides, wouldn’t you be skeptical of a religious leader who stands with John Podesta at Georgetown to talk about how the Christian East has always been politically “progressive” on various issues and cites Leo Tolstoy (excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/42983.htm) as a leading Christian thinker? More “cheap moralizing and empty Church-speak.” See my article here:

    Christian Environmentalism that ‘Costs me Nothing’
    http://www.aoiusa.org/blog/christian-environmentalism-costs-nothing/

    • Simon

      Read your article…. I’m not really sure about what the point was other than saying that the Ecumenical Patriarch is a hypocrite for gallivanting around at luxury resorts. Also, how dare he say that the rich have more responsibility than the poor?! I love it that the two Primates of the world’s largest Christian communities have basically come out against this extreme tea party nonsense. Conservative Christians (almost entirely from North America) are squirming. I would rather listen to and join in on the vision of these holy men rather than the Conservative Christian think tank industrial complex.

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  • jtprime

    @Joe, the point of the parable of the talents is not about income inequality. It is about how one uses what one is given and the responsibility or stewardship one exhibits. Inequality existed after the work of the servants (or lack thereof) and also the the talents always belonged to the master, never having been that of the servants as salary is today. Being entrusted in this manner is not the same as being employed in the context in which you’ve used it. Presumably, the servants would have continued to earn their own income (or keep) as a consequence of their servitude. If I have misunderstood, I would like to gain a reasoned understanding of your use.

  • Roger McKinney

    “all human beings, being created in the image of God, deserve to live with dignity.?

    God created the scarcity of goods that keep many people poor when he kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden and cursed the earth. Until the advent of capitalism, people regularly starved to death in famine or plague.

    God encourages us to give to the poor, but at the same time unbelievers are under God’s wrath, part of the result of which is poverty.

    • Simon

      What a sad response. There’s nothing more to say.

  • Roger McKinney

    It is an economic issue more than a spiritual one. The concern should not be the level of inequality but what causes it. There has been almost no discussion of the causes, only the standard socialist rap of taking from the rich and giving to the poor.

  • Roger McKinney

    Christians should not be concerned with levels of inequality, especially in the US today where the level is less than half what it was before capitalism according to Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Fogel.

    Christians should only be concerned with the causes of inequality. Are the rich doing something illegal, then prosecute them. If the rich aren’t earning their wealth through honest business, then they are usually taking advantage of the power of the state. Adam Smith warned against this. Politicians exist only because they can sell their power over the economy to unscrupulous businessmen.

    There is some inequality caused by regulations that protect large corps at the expense of start ups. Some get rich by bribing congressmen for special favors. The return on campaign contributions is about 2,000%.

    But one of the biggest causes of inequality is Fed monetary policy. Their inflationary policies benefit the rich at the expense of the poor by making sure the rich get the new money the Fed creates first, before prices rise. The poor get the new money last. In addition, Fed policies cause the booms and busts in which the poor suffer far more than the wealthy.

    Those who claim to be concerned about the poor and want more power given to the state to take from the rich advertise their ignorance of these matter. They make inequality worse because, the state is the problem, not the market. Every increase in power the gullible give to the state, the rich buy and use for their own benefit.

    Capitalism is Jesus’ system of economics because God sanctified private property, not state owned property. This has always been the church’s position concerning property. But as the scholars of Salamanca discovered, property is not property unless the owners are free to use it and dispose of it as they wish. That’s why they endorsed free markets as the only way to establish just prices and follow God’s plan.

    Jesus created only one government in the history of the world – Israel in the Torah. It had no president, no legislature, no bureaucracy no army and no police. It had only judges to enforce God’s law. Scholars claim that the law regarding giving to the poor were part of the moral laws and not enforced by the courts. The main principle about giving to the poor throughout the Bible, Old and New Testament, including Jesus, Paul, Peter and John, is that charity must be voluntary. God hates a grudging giver.

    The Bible offers only one solution to poverty – charity. But it also offers very little in the way of medicine, mostly prayer and anointing with oil. How many Christians limit their health care to just prayer and oil anointing? How many would claim that is the only Biblical way to do medicine? Just as we have learned better medicine since the Bible was written, we have learned more about helping the poor. We have learned since 1600 that free markets lift more people out of poverty in a few decades than all the charity in the history of mankind. But you have to know some economics to know this and so many Christians are proud of their ignorance. Free markets have lifted more people out of poverty in China and India over the past generation than all the charity given for a thousand years.

    So if anyone is really concerned about the poor, they will insist on freer markets. Opposing freer markets makes one an enemy of the poor. Greater taxation of the rich and distribution to the poor actually hurts the poor far more than it helps. Insisting on it make one an enemy of the poor.

    Any concern about inequality beyond a concern for justice is nothing but envy. Yes, there is injustice in the country, but it’s coming from the the government favoring rich campaign contributors and the Fed’s monetary policies.

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  • Roger McKinney

    I might add that a correct reading of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, shows God encourages giving to believers only. It never encourages giving to unbelievers who are under the wrath of God.

    • Simon

      I disagree. It should be noted that Calvinism is not the tradition that most Christians adhere to. God is all merciful and all loving to all. This is the consistent teaching of the Holy Scriptures, the Apostles and the Fathers. Somehow, I don’t think we’ll agree on this, so there’s really no point arguing about it.

      • Roger McKinney

        I’m not a Calvinist and the Bible is more nuanced than you suggest. God is merciful to unbelievers in that he puts of their judgment. But the poverty of the poorest today was the norm for most of human history until the advent of capitalism. See the works of Angus Maddison and Deirdre McCloskey. And it’s the norm for most of humanity today. The poorest today live on less than $3 per day, but from prehistory until 1600 all of humanity but the nobility lived on $3/day and dies in huge masses every famine.

        Natural disasters like tsunamis,earthquakes, volcanoes, and human disasters like war, are the wrath of God against unbelievers, as Paul wrote in Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men , who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

        The great Catholic G. K. Chesterton wrote in The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare,1908, a novel about anarchism, that God is the greatest anarchist of all.

  • Roger McKinney

    Do you disagree that unbelievers suffer from God’s wrath?

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  • Marc Vander Maas

    Hm. I look back at that passage and it seems pretty clear that the sin was contriving to make themselves look as generous as possible to the community while holding back a little something for themselves. That’s the deed that they “contrived in their hearts”; that’s the lie at the center of the sin; that’s why they were struck down. There’s nothing there to support the claim that they were required by the apostles or the faith to sell everything and throw it all into a big community pot. The sharing was voluntary; the lying and self-aggrandizement was the root of their condemnation.

    • Simon

      Scripture does not say that self-aggrandizement was their sin. You can contrive many sins your heart. That quote does not necessitate your interpretation. In the context of the actual life of the Church being sharing “EVERYTHING” (see Acts 2), then it seems clear that this is what was expected of them, even if not explicitly mandated. The problem with many Protestants is that they miss the communal life of the Church with a clear NT emphasis on unity in all things. The Church is not a smorgasbord. You don’t participate in some parts of her and not others.

      • Simon

        Furthermore, in Acts 4 we read “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
        Notice that the common life the believers share is emphasised again. Directly after this passage we read about Ananias and Sapphira. Hmmmm “one heart and mind” in sharing “everything”. Then Ananias and Sapphira withhold some of their property and lie about it. It’s clear that they were violating the common life of the Church. They were not of one heart and mind with the other believers. I think the individualised religion of many US evangelicals is unable to grasp the full force of the apostle’s emphasis on unity in the Church community.

        • Marc Vander Maas

          Well, re-read that passage: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” The implication is not (or at the very least does not have to be) that everyone relinquished their property entirely, but rather that they considered their possessions to be available to whomever among the believers may need them, and were even willing to part with their property and contribute the proceeds to the church to ensure that those in need were cared for. Which, I would add, sounds much like what I have been taught since childhood in the Reformed tradition.

          I think it’s a real stretch to say that Ananias and Sapphira were required by apostolic mandate to sell the property and contribute all of the proceeds to the church. I don’t think that either Acts 4 or 5 supports that contention. And I maintain that the fatal sin on the part of the two was the lie, based in an attempt to take credit for an action that they didn’t perform.

          With regard to your views on the evangelicals, I share your concern over the attitudes that often prevail in the American church. I don’t, however, see that as a basis for argument in this thread.

          • Simon

            They didn’t claim their possession were their own… ummm in actual substance, then, the possessions were not their own despite any legal claim they may have over them. (this is the problem with Protestantism in general, it takes legal categories like “justification” and assumes that this is the ontological or substantial reality when in fact they are not.)
            I never asserted that there was an apostolic mandate. Rather in communities, particularly those in the ancient near east, there are expectations about what kind of social behaviour is acceptable. There need not be an explicit mandate. This is what the individualistic nature of US Protestantism can’t grasp. Everyone is free to do their own thing, read their own Bible and so on. The buckle-headed killjoy Puritans and other radical Protestants who settled North America, coupled with the Benjamin Franklin French Enlightenment-types really set the scene for this kind of individualism. There is really no substantial difference between secular and evangelical worlds – they are two sides of the same individualistic coin – Read the Unintended Reformation by Brad Gregory. This is where my critique of US evangelicalism comes into this argument. They can’t really fathom a community that is built on common life, with unwritten rules and so on. That terms like “voluntary” and so on are used in this debate shows this clear. This is not to say that to participate in the life of Church described in Acts was involuntary, but there were clearly behavioural expectations. No where does it say in Scripture that they wanted to pass off their actions to get more credit in the community. The community was already sharing all things with one another – what additional credit could they attain from doing what was already expected? Rather, the only explanation is that they were simply too greedy to share all they had like the other members of the community.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            They didn’t claim their possession were their own… ummm in actual substance, then, the possessions were not their own despite any legal claim they may have over them.

            Which is pretty much what I said in my prior reply. Glad we agree.

            The buckle-headed killjoy Puritans and other radical Protestants who settled North America…

            Seriously, what’s your problem? “Buckle headed killjoy Puritans”? Grow up. If you want to have a discussion with a protestant, and if you’re actually interested in trying to convince them that your orthodox position (I assume anyway) is right, it’s probably best not to act like a jerk. Rest assured, I no longer have any interest in your “critiques” of evangelicals or protestants or calvinists or whatever.

          • Simon

            Also, think about what was actually going on in the A&S story. They actually went to the apostles and laid the property at their feet. This strongly suggests that indeed people were relinquishing their property. Voluntarily or not, this was the reality of what was going on. It wasn’t simply like a neighbour going over to you and asking for sugar and you making it available to them while still being in possession of it prior to giving away. They were selling all they had and giving the proceeds to the Apostles. None of this sounds like your take above. Again the facts of what actually took place contradict key elements of your analysis.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            OK, let’s look at that passage:

            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.

            I won’t ascribe to you an interpretation of that passage that claims that every Christian sold all of their possessions and their homes and donated all of the proceeds to the apostles, because that’s plainly not sensible. Were that to happen, the apostles would then have a pretty large problem on their hands, in that they would now be responsible for a multitude of newly homeless people. The key to a proper understanding of this passage would then lie in the observation that it concerns the means by which the early church met the needs of the poor among them, and that those needs were met as they arose: “…it was distributed to each as any had a need.” The NIV translates verse 34b as such: “For from time to time, those who owned lands or houses sold them…”

            So what say you? Are you actually saying that the overarching principle that Christians must submit to from that passage is that we all need to sell our homes and possessions and donate all the proceeds to our local congregation? Or is it that we must hold our possessions loosely, and freely give to those in need as they have need out of an abundance of joy that results from our salvation?

          • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

            If you really want to know what’s “going on,” read “Ananias and Sapphira” by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon, a Biblical scholar and Orthodox priest. The story was about “communal sharing” among believers, not about the apostolic Church as a proto-communist cell. That voluntary sharing among Christians is the “norm,” Fr. Reardon reminds us, which is not exactly a news flash. But look in vain here for Scriptural support for socialized medicine or anything of the sort.

            http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/view/reardon-ananias-and-sapphira

            From the story of Ananias and Sapphira we should take away at least these three lessons: the utter seriousness of the Holy Spirit, the danger of a rapacious attitude toward material things, and the great danger of using human institutions — especially the family — as the medium and setting of conspiracy against God’s Law.

            Elsewhere, Fr. Reardon notes this:

            http://www.touchstonemag.com/frpat/2004_06_06_frpatarchive.html

            Acts 4:32-37: Here we have another summary, similar to the one in 2:42-47, both of them speaking of the mutual generosity of Christians with respect to material possessions. The example of Barnabas (elsewhere with a hand in congregational finances cf. Acts 11:30) at the end of this chapter is placed to form a contrast with the selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira in Chapter 5. That communal sharing was especially important at Jerusalem, where the Church, partly composed of dispossessed Galileans who had come there specifically for Gospel ministry, was particularly impoverished (cf. Acts 6:1; 11:29; Galatians 2:10, Romans 15:3). In adopting this policy of mutual sharing, the Church was endeavoring to conform to an ideal of ancient Israel, which had been instructed: “There shall be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15:4), and it should remain the norm of Christians for all times. We know that it was the standard for the Church at Rome (cf. Justin Martyr, First Apology 14 & 67), in north Africa (cf. Cyprian of Carthage, On Almsgiving 25), and elsewhere (cf. The Letter to Diognetus 5).

            Acts 5:1-11: The sin of Ananias and Sapphira, though doubtless motivated by selfishness, was characterized by a level of malice well beyond that motive. Their sin had to do with the “heart,” a word that appears in both verses 3 & 4. Their lie was directed at the Holy Spirit (verses 3 & 9).

            The verb nosphizein, “to hold back,” is found in only two places in Holy Scripture, here and in the Greek text of Joshua 7:1, a circumstance that should prompt us to read this account in Acts against the background of Achan and punishment (cf Joshua 22:20; First Chronicles 2:7).

            What happened to this couple inspired a “great fear” (phobos megas) in the congregation and elsewhere (verses 5 & 11), as well it should, for they had “insulted the Spirit of grace” (Hebrews 10:29). Up to this point in Acts, the Holy Spirit has been portrayed in entirely positive and encouraging terms. Now, however, the reader is warned that receiving the Holy Spirit is a very serious business, involving grave responsibilities. Sins directly against the Holy Spirit are a particularly grievous kind of offense, against which Christians are warned in the sternest terms (cf. Mark 3:29).

          • Marc Vander Maas

            It appears that the orthodox sources you cite are largely in agreement with the Reformed sources that I’ve been researching. Pretty broad agreement on the basic thrust of the passages…

          • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

            footnote to Acts 5:1-4 in the Orthodox Study Bible: “Ananias and Sapphira are accountable for allowing Satan to fill their hearts and to break the trust and integrity of of the early Church. They were not helpless in the face of temptation, nor are we. And though they lied to men, namely Peter and the other Apostles, this is a lie to the Holy Spirit, who reigns in the love and voluntary sharing of the Church. They have not been forced to sell their possessions, nor to give everything to the Church. Their sin is in lying to God, and causing mistrust in the communal life of holiness and purity in the Spirit.”

          • Simon

            I just read the relevant portions of Chrysostom’s homilies on Acts. You should have a read as well. He seems to agree with my interpretation. In fact, he calls A&S thieves. Chrysostom is one of the greatest exegetes among the Fathers, probably the greatest. He is very well regarded and highly esteemed among Reformed theologians. But more importantly, he is able to interpret this passage in a context that is much closer to the place and culture of where these events actually took place. He is untarnished by the culture wars in the US of Left vs Right. He is completely alien to Austrian and Chicago economic philosophy that seems to pervade the evangelical Right in North America (which I think is informing the view of many evangelicals when Scripture touches on economic and social matters). This all makes his homilies on the Bible an excellent source of insight into what the Church actually believed about particular passages of Scripture.

          • http://www.acton.org/ John Couretas

            “He is completely alien to Austrian and Chicago economic philosophy … ” Well, who wasn’t in the Fourth Century? Patristic context here:

            Can Capitalism be Reconciled with Orthodox Values?
            Dr. Nikolas K. Gvosdev
            http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/GvosdevCapitalism.php

            Just as Orthodoxy has no specified plan for the political organization of the state, it also presents no concrete proposals for the structuring of the economy. The perspective of the New Testament is that the things of this world are fleeting and ephemeral compared to the everlasting matters of the spirit. However, the admonition that human beings do not live by bread alone recognizes that bread, and by extension other material things, are necessities for human survival.

            In economic matters, the Orthodox ideal has been to seek a balance between wealth and poverty, between the needs of the individual and the well-being of the entire community…

            Orthodoxy does not believe in an economic system that rewards laziness and encourages the poor to depend upon handouts from the state. Work, productive labor, is a necessary part of the human experience. Chrysostom exhorts his audience: “Let us not then despise labour; let us not despise work; for before the Kingdom of Heaven, we receive the greatest recompense from thence, deriving pleasure from that circumstance, and not pleasure only, but what is greater than pleasure, the purest health.” (Chrysostom, Book IX, p. 353)…

            The Orthodox emphasis is upon self-sufficiency. In an ideal world, everyone would be “middle class”, neither eking out an existence at the level of mere subsistence nor enjoying excess. As St. Basil concluded, “If only each one would take as much as he requires to satisfy his immediate needs, and leave the rest to others who equally needed it, no one would be rich, and no one would be poor.” (Hengel, p. 2) “What is beyond our wants, is superfluous and useless,” Chrysostom advises. (Chrysostom IX, p. 349)

            An Orthodox Look at Liberty and Economics in Russia (August 2004)
            Interview with Nikolas Gvosdev
            http://www.acton.org/pub/religion-liberty/volume-14-number-4/orthodox-look-liberty-and-economics-russia

          • Marc Vander Maas

            I completely agree with Chrysostom that A&S did, indeed, engage in a form of theft – which, of course, came about because they conspired to deceive. I don’t see a conflict between what Chrysostom says and what I’ve argued here.

            I took your advice and did some searching for Chrysostom’s teaching on Ananias and Sapphira. Lo and behold, here’s a homily from him on the subject at hand. Excerpts:

            If for gathering sticks a man is to be stoned, much rather ought he for sacrilege; for this money was become sacred. He that has chosen to sell his goods and distribute them, and then withdraws them, is guilty of sacrilege. But if he is sacrilegious, who resumes from his own, much more he who takes from what is not his own. And do not think that because the consequence is not now the same, the crime will go unpunished. Do you see that this is the charge brought against Ananias, that having made the money sacred, he afterwards secreted it? Couldest thou not, said Peter, after selling thy land, use the proceeds as thine own? Wast thou forbidden? Wherefore after thou hadst promised it?

            Chrysostom says that Ananias made a promise to give proceeds from the sale of land to the church, and after making that promise, he “secreted” a portion for himself (scripture notes that he and his wife agreed to this). He conspired to lie, and to steal.

            We neither obliged thee to sell, the Apostle says, nor to give thy money when thou hadst sold; of thine own free choice thou didst it; why hast thou then stolen from the sacred treasury? “Why,” he says, “hath Satan filled thine heart?”

            I gotta say, that doesn’t sound like what you’ve been arguing here, Simon. Chrysostom is noting that Peter made it clear that a) Ananias and Sapphira had a choice whether or not to sell the property and give all or a portion of the proceeds to the church, and b) that the great sin that they committed was not to keep back a portion of the proceeds for themselves, but to have promised all of it to the church and then to have conspired with each other to keep a portion back. Chrysostom, in this homily, explicitly notes that there was not an obligation for Ananias and Sapphira to sell the property, or having done that, to give all of the proceeds to the church. That was a matter for them to decide on of “thine own free choice.”

      • Marc Vander Maas

        Well, we could go round and round about this for post after post, but I’ll leave it at this: I think your interpretation strips verse four (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?) of any meaning. The implication is that the land was theirs – that they were free to do with it what they saw fit. With that being the case, it becomes clear that their sin, explicitly identified by the apostle (twice!), was lying to the Holy Spirit (Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit… You have not lied to men, but to God).

  • Roger McKinney

    Read Helmut Schoeck’s “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior” to understand yourself. If you were really just concerned about the poor, you would give you own wealth to them. What you suffer from is fear of the envy of others and guilt at being successful and wealthy. The less successful are envious while the envious make the successful feel guilty and fear their wrath.

    • Simon

      Roger… somehow I don’t think so.

  • Marc Vander Maas

    Fantastic.

    The placing of ALL possession at the Apostles’ feet for equal distribution among the Church was CUSTOMARY in the Jerusalem Church.

    So your contention is that this custom of the Jerusalem church in the earliest days of Christianity is actually a principle that applies to all Christians, at all times, and everywhere?

  • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan Ballor

    Perhaps it depends on what version of the Bible you are using. For instance, James KA Smith writes that “the early church had a clear and established practice of compulsory property redistribution.” http://www.mlive.com/living/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2008/10/guest_commentary_just_charity.html

    • Marc Vander Maas

      Wow. That’s one of those times where I’m just deeply proud to be a Calvin grad.

  • Pingback: What Every Christian Should Know About Income Inequality | In the Days of Noah

  • James Estes

    Well, if income inequality isn’t a good measure for a Christian hunger and thirsting for justice (or righteousness), then what is?

    It’s strange that in “what every Christian should know about income inequality” there is not one reference to the Bible or to Jesus.

    Why does the sin of envy get a nod in this article while the sins of greed and idolatry are absent?

    I wonder if any of us really think that Jesus was serious when he said that the rich enter the kingdom like camels going through the needle’s eye.

    What of Jesus’ words to the rich in Luke 6:24-34?

    “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
    Christianity has not been tried and found to be wanting, it was found to be difficult and painful and largely ignored. If everyone who says the Apostle’s Creed or the Lord’s Prayer on any given Sunday would also take this passage to memory and wrestle with its practice, then maybe these conversations would final move beyond abstractions.

    • Marc Vander Maas

      Well, if income inequality isn’t a good measure for a Christian hunger and thirsting for justice (or righteousness), then what is?

      Scripture doesn’t condemn inequality as being automatically unjust, nor does it condemn wealth as automatically unrighteous, so why should they be a measure of a Christian’s hunger or thirst for justice or righteousness at all?