Acton Institute Powerblog

No, Jesus Was Not a Socialist

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jesus_was_a_socialist_poster-ra50dbe5fff854b98ad170860c4976c88_wvg_8byvr_324The resurgence of socialism in America, especially among the young, seems to be based on a widespread form of wishful thinking and historical ignorance. Most people who support Bernie Sanders, for instance, do not realize that most of his ideas have been tried already—and discarded as unworkable.

Similarly, many Christians who support Sanders don’t realize that for centuries socialism has been considered incompatible with Christianity. Since the mid-1800s every Catholic pontiff—from Pius IX to Benedict XVI—has forthrightly condemned socialism. Protestants don’t have a single leader to make that judgment call, of course, but we too have determined that based on Scripture socialism is incompatible with biblical principles.

Yet despite the obvious disconnect between Christianity and socialism some people go even further and claim that Jesus himself was an advocate of socialism.

A solid, thorough rebuttal to this baffling notion can be found in Lawrence W. Reed’s essay, “Rendering Unto Caesar: Was Jesus A Socialist?

I first heard “Jesus was a socialist” and “Jesus was a redistributionist” some forty years ago. I was puzzled. I had always understood Jesus’s message to be that the most important decision a person would make in his earthly lifetime was to accept or reject him as savior. That decision was clearly to be a very personal one — an individual and voluntary choice. He constantly stressed inner, spiritual renewal as far more critical to well-being than material things. I wondered, “How could the same Jesus advocate the use of force to take stuff from some and give it to others?” I just couldn’t imagine him supporting a fine or a jail sentence for people who don’t want to fork over their money for food-stamp programs.

“Wait a minute!” you say. “Didn’t Jesus answer, Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s when the Pharisees tried to trick him into denouncing a Roman-imposed tax?” Yes indeed, he did say that. It’s found first in the Gospel of Matthew, 22:15–22, and later in the Gospel of Mark, 12:13–17. But notice that everything depends on just what truly did belong to Caesar and what didn’t, which is actually a rather powerful endorsement of property rights. Jesus said nothing like “It belongs to Caesar if Caesar simply says it does, no matter how much he wants, how he gets it, or how he chooses to spend it.”

The fact is, one can scour the Scriptures with a fine-tooth comb and find nary a word from Jesus that endorses the forcible redistribution of wealth by political authorities. None, period

Read more. You can also get this essay in many other forms, including iBooks & Nook, PDFF, Kindle and audiobook—all for free at this link.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Gibs712

    The term socialist is irrelevant. Saying he wasn’t simply puts him in another box, likely the Lutheran one stemming back to the Reformation. Jesus wasn’t a Lutheran either, or Calvanist, or Evangelical, for that matter. We like to domesticate our Jesus, both ones who claim he is a certain ideology and ones who say he isn’t. We all tend to look for what we want to see, and then read books that line up with that sentiment. “So are you saying we don’t really know who Jesus was?” Yea pretty much. He was/is the Word of God and salvation from sin. The gospels are way to cryptic and sparce to claim him in absolute particulars beyond that though. That would be to say your 21st century lens is the one that isn’t smuded with subjective interpretation. Yea…sure. That’s not agnostic; that’s honest.

    • One doesn’t have to be an agnostic about Jesus. Aristotle codified and Thomas Aquinas refined the principles of hermeneutics and their use makes the Bible come alive. For example, context is the first rule of hermeneutics and if one bothers to learn the cultural and historical context in which Jesus lived his words come alive and his meaning becomes clear. For a start, I recommend “Life and Times of Jesus Messiah” by Edersheim.

    • Several of the principles of righteous living that Jesus reportedly enunciated in the gospels seem to me to preclude the idea that he or his philosophy was socialist. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” would seem to preclude the concept of some men ruling other men by force, which is a vital element of socialism and in fact all forms of statism or human governments as we know them, including democracies and republics. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” precludes coercion and of course taxation,both of which are also necessary to socialism and statism. These principles alone seem to me to define Jesus as a voluntaryist.

  • “Since the mid-1800s every Catholic pontiff—from Pius IX to Benedict XVI—has forthrightly condemned socialism.”

    I wouldn’t go that far. From what I have read the Popes have condemned communism because of its atheism and dictatorship, but they all seem to embrace Europe’s democratic socialism.

    “Protestants don’t have a single leader to make that judgment call, of course, but we too have determined that based on Scripture socialism is incompatible with biblical principles.”

    Yeah, based on sound hermeneutics. Jesus had very little to say about politics and economics in the NT, but keep in mind that he was a small businessman. He likely went into his father’s business of being a construction contractor when he was 15 and continued until his ministry began at 30. He would have supported his mother and siblings after Joseph died.

    The best economic/political thought in the Bible is in the Torah, which Jesus wrote because he is God. The Torah sanctifies private property and very limited government. The Israeli government in the Torah has no executive branch, no standing army or police, no legislature or parliament, only judges to adjudicate God’s civil law. The courts did not enforce moral laws, such as the poor laws or Jubilee or debt forgiveness. Socialists have portrayed Jubilee as wealth redistribution but that is very superficial. Jubilee well understood is more like a mortgage burning.

    • Philosophical Actuary

      “I wouldn’t go that far. From what I have read the Popes have condemned
      communism because of its atheism and dictatorship, but they all seem to
      embrace Europe’s democratic socialism.”

      On the contrary, the Church’s condemnation of socialism is much more fundamental in its consideration of the peace of society proceeding from the natural right to property, right government, the immaterial nature and needs of man and so on.

      “As regards this teaching and these theories, it is now generally known
      that the special goal of their proponents is to introduce to the people the
      pernicious fictions of Socialism and Communism by misapplying the
      terms “liberty” and “equality.” The final goal shared by these teachings,
      whether of Communism or Socialism, even if approached differently,
      is to excite by continuous disturbances workers and others, especially those of
      the lower class, whom they have deceived by their lies and deluded by the
      promise of a happier condition. They are preparing them for plundering,
      stealing, and usurping first the Church’s and then everyone’s property.” – Pope Pius IX

      “For, while the socialists would destroy the “right” of property,
      alleging it to be a human invention altogether opposed to the inborn equality of man, and,
      claiming a community of goods, argue that poverty should not be peaceably endured, and
      that the property and privileges of the rich may be rightly invaded, the Church, with much
      greater wisdom and good sense, recognizes the inequality among men, who are born with
      different powers of body and mind, inequality in actual possession, also, and holds that
      the right of property and of ownership, which springs from nature itself, must not be
      touched and stands inviolate.” – Pope Leo XIII, “On Socialism”

      “We make this pronouncement: Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned,
      cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because
      its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.” – Pope Pius XI

      “Pope Pius XI further emphasized the fundamental opposition between
      Communism and Christianity, and made it clear that no Catholic could
      subscribe even to moderate Socialism. The reason is that Socialism is
      founded on a doctrine of human society which is bounded by time and
      takes no account of any objective other than that of material
      well-being. Since, therefore, it proposes a form of social organization
      which aims solely at production, it places too severe a restraint on
      human liberty, at the same time flouting the true notion of social
      authority.” – St. Pope John XXIII

      “Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a
      molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual
      is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic
      mechanism. Socialism likewise maintains that the good of the individual
      can be realized without reference to his free choice, to the unique and
      exclusive responsibility which he exercises in the face of good or evil.
      Man is thus reduced to a series of social relationships, and the
      concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision
      disappears, the very subject whose decisions build the social order.
      From this mistaken conception of the person there arise both a
      distortion of law, which defines the sphere of the exercise of freedom,
      and an opposition to private property.” – St. Pope John Paul II

      ““The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into
      itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of
      guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person − every person −
      needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which
      regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with
      the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports
      initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines
      spontaneity with closeness to those in need. … In the end, the claim
      that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous
      masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can
      live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3) − a conviction that demeans
      man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human” – Pope Benedict XVI

      • Yeah, those are typical quotes taken out of context by free marketeers who want the Pope’s support. But when you read the whole documents and take into account their attacks on capitalism you get a different view. Unless we are to assume that the Popes contradict themselves within the same document, and I’m not prepared to, it appears that they prefer the democratic socialism.

        • Fernando Garcia

          Not gonna counter this one, Philosophical Actuary?

          • Philosophical Actuary

            What shall I respond to? Obstinate ignorance? Sheer contempt? If Mr. McKinney ever produced actual quotations of the “attacks on capitalism,” I would at least have something to respond to.

          • Read anything from the US Conference of Bishops that refers to an encyclical.

          • Philosophical Actuary

            If I didn’t know better I’d think you were joking.

          • Clearly you don’t know better. Have you ever read anything on the topic from the US Conference of Bishops?

        • Roger,my problem is with the Catholic Church’s official positions on the crime of theft by taxation, and on the illegitimate authority of some men to rule others by force and violence as is true of all governments.. Here, from the Catholic Catechism:

          “2240 Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country:”

          I needn’t explain the illogicality, immorality, and disrespect for the teaching of Jesus contained herein to any libertarian disciple of Jesus. Suffice to say the Church’s craven alliance with the state took hold when it was subsumed by the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine and began to share in the lucre from Rome’s taxes. It persists unabated today. Church doctrine on taxes and the state is entirely self-serving and is fortified, I suspect, by the Church hierarchy’s devotion to riches sinfully obtained.

          The Catechism goes on to quote Paul’s ambiguous statement in Roman’s 13, “Pay to all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” Ok, so what is “due?” Paul obviously was taking a cue from Jesus’ brilliant response to the question whether to pay Caesar’s tax when he responded, “Give to Caesar the things (you have) that are (belong to) Caesar.:” As with Jesus, so with Paul, if nothing is due, one need give nothing..

          The balance of the Church’s official statement is such pure statist gobbledegook I see no reason to parse it:

          “[Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners. They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws. .So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it.

          “The Apostle exhorts us to offer prayers and thanksgiving for kings and
          all who exercise authority, “‘hat we may lead a quiet and peaceable
          life, godly and respectful in every way.'”


          • The odd thing about modern Catholic social teaching is the complete disregard for the brilliant scholars at Salamanca. They wrote that the state has a right to collect taxes for the defense of citizen’s property, life, and liberty, but if it collected any more than that it was committing theft.

          • A good article on the impact of those scholars by Leonard Liggio is on the Acton website: From the article: “Thus, modern economics, human rights, and international law were
            founded in the Iberian universities of the sixteenth and seventeenth
            centuries.” The modern economics they founded is not Keynesian.

  • I’ve written a book-length essay on this subject entitled JESUS ON TAXES, which can be found on he Internet, and have several articles on the same or related topics here: There is also information at

    The most important point is this: “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar,” means exactly that. And if you don’t happen to have anything in your possession belonging to Caesar, which no one in the Roman empire ever had–for Caesar was a taker not a lender nor giver–then give him that (viz., nothing!) And if you are dumb enough to think coins with Caesar’s puss on them means they belong to him, then you are an economic fool. Such coins would never circulate as the coin in question did. Jesus meant what he said and said precisely what he meant, and he chose his words carefully. To say his words meant “pay taxes to Caesar” is a damned lie and an abomination.

    Furthermore, Jesus never paid a tax. Many say he did and point to Matthew 17 where Peter shot off his big mouth and told a couple of tax collectors, when asked, “Does your master NOT pay the Temple tax?” and Peter answered, “Yes he does.” But Jesus immediately chastises Peter for making such a stupid mistake, pointing out that as the Son of God (king) he is exempt from taxes, and of course Peter, another son of God, is similarly exempt–as are you and I. Read that passage carefully and you will see that the Gospel never tells us whether Peter followed through, caught a fish with money in its mouth, and used it to pay the tax. But if he did, if he wasn’t spoofing poor, gullible, authority-cosseting Peter, and actually did manifest a coin in a fishes mouth, we can be sure that after Peter gave the coin to the tax collector and the tax collector put it in his tax coffer, Jesus would have made it disappear just as he had made it appear so that those tax thieves would never have succor from Jesus.

  • Anthony Cholewinski

    I wondered, “How could the same Jesus advocate the use of force to take stuff from some and give it to others?” I just couldn’t imagine him supporting a fine or a jail sentence for people who don’t want to fork over their money for food-stamp programs. – LAwrence Reed— As to Mr Reed, does he suspect Christ would support a fine or jail sentence for those who dont want to fork over their money to the military? Would Christ if given the choice choose feeding the hungry or creating another weapon to destroy many?

    • The NT has almost nothing to say on those subjects. The only way we can determine what Christ would think about government issues is to look at the only government God ever created – Israel in the Torah. In that government, there were no taxes at all. The tithe went to the support of the priesthood and to help the poor, but the government did not enforce it. There were no tax collectors or executive branch to collect it. Military service was voluntary and people supplied their own weapons. Anarchists have proposed a similar government today where the wealthy contribute voluntarily to pay for national defense.

  • Socialism is a political system in which the means of production are owned by the state, or in the case of its near cousin, fascism, owned privately but under the minute control of the state in what it does and how it goes about its business. Capitalism, on the other hand is the pejorative name Karl Marx gave to laissez faire, which was then and is today the antithesis of socialism. Wiki’s definition of laissez faire is one I would embrace: “Laissez-faire (/ˌlɛseɪˈfɛr-/, French: [lɛsefɛʁ] is an economic system in which transactions between private parties are free from government interference such as regulations, privileges, tariffs, and subsidies. The phrase laissez-faire is part of a larger French phrase and literally translates to “let (it/them) do”, but in this context usually means to ‘let go'” There have been political systems, or we could say governments, that nearly if not neatly fit the description of socialist since long before the word came into common usage, perhaps as far back as the Sumerians. The concept of freedom, so crucial to a system of laissez faire, was certainly one the OT Jews recognized and at least paid lip service to it. And Jesus’ “kingdom of God” would have to operate according to the principles of laissez faire for they are the same principles Jesus proclaimed. I see no false dilemma here. Very useful article.