What is the Government's Role in the Economy?
Much ink has been spilled in trying to answer this question. Secular philosophers have offered their take throughout the centuries. Systems such as socialism come to mind with the government owning the means of production. Communism comes to mind with (in its purest form) no government involvement and complete sharing among citizens. Capitalism comes to mind with free market competition and private investment. It is interesting to theorize and discuss this philosophically, but the Bible has much to say on the topic. While the Bible doesn’t explicitly support a particular human-named economic system, we can come to many biblical conclusions on the government’s role in the economy.
First, regarding the function of government in general, the Bible explicitly teaches that the function of government is to be a terror to bad conduct and carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer, which is seen in Romans 13:3-4. The passage says, “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Government regulation is how the government can set rules for an economy. This could be a scary term for conservatives, but the Bible transcends any labels of conservative or liberal. If someone in the business or financial world is stealing from another company, lying in their marketing, doing unethical things with securities that could crash the economy, etc. the government is perfectly within their rights to intervene, and they should. This is being a terror to bad conduct. The government sets the rules and punishes those who break them.
What about the regulation of what jobs people can hold? If rulers are supposed to be a terror to bad conduct, should the government shut down sinful industries such as those that create sexual images and videos? This may be bad conduct, although one could certainly argue we should not impose our convictions on others. However, the Bible never says that we cannot impose our convictions on others, and in many cases it seems appropriate to use the Bible in political reasoning. One cannot simply separate one’s faith from their politics, as their faith shapes a worldview that is not separate from political concerns. For example, Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds human blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made mankind.” In this verse, God prescribes, or at least recognizes, capital punishment. Given that these are the words of God Himself, I see it appropriate for civil governments to use capital punishment in the case of murder. If that’s imposing my convictions on others, so be it.
The Christian view of human nature is that humans are sinners. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Is all sin the bad conduct mentioned in Romans 13? I don’t know for sure, and I also know that there are many commands given to believers for which it wouldn’t be sensible to punish an unbeliever for breaking. What if someone divorces his wife, not on the ground of sexual immorality? Jesus addresses this in Matthew 5:31-32. This act is sinful, and not good for society, though I would doubt it’s the bad conduct discussed in Romans 13. Perhaps the government should have a role in upholding the goodness of marriage and shouldn’t allow the covenant to so easily be broken. In any case, it seems unrealistic to think the government could punish every sin committed by its subjects, as the government is not omniscient.
My best attempt at defining the bad conduct of Romans 13 is any action that violates another’s life, property, or person. Murder violates another’s life. Stealing violates another’s property. Slander or libel violates another’s person. These things should lead to prison time. Should divorce? Or lust? Or not being merciful like Jesus instructs in the Beatitudes? They aren’t criminal offenses in the United States today, and the Bible doesn’t command prison time for them, either. Of course, it also doesn’t command prison time for murder, stealing, or slander. Prison time is just how our modern day governments are terrors to bad conduct (along with fines and execution in some areas for murder).
So, where does the exact line exist (if there even is one) between bad conduct, and just plain old sin that doesn’t require government intervention? While I’m not entirely certain, I would posit that the X-rated industry mentioned earlier is bad conduct. The Bible includes many warnings against sexual immorality, so it’s easy to conceive of banning an industry that is promoting it. This industry degrades God’s image-bearers, leads to changes in the brains of those who consume it, and produces no good. It also fosters addictions that steal time and money from the consumers of the product that could be spent better elsewhere. Plainly, it distorts a God-given gift. Is pornography “freedom of speech” per the First Amendment? According to the US Supreme Court it is, but I’ll take the Bible as authoritative. I find it hard to imagine that God wouldn’t consider the X-rated industry as bad conduct.
When people think about the government’s role in economics, perhaps the first question (and an often contentious one) that comes to mind is how or if the government should help the poor by redistributing wealth. This issue even sways people’s votes one way or the other. In the United States, the Democrats are branded as the party of the little guy. An argument is made that if Christians desire to be compassionate and help the poor, which is a biblical act, perhaps they should vote for Democrats. The argument often comes from places like Matthew 25:31-46. To summarize, Jesus (at a judgment, perhaps The Final Judgment) commends those who have shown generosity to the “least of these” and says “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (verse 34b). Those who did not show this generosity are sent to “the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41b). On this I have two thoughts, of which I’m willing to be corrected if I’ve made an error. First is that the government is nowhere mentioned in the passage. So, it’s difficult to make the argument for government redistribution programs from the passage. Jesus’ point is that you should help the poor. Second, in verse 40 of the chapter, Jesus says, “And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of Mine, you did it for Me.’” Here, Jesus is talking about His brothers and sisters, which means His spiritual family, fellow Christians. Jesus isn’t talking about helping the general poor (although this is a good thing and is taught elsewhere in Scripture). The key takeaway from this passage is that you should be helping fellow believers in need by showing hospitality, giving a thirsty one something to drink, etc.
Helping the general poor is taught in verses like Proverbs 19:17 which says: “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” One could argue that if an individual is supposed to help the poor, shouldn’t the government do the same through social programs? There is no prohibition of this in the Bible, although one could make the argument that redistribution is actually a euphemism for stealing. If some of Jeff Bezos’ money is taken by the government through taxation and eventually given out to lower-income people through welfare programs, that sounds like stealing to me. Stealing is prohibited by the Bible numerous times, such as in the Ten Commandments. Perhaps this example is not strictly stealing, but it is taking money from one person and giving it to another who has not worked for it. Another question may be, if some of Jeff Bezos’ money ends up in the hands of our government officials, is this stealing? I would say no, as government officials are “ministers of God” as stated in Romans 13:6. Ministers of God are entitled to a salary for their work from taxes. Taxation is biblically prescribed, and Christians should pay their taxes honestly.
From Romans 13:6, which says, ““For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing,” we can infer that carrying out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer is a right use of tax money. Should the authorities have another job in addition to their government job to provide, or should taxes support them? In the Old Testament, right before Saul was chosen to be king, the tithe was instituted by Samuel. He says, among other things: “He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants” (1 Samuel 8:14-15). These verses describe what happened historically, what Samuel said, and they are not direct commands. However, they are from a prophet of God and indicate that government officials and the king’s servants would at least in part be supported by the people’s “taxes” (in this case their crops). So, if this all applies today, it can be expected that government officials will receive taxes from the people for their sustenance (although government officials generally make far beyond what they need to survive, but that is a topic for another time). While the Bible makes room for ministers of God to benefit from taxes, it makes no command for the government to help the poor.
In this discussion, many people try to give a name for a Christian economic system. Some advocate for communism based on Acts 2:44-45, which says, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” About this, I can say that present-day believers ought to be looking out for each other like these believers in Acts and giving generously to one another. These verses are describing what the believers were doing, though, and are not explicit commands.
It is also true that Paul commands idle believers to earn their own living. Therefore, absolute reliance on others, or being a burden to them, is commanded against if one can work. This is discussed in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, where Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.” Note that this is not about someone who doesn’t work, just someone not willing to work. I can only imagine that a community of believers should take care of a disabled person who cannot work. The able person who is not willing to work is the burden. Pure communism is not biblical in that it ignores the fact that people become lazy when others work for them.
Friedrich Engels himself wrote about people who were trying to use Acts 2 to support communism. He writes, “These good people are not the best Christians, although they style themselves so; because if they were, they would know the bible better, and find that, if some few passages of the bible may be favourable to Communism, the general spirit of its doctrines is, nevertheless, totally opposed to it.” As for socialism, where the government handles the means of production, the Bible nowhere commands the government to have control over those means of production. It places a lot of power in the government’s hands, too, and the sinful man with lots of power never ends well (see: the USSR, Nazi Germany, the Khmer Rouge, etc.). Additionally, throughout history, socialist leaders have exalted themselves to the point of placing statues or images of themselves everywhere (ie. Josef Stalin, Kim Il-Sung) and this leads to cults of personality that are not biblical. The government should not be God. Every socialist or communist country throughout history, and even presently, has persecuted Christians (and been repressive towards any political dissent, Christian or not). Therefore, I find it safe to say that neither socialism or communism is a good way to set up a nation’s economy and government, for Christians or unbelievers.
So then, is capitalism a Christian economic system? Not explicitly. Out of the three big systems, though, capitalism has the strongest recognition of private property, which the Bible also recognizes. Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.” This verse recognizes that things belong to a person. They are his. Capitalism has also correlated well throughout history with political (and religious) freedom. If a country grants recognition of one’s economic rights, it makes sense they’d recognize one’s religious rights, as well. One potential hang-up of capitalism, though, is the issue of greed, and it’s definitely worth considering. Capitalism just gives people a system to be greedy in, right? And “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10a). Yes, people have amassed all sorts of wealth in capitalist systems, but people are greedy no matter what. The rich, though, like Jeff Bezos, have also employed lots of people in the process and contributed to technological innovations that people have enjoyed. Human flourishing is a good thing, and when people can start businesses and make money off their ideas, this contributes to human flourishing.
Greed also persists in a socialistic society where the government hoards everything and the people starve (see: North Korea). In a capitalist one, Bill Gates makes a fortune, and he earned it with good ideas and the support of the public buying products from Microsoft. Everyone wins, instead of a small elite hoarding everything in the name of “equality.” If someone is actually doing something wrong in the name of greed, like forcing their workers into unsafe conditions, the government should intervene as, I would argue, this is bad conduct. Seeking to make a lot of money, and doing so while creating useful products and not violating anyone else’s rights, I think it’s safe to say, is not.
I am blessed to live in a country where the government is more hands off with regard to the economy and my church, at least for the time being. Government is a gift from God for civic order, but it should not be abused to do things it is not meant to do. I would never argue for anarchy, because the human species could not handle it. Also, I like how the government takes care of the roads, although I do not enjoy construction season in the Midwest, even if I have to fund it. Pay your taxes everyone, it is that time of the year.
Curran Martin is a Minnetonka, Minnesota native and currently resides in Madison, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in May of 2019 with a degree in Economics, then spent two years working with a campus ministry, and now works in the insurance industry. Curran enjoys playing outdoor sports, learning about history and politics, and playing board games with friends in his spare time.