The Bible does not endorse American-style Capitalism, nor did the early church practice Communist central planning in the early chapters of Acts. You will not find Adam Smith prophetically foretold in the Scriptures, nor any allusion to Karl Marx. Republican Party economics is not a required part of Christianity.
Yet, the Bible contains clear economic principles and the early church grew in an environment of buying, selling, borrowing, and hiring. In essence, an economy of free markets and entrepreneurship follows from the commands given by God, though sin has marred the business practices that we experience today. Free markets only require recognition of property rights and the freedom to trade with other people. Further, comparative advantage (people are gifted in different ways) and subjective valuation (people prefer different things) mean that both parties can profit from any voluntary transaction. This mutual benefit from trading is at the heart of free markets and over the past two centuries has lifted the vast majority of people in the world out of abject poverty.
Without question the Bible requires people to recognize the property rights of others. “You shall not steal,” was not only commanded to Israel (Exodus 20:15), but was repeated both by Jesus and Paul (Mark 10:19, Romans 13:9). Further, Jesus approved of buying and selling, and he never would have allowed his disciples to sin in making purchases (John 4:8; 6:5; Luke 22:36; see also Jeremiah 32:8, 25). Engaging in such commerce is even considered virtuous, and those who sell grain are blessed as opposed to those who hoard (Proverbs 11:26). God’s word is clear that people have received different giftings and bring different strengths to the church and the marketplace. For example, Bezalel was filled with the Spirit specifically to empower craftsmanship for artistic designs in woodworking and stone carving (Exodus 31:2-6). Paul recognized a similar diversity of gifting among the believers in Rome that essentially serves as the foundation for comparative advantage and subjective valuation (Romans 12:1-13).
Beyond free markets, the Bible favorably presents the elements of an entrepreneurial economy where wages and profits are earned and people prosper. For example, the virtuous woman not only “makes linen garments and sells them,” but also “perceives that her merchandise is profitable” (Proverbs 31:24). Workers were expected to profit from their labor and deserved prompt wages (Romans 4:4; James 5:4). Small business owners had a right to earn a profit, and the hard-working farmer “ought to have the first share of the crops” (2 Timothy 2:6).
The right to profit was so obvious to the apostle Paul that he asked, “Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit?” (1 Corinthians 9:7). A vineyard is an important example because it represented a significant capital investment in protective walls and a wine press, not to mention careful cultivation over time. Further, the grapes from a vineyard were not a sustenance crop for an individual family, but rather intended for sale in a commercial market or vinting into wine. Such business practices must have been familiar to Paul who at times during his ministry supported himself as a small business owner (Acts 18:1-4). Jesus himself must have earned a profit to support himself for more than a decade as a small business owner (Mark 6:3).
On the other hand, the Bible does not endorse a completely laissez-faire perspective. Commerce was to be conducted with just weights and measures (Leviticus 19:35-36). The sale of houses in walled cities was subject to regulations over redemption in the first year (Leviticus 25:29-31). Limited oversight of markets was expected because of temptations to sin.
Many contemporary people object to capitalism because it seems to be infused with greed. In a fallen world, the unfortunate fact is that sin and greed are pervasive every economic system involving human beings. However, the competition of free markets means that sellers cannot charge excessively high prices or buyers will choose to purchase from other merchants. In this way, greed is constrained in better by free markets than centrally-planned economies. Further, greed in communist countries had no outlet other than corruption. Greed in free markets (and some entrepreneurs are purely greedy) leads to lower prices and superior customer service because of the love of money. In other words, free markets limit and channel greed toward the benefit of society better than any other economic system.
Much more than greed, the free markets of an entrepreneurial economy provide many opportunities to bring glory to God by unleashing the creativity of human beings at work and enabling them to serve one another in love. Poverty is declining throughout the world and human beings are flourishing more and more as a result of free markets that are generally consistent with a biblical worldview.
David Kotter is Associate Professor of New Testament at Colorado Christian University.