You’re in a conversation and someone says, “Jesus was all about helping the poor and needy. That means Jesus was a socialist!”
What would you say?
It’s true that during his earthly ministry Jesus cared for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. It’s also true that some proponents of socialism also care about the needy. But that doesn’t mean Jesus was a socialist, and here are four reasons why.
First, Jesus never advocated for government coercion to help the poor.
Though many socialists want to help people, so do advocates of other economic systems. What defines socialism is not concern for the poor but the desire to use the state control of others to help them.
Socialism involves government control over industries, markets, and private property. The result is things like rent controls, minimum wage laws, maximum wage laws, tax structures designed to redistribute wealth, and even requirements to purchase things—like health insurance.
But this is not the biblical model for helping people. Jesus’ opposition to coercion is seen in many ways, including the Golden Rule, from Matthew 7:12 “do to others what you would have them do to you." Socialism depends on forcing people to do things they don’t want to do.
Jesus’ belief that charity should be done voluntarily is seen in Matthew 26:11, Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want,” The key words here are, “you can help” and “anytime you want”. Throughout scripture, helping the poor is always virtuous and always voluntary. Nowhere is anyone forced to help the poor, or told to help the poor by taking their neighbors possessions against their will.
That’s because helping people’s financial situation is not Jesus’ priority. Which leads to the second point.
Jesus cares more about our hearts than our financial situation
Socialism teaches that it is unjust for some to have much while other’s have little. These ideas are not new, and Jesus spoke to them directly when a man complained to Jesus that his brother had not divided an inheritance with him. Jesus’ reply, which you can find in Luke 12, was, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you? Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions."
Instead of rebuking the injustice of inequity, Jesus rebuked the man for complaining about it; for caring about the wrong things.
Matthew 20 records a different complaint over money, this time about income inequality. In this parable, workers who had labored all day complained that other workers, who had labored only part of the day, received the same pay. These complaints are rebuked as well.
Jesus explained that justice required honoring the contract, not necessarily paying everyone the same hourly rate. He said, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?”
That is not the response of a socialist. Which leads to the third point.
Jesus redistributed wealth to the diligent, not to the needy.
In the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, Jesus talks about a man who entrusts his wealth to three servants for a time. When the man returns, he learns that one of the servants protected his share by burying it, the second put his share to work and multiplied it, the third invested his share and generated the greatest return of all. Who’s the hero in the parable? The wealth-creating third man. The first one, the poorest one, is admonished, and his share is taken and given to the third man, the wealthiest.
Though this parable is addressing deeper realities about the Kingdom of God, again, Jesus doesn’t sound like a socialist.
Where socialism is motivated by a desire to take from those who have for the benefit of those who don’t have, Jesus’ concern is good stewardship, regardless of how much we have. Because Jesus focused on the heart, followers of Jesus learned to be both content and generous.
Which leads to the final point
The earliest followers of Jesus did not build a socialist community
In Acts 2, Scripture records that Jesus’ first followers “… had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
Later, in Acts 4, we read that, “no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they held everything in common.”
Some believe these scriptures show that early Christians were socialists and if those who actually walked with Jesus were socialists, that means Jesus must have been a socialist himself.
Though Jesus’ first followers did demonstrate radical generosity, there is no evidence that they shared in the means of production, that they abolished private property, or that anyone was coerced into giving what they had.
In fact, when Ananias and Saphira lied about what they had given to this community, they were not condemned for refusing to give everything they had, they were condemned for lying about what they had done. Peter rebuked them saying, “While it remained, was it not yours? And after it was sold, was it not in your power?” Those are not the words of someone who believes the poor have a right to the property of the rich.
Later in Acts, we read of churches gathering in homes owned by members. They still owned their own property. Holding everything in common was an expression of love that people had for each other, not a mandate on early Christians.
The fact is, neither Jesus’ words or the behavior of the early church support the idea that Jesus was a socialist. In fact, scripture consistently calls us to contentment regardless of our situation, generosity out of love not compulsion, and urges us to put our faith in God, not our government.
So next time you hear someone say that Jesus was a socialist, remember these four things.
Jesus never advocated for government coercion to help the poor. He wants us to be generous, but he doesn’t want us to force other people to be generous.
Jesus cares more about our hearts than our financial situation. He is more interested in making sure we respond well to our need than he is in solving our problems.
Jesus redistributed wealth to the diligent, not to the needy. Jesus calls us to be good stewards with whatever we have.
The earliest followers of Jesus did not build a socialist community. They helped each other because they wanted to, not because they had to.
For What Would You Say, I'm Joseph Backholm
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