Christian thinkers support a variety of economic theories as “middle axioms” (whether they call them that or not) for implementing Kingdom ethics within the world that is not yet the Kingdom of God.
Some strongly support communism without the Marxian atheism that they argue is not part and parcel of communism as an economic theory.
They argue that communism ought to begin within the church and then spread out from there into society outside the church.
In the Kingdom of God, there will be no differentiating wealth, they assert, so Christians cannot be comfortable with it here and now.
Mexican liberation theologian Jose P. Miranda in “Marx and the Bible” is one example.
Others strongly support laissez-faire capitalism usually without calling it or even recognizing it as Social Darwinism.
They usually believe original sin and human depravity require strong incentives to work and that government “big enough” for any other economic system will inevitably trounce on individual freedoms, including religious freedom.
The churches should care for the poor, not the government, they say, although they make certain exceptions in emergencies.
U.S. Catholic theologian Michael Novak in “The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism” and Protestant Marvin Olasky in “The Tragedy of American Compassion” affirm this perspective.
It is possible to be a communist with regard to how the church should practice distributive justice within itself and not be a communist with regard to how the social-economic order outside the church should function.
Still others strongly support democratic socialism as a compromise position that takes seriously the human tendency to become dependent on government welfare programs but also recognizes that the churches cannot take care of all the poor by themselves.
They argue that churches should practice a form of socialism within themselves with or without Christian pressure on government to help; they believe Christians should speak out passionately in favor of socialism as their societies’ policies of distributive justice.
Examples include Stanley Hauerwas for the church to practice a kind of socialism within itself and Walter Rauschenbusch and his contemporary heirs for Christians to pressure society to adopt socialism.
Still others strongly support modern managed capitalism (non-laissez faire capitalism) as a compromise that takes seriously both humans’ sinful greed and sloth.
For them, the Kingdom is definitely “not yet” and modern managed capitalism is the best social public policy that takes that reality seriously while at the same time taking care of the destitute (“deserving poor”).
One can easily find all four of these major options for economic distributive justice among Christians around the world.
It is entirely possible to hold one of the four “ideal types” of secular economic theory and practice (distributive justice) for the social order outside the church and a different one for the church itself.
It seems to me that the church ought to practice a kind of communism within itself – not necessarily a “common purse,” but an ethos in which everyone’s private property is not really “private” but is at the disposal of whoever needs it.
Every Christian church ought to be an “intentional Christian community” that practices distributive justice within itself by making sure no member suffers from loss or lack of goods needed to live a life of well-being and no member hoards wealth above and beyond what is needed for a comfortable life of well-being.
There was a time when many Christian churches practiced something like this but often without a set of explicit rules for governing it and working it out in practice.
For example, the church I grew up in from birth to age 11 openly called living in luxury and “conspicuous consumption” a sin.
Members were expected to give their excess money to the church (or denomination) for support of the poor within the church and of the church’s various “outreach ministries” (especially “foreign missions”).
Whenever a church member fell into a poverty situation through no clear fault of their own (such as refusal to work), the church “took up a ‘love offering'” to meet their needs (not their wants).
No member’s wealth, goods, was considered his or her “own” to dispose of in any way; it belonged in some sense to everyone in the church and ultimately to God.
Of course, the “devil is in the details,” but if each church followed this basic principle to the best of its ability, it would come closer to being the “Kingdom outpost” it is meant to be.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Against Calvinism” and “The Story of Christian Theology.” This article is edited from a longer version that first appeared on his blog. It is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Roger Olson is the Foy Valentine professor of Christian theology and ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including “Counterfeit Christianity” and “The Story of Christian Theology.”