The Bible clearly teaches the concept of private property. For this, one need look no further than the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal (Exod. 20:15 and Deut. 5:19).” If there were no concept of the private ownership of property, there would be no need for a commandment against stealing. How would you know if I stole your laptop if there was no concept of it being your laptop?
This should not be understood to deny God as the ultimate owner of all things. Many passages clearly demonstrate that God is the owner of everything. For example, Psalm 24:1-2 says “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he had founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” (See, e.g., Ps. 50:10-11, 89:11.) God is the owner because He is the Creator. He made the universe, and He is the ultimate owner of everything in it.
Rightly understood, we are stewards of His creation. He has seen fit to entrust it to us, and we should use it for His glory. Genesis 1:28 contains this initial grant to the first man and all of his descendants. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Thus, our property rights are derived from God, the ultimate owner, but they are property rights none the less.
In our day, many would like to oppose the idea of private property rights. Often, those identified with the church want to use the situation of the early church in the book of Acts as an example of socialism or communism. From this, they argue in varying degrees that private property rights should be abandoned in the New Testament era. The relevant passage is Acts 2:41-47. It reads:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 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. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Despite these assertions by some, this is not a communistic or socialistic situation, and it does not argue for the abolition of private property rights. First, it assumes private property rights. If there were no private property rights, they could not be selling their (note the possessive pronoun) possessions. In fact, the very words possessions and belongings indicate ownership.
Second, the situation in Acts 2 was clearly voluntary. The civil government was not forcing the believers to part with their property, nor was the early church. For one to generously give of one’s own positions to meet the needs of others or to support the work of the church is a laudable thing. That was what was occurring here in Acts 2. However, for the civil government to use the coercive power of the sword to take from some to give to others is stealing and wicked. The difference between both socialism and communism and what was occurring in the early church is the difference between voluntarily disposing of one’s own property and being forced to part with one’s property by the threat of the sword of the civil government.
Further, the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 illustrates very clearly that the point is not the abolition of private property rights, but rather the generosity of the early church. Ananias and Sapphira, apparently envious of the recognition that some were getting for their generosity, chose to sell some property they owned. However, they wickedly decided to withhold some while indicating that they had given it all. Peter’s rebuke to Ananias in Acts 5:3-4 demonstrates that deception was the problem, not private property rights.
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” (emphasis added)
Peter’s statements assume private property rights and clearly state that the giving in the early church was voluntary, not compulsory. While Ananias owned it, it belonged to him, not to everyone, no one, the civil government, or the church. After he sold it, the proceeds similarly belonged to him.
Thus, the situation of the early church cannot be used to support socialism, communism, or the abolition of private property rights. However, it can be used to argue for private property rights, generosity, and lying to the Holy Spirit.
In The Institutes of Biblical Law, R. J. Rushdoony comments on this passage in the context of discussing the Eighth Commandment. He writes:
It is very necessary . . . to recognize that the urge to dominion is God-given and is based to the nature of man. As aspect of this dominion is property.
It is the custom among ecclesiastical socialists to deny that there is Biblical warrant for private property. Their ground for this is the often repeated Biblical declaration, “The earth is the LORD’S” (Ex. 9:29, etc.). They choose to neglect the total witness of Scripture to private property. The so-called communism of Acts 2:41-47, also cited by the ecclesiastical socialists, was simply a voluntary sharing on the part of some (Acts 5). It was limited to Jerusalem. Because the believers took literally the words of Christ concerning the fall of Jerusalem (Matt. 24:1-28), they liquidated their properties there. The wealthier members placed some or all of these funds at the church’s disposal, so that a witness could be made to their friends and relatives before Jerusalem fell. . . .
The earth is indeed the Lord’s, as is all dominion, but God have chosen to give dominion over the earth to man, subject to His law-word, and property is a central aspect of dominion. The absolute and transcendental title to property is the Lord’s; the present and historical title to property is man’s. The ownership of property does not leave this world when it is denied to man; it is simply transferred to the state. If the contention of the liberals that the earth is the Lord’s, not man’s, is to be applied as they require it, then it must be applied equally to the state; the state then must be denied all right to own and control property.
The Scripture, however, places property in the hands of the family, not the state. It gives property to man as an aspect of his dominion, as a part of his godly subduing of the earth. (p. 450-451)
Wayne Grudem puts it somewhat differently, but he still seems to agree. In his excellent little book Business for the Glory of God: The Bible’s Teaching on the Moral Goodness of Business, he writes this of ownership:
I believe the reason God gave the command, “You shall not steal,” is that ownership of possessions is a fundamental way that we imitate God’s sovereignty over the universe by our exercising “sovereignty” over a tiny portion of the universe, things we own. When we take care of our possessions, we imitate God in his taking care of the whole universe, and he delights to see us imitate him in this way. In addition, when we care for our possessions, it gives us opportunity to imitate many other attributes of God, such as wisdom, knowledge, beauty, creativity, love for others, kindness, fairness, independence, freedom, exercise of will, blessedness (or joy), and so forth.
. . .
Why do children from a very early age enjoy having toys that are their own, and why do they often want to have a pet that is their own, on they can care for? I realize that such “ownership” of toys and pets can be distorted by the sins of selfishness and laziness, but even if we lived in a sinless world children from a very young age would have a desire to have things that are their own. I think God has created us with a desire to own things because he wanted us to have a desire to imitate his sovereignty in this way. This desire in itself should not automatically be called “greed,” because that word slanders something that is a good desire given to us by God. (p. 19-20, emphasis in original)
I agree with Drs. Rushdoony and Grudem. God’s entrusting His creation to us and putting it within our hearts to desire to possess it and exercise dominion over it is a good thing for which He should be praised, the fact that sin can enter our hearts to abuse this good gift and distort this good desire notwithstanding.