Honoring His Stuff

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A friend pointed me to an important truth about property and giving that is found in Deuteronomy 26.

“And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the Lord thy God, and worship before the Lord thy God: And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the Lord thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thine house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you” (Dt. 26:10-11).

Note that the worshiper is told that he must include the Levite and the stranger in his worship of God — he must share as he worships with his tithe — but that the foundation of this sharing is the fact of property ownership. He is called to share “every good thing” which the Lord his God “hath given” unto him. God gave every good thing to him, and to his house.

This is the answer to those who think that any assertion of robust property rights is to absolutize them. The only absolute property ownership is God — the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof — but it is precisely for this reason that we may have robust private property rights. The absolute owner gives.

He gives with stipulations and conditions, certainly, such that our ownership is always stewardship, but at the end of the day, we may say that the God of all property gave “every good thing” to me and “to my house.”

He does not do this so that we may then try to be unlike Him, hoarding everything for ourselves. Not at all. At the end of the day, the worshiper of God should be able to say something like this:

“I have brought away the hallowed things out of mine house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all thy commandments which thou hast commanded me: I have not transgressed thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them” (Dt. 26:13).

The worshiper who gives to the Levite, and to the stranger, and to the fatherless, and to the widow, is doing so with the same verb that is used concerning God’s giving to him in the first place. If God gives, then so may we. This means that private property is the basis of mercy giving, not a competitor to it. Note also a good indication that the pure and undefiled religion that James is talking about concerns the responsibility of the Christian to tithe (Jas. 1:27).

Having said so much, let me veer off in another direction, at least with regard to the initial appearances. Just consider this a helpful aside. Pure and undefiled religion means doing what God says to do, the way He says to do it. When we rebel against Him, and do something else, we have still been created with a slot called “pure and undefiled religion,” and so we fill it in with something else, and police the boundaries of that new thing with a religious ferocity.

This something else is usually some form of ritual righteousness — something tangible that you can see. It may have no biblical basis, or it may be a counterfeit of something that has a biblical basis. For the former, cool is the new righteous, and it would be something like skinny jeans and moussed hair instead of wide phylacteries and flowing robes. For the latter, it would mean supporting greater levels of coercive taxation levied on widows and orphans so that some faceless bureaucrat might issue an EBT card to some skateboarding waster dude, and all in the name of helping widows and orphans.

Jesus requires us to avoid showboating in our giving, but it must nevertheless be our giving. In order to give it, we must have it, and in order for us to have it, God must give it to us. Private property, with this understanding of stewardship, is therefore necessary to all philanthropic mercy work.

Of course, only God is absolute. But certain things follow from this. If God is absolute, then we should adopt His definitions of what stewardship means for us, and what we must do with our private property. Ahlquist, summarizing Chesterton, notes that timeless truths are always timely.

So the first thing we must do with our private property is receive it. We must take ownership of it, not as competing with God, but as a way of honoring God. He, the only property owner, tells us to become property owners. He wants us to be property owners so that we may learn to imitate Him in how we give.

We answer to God for how we dispose of our property. We do not answer to others — most particularly, we do not answer to the state. Ownership is relative, relative to God. Ownership is not relative, relative to other relative owners. Property rights are therefore human rights, and human rights are therefore property rights. It is not possible to love a man without honoring his right to his stuff. To despise his right to his stuff is to despise the image of God in him. Whatever he has, he has because he was created in the image of God, and God wants to see what he is going to do with it. God didn’t give it to him to find out what I or nameless others wanted him to do with it.

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10 years ago

“some faceless bureaucrat might issue an EBT card to some skateboarding waster dude” // So I am thinking you are using some hypothetical example to make your point (not being a US resident) till I saw the Acton link to Fox: http://foxnewsinsider.com/2013/08/10/shocking-fox-news-reporting-interview-unabashed-surfer-receiving-food-stamps

10 years ago

What you write about property rights seems quite right. I’m just not following exactly what the problem is that (I assume) you are writing against. Is taxation the primary interference with property rights by the state that you are concerned about?

David Douglas
David Douglas
10 years ago

One eye opening book on confiscatory taxation is “The Law and the Profits” by C.N. Parkinson (of Parkinson’s Law fame). My take away is that confiscatory taxation pretty much destroyed the wealth of the aristocracy transferring it to the masses via the dole with no discernible increase in overall wealth of the poor. This might be an oversimplification seeing that Britain needed to pay for a couple wars and perhaps took a flutter on other empire building activities. Something I observed from that is that the aristocracy probably, in terms of bare justice, deserved what happened for their abuse of… Read more »

10 years ago

DW, As you have often pointed out, we are most likely to make a big deal out of the sin that we are least likely to commit. American Christianity does not seem in danger of disrespecting property rights, though our government certainly does. American Christianity is much more likely to make idolatry of property rights to the detriment of the commonwealth.

David Smith
David Smith
10 years ago

Thanks for this, Pastor Wilson! Indeed, the only truly absolute property rights are God’s; but as far as the state is concerned, my rights to my property are a lot more absolute than their supposed claim to it! Property taxes, zoning laws, eminent domain, etc. as means by which the state presumes to take from one and give to others are abominations! That’s why, for example, while I hate the reasons most lefties are against the pipeline (I forget its name) to bring oil from Canada to the States, I also hate the fact that “conservatives” are for it in… Read more »

Gregory C Dickison
Gregory C Dickison
10 years ago

Doug, thanks very much for this. It is very clarifying. The passage you expound on also tells us to rejoice, which reminds me of a great litmus test: as soon as I start leaping around yelling, “yippee! God has given me a $200,000 annual income! Wahoo! I get to tithe $20,000 this year! Yeehaw!”, I will know immediately where people stand on private property by the response I get.