Stuff Inviolate

I have been arguing that property rights are human rights. I have been insisting that it is not possible to love your neighbor without respecting his stuff. I have been saying that the commandment thou shalt not steal presupposes the institution of private property in just the same way that the prohibition of adultery presupposes marriage. And in the same way, I cannot honor the command not to covet my neighbor’s wife if I cannot come up with a definition of “wife.”

But there has been some surprising pushback on this simple idea, so let us dig a little deeper.

So what do I mean by property? Within the boundaries of the law of God, property entails the authority to retain or dispose of material goods without the permission of another. If you are renting something, or leasing it, you do not have the right to dispose of it in the same way you would if you owned it. When you rent a car, you are answerable to someone else for the use. When you own a car, you can paint the passenger door turquoise if you wish.

This means that all property is ultimately God’s. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10), and the earth is the Lord’s and all that it contains (Ex. 9:29; Dt. 10:14). So God is the only absolute owner of property, and in reference to Him, we are all stewards. We will all give an accounting to Him for what we have done with the goods He has entrusted to us.

So my argument does not neglect this relativization of property in the sight of God, but merely insists that no creature — especially including kings, parliaments, congresses, and presidents — may usurp and supplant God in this role.

This is why Jesus can tell the rich young ruler to give all his goods to the poor (Matt. 19:21), and if he did not do it, he was stealing in the eyes of God. At the same time, he would not be stealing in the eyes of man — any more than a lustful man could be charged with adultery in our courts, or a spiteful man with murder, despite the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:28; Matt. 5:21). We must, always and everywhere, maintain the distinction between sins and crimes.

“Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings” (Mal. 3:8).

Tithes went, in part, to the poor. The same thing would be true of offerings. And offerings were entirely voluntary — but a man could rob God by refusing to offer them. He would be guilty before God of the sin of theft (greed, covetousness, and so on). But he would not be guilty of the crime of theft. Consider the case of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1). Peter told them that they could have sold their land, kept all the proceeds at home, sitting on top of the pile cackling like Scrooge McDuck, and they would not have bought the farm, so to speak.

“Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God” (Acts 5:4).

After he sold it, was it not within his power? Yes — as far as the authority of fellow creatures could reach. But could he do whatever he wanted with it, and not have to answer to God? No, of course not.

And this is what I am arguing. When any creaturely entity assumes the prerogatives of the Deity, assuming the power of control over the property of others, that entity has become lawless and wicked. And the Bible does not say, “Thou shalt not steal, except by majority vote.” The Bible does not countenance the notion that two coyotes and a sheep can form a rudimentary democracy, and then vote on what’s for lunch.

If I am walking down the street and encounter someone begging alms, and I have twenty bucks in my wallet, and I receive an unmistakable burden from the Lord to give him that twenty bucks, and I suppress the impulse and walk on, am I being disobedient? Yes. Am I robbing God? Yes. Am I robbing the beggar? No. For if I were, he would have the right to chase me down and take the twenty bucks.

If a woman had her purse snatched by a bicyclist, and fifteen minutes later she pulls into a drugstore parking lot, and that same bicycle is outside with her purse hanging on the handle bars — the thief having run inside to buy smokes with some of her dollars — is she stealing if she takes her purse back? Of course not.

We must learn to distinguish that which is sin in the eyes of God, and that which should be a crime in the eyes of man and God. Being a selfish pig is a sin, but must not be made a crime. If we outlaw “being a selfish pig,” I have ten dollars here that says that within two weeks this crime of selfish piggery will be vigorously policed (and fined) by tribunals made up entirely of selfish pigs.

When we make something a crime without scriptural justification, and penalize it, we invert the order of God. When we make property ownership a crime, and fine people heavily for being guilty of it, we have a society as corrupt and as mendacious and as greedy as . . . well, as our own.

If we love people, if we love our neighbors, we will consider their stuff inviolate. We will form governments that respect our neighbors’ property as much as we ourselves do. But as it is currently, we form the kind of government we now have because we the people have larceny in our hearts. We are governed by thieves who represent us well.

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matt
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matt

Pastor Wilson, would property tax be the most unjust tax of all? You can’t own your house if you are responsible to pay someone else for the right to live there.

timothy
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timothy

When we make something a crime without scriptural justification, and penalize it, we invert the order of God. When we make property ownership a crime, and fine people heavily for being guilty of it, we have a society as corrupt and as mendacious and as greedy as . . . well, as our own.

I have seen this without seeing it; you naming it brought it to the fore.

thanks.

t

Matt Petersen
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Matt Petersen

If I am walking down the street and encounter someone begging alms, and I have twenty bucks in my wallet, and I receive an unmistakable burden from the Lord to give him that twenty bucks, and I suppress the impulse and walk on, am I being disobedient? Yes. Am I robbing God? Yes. Am I robbing the beggar? No. For if I were, he would have the right to chase me down and take the twenty bucks. As an aside, you don’t mean that you are robbing the beggar before God But not before the state? The way I phrased… Read more »

Matt Petersen
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Matt Petersen

As a second aside: So what do I mean by property? Within the boundaries of the law of God, property entails the authority to retain or dispose of material goods without the permission of another. This is, to say the least, a very odd definition of property, since it implies (at least if that’s a definition, which perhaps it isn’t) that in a nomadic society, in which no one owns the land, the land is in fact everyone’s property. And that the Indians and Africans who thought the land wasn’t be owned were wrong regarding their own society: They owned… Read more »

RFB
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RFB

Pastor Wilson,

I take your statement “some surprising pushback on this simple idea” as a literary technique, and not that you are really “surprised”.

Given the love affair that a certain cross-section of Christians have with socialism (Communism in the slow lane), being willing to use the lethal force of government to extract “contributions” from their neighbor, I would be surprised if you were surprised.

Matt Petersen
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Matt Petersen

As for my main criticism, which is the same as it always has been: You’re reading the tenth commandment as “thou shalt not wish/intend/etc. to make a material good thy neighbor has authority to retain or dispose of without the permission of another into a material good thou hast authority to retain or dispose of without the permission of another.”? The problem then, as should be manifest, is that you have assumed a definition of property in your exegesis of covetousness and theft, and then use that exegesis of covetousness and theft to prove the understanding of property you assumed… Read more »

Bill Hickman
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Bill Hickman

“If we love people, if we love our neighbors, we will consider their stuff inviolate.”

“their stuff”

The Bible doesn’t define “Bill’s stuff”. If I want to know the difference between my stuff and Doug Wilson’s stuff, I have to consult the man-made laws of local, state, and federal government that actually spell out my property rights.

If government can legitimately define my property rights over X amount of “stuff” – land, money, etc. – it also has legitimate authority to change X to X-1 or X+1. Inviolate property rights don’t make logical sense.

David Douglas
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David Douglas

Matt: This is, to say the least, a very odd definition of property, since it implies (at least if that’s a definition, which perhaps it isn’t) that in a nomadic society, in which no one owns the land, the land is in fact everyone’s property. And that the Indians and Africans who thought the land wasn’t be owned were wrong regarding their own society: They owned the land, they just thought they didn’t. Which, seems a rather bizarre conclusion. Actually, of the 3 parties, you, Doug, and the nomads, I think only you are not marching to the same drummer.… Read more »

Matt Petersen
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Matt Petersen

Yes, exactly, Bill. Also: If the commandment forbidding theft requires that the thing stolen had been a material good the theif’s neighbor had “authority to retain or dispose of without the permission of another”, then theft of land was, in Israel, impossible, since no one had the authority to dispose if their land at all. But this conclusion is manifestly false, so, following the modus tollens, as they say in Latin, theft does not presuppose private property. Again following the modus tollens, if, for a child to covet and steal the toy his brother happens to be playing with at… Read more »

Matt Petersen
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Matt Petersen

David:

Abraham bought the tomb from the sons if Heth, who seem to have been civilized. So that isn’t relevant.

I didn’t say that “private property concepts morphed away from the nomadic/tribal understanding”. What I said is that, whatever else is true, they are not wrong via a via their own society. It may be that their society has a bad understanding if property (though I do not grant it), but that’s a different question than the one I posed, namely, whether they in fact do own the land.

timothy
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timothy

The Bible doesn’t define “Bill’s stuff”. If I want to know the difference between my stuff and Doug Wilson’s stuff, I have to consult the man-made laws of local, state, and federal government that actually spell out my property rights. Okey-dokey then. Since “stuff” is culturally determined, lets play multi-culti bingo. Pastor Wilson steals your house. Since injustice does exist, It turns out that you, Bill, are of the wrong tribe/party/cis-gender/in-group. As gollum told himself, nobody likes you. Poor, poor Bill; Pastor Wilson “Stole” your house. You get no justice at the personal level, the city level the county level… Read more »

Chad Davis
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Chad Davis

or is it something else, for instance, a failure to love your neighbor as yourself by withholding a good from your neighbor, and retaining it for yourself instead?

But Matt, where does the Bible speak of this scenario you describe as stealing? It seems the Bible calls it all sorts of things – including unloving – but does it call it stealing? So far as I can tell, the Biblical definition of stealing always involves taking something that belongs to another. Correct?

DrewJ
Guest

I think we basically have too many fools commenting here. What is Bill’s stuff, you ask? Well, the Bible says to avoid foolish questions.

Also, where in the world did you come up with such an idea as to suggest that the government defines property rights?

Finally, the fact that God placed some mild limits on the transfer of land has essentially no relevance to whether private property otherwise existed.

Jon Swerens
Member

So … wait.

The counterargument against Doug is that property rights do not exist if a government does not grant them to us? Is it that simple?

If that is *not* the counterargument, forgive me, because I honestly am having a lot of trouble wading through Matt’s 64-word fundamental question.

Matt Petersen
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Matt Petersen

@jonsw The question is whether theft is taking someone’s private property or not. #itsnot

@jonsw Pr. Wilson assumes it is, and then uses the command to derive private property. #circularreasoning

@jonsw The confusing part was where I quoted his definition of property.

Those are all short enough for twitter. But I think if you read the earlier comment out loud it will flow fine.

Matt Petersen
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Matt Petersen

Chad:

The gleaning laws in Deuteronomy 24 are in the part of Deuteronomy which is commentary on the prohibition of theft. That is, to refuse to leave crops for gleaning is to steal the grain from the poor.

Andrew Lohr
Member

matt: so the gleaning law make the minimum wage laws theft, since gleaning (Biblical welfare) is very hard work at very low wage? And no, your writings don’t flow.

JohnM
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JohnM

I’ll probably regret trying to be helpful but: The government doesn’t grant property rights as in “the right to own property”, but, property properly understood, the government does arbitrate property rights as in “the property line is here” or ” This is Joe’s property and Jack may not take it” and vice versa.

Robert
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Robert

Imminent Domain. Lawful or not

DrewJ
Guest

The government does not decide where the property lines are. Where do you guys get these ideas from?

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

DrewJ – Who do you think does decide where the property lines are? Do you own any real estate? Says who?

DrewJ
Guest

The seller and the buyer

Matt Petersen
Guest
Matt Petersen

I’ll sell you the Brooklyn bridge for only $1,000.

JohnM
Guest
JohnM

The seller and buyer do not decide where the property lines are. Property lines are not whatever two private parties decide privately to say they are, fortunately for their neighbors.

DrewJ
Guest

I’m surrounded by idiots.

Jon Swerens
Member

matt P.: Thanks for your smart-aleck response. “Short enough for Twitter.” Good insult, if this were 2008.

My point is that your writing, with clause upon clause upon yet another clause, is abstruse. I’m having difficulty following it not because I’m stupid and require monosyllabic pabulum, but because your writing is convoluted. And so you know: I’ve been a professional editor for 25 years. My curriculum vitae is available upon request.

Matt Petersen
Guest
Matt Petersen

The confusing part is the repeated “authority to retain or dispose of material goods without the permission of another.” But that’s a quote from the original post, and so is critical to my point. I’ve re-read the comment with “clause upon clause” multiple times, and it is perfectly clear. (Actually all of them are–I’ve read them aloud to my wife, multiple times. The only confusing part is the quite from the original post.) Nor is it remotely convoluted. It has a very straight forward structure. Is theft taking my neighbor’s [insert quote from Pr. Wilson defining private property] and making… Read more »

Bill Hickman
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Bill Hickman

I’ll try to focus the discussion – We all agree it’s wrong to steal – i.e. to take property from someone who has an underlying right to it. But Doug also seems to be arguing that it’s theft to eliminate a person’s underlying right to the property. I can’t agree with that. Without the state, no one has a right to own any property. I think this is pretty obvious: Imagine you’re standing on a large plot of unowned land in a government-free world – can I simply walk on to the land, claim it as my own, and violently… Read more »

DrewJ
Guest

Your argument is like arguing that because the Bible doesn’t document a marriage ceremony, therefore adultery could not exist without government. Anyway, John Locke describes how property first came about. http://www.constitution.org/jl/2ndtr05.htm

Dave
Guest
Dave

Property is not a difficult subject, yet for the past few threads commentators are making the clear water muddy. What is mine is mine. My truck is not your truck. Mi casa is not su casa. This really is a simple concept that we all learned as children. (Disclaimer for those who read too deeply or do not understand Christianity: God owns everything and I manage a small portion for Him.) The government, the state, does not describe private property. It exists before and after government. That fact is shown throughout history and yes, there were contests, sometimes extremely bloody… Read more »

Matt Petersen
Guest
Matt Petersen

Bill:

Exactly. With the added note that if there’s a people who live in a land, but do not believe they own the land, if I go and claim that ownerless land as mine, and kick them off, I’m stealing from them. Even if we want to say they should settle down, and claim ownership of the land (which I do not), we still need to be able to make sense of this sort if theft–the sort perpetrated against Indians and Africans who claimed there was no land ownership.

wtrsims
Member

Bill said, Therefore, when we refer to our “property”, we’re necessarily referring to legal rights. These rights don’t exist in the state of nature, but they do exist if a government creates and administers them. If you like systems that run on private property (e.g. capitalism), you must agree that the state has legitimate authority to create a system of underlying property rights. Now, could you prove that rather than just stating it as fact? Perhaps I’ll agree with you (or not), but I sure would like to know your reasoning. I’m inclined to disagree, because theft would be theft… Read more »

Katecho
Member

The State has a role in protecting life, but they don’t give out life or define life. The State has a role in protecting liberty, but they don’t give out liberty or define liberty. The State has a role in protecting property, but they don’t give out property or define property. The State has a role in protecting happiness, but they don’t give out happiness or define happiness. When people say they have a right to something, they often think that the government actually has a duty to give them that thing (usually at someone else’s expense). However, our rights… Read more »

Matt Petersen
Guest
Matt Petersen

If we follow what many of us seem to have assumed counts as Scripture, that isn’t quite accurate. True, all men are “endowed” property rights, etc. “by their creator”. But it is false that these inalienable rights are merely “things the State is barred from usurping or trampling.” Rather, “governments are instituted among men” “that to ensure these rights.”

Of course, I find this whole framework problematic. But let’s at least represent it accurately.