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.