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Theology of Ownership

By R. J. Rushdoony
December 01, 2004

Some years ago, Versteeg wrote, “You can define stewardship only when you can define Christ or God!”1 Kublai Khan some centuries ago saw the meaning of property and stewardship when he prohibited all gambling in his realm, not a popular step, since the Chinese were intensely addicted to gambling. Marco Polo reported:

The present grand khan has prohibited all species of gambling and other modes of cheating, to which the people of this country are addicted more than any others upon earth; and as an argument for deterring them from the practice, he says to them (in his edict), “I subdued you by the power of my sword, and consequently whatever you possess belongs of right to me: if you gamble, therefore, you are sporting with my property.” He does not however, take anything arbitrarily in virtue of this right.2

Kublai Khan had a good grasp of the meaning of sovereignty. If man is sovereign, or if a state is sovereign, then that sovereign has total claims on all that we are and possess. Thus, the idea of civil sovereignty, once alien to the United States, is now claimed by the federal government and all its constituent units. As a result, we are held to be the possessions of the state. Our lives, families, and properties belong to the state. If the tax collector allows us to keep any part of our income, it is called an “exemption,” which means that, as an act of grace, the state allows us to keep a given amount of our income. Whoever claims sovereignty claims total ownership.

Thus, in objecting to gambling because it meant “sporting with my property,” Kublai Khan showed a firm grasp of the meaning of sovereignty. Kublai Khan, however, was not God; his sovereignty was not a legitimate one; it was, as he stated, “by the power of my sword,” and a stronger sword could take it from him. Thus, it was necessary for him to legislate coercively to establish his claim to sovereignty.

The True Sovereign

The triune God of Scripture is sovereign over all creation. He does not claim sovereignty; rather, it is an incommunicable attribute of Almighty God. The Scripture therefore does not speak, as Kublai Khan had to, against gambling. It is basic to Scripture that, “The earth is the LORD’S and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). We are thus God’s property, and all our possessions belong to Him. We are only stewards of whatever we possess. God need not say, as Kublai Kahn did, “whatever you possess belongs of right to me: if you gamble, therefore, you are sporting with my property.” This is implicit in all that He is, and all that we are. I will be prone to treat with evasion any man’s, or any state’s claims to my possessions, but if I am in another man’s house as a guest or temporary caretaker, I dare not use his property for my own satisfaction, vices, or alien purposes. This should be even more true with God the Lord.

As Versteeg stated, “Stewardship is the economic result of the Christian experience.”3 Moreover:

The Christian experience reveals that property is in the purpose of God. It must be directed Godward. Stewardship creates tensions between those who place property at the service of God and those whose one thought is to take advantage for themselves out of it.4

Thus, because of the theological nature of stewardship and property, we cannot allow any acceptance of socialism as valid. “Private property,” however, while seemingly in conformity to the Biblical doctrine, has this weakness. Socialism places sovereignty in the state, private ownership in the individual. The individual, however, is not a sovereign: he is a steward.

What does it mean to be a steward of property? We cannot permit in terms of Scripture the personal nature of property and stewardship to be overlooked. A man’s property is a part of his life, an aspect of his work and dominion. The depersonalization of property is the depersonalization of man. Stewards in Bible history were often slaves, members of the household, with a personal stake therein. They were guardians and managers for their lord.

Private Property vs. Covenantal Property

Moreover, ownership in the Bible is historical, i.e., while personal, it has reference to more than the individual. The family is involved. Even apart from the issue of the Biblical land-law (no sale of land), Naboth’s attitude has reference to a continuity of faith and inheritance. Ahab offered to give Naboth “a better vineyard” at another location, or its value in money (1 Kin. 21:2). Thus, from the modern economic point of view, the proposition made by Ahab to Naboth was a good offer. Naboth’s answer was non-economic, “The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee” (1 Kin. 21:3). Naboth saw the land as a stewardship handed down from his forefathers, and to be handed down to the generations to come. He reacted, not in terms of modern economics, but Biblical economics, namely, in terms of stewardship.

Thus, libertarian economics, which holds strictly to totally private property, leaves property as rootless as does socialist economics: it divorces it from the past and the future. Property then becomes existential: its meaning is limited to the meaning the existentialist individual gives to it, and no more. Socialism, and also existentialism, ties property to the existence of the state.

The Biblical doctrine of property is thus covenantal. It begins with God’s covenant, and it is concerned with the continuity of that covenant in history and is concerned with its prosperity. The blessings and curses of the covenant have to do with life and property (Dt. 28). The point of Zechariah 1:6, and of Malachi 3:8-12, as well as all the prophets, is that life and property without stewardship to God plainly lead to God’s radical judgment.

Biblical Inheritance

The basic aspect of property is ownership. While the earth is clearly the Lords’ (Ps. 24:1), the land is also man’s to own and an inheritance in the Lord (Dt. 26:1). Our modern idea of inheritance presupposes death. Someone must die before we can inherit. This is not a necessity to the Biblical doctrine. A father’s faithful sons have an inheritance while alive; thus, Isaac was the heir and possessor together with Abraham while Abraham lived. Because property in Scripture is a family possession, it is such during the lifetime of fathers, children, and grandparents. This appears clearly in the parable of the prodigal son, who in the lifetime of the father, took his portion and departed. The circumstances are unusual, i.e., the father agreeing to the request, but not unheard of, and hence the point of the parable was telling to its hearers: an inheritance did not require death.

The heir who gained the double portion was the real heir, however, in terms of the continuing and central property of the family. The covenant man, God’s Israel, is thus required to support the father. The tithe, the firstfruits, and all gifts to the Lord, thus are in agreement with family law. The living father turns over the property to the heir, who is then a steward of that property to the father and to the future generations of the family.

This sets the context of tithes and offerings. In Deuteronomy 26:1-11, the firstfruits are given to the Lord, because it is the due of the Head of the covenant family. Man’s inheritance (Dt. 26:1, 3, 9-11) requires the recognition of the Father’s sovereign right. The firstfruit stresses the first place of the Father in all that our inheritance produces. The tithes stress the necessity of separating to the Father’s purpose a portion of our increase.

These are not gifts to the Father; only what we give above the required amount constitutes a gift. The necessary tax stresses rather the fact that we are heirs. We did not come into a barren world, and we must leave it the richer for our coming. The purpose of the Father requires, first, that we exercise dominion over our property and, by means of work, produce an increase. The Kingdom of God must be strengthened and developed by our family life and by our vocation. We are therefore duty bound to produce an increase, as the parable of the talents makes clear (Mt. 25: 14:30).

Second, the Father plans that through our increase, our tithes and offerings bring about the increase of His Kingdom beyond our own limited area of action. Thus, these taxes serve to fuel Kingdom causes in missions, education, reconstruction, worship, music, and so on. As stewards, we have a duty beyond our walls. The whole earth being the Lord’s, He requires us to reconquer every area of life and thought for Him.

Third, our gifts and taxes minister to God’s poor, and to emergency needs outside His fold.

The Material Promises of God

The chosen people of God are called His firstborn (Hos. 11:1). God declared to pharaoh, “ Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Ex. 4:22). The Hebrew term for firstborn is bekhor, and the Hebrew term for firstfruits is bikkurim, derived from the same root.

The firstborn, the redeemed of God, the heirs of His Kingdom, give to the Lord His firstfruits and of the substance of their possessions and increase. Proverbs 3:9-10 makes clear that this is the prerequisite to all material blessings:

Honor the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase:

So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine.

These verses teach, as Fritsch makes clear, that “This is a spiritual law,” and it means that “Obedience to God’s law brings material reward.”5

In our time, there is a marked tendency to avoid the material promises of Scripture and to spiritualize them. This means a doubting of God’s sovereignty over the material realm, a distrust in His word, and therefore as ready a distrust in any “spiritual” promises. This was made clear by Charles Bridges:

There is no presumption, or enthusiasm in looking for the literal fulfillment of the promises. If we doubt the temporal, should we not suspect our assumed confidence in the spiritual, engagements? For if the Lord’s word be insufficient security for our substance; much more must it be for the infinitely weightier deposit of our soul.6

But more is implied in failing to give, and in mistrusting God’s promise: it means that we do not feel the family relationship to God is a real one, and hence we have no sense of gratitude and family responsibility. We therefore treat our possessions as our own, not as a stewardship. We then feel that neither we nor our children are God’s family, and we do feel that our possessions are self-created. Our theology of ownership then has implicit to it a belief that we are gods, not the Lord. We then manifest a humanistic theology of ownership.

How we give also determines our theology. If we give to ourselves and to our family, we give without stinting. To a landlord, we give only what is his due, not a penny more. If we give in like manner to God, we give as to a landlord, not as to our Father.

Notes

1. John M. Versteeg, Save Money (New York: Abingdon Press, 1939), 61.

2. The Travels of Marco Polo, Bk. 2 ( New York, The Orion Press, n.d.), 170.

3. Versteeg, op.cit, 57.

4. Ibid., 89.

5. Charles T. Fritsch, “Proverbs, ”The Interpreter’s Bible, IV, 801.

6. Charles Bridges, Exposition of the Book of Proverbs (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, [1846] 1959), 27. Reprinted from: Law and Society, Vol. 2 of the Institutes of Biblical Law (Ross House Books: Vallecito, CA, 1982), 391-395.


Topics: Biblical Law, Business, Charity, Christian Reconstruction, Culture , Dominion, Family & Marriage, Socialism, Statism

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965. His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.” He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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