Philanthropic Capitalism vs. Christian Communism
Philanthropic capitalism, I am convinced, is the economic perspective of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets, and the whole Bible. I am not the first person to coin the phrase “philanthropic capitalism,” but I will admit it is a very unusual expression. It is the view that capitalism can and should be used for philanthropy or giving to the poor; and if it is not so used, then it is a massive sin against God. It has been illustrated by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and various film versions of it, when Scrooge is born again and goes on a giving streak; and also, at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, when Sam Wainwright, and all of George Bailey’s clients, bail him out for losing $8,000.
Art Gish says some really on point things in Beyond the Rat Race. I’m glad I took the time to read it, because he really thinks outside the box, from the way most Christians and just people in general think about business and money. I would say his strongest part in this book is chapter 4, titled, “So What’s Wrong With Being Rich?” where he really lays into some financial sins like strife, stinginess, oppression, compromise, selfishness, dishonesty, vanity, idolatry of possessions, insecurity of losing them, arrogance, authoritarianism, resentment, jealousy, and snobbery. I got turned on to this book several years ago while reading Wealth and Poverty: Four Christian Views of Economics edited by Robert Clouse. Art Gish stood out as the guy advocating a Christian communist point of view—pointing to people like the Anabaptists, the Bruderhof, and the Amish as holding to the true Christian economy. He takes this from Acts 4:32-35:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Basically Gish says that Christians should live like this today: on group farms and within Christian communes. He says that Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois had a “deep impact” on his life. Wikipedia says that they share “a common purse, where paychecks are pooled, and members are given monthly allowances.” So basically every family has the same amount of money—like in the Soviet Union—where everyone lives in poverty as a working-class proletariat, and only their basic needs are met, and there is no such thing as “keeping up with the Joneses,” no economic competition, only friendship. My natural reaction is to cry out “cult!” And probably that’s what it is, because in the end of his book around pages 143-144, when speaking about the authority structures of communes, supposedly 100% democratic, he feels he needs to mention that the old tyranny that exists out in the competitive world of capitalism, can come right into a commune if we’re not careful. He has to say this, that communes “are never immune from attacks” like this; and that “our approach does not include coercion.” TLC’s reality TV series Breaking Amish is clear for the reasons why people leave Amish communities. Usually it has to do with their unreasonable authoritarianism, lack of modern amenities, and their lack of personal freedoms.
So what about Acts 4:32-35? Do we just ignore it? Pretend that it isn’t there? No. It’s there, but let’s allow reason and church history to speak for a moment. We’ve already allowed the Radical Reformation speak their side: from the Anabaptists till the Amish, they interpret it as a perpetual economic model to follow. So what about the Catholics and all the other Protestants? Gary North, who is the Christian capitalist opponent of Gish in the Wealth and Poverty book, is probably the best person to consult for balance. He said, “The communism of the book of Acts has been the focus of heated debate for centuries…they were told to flee when the armies approached the city. Therefore, there was little reason to hold on to property, especially fixed property. In any case, communism was never suggested as a general practice for all Christian communities, as the orthodox wings of both Catholic and Protestant churches have assured us. Again, charity was required, not a system of communist production and distribution.”
North points us back to what I’d like to call philanthropic capitalism: that our giving back to the poor is limited by what we can handle as individual Christian business people. It does not have to be, nor should it be, going to the extent of communal living. Mainly because communal living in Acts 4 was only an emergency measure that Christians were resorting to because they were living under persecution, like these people you read about in The Voice of the Martyrs magazine. We should not look judgmentally at persecuted Christians living in third world countries—they are just trying to survive; and if they have to temporarily resort to communal living just to survive, then we should bless them in that decision. But this was never the constant economic mentality of either the Old Testament (especially the book of Proverbs), Jesus in the Gospels, or the letters of Paul.
The Biblical economic mentality has most always been what Wesley said: “Gain all you can…Save all you can…Give all you can.” And when you give, Jesus was emphatic that the poor are the ones that we should give to. I can think of no better place to begin philanthropic giving than the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. This Catholic organization, in my opinion, is the most efficient and best poverty alleviation organization in the world. My family has benefited from their food pantries more than once. They have a website you can donate to. I believe they also sometimes help with rent and energy bill assistance. So does the United Methodist Church. Its division called UMCOR has a webpage where you can donate to their international efforts to relieve hunger and poverty emergencies. If you want a chunk of your tax return—say at least 10% of it—to be given to the poor, and make sure that the poor will truly benefit from that donation, then I highly recommend giving to either of these organizations for that purpose. I truly believe that would please God.
But the rich, the middle class, and the poor—the class distinctions are supposed to remain: because God works through all of them. That’s philanthropic capitalism. There is no Christian communism in the whole Bible except in Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-35, when it’s describing the early church living in fear of life-threatening persecution, when Christian men could not so easily engage in business, without being reported to the authorities, and their lives put at risk. Being that this was the situation for the 16th century Anabaptists, I can’t really blame them for resorting to communal living either. See the Christian movie The Radicals, which tells their story. Adam Clarke, the Methodist commentator, said, “The unbelieving Jews, who were mockers, Acts 2:13, would treat these new converts with the most marked disapprobation. That an absolute community of goods never obtained in the Church at Jerusalem, unless for a very short time, is evident from the apostolical precept, 1 Corinthians 16:1, collections were ordered to be made for the poor; but, if there had been a community of goods in the Church, there could have been no ground for such recommendations as these, as there could have been no such distinction as rich and poor, if every one, on entering the Church, gave up all his goods to a common stock.”
Philanthropic Capitalism vs. Materialistic Capitalism
Jesus said, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33). He’s saying get rid of the things you don’t need, turn them into cash, and give the cash to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and UMCOR. He’s not saying get rid of everything and join an Amish commune—where everyone gets an allowance, lives in poverty, and without modern technology. Jesus’ expectation of His saying “give to the poor” implies that you are not poor: it implies that you are maybe in the lower middle class, the middle class, or among the rich. Although He did say, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 19:23). Mainly because, like the rich young ruler, it is human nature to become attached to your money and possessions—to become clingy to them, and not give the money away to the poor. Human nature drives the rich toward materialistic capitalism—the evil competitor of philanthropic capitalism. It is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of the god Mammon, when He said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). The Greek word for “money” in this verse is actually Mammon, the Syrian demon-god of riches. It was what Paul was referring to when he said, “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
Greed is essentially removing the others-focused philanthropy from philanthropic capitalism; and instead replacing it with self-centered materialism: the meaning of which, according to Oxford Languages, is to “consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.” This opposition to materialism is not only a New Testament value, but goes all the way back to the Tenth Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20:17). Capitalism is assumed in this commandment too, because the wealthy Jew is portrayed as having servants in his household, like in Ben-Hur. The distinction between the rich and the poor even exists in the Ten Commandments, but restraint is attached to it. People are commanded not to covet, which definitely goes against human nature; and they are commanded to restrain themselves from materialism, jealousy of others’ riches, etc. Because they are meant to all be brothers in the same religious community.
Mammon, the demon of riches, would seek to destroy all such camaraderie by tempting Christian businessmen into materialistic capitalism, financial competition, greed, and financial jealousy. Sadly, it seems that the majority of men in the United States, England, and other Western countries are actually serving Mammon instead of Jesus. This usually happens in the first 5 years of their involvement in the business world. Some of them had such high Christian ideals in school, prior to their involvement in business, but now they see how things really are; and their perspectives change, and they become more like Scrooge and less like Cratchit. Philanthropic ideas start to fade away as they consider all the other financial responsibilities that they have, like rent, mortgage payments, cars, insurance, retirement planning, college funds, electric bills, debts, savings, investments, groceries, vacations, etc. Matthew 13:22: “The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful.”
Giving to the poor in Jesus’ name becomes less and less of a priority on the Christian’s financial pie chart; and as this happens, he becomes less and less of a Christian, and ends up retaining merely a “form of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). He may continue to take his family to church, but being the deeply ingrained man of business that he now is, his heart has now been successfully hardened against all of Christianity’s spiritual realities, powers, and revelations. He is cut off from the Holy Spirit. Nothing paranormal, mystical, or supernatural ever happens to him because God knows he’d never take such things seriously. He does not live by faith in God and His providence, but in his business abilities alone. He is a man of BUSINESS now and that is all that is real to him. He is merely going to church, going through the motions, and truly idolizing his business activity at this point. His true god is his business, his job, his company, his employer, his resume, his bank account. That is the true god that he fears. He is a Mammon worshiper although he doesn’t know it. He would agree in principle with what Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street (1987):
Greed, for lack of a better word, is good; greed is right; greed works; greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit; greed in all of its forms–greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind; and greed–you mark my words–will not only save Telgar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
The rich man called Dives lived in luxury every day; and refused to give to the godly beggar Lazarus, who laid outside of his gate. They both died and the rich man ended up burning in Hell, because he was worshipping Mammon—materialistic capitalism—and had abandoned all notions of philanthropy to the poor (Luke 16:19-31). “Lazy bum, get a job,” was probably his default thought every time he saw that beggar. But on closer inspection he might have noticed that Lazarus was covered with sores; and probably disabled, and was unable to work most jobs requiring physical labor; and even if he could work some other kind of job, he was probably in need of some compassionate businessman to guide him to that job prospect. Laziness is not the only cause of poverty. Ignorance—or lack of business guidance—is sometimes just as strong an influence. Capitalists, with all their knowledge of business, could easily help and guide the poor in these matters, but they are often too scared to have their pockets picked, so they ignore poor people; and refuse to help them monetarily, or with job leads, or in any way at all. Racism against minority groups might also be a barrier to this. This provokes the wrath of God, mind you, to the point of Hell-fire! Mammon, the god of materialistic capitalism, will end you up in Hell if you live by his principles. He is but a trickster, a Leprechaun, promising you great things, but ends up deceiving you into the worst place imaginable. And isn’t that just like most businessmen and the way they conduct themselves? Through “lying to get ahead,” in so many matters: to their employers, their employees, and their customers? They are obviously children of Mammon. Yet another example of “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matt. 13:22). “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10).
So what should we do? Should we become Christian communists, like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, like Art Gish is talking about in Beyond the Rat Race? No. I think that is an extreme overreaction to materialistic capitalism. It’s only to swing the pendulum in the extreme opposite direction. Thinking that way is a start, but it’s not the final Biblical answer. I wouldn’t necessarily blame a man who at least experimented with the Amish or other Christian communes, simply because he saw the Spirit of Mammon for what it was, and was trying to run away from it; or cast it out of his heart. But the economic point of view held by God, in both the Old and New Testaments, is clearly philanthropic capitalism. We are not meant to completely run away from the business world, but still need it to make our money. But when we go to calculate our personal financial pie charts, we need to prayerfully consider every year, and I would say, in every approaching tax return season, what percentage we should give to a Christian charity that is known for dispensing money and food to the poor.
Other Biblical Economic Principles That I Got From This Study
1. Telecommuting. It removes most of the office politics, egocentric competition, and sexual seduction that office work does; and it also helps you save on gas money. Worldliness and profanity can also be more avoided.
2. Simplicity. If you seek to live with the bare necessities, then you will be liberated from the dissatisfaction of materialism. But the St. Francis of Assisi level of poverty does not work well for heads of households and providers of families. Think more like Wesley and less like St. Francis in this regard.
3. Morale. Comedy, music, and friends are necessary to having a fulfilling life–so don’t spoil that with materialism.
4. Tax Returns. If you’re going to make a big purchase like a car, house, or lot: then you can chip away at those things by using your tax returns. Go to H&R Block and pay your taxes (Matt. 22:21); and when you get your tax return, divide it Biblically. Put some in an interest-bearing bank account (Matt. 25:27), a Vanguard Target Retirement Fund, a used car, land, saving for building a home, college, philanthropy (Deut. 15; Prov. 10; 29), etc.
5. Providence. It would be good to have plaques of the Ten Commandments and Deuteronomy 8:11-17 by your home office desk, so you can remember to honor God with your increase. God rewards prosperity to the godly for holy living and for thanking Him for His providence. Money that is ill-gotten will be cursed (see also Deut. 28). If it can be avoided, do not work on Sunday, but honor the Sabbath day, because it is a way of remembering and acknowledging God for business successes during the week; and not attributing everything to the work of your own hands (Exod. 20:8-11). Just don’t mix business activity with church, like the moneychangers did (Matt. 21:12).
6. Diligence and Frugality Generate Money. “The hands of the diligent and frugal are the only hands which make a nation rich,” said Josiah Tucker. Quoted by Wesley. Proverbs 10:4 (KJV): “The hand of the diligent maketh rich.” Diligent means hard working and productive.
7. Job’s Later Life. Job 42:12: “The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part.”
8. Thrift Stores. It is a mark of frugality to shop at Goodwill, the Salvation Army, thrift stores, and Facebook Marketplace.
9. Butlers and Maids. Although the Tenth Commandment allows for butlers and maids, I would caution against any racial bigotry, condescension, oppression, or snobbery in this area.
10. Private Property. Micah 4:4: “Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid,” that is, no banker or landlord can make a tenant afraid of homelessness through an eviction notice or foreclosure, if a man owns his own land and private property. Guns should primarily be used to protect the lives of our family members, not our property. But background checks should be done to check not only on employees but also on employers, to make sure that your address does not fall into the hands of criminals.
11. Lower End of the Middle Class. $65,000 a year, as of 2020, is a good financial goal, and earning limit, and puts you comfortably in the lower end of the middle class: it is enough to save, invest, and do philanthropy without things getting luxurious: “Give me neither poverty nor riches” (Proverbs 30:8). Suppose your income increases to $150k a year. I can see no reason for a luxury home at that point. God would then require more philanthropy from you. Luke 12:48: “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Psalm 62:10: “Though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” Proverbs 13:7: “One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.”
12. Christian Business Networking. Network with Christian business owners: pull emails from Christian business directories with scraping software like EmailClik.com, from LinkedIn: make Excel databases: and when necessary, email blast 2500 of them with an SMTP service. It’s always good to have passive job connections to provide yourself with back-up plans for financial security. It is not good to worry, because it distracts us from faith, love, peace, and enjoying our lives.
 Gary North, An Introduction to Christian Economics (Nutley, NJ: The Craig Press, 1973), ch. 18: “An Outline of Biblical Economic Thought,” pp. 222-223.
 John Wesley, “The Use of Money,” 1.1, 2.1, 3.1.
 Adam Clarke, The Adam Clarke Commentary, “Acts 2:44.”
 There is some scholarly debate about whether Mammon was an actual demonic entity or god worshipped by the Syrians. As of today, there seems to be no archaeological evidence of the worship of such a deity in Syria. Early church fathers and Bible commentators, such as Gregory of Nyssa, Peter Lombard, the Piers Plowman, and Nicholas de Lyra all believed that Mammon was a demon or a god worshipped by the Syrians. It may be possible that these early medieval scholars had access to documents suggesting that, but which are no longer available. The same could be said about many ideas that come from the ancient world. In any case the word “mammon” is used by Jesus in Aramaic and here it simply means “riches,” which is to say that you cannot serve God and at the same time wholeheartedly devote yourself to riches. There comes a point when philanthropy to the poor needs to come in; and even things out for you spiritually.