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The Right of Personal Property

There is a misconception about the Christians in the New Testament Church that comes from Acts 4:32-37. In this passage, the Church is described as having "one heart and soul" and "everything in common." Some have argued that Christians should live communally, having no personal property. In recent years, with the rise of secular systems of thought, such as socialism and communism, more people have sought to argue this point. The argument goes something like this, shouldn't we seek to emulate the New Testament church? Shouldn't we, as Christians, seek to emulate Jesus, who had no house or property? While Christians should indeed emulate Christ and the church should indeed emulate the church in scripture, we need to understand what we are emulating in context. Part of that context is the Ten Commandments. These ten statements about how people are to live their lives in relation to God and others have a lot to say on the subject of personal property.

The Eighth Commandment

In the eighth commandment, we read, "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15). This should be fairly straightforward. The command is short and to the point. Do not steal. But the question arises. What does it mean to steal? When the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism came to this question, they understood that there is more than one way to steal something. So they write;

God forbids not only outright theft and robbery[1] but also such wicked schemes and devices as false weights and measures, deceptive merchandising, counterfeit money, and usury;[2] we must not defraud our neighbor in any way, whether by force or by show of right.[3] In addition, God forbids all greed[4] and all abuse or squandering of His gifts.[5] - Answer to Q. 110

To start with, the commandment forbids the outright taking of something that does not belong to you. In order for this to be true though, there has to be something that belongs to another person, or to put it another way, personal property must exist for there to be such a thing as stealing. We have things that are ours. They come to us in various ways. We come into the ownership of land through purchase or inheritance. We earn a wage by fulfilling outside of an employment contract. We trade someone, either money or another item, to gain an item from them. In scripture, various things, mostly land, are given to specific people or groups by God, who is the true owner of all things. But because of our sin, we are not satisfied with what we have. We desire the things of others and sometimes go as far as to take them.

More than one way to steal

But there is more than one way to take something. You could take something by force, what we would typically think of as stealing, but you can also take something through less obvious means. The Catechism lists some interesting ones. It talks about wicked schemes and devices such as false weights and measures. This would be where someone says they will sell you a pound of flour for five dollars but then takes for money and only gives you 3/4 of a pound. Counterfeit money should be easy to understand. It is money that is not genuine. Money that is not really money. One that we may not be familiar with the name of, though we are familiar with the concept, is usury. Someone who does this is what we might call a loan shark. Someone who loans money at an unreasonable rate of interest. All stealing is not force. The sneakiest kind of thief is the one who gets his victim to think it is part of his responsibility to give. An example of this would be requiring people to pay for something they already own. Insert reference to tax code here.

Our Responsiblity

Another example of stealing is in the last part of the catechism answer. It is greed and abuse or squandering of his gifts. He is something we do not think of as stealing, but it is. Our gifts, that is, our abilities, skills, talents, and such, come from God, and as Christians, they are given for the building up of the body of Christ, that is, the church. So when we do not take the time to develop those gifts or seek to use them for greedy gain. Then we are stealing, not from a person, but from God. When God gives his people something, it is for a reason. You have property to live on and to provide for your family, but you are also commanded to provide for the orphan and the widow. You have a gift for building things, and so you should seek to use that to help the body of Christ. In short, do everything that you do for the glory of God. Stealing does not glorify God in any of its forms.


Like with all the other commandments of scripture, the negative do not, has an implied do. The command to not steal has in it the implied protect personal property. Protect your neighbor's property and your own. Not in a selfish way, seeking only to serve yourself, but seeking to glorify God, seeking to use what you have for his purpose. It is given to you by God and should be protected, but not at the expense of building up the kingdom. At the beginning of this post, I mentioned the story at the end of Acts 4, where the members of the church held things in common. There is a follow-up story that gives context to what it means to do that. At the beginning of chapter 5, we read about Ananias and Saphira, who sold some property and gave the proceeds to the Apostles. In their pride and greed, they lie about the amount and hold some back. The issue is not holding some back though. The issue is lying. They claimed to give all the proceeds but only gave part. Peter responds by saying it was all yours and you did not have to give it. They could have very well kept some back for whatever reason. Perhaps they wanted to leave some for a child's inheritance or to have savings in case of something in the future. They would have been well within their right to do so. But instead, they stole from God by claiming they had given all. We should seek to be honest in all our feelings, protecting the people around us and what God has given to us, so that we might use it for God's glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Ex. 22:1; I Cor. 5:9, 10; 6:9, 10. [2] Deut. 25:13-16; Ps. 15:5; Prov. 11:1; 12:22; Ezek. 45:9-12; Luke 6:35. [3] Mic. 6:9-11; Luke 3:14; James 5:1-6. [4] Luke 12:15; Eph. 5:5. [5] Prov. 21:20; 23:20, 21; Luke 16:10-13.

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