I still remember how startled I was the first time I read the section of the Westminster Shorter Catechism that deals with the Decalogue. I am embarrassed to say that it had never occurred to me before that implicit in the negative prohibitions were positive prescriptions. If God forbade murder, He also commanded me to protect life, not merely abstain from taking it. But it was in reference to this Command that I felt the most shock. Even now I can remember the sheepish feeling I had all those years ago when I realized that the ban on theft also naturally entailed a positive command that I lawfully advance both mine and my neighbor’s wealth and “outward estate.” I suspect many other people may be similarly shock by this implication.
Very little reflection is necessary to see the legitimacy of the Westminster’s exposition of this Command. I can only get things in one of two ways: right or wrong, i.e., legally or illegally. Hence when God forbids theft, in any form, He commands that I accumulate whatever possessions I have in a lawful way. And since I am forbidden from taking what belongs to my neighbor, it is implied clearly that he also accumulate wealth in a lawful manner.
With its characteristic wisdom, the Heidelberg Catechism expounds the 8th Command as forbidding, “not only those thefts, and robberies, which are punishable by the magistrate; but he comprehends under the name of theft all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we design to appropriate to ourselves the goods which belong to our neighbour: whether it be by force, or under the appearance of right, as by unjust weights, ells, measures, fraudulent merchandise, false coins, usury, or by any other way forbidden by God; as also all covetousness, all abuse and waste of his gifts.” In his Commentary on The Heidelberg Catechism, author Zachary Ursinus mentions sins such as embezzlement and false advertizing, purposely obscure fine print in contracts, usury and a host of other sins quite characteristic of our own age.
Interestingly enough, Ursinus also stresses the fact that this Command enjoins contentment. God has sovereignly ordained our station in life and therefore we should submissively accept whatever condition He places us in with contentment. This does not mean that we accept poverty with fatalistic resignation, nor does it mean that we fall into greed. Contentment does not exclude work and effort to improve one’s station in life, but it does trust God with the outcome of this work, whether it succeed or not. It is not contentment to refuse help when offered. It may be that God wishes to meet your need through the generosity of your fellow man. This is indeed God’s usual way of helping those in dire need. Too often people read the story of Elijah being fed by ravens and expect things to magically appear on their doorsteps. As one who has spent many years in Christian ministry, I have seen this far too many times.
Ursinus beautifully concludes his exposition of this Command with these words, “If we may not steal, it is necessary that we should posses what properly belongs to us, and that for these reasons: 1. That we may honestly maintain and support ourselves and those depending upon us. 2. That we may have something to contribute towards the preservation of the church. 3. That we may assist in upholding the interests of the state according to our ability. 4. That we may be able to confer benefits upon our friends, and contribute to the relief of the poor and needy.”
Many Christians are rightfully offended by the government’s version of charity or assistance to the needy because it is little more than legislated theft. Theft is the taking of another’s possessions against their will. The fact that it is legislated or even voted on in a democratic society does not make it any less a violation of God’s revealed will. For where do I get the right to vote that the government may take your possessions to give to someone in need? This is what many of the government aid programs actually amount to. I can give away anything I want that is mine, but I have no moral right, even when it is completely legal, to decide that you must do the same.
Contrary to public opinion, you will not find Scripture mandating that it is the Church’s job to alleviate public poverty. The Church’s charity, even in the Old Testament, was always confined to the household of faith. There were plenty of methods in the Old Testament to provide for widows and orphans, but notice carefully that Israel was not supporting Philistine, Amorite and Hittite widows. Paul gave specific instructions that the only widows that were to be put on the Church’s bill were those who had no extended family and were too old to remarry.
The ramifications of this on what James calls pure and undefiled religion is far beyond the scope of this brief article, but it is a subject more Christians would do well to consider. And while I’m on the subject, it would be uncharacteristic of me to neglect to say that the televangelists who constantly whine for money to support their lavish lifestyles are in gross, blatant, and flagrant violation of this Command. None of us should be a party to their sin. The moment people stop sending these clowns money, they will shrivel up and go away. What a day that’ll be!