As socialism and “democratic socialism” see a renewed rise in popularity, the claim that Jesus was a socialist (or that He endorsed socialism by implication, at the least) has seen a similar growth.

There’s a heavy amount of irony here, as those who use this argument are largely the same folks who insist that biblical morality shouldn’t be used to craft societal standards. But that’s another topic for another day.

However, the socialists are correct when they say Jesus cared for the poor. One of the strongest teaching sections of Jesus’ entire ministry comes in Matthew 25, where He tells His followers that if they don’t care for “the least of these,” He will dismiss them at the judgment because He never knew them.

In Luke 4 He quoted from Isaiah 61:1-2 to tell those listening that He was the fulfillment of that prophecy that promised good news to the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed.

Jesus cared for the poor and taught that His true followers would do the same. But He (and the rest of the Bible) make it clear that it’s just as important how you give. And that’s where the split with socialism begins.

Jesus’ concern for the poor and socialists’ concern for the poor differ greatly on two key points.

First, Jesus expected His followers to give voluntarily. Socialists rely on coercion. Jesus never forced anyone to care for the poor. He simply explained to His followers that to be disciples of His, they would do what He did, and part of that included caring for the poor. He never made any attempt to seize the property of others and redistribute it. Socialists, on the other hand, have the goal of using government force to take money away from the wealthy to give to the poor.

Second, Jesus expected His followers to care for the poor with their own money. Socialists always build their plans on taking money from someone else – the wealthy, “the 1%,” etc.Jesus didn’t say “Find a way to take somebody else’s money to give to the poor.” There is no kindness in that, no sacrifice, no charity. Just force and bureaucratic power, two things Jesus always rejected. Instead, He expected that His followers would share as they were able, and that’s exactly what they did. In Acts 2 and Acts 4, those who had prospered sold what they had to give to those in need. And, once again, they did so voluntarily

Beyond these two foundational differences, socialism isn’t in line with other biblical principles for giving, either. God wants us to be cheerful givers. In fact, 2 Corinthians 9:7 directly contrasts the cheerful giving God wants with giving “under compulsion,” the exact kind of coerced, compelled giving socialism demands. It’s important that we give of what we have, but it also matters how we give. 

Further, the tenth commandment tells us that coveting other people’s property is wrong (Exodus 20:17). Regardless of why we want it or how we intend to use it, it’s a violation of God’s law to want to take someone else’s possessions. We can certainly petition those who have much wealth to help others and try to convince them of the need to share what they have for good causes, but coveting their money and making plans to forcibly take it isn’t remotely the same thing.

Though I personally strongly disagree with socialism, I do believe that many of its advocates have a heart for the poor that is admirable, even Christ-like. But that doesn’t make their methods Christ-like. It’s important that we let Jesus speak for Himself and align ourselves with who He is rather than adapting Him to our political agendas.