What does the Bible say about collectivism?

collectivism
Question: "What does the Bible say about collectivism?"

Answer:
Collectivism is an approach to decision-making that presumes benefits for a group are more important than benefits for an individual. In other words, collectivism says the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As with any human philosophy, that idea can be used for good or turned into an excuse for abuse. The Bible presents a positive view of collectivism, yet it also powerfully speaks to the value of the individual. A moderate view of collectivism is compatible with Scripture. Extreme approaches are not.

The Bible contains examples of collectivism. In some cases, the Bible describes collectivist behavior without requiring it or even endorsing it. Examples of this are Acts 2:44 and Acts 4:32. In other places, Scripture instructs individuals to place the needs of others above their own, such as in Philippians 2:3 and Romans 12:10. The general theme of Christian ethics is self-sacrificial love of others (Ephesians 5:2). It could be said that Jesus’ death on the cross was the ultimate expression of collectivism, as He endured great personal suffering for the sake of many other people (Romans 5:15–19).

So, collectivism has a certain level of biblical support. In some instances, it’s scriptural to give precedence to the health and well-being of a group over the health and well-being of a single person. This is part of the purpose behind church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:13) and the entire purpose of criminal punishments, including the death penalty (Romans 13:3–4; Exodus 21:12). Individuals have rights and value, but so does the larger society—which, of course, is comprised of valuable individuals with rights.

However, collectivism can be taken too far. The same concept of self-sacrifice and preference for others means “the many” have a moral obligation not to take advantage of “the few.” That applies whether the individuals in question are perceived as advantaged or disadvantaged. Scripture does not support the idea of taking from the wealthy simply because the more numerous group wants their money (Matthew 21:33–41; 25:14–30). Nor does it allow the more numerous able-bodied to abuse or neglect those with handicaps (James 1:27; Zechariah 7:8–10).

Given that context, it seems Scripture endorses a collectivist attitude in some matters, but that attitude is meant to be expressed on an individual, personal, and voluntary level. God expects people to act in the best interests of others—but what’s really in everyone’s best interests might not be the same as what’s popular or what’s demanded by the culture. It’s key to realize that morality and decision-making are given an individualist character in the Bible, even if the moral ideal is to make collectivist-friendly decisions.

The most catastrophic abuses of collectivism occur when the “needs of the many” becomes an absolute ideal. So long as some policy, procedure, or law can be passed off as beneficial for “the many,” a society expressing unreasonable collectivism will endure it. This is especially dangerous politically: great evils, including genocide, have often been perpetrated in the name of a “greater good.” Ironically, an extreme approach to collectivism always winds up benefitting a few powerful individuals. Virtually every modern tyrant has appealed to collectivism to seize power, and dictators regularly portray their authoritarianism as necessary for the benefit of the nation as a whole.

Ultimately, collectivism and individualism are at odds only because of human sin. In a perfectly godly world, that which is good for the individual is also good for the many. Christian ethics reflects a passing version of this idea. When the many show compassion and sacrificial love to the few, it results in a deeper valuing of human life and a more just and loving society. When the few show humility and sacrificial love to the many, it results in a deeper appreciation of God’s influence and allows unique needs to be met. Only in eternity, surrounded by those entirely attuned to the will of God (1 John 3:1–3), can both collectivism and individualism be expressed completely and without contradiction.

Recommended Resource: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by Richards & O'Brien

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