Thou shalt not steal (Exodus 20:15).
Throughout time there has been a “social contract” that exists among people within societies. They may not call it a “social contract,” but every society has to have some rules, codified or otherwise, that govern how members of that society interact. One of the pillars of such a “social contract” has always been, is, and always will be a prohibition of stealing. If one cannot have some level of security that one’s possessions will remain one’s own, there can be no trust among members of a society, and where there is no trust, there is chaos. Wherever stealing is pervasive and rampant there is chaos and disorder, a breakdown of society.
Stealing, along with murder and adultery at the least, are elements of the “moral law” that seems to be rather “built-in” to humans. Even if we could somehow justify to ourselves why we could take something from someone else, what happens if somebody takes something of ours? We feel wronged– violated! Such goes to show that morality is not really as relative as some have imagined!
It is therefore unsurprising that a prohibition of stealing is part of the Ten Commandments which God gives to Israel. The command remains in force to this day (Romans 13:9, Ephesians 4:28)!
We are most familiar with stealing in terms of possessions– someone who seizes some form of property to which he or she is not entitled. Petty thieves might shoplift, break into homes and take things, or engage in burglary. Unscrupulous rulers may seize the property of their constituents without sufficient cause or compensation (e.g. 1 Kings 21), or sell off various assets from their nations to benefit themselves and not their people. Most people understand how these forms of stealing are quite wrong.
Yet there are many more examples of stealing than just these. When the time comes to pay taxes, if we claim more deductions than to which we are entitled, or neglect to report some forms of income, we are not only lying but also stealing from the government (Romans 13:7). If we walk off with office supplies, or if we claim to work more hours than we really worked, or spend time idly at work, we are stealing from the company.
We must recognize that there can be different forms of “legal” stealing as well. A company that imposes excessive demands on an employee’s time without sufficient compensation is, in a sense, stealing– taking advantage of the employee’s abilities and times without providing proper compensation. Predatory lenders may exact immoral and unethical amounts of interest from borrowers, or deceive people into borrowing when it is not to their best advantage. Most people understand how Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was a form of stealing, but there were plenty of other characters, all working within the confines of what was “legal,” but still acting in unethical ways in seeking profits without concern for the benefit of those from whom money was made.
All relationships that humans enjoy are based on trust– stealing is one of those things that entirely erodes trust, whether that stealing is reckoned as legal or illegal by a government. This is why God expects believers to work with one another and with those in the world in fairness. Thieves are to stop stealing and work honest labor to have something for the needy (Ephesians 4:28). Employees are to work as to the Lord to the best of their abilities; employers are to treat their employees fairly and justly, remembering that they have a Master in Heaven (Ephesians 6:4-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1).
Paul speaks rightly in Romans 13:8-10: all of our interactions with our fellow man must be dictated by the principle of loving our neighbors as ourselves. We would not want to have anyone steal from us; we would not want to be cheated out of income or the fruit of our efforts. Therefore, we do well to honor our commitments and responsibilities toward the government and our fellow man, not attempting to cheat or steal in any way. Let us love our neighbor as ourselves and seek his benefit!
Ethan R. Longhenry