When do some Christians justify stealing?

The Eighth Commandment and socially acceptable sins

June 23, 2021

I have two clear memories of committing theft before the age of 3 ½ . I know what my age was because we moved to Texas the summer after my third birthday, and the memories are definitely from Alabama. The first act of thievery occurred at the local hardware store, where I pilfered a small ceramic hook from a bin placed at my eye level. It was shaped like a swan. So, obviously, I took it. The second act occurred at the nextdoor neighbor’s house. I helped myself to a bracelet, the kind made of elastic and plastic jewels that usually comes in a set with a tiara and a ring. One does not conceal such a piece of glam, and thus, my mother noticed it on my skinny wrist and promptly ordered me to return it. She had also spotted the swan before we made it to the parking lot. 

Here is the moral of my story: if you’re going to steal, be better at it than I was. 

No, the moral of my story is that we determine at a young age that ill-gotten gain is gain, nonetheless. The lure of stealing is that we might gain “something for nothing.” But all stealing is gain at someone else’s unwilling expense, whether that expense is small or large. 

What we steal 

Against all logic, Christians steal like everyone else, seeking to gain at someone else’s expense. If only we could learn from Jacob’s story that God has already given us birthright and blessing in Christ. Innumerable riches. In him we have an imperishable inheritance that is kept in heaven for us. But heaven is annoyingly invisible, so we turn to the visible and find that we would just as soon store up treasure here. 

We may succeed in avoiding the more sociopathic forms of stealing, only to fail in avoiding the more socially acceptable ones. You know the ones I mean, the ones everybody does. I speak as a person who routinely pulls dozens of pens out of the bottom of my bag, none of which I purchased, nor do I even remember taking. Please don’t tell my mom.

These are the kinds of stealing that we wink at or give no thought to, scarcely even identifying them as sinful. They are the ones we can most easily convince ourselves are of no harm to anyone, so why not? What sets them apart is that we believe them to be victimless. One of the most common locations for such stealing is the workplace. 

Studies show that people justify workplace theft because a corporation doesn’t have feelings. People who would never steal money from the wallet of a supervisor will fudge an expense report or steal office supplies without a thought. They steal time by scrolling social media during work hours or by taking sick leave when they are not sick. Because the company is less personal, a crime against it does not feel like an act of violence or contempt. It feels victimless. And because it is unlikely we will get caught, we feel safe in our minor trespasses. 

Another popular place to secure a five-finger discount is a hotel room. Hotels routinely lose towels, robes, and even sheets to guests who would no doubt have taken the lamps if they hadn’t been bolted down. Which is exactly why they are, by the way. Again, because a hotel doesn’t have feelings, we reason no real harm is done. And because we will be miles away by the time a towel is discovered to have gone missing, we feel safe in swiping it. 

But think how differently we behave when staying in the home of a friend or relative. Far from stealing the linens, we take care to make the bed and fold the towel before we depart. The reason for this change of character has everything to do with the two critical factors we have noted: relationship and likelihood of getting caught. We know and are known by the owner. Whereas a hotel may not notice the loss, our mothers probably would. And because we care about our mothers, we do not trespass their property rights. 

This is important for Christians to pay attention to. If we struggle to attribute property rights to a corporation or a hotel because it is disembodied, how might we struggle to attribute property rights to an invisible God? And if we mistakenly believe that an unseen God is also unseeing, how might we be tempted to trespass all manner of property rights? 

No such thing as petty theft 

Indeed, the God who sees our hearts most certainly sees our hands. We are caught red-handed at every turn, whether the boss ever catches us with a stash of staplers or the hotel ever catches us with a trove of towels. Not only does God see us, he knows us. We are known by him. Our behavior with regard to the property of others reveals how well we know him. Do we care that he knows us? Or do we regard him as distant and impersonal, disinterested and blind? If we do, we will be prone to taking what is not ours. Ultimately, everything belongs to him. We are guests in his creation, prone to stealing from other guests. 

But is it truly necessary to call ourselves out for minor offenses? Yes, make restitution for someone’s ox or donkey, but office supplies? Just as the sins of murder and adultery were the end result of a progression of “lesser sins,” so also theft starts with small infractions and grows to larger ones (or to a larger number of small infractions). Taking what is not ours shows contempt for the rightful owner. We dare not believe that God does not see or care about these small acts of treachery. For Jesus has told us otherwise: 

One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (Luke 16:10–12) 

Want to be found faithful in much? Begin by being faithful in the little things. To do so will require belief in a relational God who sees. Jacob’s theft spoke of his wrong belief that God was disinterested and blind. Arguably, so did that most famous first theft of fruit in the garden. Eve was the first human to learn that the thief comes to kill, steal, and destroy. In her story, he came scaled and slithering, lisping lies. And she, formed to bear the image of God, chose to bear instead the image of the thief. But God was neither disinterested nor blind, nor, thankfully, without pity. For though the thief came to kill, steal, and destroy, Christ was given to put an end to taking. He came to prevent loss, but also to provide abundance (John 10:10). And when we follow his example, we, too, turn our hearts toward providing. The thief takes, the Christ-follower gives. 

Content taken from Ten Words to Live By by Jen Wilkin, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.

Jen Wilkin

Jen Wilkin is an author and Bible teacher from Dallas, Texas. She has organized and led studies for women in home, church, and parachurch contexts. An advocate for Bible literacy, her passion is to see others become articulate and committed followers of Christ, with a clear understanding of why they … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24