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Thinking Christianly About Economics

October 31, 2011
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Your immediate response may be, “What does Christianity have to do with economics?” In response, I would say: everything, if you think of economics as the system and means of production and exchange whereby people meet their own and each other’s essential needs.

Lest anyone presume otherwise, to think “Christianly” about these subjects does not imply that the Christian perspective must align with Republican, Democratic, or Libertarian political positions. Christian theology transcends all of these and to be fair, each may include—to one degree or another—aspects of Christian economic ideas and philosophy. However, as Christians our faith and worldview should inform our moral, political, and economic views, not vice versa.

To be sure, there is a debate raging in this country about the nature of economics and, more specifically, the role of government in promoting and/or achieving economic prosperity. 

Add to this an increasingly polarized and hostile political culture, pervasive corruption among government and private sectors, costly and increasingly pointless wars, not to mention the rapid erosion of historic moral norms. It isn’t surprising that Americans are deeply divided, confused, frustrated, and angry.

On the topic of economics, Americans (including many Christians) range—either consciously or unwittingly—between out-and-out Marxism on the one hand, to free market capitalism on the other, and various iterations of democratic socialism in between. Some are convinced that increased government control and regulation of the market will halt the greed and corruption that has become all too commonplace on Wall Street and in private enterprise. Additionally, many believe that increased government control will yield greater economic equity between socioeconomic classes. 

In contrast, many believe that increased government interference only accommodates different and greater forms of corruption while it restrains creativity, innovation, and productivity. They believe furthermore that government economic schemes and interference with free markets generally limit the earning capacity of all and consign people to dependency and poverty by restricting human potential and opportunity. I confess that I fall into the latter category—not because I am a “capitalist” but because my Christian faith shapes my views of creation, mankind, and work.   

Frankly, I find most people’s convictions are driven by emotion more than any coherent economic or moral philosophy. Therefore, given the enormous impact on human persons that economics carries, it is important that Christians offer sound moral and philosophical guidance on the nature and means of human economic activity. 

What qualifies Christianity to speak on economics? Simply put, to properly understand economics, you must begin with a proper understanding of man. This is where most alternative worldviews immediately diverge. Rev. Robert A. Sirico, writing in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, offers a helpful starting point:

The Genesis account of creation tells us that from the beginning, humanity was created to work. God puts Adam in the garden to “work and watch over it.” The Scripture provides an insight into our nature: We are all, man and woman, called into this life to find our vocation, the work that is uniquely ours and contributes to the flourishing of the wider community. 

At the center of all economic activity is human productivity; God himself calls us to be productive (see Genesis 1:28). That being said, we must devise a system that seeks to balance certain essential interests. That would include a system that fosters the best quality and most efficient means of production (i.e., excellence in all things; see Ecc. 9:10, 1 Cor. 10:31). 

More than any other economic system, free markets encourage quality and efficiencies by means of competition. The best and most affordable wins the loyalty of the consumer. In competition, both the interests of producer and consumer remain in closer balance. The free market producer must provide what people want or need at a price people are able and willing to pay. Centralized economies diminish or eliminate this essential competitive condition. 

Our economic system must include the promotion and enforcement of fair means of exchange and reward (see Prov. 20:23). Here again, competition proves vital. While the unscrupulous do sometimes succeed in a free market, once discovered the market will quickly punish swindlers; they rarely endure for long. Essential, however, are the rule of law and the enforcement of laws that protect consumers from misrepresentations, fraud, and abuse, as well as unfair competitive advantages. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our economic system must seek to render the production of goods and services subordinate to man rather than making man subordinate (or slave) to the production of goods and services. 

Since man bears the image of God and has been given authority over creation (see Genesis 1:26–30), he is not to be subjected to the creation but rather to function as steward over the resources created by God. In other words, man is not reducible to a cog in the machine but rather creator and master of the machine. Work that reduces man to a mere tool of production degrades the dignity of both work and man. Similarly, an economic strategy that reduces man to an object of charity, dependent upon the state, degrades the dignity of man.  

Wherever man suffers subordination to work (toil) or is compelled by force to work for others, we are reminded of the Fall. However, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus—the Messiah—inaugurates the in-breaking reign of God. As God’s people, we are to be a “sign and foretaste” of his kingdom to come—resisting the effects of the Fall whenever and wherever we can and commending, by argument and example, the righteous standards of the kingdom.  

Free markets offer inherent support for the dignity of man by driving innovation and ingenuity, making labor less burdensome and therefore more efficient. This is why we created the yoke and placed it upon the ox—not on our children. Freedom in the marketplace further contributes to the dissolution of social, racial, and economic boundaries that otherwise constrain human productivity. 

Finally, freedom in the marketplace encourages the creative capacity and dreams of the willing—through the promise of reward—to innovate and improve upon the production and delivery of goods and services that benefit others. Thus they are willing to take on great risks, believing that any reward will be theirs and no claim can be made upon it by king or tyrant. In such a system, albeit far from perfect in this fallen world, human dignity abounds, flourishing spreads further and poverty diminished. 

© 2011 by S. Michael Craven

Michael's weekly commentary, Truth in Culture, is published every Monday on Crosswalk.com, Christianity.com, and The Christian Post. Subscribe via email or RSS.

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Responses
Response from : John Daniels  

October 31, 2011 4:53 PM
 

I appreciate that first of all you acknowledge that the whole gamut of political belief is represented in Christendom, and that you also point to the dark side of free market capitalism. Nevertheless, I would sincerely question your final sentence in summing up. Where profit, and only profit is the driving motive, human dignity does not always abound - sadly often the opposite. Indeed it was largely evangelical christian movements of the 18th and 19th centuries which pushed back against the natural course of a free market profit-orientated industrial revolution in order to retrieve human dignity, and alleviate poverty.

Free markets in what may be termed a 'medieval' type society differ vastly from free markets in a modern economy, and while your points in favor of the Biblical basis commending such an economic system are well taken, they would seem to apply more to an agrarian society rather than the age in which we live. Free markets may well 'drive innovation and ingenuity …etc.', but on the supply side, it is all to common to find companies who, for instance, "up anchor", outsource to find cheaper labour, and end up decimating communities. Yes, one could argue that over-regulation could encourage such action, but at the very foundation of that is the bottom line of profit which will trump every other consideration. Why is expenditure on healthcare in the US almost double that of any other westernized country, why do thousands and thousands go bankrupt through medical bills, have insurance pulled away through 'recessions' etc., and why do healthcare outcomes / statistics pale in world healthcare tables? Because free market profit drives it!

I personally feel the warning against "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" is the appropriate way to look at economics from a Christian perspective. The private sector has strengths and weaknesses as does the public sector, and Godless government of the right is as bad as Godless government of the left. Good government, small or large is the point - both at the local or national level.

The Apostle Paul was able to commend both that those who can, should work (2 Thes. 3:10) but also that resources be shared when needed (2 Cor 8:13-15) … and if the first scripture I mentioned can be pulled out of its church fellowship context and liberally aired by those on the "right" - as it frequently is - so can the second! Similarly, if we believe that in the beginning God 'created humanity to work', we also have to acknowledge that in instituting the year of Jubillee (Lev 25:10-17), and in many other scriptures regarding personal wealth, integrity in business, and authority, he very specifically regulated unbridled free enterprise.


 
Response from : Robert Vroom  

October 31, 2011 9:18 PM
 

I agree that free market is the best system... given an overall Christian framework. As the United States moves further from this base, and toward a secular, atheistic society however, I do not know how this will continue to work. As people start to see morality as something subjective... once they start seeing people as cogs in the machine... the system falls apart. There must be some sort of moral law at work, if people do not see it as provided by God anymore, it seems we may need to start seeing it as provided by government. This idea scares me quite a bit, but looking at the way things are going today, I don't see much choice to greater government regulation.


 

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