By Greg Forster
“The Bible is not a book for making the world a better place to go to hell from.” That remark came from a missionary attending an event at an Oikonomia Network seminary. Theological educators in seminaries across the country tell me that they hear similar remarks on a regular basis. Whether it’s finding better ways to help the poor, framing daily work as a place of discipleship, helping Christians become a force for the common good in the economy, or just about anything else, you can always count on one person to raise his hand and ask: “What does this have to do with saving souls?”
C.S. Lewis had a completely different view of this issue in “Mere Christianity.” “If you read history,” he wrote, “you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.” We need a recovery of that insight in the church today.
When that missionary issued his challenge, he had just heard about the Acton Institute’s PovertyCure initiative. Since poverty was the issue at hand, I wanted to ask him which version of the Bible they use in his mission field. The Bible may not be about making the world a better place to go to hell from, but it does say over and over that we should take action to promote the flourishing of the poor and the marginalized. Jay Moon’s article in last month’s newsletter drew our attention to the opportunities God has for us in carrying out that mission.
But suppose the subject had been something else, like the way we do our daily work. Is the answer still simple? Well, the Bible says that work is central to the meaning and purpose of human life, and it constantly admonishes us – in the Old Testament laws and wisdom literature, in the New Testament parables and epistles – to do our daily work as disciples. In previous issues of this newsletter, Michael Wittmer wrote that if we believe what the Bible says, it has to have far-reaching implications for the way we work. Bruce Baker also applied this point to our understanding of business.
The same can be said about the economy at large. The Bible may not be about building a better economy to go to hell from, but it does teach extensively about economic wisdom. In our September newsletter, Scott Rae pointed out that “Jesus had more to say about money and economics than he did about eternity,” and that even biblical descriptions of redemption itself draw upon economic terms.
Once we see that the Bible really does have much to say about work and economics, we can ask deeper questions about that missionary’s challenge. We know salvation and eternity are at the heart of the Christian message, so why does God care so much about the things of this world? And is there a connection between eternal things and the way we deal with work and economics?
Klaus Issler’s article in this month’s newsletter points us in the right direction on those deeper questions. A faithful Christian life must seamlessly integrate biblical views and practices regarding all things. If God claims our lives, he claims the mission of our lives; if he claims our mission, he claims our work and our jobs. We should work in ways that point to God and the eternal. At the same time, the more we look upward and come to know God’s will for us, the more we realize God also wants us looking outward (creatively serving our neighbors) and inward (becoming disciples and transforming the way we work).
Andrew Arndt’s article,which originally ran on the Kern Pastors Network’s website, also helps us see this seamless connection. The gospel tells a story about the meaning of our lives; if our daily work and our economic understanding are not part of that story, the gospel cannot speak to us in the fullness of our humanity. Reflecting on a series of conversations on Tim Keller’s new book on faith and work with people in his church, Arndt shows how this perspective reveals the unity of faithfulness to God and work in the world.
The same seamless unity is represented in the name of our network. The Greek term oikonomia means both “stewardship” and “economics.” To live out the faithful integration that Issler writes about, Christianity needs to break down the dividing wall that tends to separate our spiritual lives from our material lives. We must understand the economy as a place of stewardship, rather than separating our work from our worship.
This integration must happen in each individual person, but it also must apply to social institutions. The termoikonomos is used in the New Testament to refer to both pastors (I Corinthians 4:1) and to the manager of a public treasury (Romans 16:23). There are obviously important differences between the two roles, but both are called to be oikonomai where God has placed them. We cannot become disciples with a seamless faith if we think that pastors are the spiritual “stewards” of God, while people in non-church professions do their work as part of an unspiritual, social system of “economics.”
If you want to see a faithful gospel response to a culture where stewardship and economics are separated, read Luther’s 95 Theses. As Luther states in the very first thesis, “the whole life of believers” must be transformed for God. Therefore, social systems that divide our daily activities into a spiritual category and an unspiritual category must be confronted head-on. Luther objected to the implicit deal that had been struck between clergy and laity; the laypeople do economic work, which is unspiritual but makes money, while in exchange for their money, the clergy provide religious goods and services to meet their spiritual needs. Luther’s theses methodically expose and systematically dismantle this dualism, showing that the gospel stands forthrightly against it.
Pastors who talk as though only church work is spiritual and value laypeople only for the contributions they make to build up the clergy . . . that doesn’t sound like anything that might happen in some of our churches today, does it? The Oikonomia Network is taking a stand with Brother Martin for the dignity, spirituality, and freedom of all God’s workers.
The Bible is not a book for making the world a better place to go to hell from. But it is (among other things) a book for making the world a better place because it belongs to the Lord of heaven. All people who work for the good of the world are honoring and glorifying him. And, in our day as in history, the Christians who think most about the other world are also doing the most good in this one.