Scott Rae, professor of Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University
Why do pastors need to be knowledgeable about work and economics? In a previous article, we introduced this subject and suggested that there are very few areas of our lives that don’t involve economics. Even our eternal salvation has something to do with economics, since the Bible actually describes the elements of our salvation in economic terms. In addition, life on this side of eternity matters greatly to God. If we refuse to separate the sacred from the secular, and thus affirm that all of life is spiritual, there are few ― if any ― areas of our lives that are not impacted by economics.
Economics is fundamentally about how we, as communities, order our lives together. Much of this process has significant moral overtones. How the benefits and burdens of a society are distributed, and on what basis, is principally a moral issue. But general statements like this aren’t enough if we want to encourage the next generation of pastors to connect the lives of their people with a spiritual understanding of economics.
Connecting the dignity of daily work with pastoral ministry is an obvious starting point. Since the term “ministry” (diakonia) is most commonly translated “service,” all believers are in full-time service, having entered into it the moment they came to faith. Paul asserts that what goes on in the workplace is service to Christ (Col. 3:23-24). Paul affirms that the work itself is part of one’s service to Christ, or part of one’s ministry.
One of the most obvious ways to specifically connect pastoral ministry to economics comes out of the economic context of Scripture. The Bible directly addresses economic life in numerous places in both the Old and New Testaments. In addition, much of its teaching is set in the specific economic context of the ancient world. Therefore, one of the most important reasons for pastors to be economically literate is so that they can preach and teach the Bible accurately.
A second reason economics is important to pastors is that economics is part of the doctrine of creation, specifically the dominion mandate of Genesis 1. Sir Brian Griffiths argues that the dominion mandate suggests “responsible wealth creation.” That means human beings using the wisdom of God – which is engraved into his creation and made available by means of general revelation and common grace – to exercise the creativity, innovation, and the entrepreneurial traits that are part of being made in God’s image. For example, I have a longtime family friend who’s the chairman of the board for a company with Nobel-Prize-winning technology invented by a Cal Tech professor. The professor wants to give the technology away. My friend’s primary task with this very academic professor is to show him that the most productive way to promote the technology is through the mechanism of a profitable company. This provides the best, most efficient way of distributing the technology to the people who can best put it to work. Some economic conditions are more conducive than others to human flourishing, to the effective exercise of human dominion, and to people realizing the dignity of work. The Bible does not directly address modern economic systems as such, but it gives us important principles and virtues that are to govern economic life. One of our ongoing theological tasks is to more fully spell out the implications of the dominion mandate for economics.
A basic understanding of economics is further important so that churches can productively help the poor. In their bestselling book “When Helping Hurts,” Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert maintain that an understanding of economics is important for churches, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and governments that provide aid. Such knowledge is necessary to ensure that this “help” actually benefits the poor – allowing them to become self-supporting instead of more dependent. One of the reasons why trillions of dollars in foreign aid have been so ineffective in helping the poor around the world is because churches, NGOs, and governments neglect basic, common-sense economics: incentives matter, work and exchange are fruitful, and there are conditions that must be met for the poor to become self-supporting. These conditions include the rule of law, encouragement of creativity and innovation, and access to capital.
Finally, pastors need to pay attention to the economy because it is a primary crucible for spiritual formation. Most of the people who attend our churches spend the majority of their waking hours at work. God is forming their spiritual lives in the workplace in profound ways, and we can help them be attentive to this. God is working out virtues of service, perseverance, dealing with adversity, diligence, and discipline, to name a few. For example, God used the marketplace to draw one executive into a deeper, more dependent relationship with him. He put his experience like this:
Through that painful experience, God completely reoriented my perspective of time. He showed me that my call was not to live in my plans for the future or memories of the past, but to be fully present to the present moment. I began to see each moment as a sacrament. It became a kind of second conversion for me. The remarkable part was that after coming into this recognition and confessing that I had made achievement my god (which took months to recognize), I came into a place of profound joy and freedom. The truth was I HAD made achievement my god. I lived for the adrenaline rush of success, but I had been blind to this truth for decades. As God revealed this reality to me through the pain and the failure, it set me free. As much as I pleaded for him to do otherwise, God didn’t deliver me from my circumstances. He delivered me through them. . . But through our surrender to him, Jesus draws us into this profound intimacy with Him and a freedom and joy I had heard about but had never really tasted. Out of a darkness that grew blacker than black for me, God brought me into a freedom and a lightness of soul I didn’t know were possible. It is a country I’d only rarely visited before, and, if I had it was only for brief periods. I experienced God through the pain of [my failed business venture in] Brazil. Nothing the world has to offer compares to the inexpressible joy that comes from experiencing the tender intimacy with God for which we are designed.
For this executive, the workplace was the crucible God used to shape his soul. If pastors neglect the workplace, we are missing one of the principal avenues for spiritual formation for God’s people. God is meeting men and women in the workplace and shaping their souls. Work and economics matter deeply to the life of the follower of Christ. Our task in equipping the next generation of pastors is to enable them to help others see how God is moving in their work-lives, and mold those individuals to become more like Christ.