Economics is the area of study that relates to the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services within a society. It also deals with our understanding of economic systems and gives us knowledge of how to effectively manage them. There are those who believe that economics is an area that Christians ought to stay away from. But the fact is, it is something that relates vitally to the material world that we live in and, as such, cannot be pushed aside. The real question is: How should Christians relate to this aspect of human experience?
How Do the Four Worldviews Approach Economics?
As we begin to explore the topic of economics, we once again come face to face with the understanding that every worldview has its own way of dealing with the subject. Based on the presuppositions of each worldview, the way of dealing with economics will be very different. Before moving on to focus specifically on a Christian view of economics, it will be worth our while to gain some context by looking at the way each of the worldviews deals with the topic.
A Naturalistic understanding of economics begins with the belief that there is no supernatural existence. As a result, the only principles which exist to guide economics are those which advance the goals of human society. Based on Naturalistic thought, the species (society) rather than the individual takes precedent. The tendency that emerges from that is an approach to doing economics which tries to promote the welfare of society above the welfare of the individual. This generally involves some kind of central guidance by those who control the purse strings of society.
Animistic economics generally does not require a complex economic system as true Animistic societies generally exist as very small tribal or family units. These small groups tend to be self sufficient in gathering the resources they need and trading with other groups for goods they don’t have themselves.
Far Eastern Thought
Far Eastern Thought economics is based on the concept that material reality has no ultimate value as it is an illusory expression of the ultimate impersonal reality. Each person is born into their appropriate place in each lifetime and is responsible for living out life rightly in that position. As each person rightly takes care of the responsibilities associated with their place in life, there will end up being a selfless system in which everyone’s needs are met.
Theistic economics begins with the understanding that God is the owner of his entire creation. God, then, allocates gifts and talents to individuals who are responsible, as God’s stewards, to be productive and use the production they generate and receive in ways which accomplish God’s purpose through their lives.
Christianity and Economics
There is a degree of dispute among various groups of Christians as to what economic system is most compatible with Biblical teachings. Of course, the Bible is not about economics, it is about how to know God. But there are principles taught in the Bible which encourage us to think and act in particular ways. This naturally leads to the question: What kind of economic system flows most naturally out of Biblical principles?
Free Enterprise or Something Else?
The two most prominent contenders which are proposed to answer this question from a Biblical perspective are capitalism and socialism. Most Christian churches promote a form of theology which is most compatible with a capitalistic economic system. There are some, though, such as churches which follow liberation theology and those based on theological liberalism, which believe that a socialistic approach is more Biblical.
Capitalism is based on the principle that individuals should be afforded the opportunity to freely exchange goods in a market where regulation is minimized. Socialism is based on the concept that a group of central planners should exercise control over the market and decide how goods should be distributed.
Those who look to the Bible to promote socialism generally point to Acts 2:44-45 which tells of Christians in the early church sharing all things in common. The problem with this, though, is that what is described is not a promotion of socialism where all things were put into a common pot and divvied out by a central planning committee. It was a situation where each person freely shared all they had from the base of their own homes and goods.
As a general principle, the Bible supports a system which respects private property. Scripture passages from both the Old and New Testaments promote the concept that individuals should be responsible for their property and be good stewards of it before God (see Proverbs 31, Isaiah 65:21-22, Jeremiah 32:43-44, Acts 5:1-4 and Ephesians 4:28).
Property and Greed
Christians who promote socialism assert that the public ownership of all property prevents the greed and envy which private ownership tends to create. This, though, hardly reflects reality. Greed and envy are reflections of our fallen nature and exist just as strongly in socialistic economies as in any other. Additionally, a socialistic approach to economics breeds a mentality where there is no incentive to put forth one’s best effort. If a person is going to receive the same reward whether they put forth effort or not, most people are not going to work hard. Slothfulness is the inevitable result and it has been profoundly on display in every economy which has ever attempted to implement a socialist economy. Putting forth one’s best effort is applauded while a slothful lifestyle is roundly panned in Biblical theology.
Regarding ownership of private property, both the Old and New Testaments allow for this and teach that it is the believer’s responsibility to be a good steward of that property before God. The right to own property emerges from the duty to work. We see it even from the beginning when God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and established that they would face a life of work.
The concept of stewardship is key in all of this. The Bible teaches that the property we own is not really ours. It is a sacred trust from God, who is the ultimate owner. We are responsible to manage the property we own based on the desires and purposes of God. When private ownership is understood in this context, the greed and envy so decried by socialist minded people becomes a mute point. It leads people to strive for excellence and to serve others.
Competition Within an Economy
The Bible is also big on promoting economic competition. It clearly teaches that workers deserve their pay and that those who work hard should be rewarded. It also asserts that those who are lazy will remain poor (see Proverbs 10:4, 14:23 and Luke 10:7).
A socialist understanding of economics asserts that competition is bad because it promotes greed and envy. This view is based on the concept that there are limited resources and that competing for them is counterproductive.
This can certainly be true in situations where resources are truly scarce and when everyone is focused on self. But capitalism is also capable of encouraging cooperation. As different individuals focus on producing specific goods and services of value to others, individuals benefit as they sell their goods. But all others also benefit as more resources are inserted into the market. Except in the most extreme cases, there is not really a limit on the amount of resources available, and a free market economy encourages people to find and produce ever more to benefit the entire society.
Economics and Social Justice
The socialist approach to economics also believes that social justice to the poor demands that everyone share limited resources equally. This is expressed by the idea that no matter how much or how little an individual produces, everyone should end up with the same amount of goods. It is considered that “this is only fair.”
But this is certainly not a Biblical principle. Paul, himself, in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 stated, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” Fairness is not a matter of showing favor to the poor, but of providing equal opportunity to make ones own way.
What has happened here is that the very idea of justice has been turned on its ear. Justice is about equality under the law, not equality of income. It is about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. No one should ever be denied impartial justice under the law, regardless of income or social status. They should also be given an equal opportunity to achieve. But this kind of equality does not guarantee equal results. Based on interests, gifts, life situation, effort, etc., some will achieve beyond others. This fact does not mean that the low achievers have not received justice.
Wealth Distribution in Society
For socialists, poverty is believed to exist because the rich have exploited the poor. That is, the poor don’t have a chance because the rich keep them down. To overcome this, it is asserted that wealth must be redistributed – taken from those who have and given to those who do not have. This is primarily promoted through government action as those with greater resources are taxed more and the proceeds distributed to those with less through various government programs.
But the fact is, there are many causes of poverty. Exploitation can certainly be a contributor, but other factors too, such as accidents, illness, laziness, and lack of intelligence or skills, are also sources. Issues which relate to causes of poverty cannot solely be blamed on capitalism, or any other economic system. The fact is, when capitalism is practiced and guided by Christian principles, the rich become the ones who aid the poor by constantly expanding the pool of wealth. This results in more jobs and a higher level of income for more and more people.
Ultimately, the supply of wealth is not limited. New wealth can be generated through creativity and hard work. The source of wealth is not static. Generally, a free enterprise system is most effective in promoting the creation of wealth. And when it happens, everyone from the top to the bottom of the economic ladder benefits. Most people who tend to become poor and stay poor do so because of a wrong attitude about work, not because of a lack of opportunities to achieve. When injustice does exist which limits these opportunities, the remedy is not to redistribute the wealth of those who have been successful, but to tear down the barriers to opportunity.
There are, of course, those who, for very legitimate reasons, fall through the cracks because of illness, bad home situations, or various life circumstances beyond their control. In these cases, it is certainly appropriate for society to help these folks. But the goal is not to give them a permanent handout. Rather, it is to help them out of their situation so that they can take advantage of the opportunities in society and become contributors themselves.
Economics and Freedom
There is one more thing that ought to be mentioned. A socialist economic system requires a small number of people to plan the economy and distribute the goods and services of society. This necessitates a very strong central government which holds all of the economic and political power. The people who run the government basically become all powerful. In that circumstance, if those in power do not have the best interest of the populace in mind, many bad things can happen. As we look at the historical record, these kind of very bad things have happened in virtually every socialist society that has ever been attempted. One only need look at the former Soviet Union, Communist China, Nazi Germany, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Castro’s Cuba and so on.
Capitalism, on the other hand, promotes just the opposite – freedom. That is because a strong central government which controls the purse strings is not necessary. Citizens are free to spend their own resources as they please. In this circumstance, the power lies more in the people than in the government.
Economics and God’s Will
The main thing that must not be left out of the mix when discussing a Biblical view of economics is where God fits into all of this. It is very possible to follow principles which naturally flow from a Biblical point of view but do it in a way which is not Christian. In fact, this is the root cause of all of the abuses that happen in a free market economy and lead to the criticisms of those who advocate for other systems. A Christian must always keep in mind that everything in existence belongs to God. The fact that he allows us to be stewards over parts of it does not take away from that principle. Everything belongs to God and, as believers, God has entrusted various parts of the creation into our hands to manage for him. Every resource that a Christian uses ought to be managed in such a way as to promote the purpose of God.
A Christian view of economics embraces an approach which places responsibility in the hands of the individual, rather than in a central government. It provides the greatest opportunity for people to succeed and grow. It puts the responsibility for accomplishing God’s purpose for the world where the Bible says it ought to be – in the hands of individuals. We are responsible for being good stewards of God’s resources as we serve him and serve others.
© 2010 Freddy Davis