Monday, April 11, 2011


By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Granted, Freakonomics it’s not. But the title is meant to raise the question – does the Bible have anything to do with Economics? My answer, as you probably expected, is yes…but how that should play out in pastoral ministry may be somewhat unexpected.
There are three basic approaches one finds with respect to economics in the American pulpit. In perhaps the majority of churches, economics is more or less ignored, apart from the occasional mention of the need to “help the poor” when the day’s Scripture reading makes that conclusion unavoidable. The second approach, more familiar in mainline churches, is to stress concern for the poor much more frequently, with “concern for the poor” generally defined as supporting left-ish economic policy. In reaction against this, one encounters churches which mount a robust defense of capitalism, often as part of a right-leaning political package.
The latter two approaches tend to rest on (at least) three assumptions: 1. The Bible engages with economic issues; 2. The Bible clearly encourages one approach to modern economic practice; 3. The Pastor’s job is to know the correct answer to point 2.
The first assumption, as I have already indicated, is a pretty good one. The Bible regularly addresses economic concerns, from the command to Adam and Eve to fill the earth and subdue it, right through to the kings bringing their glory into the New Jerusalem in Revelation (on the supposition that their “glory” includes the products of culture). It surfaces in obvious ways in the commands in Deuteronomy to permit gleaning, and in more subtle ways in places like Revelation 18, where “Babylon” is condemned for its luxurious self-indulgence and its exploitation of subject lands.
But the latter two assumptions are highly questionable. Let us start with point 2. The economic world of the Bible does of course have some connections with modern economies, but there are significant differences as well. A caricature may help make the point. We can imagine a toga-clad forebear of Scrooge McDuck swimming in a sea of gold coins as a paradigm for the ancient view of wealth. I have it, you don’t, and it’s all stashed away in my vault far from your prying hands. This is significantly different from a modern person with a stock portfolio, whose wealth is in fact active paying salaries, funding factory building, and doing all sorts of other things. This hardly frees the modern rich person from the need to be generous and self-sacrificial. But it does raise interesting questions as to how loving your neighbor works itself out in a complex global economy.
Assumption 3 is even more questionable. Unless you happen to have an especially handy pastor, you wouldn’t typically call upon them to fix your burst pipes. You would call a plumber. Why do we imagine it is any different with economics? The minister’s job is to orient people to the landscape of God’s word, not to imagine she can traverse every square foot herself. Rather than promulgate half-baked economic theories, pastors need to equip economists and business people and NGO activists to be the sorts of Christians who can use their unique abilities to further God’s kingdom.

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